Monday, July 6, 2009

Social media can help build businesses – and pro athletes’ fan bases

Yesterday’s men’s Wimbledon final was a great, emotional, frustrating, roller-coaster of a match to watch. After five grueling sets, Roger Federer won his record-breaking 15th Grand Slam tournament, having beaten Andy Roddick in the longest final in Wimbledon history.

But this blog isn’t about tennis, it’s about PR.

I’ve been a fan of both Federer and Roddick for years now, so have always had an emotional investment in seeing them win. While they are both brilliant tennis players, I like them for completely different (and contradictory) reasons: Federer for his on-court class and grace, and Roddick for his brash, no-holds-barred approach to… well… everything. But more on that later.

Professional athletes’ personalities are part of what makes us want to root for them and follow their careers (and, in so doing, to be exposed to their sponsors’ logos). And while mainstream media coverage of sports has traditionally given us brief glimpses into athletes’ lives and personalities (allowing us to build the affinities that make us attractive to sports advertisers), many pro athletes are now using Web 2.0 tools to share more of their thoughts and lives with fans – building stronger personal bonds that lead to heightened “brand” loyalty.

Roger Federer

Roger Federer has a website with more than 250,000 registered users, and Facebook fan page that currently has more than two-and-a-quarter million fans.

The website offers everything you’d expect, from media releases and a tour schedule to information about his charitable foundation and, of course, an online store. But it also builds community with his fans through user-generated content (UGC) features including a “Fan Zone” with a fan-submitted photo gallery, discussion forums, and an “Ask Roger” feature that invites questions from ordinary people without ESPN press passes – and provides (some) answers. (A read-through of the posted questions reminds us why we also want to hear interviews conducted by journalists with ESPN press passes: for example, “Do you like tennis, or do you love tennis?” Ugh.) The UGC features appear to be popular with Federer’s fans; his stock rises a bit with each time a member of his fan base participates in the online conversation.

Federer also makes good use of his Facebook fan page. Whereas some celebrities use their pages simply to “have a presence” on the site, he posts short videos in which he speaks directly into the camera about what he’s up to, how he’s feeling about the tournament he’s playing, etc. Each time, the video is posted to his millions of Facebook fans’ walls – a proactive message from Roger Federer, making each of them feel (just a little) like they’re behind the scenes with him. Just before Wimbledon started, he sent his fans a picture of himself on Centre Court under the new roof – something tennis fans everywhere would be interested in – and a sneak preview of his much-discussed Wimbledon court attire. Just as he does on his website, Federer takes fan questions on his Facebook page. Oh, and he shares his newest commercials for a fleet of advertisers...

As a whole, Federer’s Web 2.0 presence is well in line with his overall brand: he appears classy, friendly, and accessible despite being, many feel, the greatest tennis player of all time. Whereas most fans could only know greats like Rod Laver and Arthur Ashe to the extent they received coverage in the mainstream media, Federer’s fans feel like they really know him, and like he takes the time to engage them. As a result, I’d wager their emotional buy-in is that much greater every time he steps on court.

Andy Roddick

Andy Roddick is the kind of guy you feel you know a bit just from listening to his post-match news conferences.

While most players on the pro tennis tour come into news conference after news conference with the same platitudes about sportsmanship and compliments for their opponents, Andy Roddick has always, refreshingly, called it like he saw it. (I can’t imagine Roger Federer responding to how a loss felt with “it sucked” – but I appreciate Andy Roddick for saying it.)

But Roddick is making great use of the web to make stronger connections with his fans, too. His website isn’t as slick as Federer’s (it isn’t updated as frequently, for one thing), but it does allow fans to feel more like “insiders” by providing information about his activities and news. It also has its own UGC features that allow fans to interact with Roddick and each other – for example, an “I Was There” section in which fans tell their stories (and share their photos) of having met Roddick in places across the globe, as well as fan contests and a “Fan of the Month” profile (though there isn’t one listed every month).

Roddick also has a Facebook profile, but it seems his Web 2.0 tool of choice is Twitter (username @andyroddick). With more than 68,000 followers, Roddick updates his Twitter profile regularly (during tournaments, often multiple times a day), with tweets that tell us a little more about how he sees his own game, his opponents, and the tennis world in general… as well as tidbits about his taste in pop culture and other assorted details of his life. Like Federer, Roddick’s online personality is consistent with what we know of him from mainstream media: he is funny, and unafraid to say what’s on his mind. He also sends messages of support to his friends on the tour, and comments on how pro tennis works behind the scenes… again, letting his fans in on the conversation and making them feel like insiders in his world.

Does it matter?

I think so. Using social media tools to give their fans better access and the ability to interact with them, both players are letting tennis fans get to know them better. While it may not be a genuine “relationship,” the fan certainly feels like the icon on the court is more a human being than a two-dimensional character – and is far more likely to “buy in”.

As a longtime devotee of both pro tennis and PR – and a relatively more recent fan of Federer, Roddick, Facebook and Twitter – I like it.

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