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.