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Opinion | How to brand and deliver on social during the Tokyo Olympics

Roger Breum, director of marketing at Hookit, delves into the spontech specialist's proprietary social media data to explain how brands can best capitalise on partnerships with athletes around this summer's Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

28 May 2021 Hookit

Many factors will make the Tokyo 2020 Olympics this summer look a lot different than previous Games, including the lack of international fans, an adjustment of Rule 40 that allows additional brand promotion by athletes during the event, and, of course, the one-year delay, which has pushed the Games to within eight months of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

These factors combined put brands in an opportunistic position to capitalise on their partnerships with Olympic athletes like never before. The question is: with around 11,000 athletes expected to compete representing hundreds of countries across dozens of sports, how can brands find the best partners?

Obviously, performance is critical, but as with any Olympics the stories of these athletes and how they got to the top of their respective sport within their country is key. And while TV ratings are down across sports, social media followings and engagement are up, which means telling those stories on social platforms will be crucial for brands and their athlete ambassadors before, during and after the Olympic window this summer.

So which sports and athletes are engaging the fans, what kind of content is best for brand promotion, and how can brands optimise and amplify their messaging with their athlete partners?

The study

As the leading AI-powered sponsorship analytics platform, Hookit is uniquely positioned to answer these questions as we work with national Olympic committees (NOCs), Olympic TOP partners and brands with long Olympic athlete rosters. We have studied these Olympic sports, identifying what works when it comes to generating social engagement as well as driving value for brands.

For this analysis, we looked at all athletes across Olympic sports, not just the ones confirmed to be participating in Tokyo 2020, given qualifying is still underway and competitors for some sports have not been confirmed. We focused specifically on the summer Games and the NOCs, athletes and sports within to compare the social media engagement, growth rates and sponsorship impact across the athletes within these sports. By including all athletes in these sports, it allows this analysis to compare beyond just the Games as well. As always, we brought in data from all the major social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, Twitch, VK, Weibo, and YouTube.

We start by comparing the Olympic sports at a high level, comparing the average athlete’s social media reach, engagement and brand impact for top sports. Then, we look at the differences between female and male athletes on social media. Finally, we dive into specific content and best practices when working with athletes as brand ambassadors.

Top Olympic sports on social media

When we are asked, “what is the most popular Olympic sport?”, there can be multiple answers depending on how you define the question. To start to answer this question, we looked at the average social follower count for athletes in Olympic sports. The gap is large from the top global sports like basketball, soccer and mixed martial arts, which avereage around one million followers per athlete, to a dozen sports whose athletes average less than 50,000 followers, including field hockey, sailing and rowing. Here’s how the top five sports rank by average number of followers per athlete:

Another way to look at the ‘most popular’ sport is by identifying where fan engagement is highest, not just the number of followers. Using this metric, some of the more traditional Olympic sports rise to the top, including swimming and track and field. Surfing, a newcomer to the Olympic programme at Tokyo, has one of the highest average engagement rates among its athletes. In contrast, some of the sports with the highest average follower count, such as basketball and mixed martial arts, see the lowest engagement rates, hovering between one and two per cent.

Another way to look at popularity is by identifying which Olympic sports are growing the fastest based on which ones have the highest follower growth rates among athletes. We looked at how many new followers athletes have gained since the start of 2020 and compared that to their total number of followers. The average follower growth rate across all sports is approximately ten per cent. In this average growth range, we find baseball, rugby, volleyball and road cycling. Other sports saw less growth, between one and three per cent, including swimming, rowing and field hockey. However, eight sports saw over 15 per cent growth, with the top two – climbing and badminton – seeing an average growth of over 20 per cent.

Brand perspective: Top sports by brand value metrics

Popularity, engagement and growth are excellent indicators for brands of where to look to identify potential athlete partners. However, going one step further to look at how brands are promoted within those different sports can help brands refine their activation strategies even more. Below, we dive into where brands see the most frequent promotion, the best promotion quality and, simply, the annual sponsorship value generated by an “average” athlete in that sport.

Note that these statistics are excellent benchmarks, but a number of factors could change how they relate to your brand, such as industry and sponsorship budget. We can dive into specific comparisons for your brand but here we will stick to averages across these Olympic sports.

It would be reasonable to assume that the sports with the most branding, or highest percentage of branded posts, would be the sports that drive the most value. However, we did not find that trend in the data. Climbing, the leading sport by percentage of posts that include branding, comes in sixth among sports by highest average sponsorship value per athlete. Meanwhile sailing, fifth by branded post percentage, is among the bottom five sports by average sponsorship value per athlete.

