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IMG Sports boss discusses how athletes can harness the power of social media

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Editor's note: George Pyne, the president of IMG Sports and Entertainment, explains why social media is a powerful marketing tool for sports brands and superstar athletes in this thought-provoking essay.

The Rise of Social Media Marketing by George Pyne

Social media has made a profound impact on marketing endeavors in the past few years. Brands are developing authentic online voices and seeing measurable results through multi-media storytelling, and sports teams are no exception.

This ranges from promoting sports events, featuring profiles of top athletes and teams, or profiles of industry professionals such as freelance coaches or physical therapists.

Then there are the businesses and retailers offering sporting goods and services who rely on digital marketing as a key driver. Mashable recently reported that 40% of all TV-related tweets are now sports-related, and that 60% of tablet and Smartphone owners who use mobile devices for sports content do so at least once a day.

Fans want to post visuals on Instagram, enter conversations on Twitter, and “like” insightful updates from other fans on Facebook. With ever-increasing access to exclusive behind-the-scenes content and real-time updates, a new fandom trend has arisen—one that that takes full advantage of multi-screen viewing on various platforms. So how do the leaders in the sports industry maximize full potential?

Never Underestimate the Power of Fan Engagement

Whether putting out the controversial fires of negative comments to reactive marketing (i.e. the famous “Oreo Moment” during the 2013 Superbowl blackout), advertising in the digital space plays a huge role in the curation of a sports teams brand.

Sports stars, teams, retailers, and other industry professionals should remember that fans can experience the excitement of attending a game on many levels. Therefore, it’s important to ensure that the social media strategy is focused on user engagement and brand awareness.

Ask questions, share exclusive content, run contests, promote events, always making sure that everything links back to the website. Not only will this result in more likes on a Facebook page and more followers on Twitter, but it will generate additional traffic to your site that will attract advertisers and corporate sponsors.

As a word of caution, when you interact with fans, be careful not to say anything off-kilter that could harm your brand image and result in a controversial, costly mistake. Sports fans have a great number of followers of their own and are part of a much larger online community.

In addition to forums and chat rooms, many die-hard fans populate their own blogs with relevant and engaging material. These are the ideal brand ambassadors, so engage in a way that will garner support on a continuous basis. Give them exposure on your site, or provide them with exclusive content.

The Impact of Original Content

"Live sports are all about real-time action, and mobile devices allow sports fans to keep up and discuss while providing instant access to the sports content they want—score updates, fantasy stats, or tweets to their favorite athlete," Stephen Master, senior VP of sports for Nielsen, told Mashable.

"Smartphones and tablets haven't changed the live sports viewing experience yet—TV is still the top platform, but our research shows that more people are frequently using these devices while watching TV, indicating that these devices are enhancing that viewing experience."

Social media has shifted the balance of public relations power toward the common fan. So how does a sports brand keep them entertained? Image-rich content is an integral element—it’s about giving fans that something extra, such as behind-the-scenes images or videos that build excitement, exclusive offers, or real-time insights.

Maximize the Power of Sports Stars

Sports personalities have become celebrities in their own right, which makes them an increasingly valuable team asset. This trend has gone beyond a mere billboard or print advertisement—athletes have become the main attraction that entire campaigns or apparel companies build upon. For high-profile athletes, engaging with fans and aligning their own distinct voices with the overall brand strategy of the team is of the utmost importance.

Smaller teams, clubs, retailers, and businesses can enhance awareness and fan loyalty by humanizing the characters involved. By acknowledging the passion, rivalries, and controversies of the game, they put themselves on the level of the fans…fans who want to connect with other fans. Sports content is shareable because it is emotional.

Ultimately its authenticity, accountability, and transparency that are most important. Social media should be treated as something that highlights the human side of a brand in order to make the audience feel connected. Treat your fans like insiders, managing the journey from initial awareness to total engagement, and you will see results.

George Pyne is president of IMG Sports and Entertainment, and the former Chief Operating Officer of NASCAR.

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