Sponsored Content (#ad) Is Broken, Here's How to Fix It

  Photo by Amos Bar-Zeev on Unsplash

Photo by Amos Bar-Zeev on Unsplash

Think about your personal digital consumption habits: When you see a piece of content β€” a photo, video, article, email β€” which isn't all that interesting, you cognitively file it in the "no, thank you" folder.

The next time you see a piece of content from the same person or brand, you're automatically less likely to engage with it. And, if this person or brand keeps posting uninteresting content, you eventually stop engaging altogether (not to mention the words "unsubscribe" or "unfollow").

Athlete-driven content is far from the exception. For better or worse, athletes aren't just competing with other athletes for the spotlight anymore. Thanks to the Internet's "democratization of celebrity," today's athletes are competing with thousands of "Internet celebrities" (influencers) for fan attention β€” on top of "everyday" people who publish whatever they want, whenever they want, online.

In other words, athletes are up against every single person and thing in a fan's phone, social feeds and inbox, which is why it's integral for athletes and their brand managers to understand and execute against these realities:

  1. Athletes are only as interesting as their latest post, and
  2. Content experiences always win.


Athletes still have a major competitive advantage over non-athlete influencers because of the free, built-in, ongoing public exposure they receive. But, if they want to truly maximize their earnings, exposure, fanbase and influence, athletes and their brand managers must learn to play by the rules of influencer marketing.

These "rules" include relatability, structure and human-interest, as defined by:

πŸ’ž  Relatability

If identifying with characters in a book, show or movie brings the audience great pleasure and actively engages them with the given piece of literature, the same must be true with athlete-driven content: The ability for people to identify with athletes will bring them great pleasure, keep them actively engaged, and build athlete brand equity at scale.

Regardless of skills, experience, accomplishments or any other measure of athletic prowess, today's athletes must consistently generate interest with their fans β€” in ways that inspire them to say: I see myself in this athlete.

βš“οΈ  Structure

In marketing, structure involves two components: (1) the content of a post, and (2) the form (channel/platform and type of content, e.g. video) used to publish it.

When determining the form of your content, hone in on the unique user experience within a specific channel/platform, while considering desired outcomes.

😍  Human-Interest

Athlete-driven content must be some combination of interesting ("inter"), entertaining ("tain") and informative ("mative") β€” so as to tap into fans' Logos (logic and reasoning), Pathos (emotions and beliefs) and Ethos (credibility and authority).

Good stories also play a cognitive role in social experiences and interactions, helping us recall them. As a result, good stories trigger top-of-mind recollection when fans are ready, willing and able to make purchasing decisions related to their favorite athlete brands.

You don’t win because you have the better (stats or experience). You win because ... people are interested in hearing you.
— Seth Godin

As sponsored content and native advertising become increasingly popular ways through which brands and athletes collaborate, here are a few creative approaches athletes and their brand managers can take to create more shareable, optimized content that brings significantly more value to the brand, and subsequently puts more money in the athlete's pocket.

1. Show, don't tell.

It seems like we see it from athletes all the time: Here's a random photo with me and some product.

Or, even worse: Here's a random photo of some product.

Instead of telling fans about a product, consider a video that shows fans a first-person look at the product, therefore generating more real-time excitement (What's inside?!) and engagement with the content. (Bonus points if it's live video.)

2. Provide ample context.

Notice how I used the word "random" above β€” "a random photo with me and some product."

Without any sense of context, athletes hinder their ability to build athlete brand equity at scale β€” especially when it comes to sponsored content.

For example, Chris Manhertz could have published a blog post titled "5 Ways I Stay in Shape During the Offseason" β€” presented by Greens Plus. And, Danny Green could have published a blog post titled "My 10 Favorite Albums of All-Time" β€” presented by JBL.

Does adding context require more time and creativity from athlete brand managers? Absolutely.

It also leads to more quantifiable success, which results in bigger paydays for the athlete.

3. Product-Lifestyle Integration

Authenticity is paramount in athlete-driven content.

In other words, fans want an unfiltered look into an athlete's day-to-day life β€” not scripted and overly produced content, such as this co-branding campaign between Serena Williams and Lincoln Motor Company:

While the concept of this campaign has relatability and human-interest written all over it, the execution produced a piece of content that feels entirely like a commercial. And who likes to watch commercials?

Perhaps a "day in the life" video, in which Serena just so happens to be driving her baby in a Lincoln car (product placement) would have better suited both the athlete and the brand.

About the Author:

Josh Hoffman is the Chief Strategy Officer at The Institute for Athlete Branding and Marketing. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

StrategyJosh Hoffman