Social Media and Sport – can brands play the field right?

The Twenty20 World Cup cricket tournament kicked off this week and it will be, by admission of the International Cricket Council (ICC), the “most socially-networked event in the history of cricket”. Given that we’ve just enjoyed a summer of intense sporting activity too, thanks to the Olympic and Paralympic games, it seems hard to remember a time in which social media and sport were not intrinsically linked to one another.

And yet really, we’re all still on something of a learning curve when it comes to gracing social media etiquette – in particular it would seem on Twitter. It’s not hard to see why – professional sport is made up of a melting pot of passion and profit, while Twitter is a world stage from which any sports star – and the brands associated with them – can share their emotion and involvement with a tournament or event. For the most part this is all good – but there have been times when things have backfired.

There is the well documented case of Nike’s rap from the Advertising Standard’s Authority (ASA) this summer, after it decided that tweets sent from the personal accounts of brand ambassadors – footballers Wayne Rooney and Jack Wilshere – broke rules for not making it clear that their tweets were part of a marketing campaign. The fact that Nike appealed the ban sums up how powerful social media has become, in that such an almighty brand took such protest at the ASA’s rules to a simple marketing campaign on Twitter.

The point is that Twitter is an incredibly powerful tool for brands – and especially those involved in the sports industry. Twitter is the place people go to watch live events – be it the Olympics, the football or – in the case of the ICC for the next 3 weeks, the cricket.

According to Twitter, there were 150 million tweets about the London Olympics, compared to 125,000 tweets about Beijing four years ago. The Games themselves may be over, but for brands and sponsors there still exists a honeymoon period when it comes to capitalising on the success of our athletes. The likes of Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis have gained many thousands of new followers since the Games, while Tom Daley is regularly amassing around 50,000 ‘likes’ per Facebook photo he posts online. With the BBC Sports Personality of the Year presentation on the not too distant horizon, our sporting athletes are likely to remain front of mind for a while yet.

The trick for brands who want to harness the endorsing powers of our new sporting heroes is to do so cleverly and with subtlety. Jaguar received some nice endorsement when it invited Olympic Taekwondo champion, Jade Jones to its manufacturing facility in Birmingham, to help build the Jaguar XF she will soon become the owner of – something that Jones appears very much to have tweeted about off her own back (a simple ‘On my way down to Birmingham for a Jaguar day!’ to her 35,000 plus followers did the trick).

It’s all about striking the right balance. There are some sports stars who will use social media as their own personal advertising hub, where every other week a new ‘thing’ is the best since sliced bread and tweet after tweet is sent mentioning the said product. I’m all for the little village business in Wales getting free publicity from a global superstar about their awesome sandwiches, bags or haircuts, but when you have sports stars always talking about the new beauty product or clothes they have been given, that’s when the marketing message can start to sound false.

Many sports stars turn to Twitter to promote the charitable causes that they are involved with. Rio Ferdinand, Bradley Wiggins and Wigan Rugby League Player Sam Tomkins are among the sports personalities that have all shown support for a charity called ‘Joining Jack’, which raises awareness and research funds for fatal disease Duchenne Muscle Dystrophy. A simple addition of the hashtag #alljoinjack and official Twitter account @alljoinjack to tweets has helped word of its cause to spread fast – the ‘endorsement’ of the brand message by these stars is heartfelt and genuine. Any brand should consider a similar element of ingenuity when asking a star to promote its products.

Sports stars can have commercial clout, but success really comes when the tone is spot on.

By Ruben Pillai, Olympics Co-ordinator at Blackjack Promotions