On episode 222 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Andrew Stallings, Founder & President of Athelo Group, an agency working with athletes and brands.
In the before-times, businesses ruled the world. The ability to reach the masses was confined to those that could afford to use the mass-reaching mediums of the day.
But that paradigm was dramatically transformed by the arrival of the World Wide Web and realized in full with social media. The masses are still bombarded with messages and content from businesses and brands, but now real people have access to a megaphone, too. And when it comes to building relationships, the logos of the world don’t stand a chance against real people.
We’re in the after-times now, when the path to authentically cut through the noise is through individuals. So while ESPN and the like had long been defined by its famous figureheads — the Stuart Scotts and Chris Bermans of the world — its social media priority, in the beginning, was on its logos. That gradually changed and Brendan Kaminsky played a key role in taking the initiative from idea to execution. The biggest sports personalities and reporters on TV could, should, and would become just as big on social media. It was inevitable.
“It’s just a way of the world now is talent and individuals have the most power online,” said Kaminsky, founder of bknown agency, who helped many of ESPN’s top talent learn the ropes of social before starting his own practice. “People have relationships with us and connections with us… it’s important for us to use our social platforms to leverage because everyone has some sort of influence on their networks. I think that was just in line with ESPN and it was really smart and I was really happy to be part of it.”
It’s easier said than done, however, to build and feed a credible social media presence that was authentic to the individual fans know from linear platforms like TV and radio. Many of us can relate — to a degree. We balance who we are on social media with who we are IRL. The difference with the type of talent Kaminsky and bknown work with is that their public selves are often seen by millions. The talent that work in sports, especially, straddle a difficult line. Actors are playing a role most of the time they’re seen by the masses, so fans wouldn’t expect the Bryan Cranston they see as Walter White to be who he is on his personal social media. But what about a Stephen A. Smith of ESPN?
Sure, they could have their ‘public figure’ account and a separate personal account, but that’s not only difficult to maintain, it’s typically not advisable, said Kaminsky. Nor would fans connect with an account that’s just full of clips of their TV appearances — they’re no more human than a made-for-the-masses logo then. Fans don’t want to feel like they’re watching an act on TV — these aren’t actors.
“I don’t really like the whole character thing on, ‘Hey, because this is online on the internet you should behave in a different way,’” said Kaminsky, whose bknown agency helps talent across media on social media strategy. “I think there are things that are more acceptable and you’re able to express yourself in other ways than maybe you can in person. Or if you’re on TV or you’re in the public spotlight; you can definitely showcase things you wouldn’t otherwise.
“But when it comes to personality, I think it should be as close to who you are as a person. When I follow you, and I see your messages and tweets or whatever that should be you as much as it can. I should be able to meet you in person and not feel like I’m talking to someone different.”
That authenticity, when combined with two-way engagement, is key for talent to build logo-proof identities and fandoms. The network behind them lends credibility and can help give talent a leg up, to be sure, but to put all of one’s eggs in a logo-ed basket is a strategy with an expiration date. It’s not a bad thing for the employer for its talent to cultivate personal fandoms; a rising tide lifts all boats even if that talent may leave someday. It all makes sense on paper, but Kaminsky puts the best-laid plans into action. It’s about making fans like you for you, not for your affiliation.
“The more that you’re optimizing generally, the more you’ll be able to reach your audience and the more that they’ll appreciate your content. And then the more that you’re directly engaging with them, you can build monster fans from that,” Kaminsky explained. “So I think it’s a big picture principle where people will follow you if they feel that you’re being genuine.
“And it doesn’t matter what type of content it is, necessarily, where if you’re not bringing them that content, when you leave a company, they won’t come back to you. They like Neil for Neil [fr example] and wherever he goes, they should continue [to like you] assuming you’re loyal.”
So a major key is engagement. Stop me if you’ve heard that before, engagement being the favorite industry buzzword, the magic pill that equals success, and showing up in the algorithmic feeds. The desire for engagement is one of the main factors behind the growth of polarizing hot takes on social media. People don’t engage with a neutral opinion, strong statements and, oftentimes, sensationalism is what drives replies, comments, shares, and views.
With that in mind, the temptation may be to throw out hot takes at every chance, to jump on whatever conversation is trending at the moment. But that’s not the way to think about it, Kaminsky explained. It’s a good idea to weigh in on trending topics, but not at the expense of one’s authenticity.
