How NFL Athletes Use Social Media To Build Their Brand, Land Endorsement Deals

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Chad Ochocinco
Ochocinco has set the standard for what athletes can accomplish through social media.

While surrounded by reporters at Super Bowl Media Day in Indianapolis in February, New England Patriots wide receiver Chad Ochocinco didn't seem to care that he wasn't one of 17 players selected to answer questions on a podium.

Why do I need a podium for? said Chad Ochocinco. I've got three million followers on Twitter. That's my podium.

Ochocinco is the epitome of a professional athlete that understands how to successfully leverage a social media presence. The wide receiver's massive social media following has allowed him to successfully push mobile apps and land his own reality dating show on VH1 Ochocinco: The Ultimate Catch.

Ochocinco's social success has even helped other athletes across the sports world to realize the importance of social media and what it can do to advance their careers beyond the playing field, as even as Ochocinco's production suffered in his first year in New England, he still remained in the forefront due in part to his massive social media following.

His three million followers earned him the distinction of CNBC's most influential athlete on social media, despite only having 15 catches and one touchdown with the Patriots last season.

Many of the world's top athletes are on Twitter -- including Lebron James and Tiger Woods -- with each trying to utilize the social media platform for a variety of causes. Some use it to raise awareness for a foundation or a cause. Some use it to simply espouse on the events of the days. Others feel the need to follow in Ochocinco's footsteps and use it to build their brand.

But many NFL players, like Ochocinco, seem to get the most benefit from it.  Unlike baseball or basketball where the players' faces get a ton of air time, NFL players are often known just for their jersey number and not who they actually are as a person.

That lack of face time is why athletes like the Titans' Jason McCourty have taken to social media to get their name out there.

(Social media) gives fans an opportunity to show who you are as a person and show who you are underneath the helmet, Jason McCourty said. You can do contests; give away autographed items, as well as creating videos to show your personality and the fun guy you can be.

Jason and his twin brother Devin, who plays for the New England Patriots, have tried to leverage the uniqueness of their situation -- one of only two pairs of twins currently playing in the NFL -- into a successful brand beyond the field. The pair enlisted the support of ESBL Social Media  CEO Jeff Weiner and has already landed a national advertisement campaign, in part because of their active social media presence.

The twins' combined 100,000 followers and likes played a part in Palmer's, a skin care company, using the two for a national advertisement on ESPN and in magazines such as ESPN the Magazine, according to Weiner. The ability for the relatively unknown pair to land a national advertisement deal can be attributed to the McCourty twins outworking their peers.

Because you're an NFL player with a helmet on and you're not a superstar quarterback -- i.e. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady -- you have to work harder at it, Weiner said. For most cornerbacks, the only time your name gets called is when you do something wrong.

One way that the McCourty twins do that is showing off their true personalities. They disagree a bit on who is better at social media -- Jason says it is clearly him, while Devin says his brother is quantity and he's quality -- but part of their appeal is they are willing to show off their fun loving side so that fans can get to know them as more than just another football player on the field.

Dev and I didn't think anything like that would happen as early as it did, Jason McCourty said about the Palmer's deal. So many of the fans of New England are getting to know me and fans in Tennessee will ask me how my brother is doing.

Jason McCourty recalled making sure to post a video on Tout -- a video sharing service made popular by Shaquille O'Neal -- during the holidays instead of just sending out a tweet or basic Facebook status update.

The personal touch of an NFL athlete personally wishing his followers a Merry Christmas or a Happy Thanksgiving is more likely to resonate with fans than a tweet. It's part of a strategy that calls upon athletes to not only try to establish themselves as brands, but also try to distinguish from what every other athlete might be doing.

On Sundays, Eli Manning, Hakeem Nicks, Justin Tuck -- those are his brothers, Weiner said of his strategy with then-Giants wide receiver Steve Smith. But when it's on Tuesday or Wednesday at 9 p.m., those guys are his competition. You have to give your fans content that your teammates aren't giving them.

Balancing Primary Job with Social Media Commitment

For any professional athlete the main concern will always be the actual sport they are being paid millions of dollars to play. A social media presence like Ochocinco's kept him relevant during a down year, but he built it up through some very successful years with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Something athletes must solve, however, is figuring out is how to manage their primary job responsibilities with what they need to do in order to be successful on social media platforms. Social media strength requires a lot of time, as it demands consistency for success -- it's impossible to build a large following with sporadic tweets or Facebook status updates.

Players must keep their fan bases happy with videos, tweets, and more - even if their team isn't playing particularly well.

