First Published on Running Rugby
Rugby Union player agent, Dave Williams argues that time and direction are the most valuable elements of an on-line presence for sports stars and offers a few guidelines.
Before the internet there were limited means of direct communication between the individual athlete and the world. Prior to the mid-90s, the link to communicate with the man-in-the-street was provided by third party media - newspapers, magazines, radio and TV. The direction, tone, quality and commercialisation of what has become known as "content" was under the control of the supposed experts.
Email, then websites, then blogs, then social media have opened up a world of opportunity to sports organisations and individual "stars" in the last fifteen years.
The first personal sports websites were developed around the turn of the century - most concerned with slick graphic depictions and latest gimmickry (within the limits of early bandwidth speeds) than with the quality of content. Many didn't consider substance over style let alone a measurable commercial objective- just having a website was the important thing. Like today's ipads, we'd work out what to do them once we had one.
With his own website, the athlete could now define his own "brand", communicate direct and interact with his fans, promote sponsors and sell merchandise. It took a few years to work out what or who was commercially viable. In rugby in the early noughties, the rise of Rugbee.com and Icons.net was almost as dramatic as the speed of their fall once the internet bubble burst. It dawned on us all that apart from a very few cases, a personal website may generate interest and traffic, but not the hoped-for revenue. Interaction with fans and a valuable communications link to potential business partners, yes. A steady stream of income, not likely.
As social media has developed the need for sportsmen and women to set up their own personal websites has trailed off. If you don't count time input and expert advice, Blogspot, Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter et al have reduced the entry and running costs of a strong on-line presence to zero. But, I would argue that time and expert guidance on the direction to take are the most valuable elements of a successful on-line strategy and without them you could be wasting your time (at best), heading for a disaster (at worst).
My social media message to wannabe sports tweeters: if you don't have the time to do it well and if you don't have a clear view of the objectives and the potential pitfalls, then please don't do it.
Brands like to convey human characteristics to make their products and services more desirable to the market and differentiate themselves from the competition. Individuals should have no problem in defining themselves in the same way, but need to consider exactly who their market is and what unique characteristics set themselves apart from other sports people in the eyes of that market. If you don't establish a USP, you can't set a communications strategy.
Consider your "market" or "fanbase" as a separate group to friends and family. What do they want from you and how would you like them to perceive you? I doubt if they want to know that you're in a traffic jam, or eating fish and chips in front of East Enders. If you concentrate on your core sporting values, some insights from your sport that fans would not necessarily be aware of (without betraying confidences) and one or two subjects that define you as a unique brand off the pitch, then you have the basis of a communications strategy.
Deciding on the off-pitch elements that set you apart from all the other guys that excel at your sport isn't as simple as getting an interesting haircut or a Maori tattoo. You may not be the most famous rugby player on the pitch, but you could be the one most associated with fashion for example or stamp collecting or motorbikes or the financial markets or a certain charity. Find something close to your heart, that may have some vocational value and stick to it.
On-line media is notorious for being unable to measure quality. I would argue that it's the quality of the message reaching a defined target group that counts. More is not necessarily better if the message is poor or the target group vague. I've come across sponsors with half-baked ideas on valuing an athlete's endorsement on the number of followers he has on Twitter without any thought to the quality of that following. A sports nutrition company, for example, would do much better associating themselves with an athlete who has nurtured a following of 5,000 fitness enthusiasts than with a fellow who has 20,000 armchair sports fans.
Beware of flaunting your private life in public. Much has been made recently of super injunctions for sports celebrities on the grounds of privacy. Courts are likely to rule against an individual seeking privacy who has consistently tried to benefit from a media image that reveals his domestic arrangements. In many cases, young sportsmen have given away their privacy on social media before they understand what it's worth - no matter how much a celebrity girlfriend or boyfriend may seem to be an appealing prospect at the time.
Beware of PR crisis management merchants - they are probably the ones who will lead you to the door of the crisis in the first place. Just because there are law firms offering to wipe uncomfortable stories from the internet, doesn't mean you can act without conscience. These morning-after solutions tend to be very expensive.
It is a very good idea to try to understand the workings of the specialist media that covers your sport. Even if it is to decide to avoid them when possible. More constructively, you may find it advantageous to develop a working relationship with two or three key journos. You don't have to give away your secrets nor answer every one of their questions. Your communications strategy should still apply. You might have a Twitter account, but the rugby journalists of the broadsheets will have serious rugby readership in the hundreds of thousands.
Finally, please remember that social media is a communications tool not an activity in itself. You should be applying the same rules and self-restraint on Twitter and Facebook as you do when dealing with journalists or in a job interview. Once it's out in the public domain, it's not coming back again.
Dave Williams runs Big Bug Sports Ltd and has represented high profile RU players in the UK and Ireland for over 12 years. Prior to that he was head of marketing for Puma International. He is a director of Running Rugby Ltd.