“It’s not all about being polarizing,” he said. “It certainly helps, but some of it also just comes down to authority and being useful to your fans. So, if you have a strong voice in a specific topic and see that topic is trending, you just explaining, not necessarily making a hot take — certainly, that can do well — but it’s really just like, okay, you’re the king or queen on this specific topic, make your voice heard. Because at the end of the day, people just want to hear from you and they want to hear from you in that moment.”
The era of fans wanting to hear from specific talent, not just networks, is upon us. When the balance of need is weighing toward the talent more than the logo. And that is introducing a brand new paradigm that is only just beginning. Kaminsky and I talked about the rise of these individuals that are building such powerful digital brands that network branding and reach are irrelevant. Talent win over fans so much that fans could care less about the brand behind them. It doesn’t matter which medium or network or platform, fans are fans of the person. The balance of power has shifted and there is no going back.
“If you are good — talent is just talent; good talent is just good talent…,” Kaminsky said. “So if you are that talent — like [former NFL punter turned massive sports personality] Pat McAfee can resonate. It doesn’t matter what platform Pat McAfee is on, that man will resonate.
“So to me, the model is building an audience online and then taking that audience with you because you’re able to go direct to them and you’re able to push out all your stuff. So I recommend folks figure out their niche and be really strong on digital.”
The names of the individuals, the personalities, the talent are out front now; no longer do fans form genuine relationships with logos and networks. The name on the back of the jersey in the greater sports media and entertainment space carries more weight than the name on the front. The era of human connections driving fan loyalties is upon us, and we’re all better for it.
On episode 221 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Brendan Kaminsky, founder of bknown (branding and social media agency within the world of sports and entertainment), ESPN alum, and UNC grad.
It sometimes feels like magic. All of our favorite sports teams — college, pro, US, international — produce and post incredible content every day. There are graphics and GIFs, videos and memes, and they all activate the brand, convey information, and oftentimes tell a story.
But it’s not magic spells that conjure all this creative, it’s teams of producers and designers that execute a strategy, serve a purpose, represent the brand, and aim to keep up with the insatiable demand of teams and fans. It’s a lot for even the most seasoned creatives to take on, who must balance that volume with their artistic desires and the purpose of each piece. Oh, and at best, they may earn a second or two of fans’ time. Kennon Pearson, who works in Duke Athletics, talked about what’s in mind for him and his team as they begin a new piece.
“Even though we have our baseline look, a lot of times there still is creative freedom. [So] it’s like, what do I want to do with this? Or what’s the focal point?” said Pearson, who is Assistant Director of Creative Services and Graphic Design for the Blue Devils [Duke Athletics’s name]. “Like with records or number of wins, usually we like to highlight the number in big [font], and then it’ ‘Alright, do we have cutouts for this? Do we want them to be smaller? Do we want them to cover it up? Do we want them to be inside of it?’…
“Usually when we’re creating, we look at the two things we start with — is there a focal point text or person, and then how do we want to color it?…“My philosophy is always whatever that focal point is, it needs to be pronounced enough to where [users] don’t get banner blindness and they just keep scrolling. They see a number, they see a word, they see a person and they’re like, oh, who is this? What is this? And they stop.”
Stopping the scroll is the challenge, and beautiful pieces like those Pearson and his colleagues produce are the solution. But while they want to indeed exercise that creative freedom, they are still all creating for the same team, so to speak, the same brand — Duke Athletics. So it now becomes cutting through the clutter that fans see fill their feeds every day, creating something that stands out, but that still looks like Duke. But Pearson takes that responsibility seriously, especially for the special occasions he enumerated like milestones and historic achievements. Those moments, and the creative marking them, shouldn’t look like everything else, and it’s worth the extra effort to make something unique within the Duke palette.
“It’s really just artistic interpretation where we’re making something unique for every single [moment],” said Pearson, who noted that the football and men’s and women’s basketball teams have dedicated creative staff. “And that can sound like a lot — it is if you think about it — but we’ve gotten so used to doing it, that it’s just kinda like we want those pieces to stand out because I think that no matter what, they’ll still look, and feel like a Duke piece and they’ll always try to keep it to looking like it is part of that team. You don’t want it to look exactly like the last landmark that another team did.”
Here’s where it’s instructive to get a peek behind the magician’s curtain. There is at least something of a method to the madness, tips for the trade that help to scale creative by controlling (and streamlining) the controllables. Creative teams have to seek out any efficiencies they can because producing graphics and videos and art requires time built-in for, well, the creative part. It was informative and interesting to hear Pearson talk about how he manages the creative production process.
