Olympians as Influencers: How Olympic Gold (and Silver, but not so much Bronze) Drives Social Marketing Clout

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Celebrities are the most followed, mentioned, and – in the case of Twitter – retweeted users on social media.

There’s no doubt they have a lot of clout, which makes them a natural target for sponsored content partnerships with marketers.

But what about Olympians? After all, there was a time, not too long ago really, when the world seemingly stopped for the Olympics. The games were appointment television and the Olympians themselves were ubiquitous in traditional advertisements. Medal winners and hopefuls adorned Wheaties boxes and, as the best of the best, they endorsed almost everything imaginable.

While the cache of the Olympics has faded a bit in recent years, powerhouse Olympians like Simone Biles, Michael Phelps, Shaun White, and Eileen Gu are a few examples of athletes still cashing in on global success to gain online followers and attract potential sponsors in the digital age.

Take Gu for example, a Chinese American freestyle skier and former US Team member. After electing to compete for China in the 2022 Winter Olympics, she became the face of the Beijing games and went on to win two golds and one silver medal. Already the recipient of millions in US and international endorsement deals, her impact on the global stage during the Olympics led to a jump in Instagram followers from just over 200,000 to more than 1.4 million in less than one month.

Marla Royne Stafford

Gu may be more exception than rule for Olympian endorsers, but just how influential are Olympians on social media? To find out, UNLV William F. Harrah Distinguished Chair and marketing professor Marla Royne Stafford and colleague Alexa K.Fox from The University of Akron took to another social media staple, Twitter, to see how tweets by Olympians influence consumer response.

The pair collected more than 27,000 tweets sent by US athletes competing in the 2016 Summer Olympics and used a computer program to examine how tweets containing words commonly associated with authenticity and clout affected consumer interactions. The results were published in the Journal of Current Issues & Research in Advertising and revealed that – perhaps not surprisingly – sponsored tweets by all Olympians were judged as less authentic. Interestingly, though, the clout that gold and silver medalists gained from their success in competition overshadowed the lack of authenticity in sponsored tweets and led to more engagement.

And bronze winners? Despite being the third-best in the world at what they do, their clout didn’t make up for the lack of authenticity in sponsored posts and their influence, as measured by engagement, suffered.

We caught up with Stafford to learn a bit more about Olympians as social media influencers, and broadly how this research can help marketers engage with celebrities in the digital age.

Your study examined how linguistic concepts like authenticity, expertise, and clout among celebrity endorsers – 2016 US Olympians – influence the effectiveness of social media advertising. What makes this group unique?

Olympians are unique in a few ways. Many Olympians were not celebrities before the Olympics. It was the Olympics that actually made them celebrities. Also, they are sports celebrities, but they are not the traditional sports celebrities known for being a pro sports player like Michael Jordan has been for many years – even though he’s retired from sports. So they are more like “emerging celebrities.”

Although not a big surprise, it was quite interesting to find the differences that emerged among the medal level. It indicates that the medal color actually does matter – at least for the 2016 Olympians.

How has the explosion of social media advertising – particularly with celebrity endorsers – impacted long-standing concepts used to craft product marketing strategies?

For years, celebrities were paid a lot of money to endorse a product. And while they still are, social media has created new celebrities and new ways of reaching consumers and on a more personal level.

Celebrities have their own social media accounts, and this is very different from simply being hired to endorse a product. And as our research shows, authenticity is an important concept here. Authenticity is demonstrated differently on social media because of the availability of that personal connection. Even so, sponsored tweets were found to be less authentic than non-sponsored tweets.

Also, social media has enhanced parasocial relationships that consumers have with celebrities, and these “relationships” affect how consumers respond to different celebrities. Much of this is because of that personal connection (or at least the perceived personal connection) that social media can create. Social media is also interactive. Neither the personal connection or interactivity is there with traditional media such as TV.

Olympians have a heightened presence on social media leading up to and while the games are underway. With the 2022 Winter Games now in the books, were there particular athletes/endorsers you paid attention to?

I was, of course, very interested in the Russian Olympic Committee’s Kamila Valieva. With the drug scandal following her and Russia (which is why they were competing as the ROC), and then her subsequent performance and reception by her coach – well – that just shows the power of how the media can influence our perceptions of the Olympics overall .

How do you believe external forces on social media – from backlash against the IOC to doping allegations and political and human rights controversies – influence perceptions of Olympic athletes and their potential as social media marketers?

Research on celebrities, in general, has found that when they are part of a scandal of some sort, their value decreases. This is hardly surprising as we have seen how celebrities lose contracts when they have been arrested for various offences. This carries over to social media influence as well. However, on social media, these celebrities have the power to send messages to their followers to influence them and this will ultimately influence the consumer’s perceptions. And when consumers have parasocial relationships with celebrities, they are more likely to be personally influenced by them.

There are different implications when the organizations are the subject of scrutiny, the relationship of the celebrity and the organization, and if consumers feel the celebrity was a victim of some sort. For example, in the case of Kamila Valieva, there are people who feel she has been exploited because of her age and the Olympic pressure in Russia. Obviously, because she didn’t make the podium, she doesn’t have value as a celebrity endorser, but if she had earned a medal, we still do not even know if the medal would have actually been awarded.

With social media, endorsement opportunities for Olympians have changed dramatically in a relatively short time. Even with TV viewership numbers down in recent Olympics, do Olympians of today still have the same level of clout as they once did?

At one time, being on a Wheaties box was the ultimate for a sports hero. With social media today, their celebrity status can be elevated through more outlets and to more people, as well as more personally. And being a celebrity today is different than being a celebrity years ago.

Today, people are often celebrities just for being known, meaning there are different kinds of celebrities. So I think the highlight of celebrities has changed overall. But going back to Olympians, I think the perceptions of the Olympics have changed with all the backlash and pressure you mentioned earlier, particularly with the allegations. I think today it’s all about winning the gold and what that brings. And with lower viewership, scandals and more, I do not think the Olympics today have the same status they had years ago. And I do think that has reduced the level of clout. But it’s certainly a lot easier to measure that today with the tools we now have available.


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