Social media has been an athletes' playground for many years now. It should be no surprise that the top competitors in sports are always posting incredibly high numbers on their social networks. For example, Ronaldo is the most followed person on Instagram and Facebook and not without reason. He is the most popular player in the most popular sport globally, and his social media reflects that. It should be known, however, that merely having a large number of followers on social media is not enough. Social media offers many more opportunities than just following someone. Sure, Ronaldo has over 240 million followers on Instagram, but he has many more people following his matches and watching him compete. Social media is an opportunity to build a brand in ways that aren't possible on the field: interacting with fans and showing off your personality outside of the game.
Football has traditionally not been a sport that enabled a lot of fan/player interaction. There aren't any courtside seats like in the NBA, or ring walks like in combat sports, where athletes are within arm's reach of their fans. Football fans generally sit far away from their favorite players, for the most part. Even from home, watching football is often very impersonal, since the majority of the game is shown from a very wide angle, to capture as much of the field as possible. Close-up shots of players are limited to replays and pauses. If you're lucky, you'll hear a player yell something out at the corner. Overall, these elements are just aspects of the beautiful game but does feel like the athlete is out of reach sometimes.
This impersonality of the football-watching experience leaves a big space to be filled when it comes to branding. Players can use their play on the field to build their competitive brand, and demonstrate their athletic ability, thereby showing a facet of their personality, but the majority of who they are as an individual, doesn't shine as much as possible. This is where social media can come in as a great complimentary piece of branding. Social media offers the possibility for an earnest interaction between players and fans, which provides a great avenue to meet the player beneath the kit.
Social Media as an Extension of Your Brand
The best place to start is the king, Cristiano Ronaldo. As stated above, the man is killing it when it comes to social media followers; 240 million followers on Instagram, 120 million on Facebook, and 85 million on Twitter. The numbers are genuinely jaw-dropping. However, the question remains; how is he using these platforms to complement his brand and create an even more loyal audience? Ronaldo appears to be going all-in on his brand as a role model. It's clear on the field - he's an incredible player individually, but also known to be a good leader and overall very passionate about the game and as a competitor. He's someone fans watching the game can look up to.
His social media is an extension of this role model image, but for things outside of the game. In addition to many football-related posts, he also posts family photos, as well as fitness and motivational posts. While many people may think that his approach to social media is too safe and clean, he is successfully developing and complementing the brand he had already built for himself on the field. According to a study by Firgolska and Kucharska, brand authenticity is key to building a loyal fanbase, for both players and clubs. Ronaldo is an excellent example of textbook brand authenticity - he stays on-brand both on and off the field.
Social Media As Another Side of Your Brand
There are more ways than one of complementing your brand through social media. Your socials don't necessarily have to be an extension of your pre-existing brand, like Ronaldo's. You can also achieve brand authenticity without taking the cookie-cutter approach, like Ronaldo.
Chelsea's Michy Batshuayi is an excellent example of a player who uses social media to add another facet to his brand - namely a bit of banter and trash-talking. Football isn't like MMA - there aren't specific times for players to taunt and trash-talk each other for the fans to see, either before or after a match. So, players like Batshuayi make use of social media to fill this hole. One of his most successful tweets is him silencing a doubtful fan while staying classy about it. He is both directly interacting with fans (something Ronaldo seldom does) and adding a much more personal side to his brand. He also routinely tweets about football "as a fan," since that's what his social media brand has allowed him to do: be more relaxed and personal. This sort of approach nets him a very respectable amount of reactions despite having under 2 million followers.
This approach can be overdone, however. You wouldn't want to end up like the NBA's Kevin Durant, who responds to fans in an often unnecessarily rude way and has become the subject of criticism because of it. Thankfully, Batshuayi has found the right balance for his social media branding.
Neymar's social media is in a lot of ways similar to Ronaldo's - it's very much an extension of his on-field personality. There's one area where he stands out, however, when compared to Ronaldo. Neymar has made it clear on his Twitter and Instagram that he is a big fan of the video game Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO). His most recent highlight clip of himself playing the game has over 3.2 million views. This isn't as high of a view count as his other football-related videos, but, interestingly, this video has an above-average number of comments on it, despite the lower view count. This disproportionate number of reactions is because Neymar connected with a niche part of his audience: the people that also play CS:GO. Not only is the game extremely popular in Brazil, not to mention, globally, it also helps make Neymar's brand unique. He isn't just sharing his gaming skills with his fans online via social video, he's been playing with some of the top players for fun. By doing this, Neymar has added an extra layer to his brand through his social media, and he has entrenched his position among fans of football and CS:GO.
Whether social media is an extension of an on-field brand or an entirely new side to a personality, football players are good examples to follow when it comes to their social media branding. Their adherence to brand authenticity drives reactions and leads to a more loyal fanbase, something that football clubs can look to as inspiration for their social media.