Athletes vs. Influencers: Who Really Delivers for Sponsors on Social Media?

It’s an attention economy and we’re all livin’ in it. As social media marketers, we can no longer hope to engage an audience by rolling out cookie-cutter content backed with a modest ad-spend. 

This publish-and-pray approach isn’t going to cut it. We’re not only competing with other marketers anymore. Instead, we’re competing for our audience’s attention with millions of other social media users. We’re going toe-to-toe with an army of creators — influencers, artists, entrepreneurs, politicians, and you guessed it, athletes.

With so much content coming from so many sources, attention is scarce. There’s only so much to go around. So, we as marketers are left with a handful of choices. We can…

  1.  Create better content than our competition.
  2. Force-feed our intended audience with more advertising dollars.
  3. Partner with those who own the attention.

Doing all three of these well is a great idea, albeit difficult to pull off even for large, established marketing teams. We’re all trying to create great content (whether or not we are is another story). We’re all trying to optimize ad spends. 

But who owns the attention? And how do you collaborate with them?

Owning the Attention

On social, attention is best measured in engagement. You can buy followers, but you can’t make your million-follower army give a damn about what you’re saying. You can pay to get your media in front of thousands — but you can’t make them retweet or share.

But there are groups of people who have the engagement — the attention. Some have worked for it in production studios, with endless selfies and perfectly curated Instagram feeds. Others have earned the attention through their time in the weight room, on practice fields, and through their affiliation with the name on the front of their uniform. 

We’re talking about influencers and athletes. They both have their audience’s attention. 

For traditional social media influencers, that attention is what marks them as influential. They’re on the grind, working to fill their feeds with thumb-stopping content to capture an audience that they can eventually sell to sponsors and advertisers. 

The athlete journey is different. An athlete is an athlete — with or without social media. But when those athletes embrace social media’s power… look out.

Their audiences are built brick by brick. From their status as a local high school star… to the ultra-passionate fan bases of college athletics… and for the lucky few, the broad national and intense local exposure of professional sports. Every step in their journey exposes them to a new audience. A new set of followers that, by the numbers, hang on their every tweet and post.

Sponsors: Collaborate for Attention

This isn’t new news, right? We see Cristiano Ronaldo topping 200 million Instagram followers, or political campaigns seeing the value in partnering with meme influencer accounts. The value here is obvious — sponsors and advertisers can connect with an audience they don’t own with attention they can’t have.

The best brands on social media will never garner the engagement that influential people can. So, they do the next best thing. They pay to place sponsored content in the feeds of those with the attention.

Some do it incredibly well. They build authentic relationships, broadcast premium content, and maximize the value of their collaboration.

Other sponsors and advertisers treat athlete and influencer marketing like an ad buy — seeing the influential channel simply as a place to amplify their already-existing content. 

As tactics and strategies vary, as do the outcomes marketers pursue. Some look only for affiliation, awareness, or engagement. Others aim to drive revenue or traffic back to owned pages. Regardless of the desired outcome, a truth remains: influential people have the attention necessary to drive powerful business results for their partners.

The Winner Is…

So, athletes and influencers own attention, but we naturally have to make this a competition. Who really offers the most attention to prospective sponsors and partners? Who’s really king of the engagement mountain? 

Well, we did some digging.

We based the level of attention athletes and influencers own on their audience’s engagement with the content they publish — their engagement rate. 

We kept it simple: engagement rate = interactions/followers.

Athletes vs Influencers

We analyzed the performance of over 36,000 Branded Posts published Instagram on behalf of sponsors to identify which type of accounts drive the highest engagement rate on sponsored content. 

Athletes consistently outperformed influencers, teams, and leagues for sponsors in multiple verticals.

Average engagement rate on sponsored Instagram content in 2019:

  • Athlete Accounts – 3.9%
  • Influencer Accounts – 1.8%
  • Team Accounts – 1.2%
  • League Accounts – 1.0%
  • Media Accounts – 0.7%

When athletes share sponsored content on Instagram

  • Athletes drive 2.1x the engagement of influencer accounts
  • Athletes drive 2.4x the engagement of team accounts
  • Athletes drive 3.6x the engagement of league accounts
  • Athletes drive 4.8x the engagement of media accounts

Athletes are the leader in the clubhouse of the attention economy. When it comes to engagement, they just can’t be matched. It makes sense. Our relationship with athletes goes so far beyond the rectangle in your hand. They have ties to our communities. They’re featured on the jerseys we wore growing up. They’re the people you cheer for each weekend. 

And when they share something that appears on that little rectangle we’re all glued to… we care. 

Sponsors Embracing Athlete Engagement

Athletes have proven to be the most influential individuals in sports sponsorship on social. But even with 3.3X more effective engagement, they still receive fewer sponsored post opportunities than the less impactful accounts of influencers, teams, and leagues. But we’re witnessing this change before our eyes. As athletes become more accessible and intentional about building their social media power, sponsors are finally beginning to take notice.



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