Saturday, August 13, 2016

Your 'Sports Ambassador' Marketing Program Sucks

... And it's killing the pro athlete economy. 

But hold up.

Before I get my gears all heated up and this rage train rolling, I'm going to lead out with the following disclaimer: if you are a former pro or legend or master at your craft, this does not apply to you. To my heroes, my gods, my ever-ass-kicking MTB monsters, this does not apply to you. To the men and women who have shaped mountain biking and sports culture as a whole and who still hold important positions and play key roles in our industry, this does not apply to you. 

Y'all are invaluable assets that mountain biking (and the outdoor industry in general) couldn't replace or replicate if our very future depended on it... You are and always will be the best ambassadors of rad, Missy, ACC, Cedric, Bender, etc etc. So.

To the rest of you, as Han Solo says, 'hold onto your butts'.*

This little ode is going to be dedicated to the laziest of marketers and brand managers on the planet. My rant today goes out to every advertising director, marketing master, social media manager, and every goddamn program director out there who has given rise to the wave of mediocrity that is the plague of unproven and untested 'brand ambassadors'. 

'Brand ambassadors' are not random folks stoked on your brand. 'Brand ambassadors' should be your ATHLETES. But the entire lot of you have taken minor grassroots support as rule and law, and you've turned it into a full-fledged, lawless gig for the stupid and the mediocre.

The bike industry's rampant and unrestrained abuse of the word 'ambassador' has not only killed the progression curve inside of outdoor sports, but it's destroying the pro athlete economy and the bottom lines of thousands of legitimate pros.

This lazy marketing not only sucks. We've created the economic bubble equivalent of 'creative for exposure' inside of the outdoor industry through 'influencer marketing', and the people selected aren't even influencers. Who do they influence? Their buddies? Legitimate users? Non-endemics? Potential buyers? Likely not. We've elevated mediocrity above excellence, and maintained the cycle by endorsing and supporting unearned opportunities for those who will cannot do the job of a pro athlete. 

How has this happened? 

I'll say it again: shitty 'ambassador' programs. 'Influencer marketing'.

I'd honestly love to blame HookIt for the bubble, but the current attitude towards unpaid labor/free work for 'exposure' within the outdoor sports industry has long existed; it is only at mass capacity now thanks to social media and the human detritus populating the airwaves of the Internet, seeking the fame and glory of pro athleticism, all without the risk or the underlying cost.

These, my friends, are 'fathletes', and we have given them the unique market in which their narcissism is second only to your greed.

1: these narcissists aren't 'ambassadors'. Athletes are ambassadors. That is what a professional athlete is. That is the very nature of their job. That's why pro athletes compete, film, photo, travel, smile, shake hands and kiss babies. That's why they risk it all, and it's why they have companies who sponsor them. They have skills and personalities that represent certain brands and market segments, and they get paid to do what few other athletes can. Different pros have different styles of branding, but they all have one thing in common: they can actually do the thing. 

And yet here I am, scrolling through Instagram, looking at photos from the many accounts of 'athletes' who aren't actually doing the thing. They aren't actually doing anything, really, except supposedly marketing MTB and the brands that support them. But... It's all fake. Because they seem to have so much of this support from companies (or they actually do), but it's not really support for MTB, because this person can't really MTB at a high enough level to garner legitimate support from companies. But people unfamiliar with the sport actually buy into it. And they see this non-performance from these non-pros and say "HEY! I can do that!" but they forget that this is mountain biking, where we literally ride bikes down mountains. And thus the cycle of failed experimentation begins: they're disappointed or injured and they leave or want to change the sport to fit their ego and lack of skill because HEY! Remember how easy and cool this was supposed to be?!  

So? I notice a few things: 1, whichever companies these 'influencers' are sponsored by seem to be totally okay with mediocrity on a bike and don't actually want to support legitimate athletes. 2, that the company in question is totally fine with supporting someone who doesn't really give a whole lot back to the sport, as long as the 'sponsorship' doesn't cost said company much. 3, that most of this 'sponsorship' is actually a 'discount' because the person being 'sponsored' is so non-skilled that they can't ask for much more than flow. 4, that much of this 'pro athleticism' is advertised solely through photos, because videos and competitive efforts would unveil the 'athlete' as an unskilled beneficiary of corporate charity. 

I also observe that the follows, likes, shares and branding are rarely based around the athlete ACTUALLY loving, promoting or sharing the sport of mountain biking. Which makes me wonder -- what's the return on investment (ROI) here? Brand awareness? There can't be that many people so stoked on relatively fake and mediocre performances who actually click and buy, can there?! In fact, Forbes cautions against the number one fallacy of 'influencer marketing': lacking authenticity. 

Which tells me two things: 

The 'brand ambassador' thing is heartily overused by far too many companies, and these 'brand ambassadors' aren't connecting with their audience or engaging them in a genuine way inside of MTB (see the KTM ad above). The constant promotion, the constant push, the continued nonsense of 'hey, let me sell you on this stuff I'm getting a discount on'... It's all too familiar, and potential audiences just tune it out. 

So what's the actual purpose of all of this 'influencer marketing', if not to actually sell, sell, sell?

To influence. To engage. What are these 'salespeople' doing? Are they influencing? Or are they selling? And what are companies willing to pay for this 'influence'? How big really is a particular influence marketer, aka ambassador, aka athlete?