During the season it's hard because you have so many other things to focus on, San Diego Chargers wide receiver Eddie Royal said. (Posting) whenever you have a free moment but making sure that you let them know you are working on your job. You don't want your team thinking you are too focused on outside stuff.

Players can face particular scrutiny with what they post after a loss. The last thing fans want to see after a loss is his or her favorite player acting like nothing even happened.  It certainly played a part in all of the backlash toward Rob Gronkowski and Matt Light, who were seen partying shirtless just hours after a close Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants.

When you are losing it can rub people the wrong way if you are on Facebook and twitter -- it almost seems like you aren't focused, Royal, who played with the Denver Broncos last season, said. When you're losing you just want to do everything in your power to stop it. Life is a lot easier when you are winning.

Even after a win it is for players not to be particularly outrageous with social media communication, as Royal alluded to earlier. Many thought that Ochocinco would have to tone down his outlandish social media presence if he was going to survive in New England under coach Bill Belichick, which he has seemingly done, but one of his teammates assures that the sweatshirt hoodie-wearing coach isn't nearly as strict with social media as some might make him out to be.

He doesn't really know much about it, Devin McCourty said. But he says tweet what you want but don't tweet anything about the team or invade someone's privacy that doesn't want to be involved with social media.

It's a fair concern, though. Coaches don't want players inadvertently revealing injuries or information about the team's game plan on social media. North Carolina State basketball coach Mark Gottfried admitted earlier this summer to the International Business Times, for instance, that he was okay with his players using social media as long as they didn't tweet anything too revealing.

Do Athletes Need Social Media Assistance?

The McCourty Twins and Royal both employ the services of Weiner, a social media guru, while others have gone about it solo.

The idea of paying someone to consult on social media might seem foreign to some who don't have as much at stake as high-profile athletes, but a multitude of businesses employ social media gurus to help out. Some of the world's most well-known companies -- Coca-Cola, Ford, and McDonald's -- employ someone either in-house or independent to manage their social media presence.

Although most major businesses and media companies have bought in on the need of a social media expert, others aren't exactly convinced.

In an NFL.com piece in Nov. 2011, Dan Hanzus derided James Harrison for employing the services of Weiner, saying: Do you want to know what would happen if you introduced a social media strategist to Lawrence Taylor? Or Deacon Jones? Or Jack Lambert? We'll tell you what would happen: They'd ask what the hell social media was (understandable), then clothesline said strategist into Concussionland.

Even fellow professional athletes aren't so sure of the need of help for NFL players. NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski made major waves in late-February when he tweeted during a delay in the Daytona 500 and is considered to be one of the most knowledgeable athletes about the power of social media.

Keselowski wrote in an email to the International Business Times that he thought it was extra important for sports like NASCAR to embrace the idea of social media, whereas it wasn't quite as important for the Big 3 sports.

Football is the 'it' sport in America -- they don't need social media. Plus, they are banned from tweeting before and after games, Keselowski said. NASCAR has really made an effort to get behind social media. Maybe that is the way we can cut into the popularity of the NFL.

But Weiner's stable of athletes sing high praise for what a social media specialist can do.

You have seen the bad stories of people accidentally posting pictures and tweeting stuff and deleting it right away, Royal said. When you have someone to talk to about those things, if you can speak with someone about it you can avoid a lot of those stories.

You don't want to be one of those people that we all read about.

One of those recent people everyone was talking about was Yuri Wright, a highly-touted high school football player. Wright was recruited by some of the top college football programs in the country, but quite a few backed off, including Michigan, after a series of inappropriate tweets.

Wright was even expelled from his high school after he tweeted about misogynistic and sexually suggestive tweets. He eventually signed with Colorado, but was a great example of the type of trouble that someone can get into if they don't fully understand the reach of social media platforms.

Other athletes such as Charlie Villanueva, Stevie Johnson, and JR Smith faced scrutiny for controversial social media behavior. These athletes didn't take into account the power of social media and let their emotions get the better of them. Smith was recently fined $25,000 by the NBA for tweeting out an inappropriate picture of the backside of a female friend.

All it takes is one or two controversial tweets to permanently sully a player's reputation, especially in the eyes of potential sponsors. It's a risk that every player takes by signing up for a social media platform such as Twitter or Facebook, but the possible benefits for under the radar players like the McCourty Twins and Royal, make it more than worth it.

It's crazy how much it has improved, Patriots' McCourty said since hiring Weiner. Can you do it yourself? Yes, but you don't get the full benefit of it and get the full opportunity of having a guy like Jeff.

NOTE: This is the third installment of a series on how social media affects sports. In Part One, we wrote about How Social Media Affects College Athletics. In Part Two, we wrote about how social media affects sports journalism.

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