The top three sports by average sponsorship value per athlete range from 13 to 18 per cent of posts including some form of brand promotion. Clearly, there is a sweet spot of brand promotion for athletes before fan engagement may begin to suffer.

All else equal, Promotion Quality (PQ) is one of the largest drivers of sponsorship value on social media. This factor measures how well a brand is promoted within a post, including how large and clear the brand logo is, whether there are other brands competing for attention, and how long the logo was visible, among other factors. However, very rarely is all else equal.

While four of these top five sports with the highest average PQ are among the top 12 sports by average sponsorship value per partner, three of them are in the bottom ten when it comes to average engagement rate. Engagement and PQ must go hand-in-hand to drive maximum sponsorship value for a brand. Attempt to collaborate with and coach your partners to promote your brand in their most engaging content. This is an incredibly important point of emphasis that we work on with every one of our partners.

When it comes to sponsorship value generated consistently on a per post basis, some of the biggest, most popular global sports rise to the top. Fighting sports, basketball and soccer were all among the top four sports by total sponsorship value generated for brands in 2020, along with motorsports. Games newcomer skateboarding edged out the more traditional Olympic sports of diving, gymnastics and fencing to join the top five. Only ten sports, including the eight mentioned plus tennis and badminton, averaged over US$1,000 Adjusted Ad Value (AAV) per branded post. Below are the top five sports.

To calculate sponsorship value, the Hookit Valuation Model measures and values social media content with brand promotion. Each post is assigned a Maximum Ad Value (MAV) based on actual Cost Per Engagement (CPE) market rates and then scored and down-weighted based on Promotion Quality (as explained above) to arrive at the AAV, or actual sponsorship value, of the post.

Gender dynamics: Comparing male and female Olympians on social media

The Olympics have always been a symbol of freedom and equality, with women competing in the Games since 1900. We looked at the male and female athletes across the summer Olympic sports to see where each excelled.

To start, the clearest similarity between the two is average fan engagement rate, with both genders hovering around 4.6 per cent. Female athletes have a slight edge when it comes to average volume of posts as well as a higher percentage of branded posts. Women also saw a higher follower growth rate at 15.4 per cent compared to 13.6 per cent for male athletes and a higher average PQ (37 per cent for female athletes versus 32 per cent for male athletes).

The men, however, started with a higher average number of followers at 610,000, 3.7 times greater than for the average female athlete (163,000). With this broader audience and similar engagement rate, male athletes had a higher average AAV per branded post, at US$2,250, compared to US$860 from female athletes.

Key takeaways and best practices when working with athletes

Which sport and specific athlete partners your brand invests in depends on a number of factors, including many of the metrics covered above. Once the partnerships are solidified, the focus then turns to optimising the content created with that partner and amplifying the impact of the sponsorship. Below are three key areas that every brand can benefit from working on with their athletes.

Identify your consumer in their audience

Partnering with an athlete with a massive reach or high engagement is a great place to start. However, both you and your athletes need to understand where they have the largest, the most engaged and the best fit audience that you’re targeting. You know the ideal consumer(s) for your brand. By analysing your partner’s social media audience demographics, you can determine where that audience is by channel.

If their audience demographics are broadly similar across platforms, work with your athletes to promote your brand on the channel where they get the most engagement. However, if the audience on one platform – such as Facebook – matches your target consumer profile perfectly, consider having them focus their posts promoting your brand on that platform.

Let the athlete’s personality shine through

This is one of the toughest pieces for brand marketers: to let go of full control of how their brand is promoted, even through their partners. While clear advertisement posts tend to have very high PQ, they also typically are among the lowest posts by engagement rate. Occasional direct advertisements have their place, but the audience follows the athlete to get to know them.

Ideally, your partnership is built on mutual benefit. Let the athlete tell their story of how your brand and product(s) have helped them. This authentic promotion will be much more engaging and effective.

Understand what drives brand value

Finally, going hand in hand with the previous point, if your athletes are to promote your brand their own way, they need to know what you want from them. Educate your athletes on how you want your brand promoted. Each brand has its own specific internal metrics and needs. Overall, we suggest brands encourage athletes to include the brand’s logo as well as tag or mention the brand in the caption.

Discourage partners from lumping your brand into 'mass promotion' posts where they thank all of their sponsors in a single post. To stand out, your brand needs its own space with deliberate promotion. This will lead to the best possible PQ, driving up sponsorship value (AAV).

Want more ideas of how to optimise and amplify your sports partnerships heading into the Olympics? Enquire with Hookit directly at insights@hookit.com.

Roger Breum
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