For the first time in history, female athletes can book a shoe deal and they’ve done it by side-stepping traditional media coverage and talking directly to fans.
Caroline Buchanan is currently gearing up for another shot at Olympic gold in BMX, and people can follow her on every step of the journey on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or YouTube,
Her story is quite popular, with 95,000 Facebook followers, Instagram followers of 50,000, Twitter followers of 16,000 and a burgeoning YouTube audience tuning in, all big numbers for an Australian female athlete.
Followers are not just getting information about her races, but virtually every aspect of her life through the stories she creates for her audience.
Those stories can take the form of a tweet, an Instagram post, or a 15 second video, and through her creation she has cultivated an audience and a story which advertisers are keen to latch onto.
“You’re seeing people seek out those stories and engage with female athletes where they may not have before, so the potential audience is growing,” CEO of social media marketing agency TRIBE Anthony Svirskis told SBS Zela.
How to win friends and influence people
Buchanan has become what marketers term a ‘social media influencer’, a person who has built an audience on social media by creating content audiences latch onto -- and is increasingly a target for advertisers.
She told SBS Zela social media was now leading the conversation when it came to sponsorship discussions.
“I [now] have brands turn around and the first thing they'd ask...the first question is 'what's your social media following? What's your reach and engagement?' – that's the conversation now,” she said.
Svirskis said female athletes were now coming into the frame for sponsorship dollars as brands increasingly seek a way to connect to a potential audience in the way an influencer may.
“I think there’s enormous potential in that [women’s sport] space at the moment as they’re becoming more visible, and you see sporting bodies trying to support them at the moment,” Svirskis said
He said, however, the biggest thing going for female athletes was that they have had to work to create a social media following rather than being handed a following as a consequence of their mainstream media profile.
“The trend within influencer marketing is about what we’re calling ‘citizen influencers’, so that’s influencers under 100,000 followers – that’s not a celebrity, but just somebody who exists in an online space and has that following,” Svirskis said
The theory goes that a female athlete who has 10,000 followers has more than likely built that following by engaging with people on a one-to-one level rather than an established sports star.
For advertisers, this means the female athlete has built a relationship with their audience which is much deeper and potentially more conducive to a recommendation or a brand message – if done right.
It’s all about authenticity, which is why it’s a fine line -- but a line currently being explored by both brands and ‘influencers’.
How tweet it is
Buchanan is an example of someone who worked hard in building her audience and is starting to see the fruits of her labour, which involved engagement on social media from early on in her career.
“For me it was a fair bit of trial and error, and I think everything I've done with social media [is about] building a network, building that reach and [doing] everything I could to try and be that professional athlete,” Buchanan said.
She sees the building of a social media following as part of simply being a professional athlete, something she had to work at from a young age.
“There would be hours when I was younger when I would just sit on LinkedIn and add people and talk to people, and at the time I would say 'this is pointless, why am I doing this?',” she asked.
She learned the value of marketing from an early age, with her father working in the industry, but says as she steadily built her following there were ruptures of disquiet from within the grassroots BMX community.
“In the beginning I copped a fair bit of flak from people within the BMX industry sort of telling me 'you don't need to promote yourself, you don't need to work on your brand',” she said.
“They were telling me to just go out and win races, and you'll be able to call yourself a professional athlete.
“I think one of the reasons that especially female athletes can find it hard is because that sort of mentality does exist.”
Buchanan pointed out that it wasn't a mindset ring-fenced to women's sport, but often athletes working on their brand in general, even in the professional age, is read as distasteful.
The difference is that female athletes don't have the mainstream profile or the money their male counterparts may enjoy.
The need to work on personal branding and build a network, therefore, is even more acute for female athletes.
She says while she’s not exactly rolling in cash, that brand support was starting to come her way as a result of her effort in creating a following and an audience built through years of one-to-one interaction with followers.
Engaged, but still in the market
Sony, which sponsors Buchanan, said the appeal from its point of view was that it could reach people its traditional advertising couldn’t.
“Caroline was on our radar as a potential partner who was already engaging her social following with great content,” Sony Australia’s Loyalty and Community Manager, Jamie Wong, told SBS Zela.
“Caroline has over 160,000 fans across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, with whom she is constantly engaging with. They see her using our products in photos and videos, which raises awareness and influence for us with an audience we might not normally reach.
Wong said as a marketer, social media influencers such as Buchanan were increasingly on the radar – but only if the right opportunities came along.
“As social media influencers with strong followings become more prolific, we are definitely considering how we can work with them in an authentic way to engage with their audience.
“Authenticity is key. You can’t prescribe to an influencer what their content should look like, as their fans won’t respond to it. Influencers know what will be most interesting to their audience.”
Not content with boring content
What interests audiences is content, whether a Facebook update, short video, or Instagram post.
A person who creates content audiences respond to will generate interest, both from audiences and sponsors.
For Buchanan, it wasn't just about building a network to commercialise – but about being given the opportunity to create content and express her creative side.
“I do like that side of it [content creation]...everything from picking out my racing gear and the colours on that to doing all the Instagram stuff -- it’s something that becomes addictive in a way.”
Her love of creating content has led to greater opportunity to tell her story.
The success of short videos on her Facebook page, such as ActionCam footage of her races, planted the seeds of an initially self-funded documentary series, Buchanan On Air, which tracked her World Championship season last year.
She noticed that her video pieces for Facebook were generating up to 600,000 views, so she thought it would be a good idea to get into video while it was hot.
She estimates that thanks to a distribution deal with IMG, which distributes in-flight content among other things, that the series had an effective reach of 450 million – and has been able to sell a second series to brands on the success of the first series.
“People were jumping on planes and then sending me Twitter messages saying 'I've just seen you on the plane on the way to Europe', so it was pretty wild,” she said.
“All of that started from me being not sure how it was going to work out, but I know it will work out because video is growing and I wanted to give it a crack.”
The first series was also picked up a full-length documentary for outlets such as FoxSports as well, spreading her story.
As a direct measure though, Buchanan says the commercialisation of her social media influence isn't quite there yet – but the benefits are starting to flow through.
“That is happening a little bit, especially now. Media and companies see social media is quite a key influencer within both sport and also media,” Buchanan said.
“That being said, I don't have a house and I don't have a car – I'm not rolling in cash.”
She said a lot of money is flowing to athletes from action sports such as surfing – but the money was starting to shift.
“Getting that brand support isn't the whole reason I'm building those networks – it's primarily to connect with people, but it's great to finally see that commercial side coming through.”