“One thing for example is we use a lot of the same sizes,” said Pearson, “something that’s a 4×5, 16×9 — so I have a folder on our Box [cloud storage]…where I have a 4×5 PSD, a 16×9 PSD. Or if it’s something where I know I need to use multiple artboards, I’ve got that set up, so that way I’m not having to open it up, add a color and add guides every single time; it’s already set up…
“Currently I’ve been using my own library where I have logos saved, any common textures that I use for all sports or even for some sports — colors, because we do have different blues…“But basically everything is starred. I have templates saved, I have folders in Box that have textures I might need. So everything is accessible as quickly as possible.”
Even the most streamlined operation does not mean creative teams become factories, content for the sake of content. There is no quenching the thirst of fans for quality content, but the asks add up and time and resources are never endless. Every digital, social, and marketing team must be inclined to ask why. Why do we need to post this, create this, ask for this, to dedicate some of those scarce time and resources for this?
“In general, everything we design…we try to make sure that it has a purpose and we have an outcome we wanna reach instead of just making it for the sake of making it,” said Pearson…It would be cool to do some more fun stuff like [memes], but I think that in general, we try to make everything as purposeful as possible, and it works really well for us.”
There is a temptation nowadays to measure everything in raw numbers. When the success of a given social media operation, for example, is judged in its end-of-season report by impressions, engagements, views, and engagement rate, it seems perfectly sensible to say each piece of creative should be judged the same way. There can be value in that. But it may be missing the forest for the trees.
Pearson noted that, yes, analytics are important. They do tell part of the story as to how much the creative resonated with fans and followers. But Pearson does see the forest, too, talking about impact and value that goes beyond double-taps and hearts. When the creative team is charged with producing vast volumes of content that most fans will see for a split-second as they scroll or tap through their feeds, it comes down to making those moments matter and setting up the operation for scale.
“It becomes kind of a gut feeling,” said Pearson, mulling over the notion of success of creative. “Like, when we’re putting something together [we ask] what is going to be impactful? And if even just a few people like it and see it, that’s still successful. Of course, you want it to be big numbers and huge shares; you want your analytics to be insane. Sometimes it doesn’t happen, but that doesn’t mean that something was a failure.
“I think that a lot of times what you might consider a failure is is it something that we created, like a template, that didn’t get used or used enough or didn’t make sense? I think that’s probably more I would say is a success is — is it something that we made that is used frequently if it’s a template? Or if it’s not a template, is it something that caught somebody’s eye?”
The bar is only getting higher for content to stand out and to have impact. There is more competition for attention, ever-more ephemeral trends and aesthetics, and a rising demand for creative (because we’ve gotten better at extracting revenue from creative efforts, too). The creative teams of the future will be even more efficient, removing any friction in the production process so that they can focus on what they do best — create.
Listen to episode 221 of the Digital and Social Media Sports podcast, in which Neil chatted with Brendan Kaminsky, founder of bknown (branding and social media agency within the world of sports and entertainment), ESPN alum, and UNC grad.
It wasn’t that long ago that social media was anathema for college athletics.
For high-level college coaches, social media was at best a distraction for their student-athletes and at worst was a place the athletes could get themselves or their school in trouble; let alone be exposed to toxic vitriol from fans. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Slowly but surely, coaches realized the power of those platforms and how a new era had arrived for not just their student-athletes, but themselves, too. Alex Cervasio was among the early sherpas showing many high-level coaches the way. He helped them see the opportunity this new era presented for them.
“I think before the internet and social media really, coaches were at the mercy, so to speak, of the gatekeepers; and a lot of those gatekeepers were beat writers and the newspaper people before them, or the SIDs at the university,” said Cervasio, who heads up CVAS Consulting and co-founded The Daily Coach. “I think first and foremost, it was controlling that message. Not letting the gatekeepers dictate what is said about you and what you’re saying or what people think about you.”
Outsized coach personalities of decades past were ultimately built through beat writer stories, postgame interviews, and press conferences. So now, more than ever, coaches, athletes, executives — all these public individuals — already had the notoriety; now they get to frame it. Cervasio said it’s authentic intention that forms the core of an effective approach. Find what makes you naturally stand out and activate it.
“(It’s) really leaning into every coach’s uniqueness,” Cervasio explained. “What is different about [them]? What is that coach’s niche that differentiates them that no one else can copy? That is something that’s going to appeal to the decision-maker, whether it’s the student-athlete themselves or in their family or in their circle to get them on campus.
“The coaches that are successful are the ones that are authentic, that do not try to imitate or copy someone else.”
