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Influencer Marketing & The Olympics: 5 Insights for Brands

Feb 11, 2022 By BEN Marketing

The Beijing Winter Olympics are the second consecutive games to take place behind closed doors due to the ongoing pandemic. And, with TV ratings falling—Tokyo ratings were down 42% from the 2016 Rio Games—social media has increasingly become the main way viewers interact with the games and the athletes themselves. The @NBCOlympics page reports a nearly 350% increase in followers around the games, and Olympic content has driven more than 18 billion views on TikTok.

The world-class athletes showing off their skills at the Olympics are natural creative partners for brands to work with, especially with social media providing behind-the-scenes access to their personalities and creating a deeper connection than solely watching them compete. Even as brands are approaching sponsorship carefully in light of diplomatic boycotts and the tense political climate in China, the Olympics still provide an opportunity for rising stars to emerge as partners for brands. 

Here are five things brands need to know about influencer marketing and the Olympics. 

Remember: There are rules to follow about sponsorship during the games. Until recently, Rule 40 of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee instituted a blackout period—including the games themselves—that prohibited athletes from working with companies who aren’t official Olympic sponsors. The rule was updated in 2019 to allow athletes and sponsors to directly acknowledge each other, but strict guidelines persist

For example, athletes can only thank sponsors up to seven times on social media, can only receive one congratulatory message from sponsors, and can’t post photos for sponsors within Olympic venues. With these limitations in place for the time period surrounding and including the Olympics, brands can consider building an ongoing partnership with an athlete, leveraging their influence long before and after their events take place.  

The follower boost athletes get during the games is real—and expensive. After winning gold in 2018, snowboarder Chloe Kim gained more than 900,000 followers across her social accounts. Suni Lee, the all-around gymnastics gold medalist from Tokyo, talked openly about how her overnight social media fame became a distraction for her other Olympic events. While British diver Tom Daley came into Tokyo with more than two million Instagram followers, he saw a follower increase of more than 44% during the games—and helped boost the profile of his diving partner, Matty Lee. Lee doubled his follower count after gaining 150,000 followers, and, thanks to the increase, could charge more than £605 per sponsored post. Brands should understand and plan ahead that sponsorship costs may fluctuate as athletes gain followers around the games.

You don’t need to partner with the most famous athletes. Breakout stars might become famous in an instant, but you don’t always need a celebrity-level influencer to effectively market your brand. For example, while gymnastics and swimming often dominated the headlines, some of the sports that drove the most traffic on TikTok during the Tokyo games were lesser-known sports like karate, skateboarding, and surfing. Especially for brands looking to connect with younger audiences, finding athletes from niche sports can be beneficial: all medalists in street skateboarding in Tokyo were under the age of 16.

Athletes have diverse interests beyond their dedicated sports. While athletes might become famous for their speed, strength, and agility, it’s important to remember that above all, they are people, too. Human interest stories power the games. Viewers often connect with athletes whose stories, personalities, or other hobbies resonate with them. Volleyball star Erik Shoji became a food blogger in Tokyo. Figure skater Nathan Chen plays guitar and piano while studying data science at Yale. There’s plenty of room for brands to be creative about partnering with Olympic athletes: You don’t need a direct product tie-in to the athlete’s sport for a sponsorship to succeed.

Above all, authenticity matters. Just like with any creator partnership, authenticity is the key to success—it’s a big part of how athletes have built up their following in the first place. Take American rugby player Ilona Maher. She became one of the breakout TikTok stars of the Tokyo games, using her sense of humor and a self-deprecating approach to make viral videos that showcased life in the Olympic village. 

While she’s said that she is looking for sponsorships to bring attention to a lesser-known sport, she also uses the hashtag #beastbeautybrains to promote body positivity and convey to young girls that they can be many things all at once. Her personality is what drove her social media success because she’s built a unique way to speak to her followers. With such a strong voice to her content, brands have an opportunity to collaborate with a true leader—but any sponsored content or product promotion should feel natural to her persona. 

Even when the Beijing games end, marketers can use these lessons to power campaigns with athletes and inform partnerships throughout the years between Olympics.

Learn more about how BEN can help connect you with the right influencers you need to find gold medal success promoting your brand

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