When an athlete makes a mistake on social media, people know about it. From Manchester United’s Jesse Lingard posting an expletive-laden video of his summer holiday last year to cricket coach Gary Kirsten tweeting his excitement about picking “the [insert team name] squad on Sunday at 7pm” ahead of the draft for new tournament The Hundred.
Social media can make or break the reputation of players, coaches and brands, which is why UK-based sports marketing company B-Engaged was formed in 2013. Dedicated to creating stories for athletes and brands across digital media platforms, the company’s client base includes football players like Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin and Bayern Munich’s Serge Gnabry, as well as global manufacturers such as Adidas and Puma.
The target is to help athletes build their profiles, link them with appropriate sponsors and then ensure that any marketing campaigns that utilise sporting influencers deliver ROI. At the heart of that approach, according to managing director of B-Engaged Ehsen Shah, is the creation of authentic content.
“Knowing the audience is crucial,” Shah explains to Sport Industry Insider. I know everyone has been banging on for years about content being king and yes it is a cringey phrase, but if you don’t know the audience, you’ll never understand the content that you should create. At B-Engaged we communicate to over 200 million social media fans on a daily basis through our players and we see how they react to content. Sports fans are the hungriest audience in the world when it comes to consuming content, and the largest audience on social.
“This also means that he audience is savvy. We’re not living in 2010 anymore. People know when they see an ad trying to masquerade as a normal post – I think kids from the age of seven or eight can recognise that because they’ve always had social media in their life. It’s important not to treat the audience like they are stupid or naive.
“Brands are getting smarter too and rather than just treating sport like an ego trip to say, ‘my brand sponsors this’, now they are recognising that there is actual value in partnering your brand with a sports entity – whether that is a player, a club or a league – and actually getting value out of it.”
Creating successful campaigns that bring together brands and players in perfect sporting symbiosis is B-Engaged’s goal and when it comes off, Shah says everyone is a winner.
“We did a campaign with Calvin Klein US and they wanted a footballer who was a clean cut, fatherly figure. Honestly, that can be quite hard to find in football but we went through a number of players and settled on Thiago Alcantara of Bayern Munich. He’s been with his wife from a young age and he has two young kids. It ended up going really well but it was difficult because you are trying to piece together exactly how Calvin Klein’s values fit into sport. It’s not an obvious link but we made that work effectively.
“Another one for B-Engaged was Huawei’s first ever campaign with women’s sport during the Women’s World Cup campaign last summer. We had England’s Nikita Parris and created a very self-curated, raw vlog campaign that gave an intimate portrait of life in the England camp during the tournament. Again, the result was just really pleasing – creating something that had a genuine impact.”
The social media sphere can, however, still be a dangerous space as Manchester City’s Bernardo Silva discovered last November. The Portugal midfielder attempted to banter with team-mate Benjamin Mendy on Twitter but his post was deemed racist and he was banned for one match and fined £50,000. Silva has no social media team behind him so is that proof that it is better to have every post managed meticulously than be authentic?
“I’d say 95% of athletes have a team behind them but that doesn’t mean the social media account is ‘fake’ – they are there to protect them and educate them, because there are huge rewards but as Bernardo Silva showed there are also huge pitfalls.
“Having a team can bring your ideas or your feelings into the public light in the safest way that isn’t going to cause you harm. They’re professionals in being footballers and athletes, we’re social media professionals. But of course they are allowed an opinion so it’s about how we take that opinion and put it out in a structured form.
“For us it’s always been very dependent on the individual as to how much influence you have. We’ve always had conversations with our clients from the get-go to say, how much of you do you want to show? Where is the line for you? Some won’t ever post about their families for example.
“Honestly, though, I don’t think there can really be a line between private and public personas of athletes any more. Who you are on social media should be authentic. We want to humanise athletes, not make them social media robots with no personality.
Arsenal. Environment. Clothes. pic.twitter.com/J9sVWe4wYX— Héctor Bellerín (@HectorBellerin) December 11, 2019
“Hector Bellerin is one of our clients at B-Engaged and this is totally true for him – we’ve always wanted to show him as he is. He has strong opinions on issues like the environment and wants to be vocal, wants to be at the forefront of a cultural or a society change. It’s our job to get that across in as authentic a way as possible and I think we do it; if you meet Hector in person he is exactly how you see him on social media.”
Authenticity – more explicitly, a lack thereof – is a problem that effects the Middle East, where the social media market is less mature. A focus on working with influencers with huge followings is still pervasive in the Gulf but Shah believes it should be only a matter of time before that changes.
“I think the approach is more old school the further east you go,” Shah says. “Talking to some Far East brands, you see mentalities that are 10 years out of date. The United States is at the front and then everyone else follows – even the UK and Europe is a few years behind.
“In Dubai and Abu Dhabi it is very much focused on the influencer space. You still have that mentality of we’ll get X person with X amount of followers and it is bound to work. These are outdated tactics and I think there’s an opportunity to look away from just influencers. Yes it has worked well for promoting tourism but once that is saturated what is the next step?
“There needs to be more done around building the identity and footprint of grassroots brands here in the region – how can they take that message of domestic success to a wider audience? Finding the best way to showcase is the challenge.”
B-Engaged has already dipped its toe in the Middle East market, working with Dubai-based Transform Altitude Performance Center to create content in conjunction with Tottenham star Dele Alli. Shah hopes it is just the start and sees great potential in the region, particularly in the realm of female sport.
“Until there is a better infrastructure to create world-class athletes here, it may be difficult to build sports stars with big profiles to match those in Europe and the US. But I do think that women’s sport here is a big opportunity and some brands are doing some fantastic work in that space – you can see successful localised campaigns from Nike and Adidas and when you go into sports shops Dubai Mall, the biggest range is female. Perhaps a focus on building female athletes from this region would be beneficial.”