That authenticity is so key because if a coach portrays themselves one way publicly and acts another way privately, well, word gets out. It’s too easy these days — word always gets out. And all of a sudden the story coaches are telling to recruits and donors isn’t so credible. Those stakes are everything for coaches, trustworthiness is everything for any leader.
“If you make it your own, just like any creator, any person out there — if you’re putting something out there, you have to own it. (Otherwise) people see through that, especially nowadays,” Cervasio asserted. “It has to be raw and it has to be true, and it has to be the same person that they see on social media that they’re going to see if you’re sitting in the living room and you’re offering [recruits] scholarships to come play for you.”
Coaches now appreciate more than ever the power, benevolent or not, of social media platforms. And they see what it can mean for their student-athletes, too. Whether the players have professional careers ahead of them or (more likely) have four years to spend in the spotlight sports presents — coaches have a responsibility to help them make the most of those four years. Now with athletes able to monetize their name-image-likeness (NIL). And while there are risks to regularly engaging on social media, the mindset is shifting from abstinence to responsible use.
“I think coaches — you’re seeing it now — there’s educational components in the offseason, making sure [players] know the do’s and the don’ts the best practices of how to leverage that,” said Cervasio. “Some are better than others. Some athletic departments and schools are better than others, but I think everyone’s cognizant that this thing is not going anywhere.
“Let’s embrace it. Let’s educate everyone on how to best utilize it. And let’s be honest with ourselves that if we do it correctly, there are going to be some wins and, you know, unfortunately, there’s always going to be a negative connotation in the shadow and you just have to ignore those focus on what you can control.”
The positives outweigh the negatives by a country mile. Many players can change their lives through their notoriety as student-athletes. For some, it’ll mean spending money for food and leisure or rent money for families; for others, proactively building a brand can set them up for life well beyond the playing field. Because it’s not just about followers, it’s about taking advantage of that limited time when perhaps more doors are open than they ever will be for the rest of their lives, Cervasio posited.
“(Student-athletes) are building a brand on campus,” he said. “I say it all the time — when you’re on, let’s just say University of Oregon’s campus for four years, you can pick up the phone…and a major booster, a major donor will take your phone call because you are playing football for Oregon or basketball for Oregon. The minute you step off campus, unless you have that relationship or that one-to-one or maybe you won the national title or whatnot, it’s a lot harder for you to get in those doors and those phone calls and meetings.”
For athletes, for coaches, for executives — for anyone, really — the low-hanging fruit may be to just lean into what earned the notoriety in the first place. But this goes back to Cervasio’s earlier point about being different. If everyone is a football player, everyone is the same. Cervasio said each student-athlete, or whomever, should figure out what they love outside of their primary occupation/sport. Because it’s not about ‘constructing’ a brand or persona, it’s just being yourself and indulging it. Remember, people don’t engage with ‘brands’ quite so much, they engage with people.
“I always go back to what is your passion? You know, what gets you up in the morning besides when you’re playing (your sport)?” Cervasio said. “Do you read books, do you play video games, do you want to design golf courses in your free time? Whatever it might be, everyone has something unique that is maybe a little quirky or that they don’t share enough, but you got to lean into what makes you [different].
“So you need to be strategic about what you’re doing and what you’re trying to shape and who you are because at the end day — I always go back to you gotta be honest; what they see out there they need to see on social media, in person, on the playing field, in the interviews, all that. Otherwise, the engagement won’t be there.”
It’s easier to be honest and genuine when you’re in control. And if there is one thing that unites all these individuals that have achieved to an elite level in their chosen occupation or sport, it’s that they seek to control what they can control, give 110%, and insert your other favorite sports cliches. Social media and personal brand are part of that. For coaches, mastering social media is one more ingredient for a successful recruiting recipe. Cervasio hammers home to those he works with that it’s all important to the process.
“Everything matters,” he said. “If you don’t treat everything as the most important thing to success, then you’re going to miss something that could have helped you do something. People always say I don’t have time for social media, I don’t have time to do this video, I don’t have time to do all of that. You make the time…Everything matters.”
If you’re gonna do something, do it right. Because it’s all connected. The best coaches and the best athletes tend to be the best at building their brand. That’s no coincidence. Many adhere to their ‘process,’ and social media is now part of it. And we’re all better for it.
On episode 219 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Alex Cervasio, Founder, CVAS Consulting (Working Coaches, Athletes, Executives, and Brands + also Co-founder, The Daily Coach.