First, let's talk about the big picture -- the picture where a lot of companies inside the bike industry expect 'athletes' to work for free (or anyone, really). Let's take a gander at the image where companies look to cut marketing dollars by using non-athletes (or ambassadors/influencers) who claim to be able to do the work of athletes, all while the companies are cutting athlete support budgets. Much in the same way that a lot of websites curate content they don't own and ask for free articles/photos/video work "for exposure!", the outdoor industry is demanding it from athletes, and when pro athletes won't do something for free (you know, because being a 'professional' something should keep the medical bills paid when you're hucking your face down a mountain to keep said companies happy), these companies reach out to 'ambassadors' -- folks hungry for inclusion in a niche, bro industry and who will often do whatever it takes to be notorious or infamous... As long as 'whatever it takes' doesn't include assuming the risk, footing the expense, or putting in years of work gaining the skills required to become a legitimate pro athlete. 

So. In the scenario above, these cheap companies give flow to this new 'ambassador' person, to share, right? However, this ambassador, who, in their excitement to have 'support', does everything in their power to 'rep the brand' positively: Photos, amateur videos, shoutouts, bragging to friends about this 'sponsorship', wearing t-shirts until they're worn out... All for free. 

So then the brand rewards this 'ambassador' by giving them more stuff and "more exposure and more unearned opportunities" (as said by a two-time skiing world champ). Why? Well, because this person is doing it for free... Why NOT use them? Free content isn't that different than expensive, paid content, right? *eyeroll* And so the company does it again with someone else. Why not?! "If it worked for one person, we can theoretically get all the free advertising we need! They're like walking billboards, and all it cost us was a few t-shirts and some stickers." - Marketing Director from an actual company at an actual 'marketing buildout' meeting.

The only problem? These aren't young pre-teen groms we're talking about. These 'walking billboards' are fully grown adults doing free work that is undercutting the ACTUAL pros who have worked their entire lives to be a proper ambassador for a sport. Pro athletes have built legacies, raced on teams, created the sport as it is now, yet many companies refuse to pay them for their experience and efforts. 

"Yeah, but I don't need a wedding photographer. My buddy's dad just bought his 15-year-old son a new Canon and little man said he'd do the pics for free!" 

Congratulations. You're a bottom-feeder,  leeching off the work of everyone who has come before you. 

Both the users and abusers of this ambassador system have created a false economic bubble that will rob the outdoor industry of the majority of it's legitimate pros. Why should anyone bother to become a true master of their craft when someone, somewhere inside of the industry, will do it shittier and for free, then pass it off as mastery? Except for a pure love of the sport and having a total understanding that said sport will never be a self-sustaining effort, there is no point to becoming a pro. With rising costs to athletes for competitive fees, equipment pricing and personal insurance/medical coverage, there's no reasonable validation of a decision to upgrade or compete. It simply doesn't make economic sense, especially in an age where marketing directors will hire just about anyone... As long as they work for low cost or no cost.

I'm fully aware that at this point, some brilliant internet intellectual is sitting in their mom's basement thinking, "well, not getting paid by companies to be a pro athlete just means you're not good enough." 

Internet Genius, you're right -- I'm NOT good enough. That's why I write stuff like this (because I also have an education that helped me develop the critical thinking skills to recognize gaping economic holes) and only sit in the top three or four female pros in the US. But having talked to world champions and multi-decade, World Cup-level athletes across the outdoor industry, the biggest reason pros started retiring in droves is because they can't even get paid. And if even the best and the brightest can't get paid inside of their own sport, what hope is there for a new generation of athletes? I don't hold high hopes for 'making it' as an athlete. I never have. That's not my niche. But for young groms with talent and skill who need support but aren't getting it... What's in it for them? With few exceptions, there is no changing of the guard, and we've all robbed ourselves with the fake and the greedy. For what? Another mediocre promo video that nobody can stand watching longer than 30 seconds? One more fake Instagram shoot where company and fathlete pump up the product/photo/thing while everyone looks at each other, knowing that neither party in the equation is sincere? It's cost us the very realest parts of our sport, and has been replaced by insincere mockups and fake placeholders so that some schmuck in marketing can have more 'room' in their budget... Although they don't really need it, now do they? It's not like they're paying many real athletes these days. 

Edit: After being asked a few more questions about this issue, I believe there are a few things that could be done to solve this. First, I fully believe in a mandatory time qualification for pros in racing/events, with a mandatory downgrade for those who consistently cannot make the cut. Yes, it might cut down on the sheer number of total pros in the short term, but it would also discourage the false 'brand ambassador' upgrade to 'pro' and the padding surrounding the pro category. In the long run, it would likely lead to a more genuinely fast pro category when athletes know that they can't be 'pro' without actual athletic performance. It sounds harsh, but there are far too many pros who can't consistently make a pro cut off. And no, I'm not talking about crashing out, but regular 'clean' runs or races where their time is 90+ seconds off the lead in their respective categories. That's not a pro result, that's semi-pro or sport. Second, actually supporting athletes like Wil White who may not have 20k fans on Instagram, but who CLEARLY throws down. No, he's not rainbows and sparkles, but you can't whine about how 'soft' the industry has gotten and then fail to promote the badass riders inside of it. Third, cutting down the number of fake pros in any field (by mandatory 90-cut off marks) would also completely negate the pro pay scale argument and equal payout fuss -- without fathletes crowding a field, everyone knows that the people on track earned their way into that pro field. Fourth: No, the cutoff mark wouldn't be 'one strike you're out' and have mandatory downgrade. It would be something like a three-time consecutive, sixty second gap mark or a two-time 90-second gap. For instance: if a 'pro' is sixty seconds off of First place in the men's or women's field once for crashing, etc, they're safe. But three times at sixty?! Time to go back to cat one, little leaguer. If there are two instances of 90-second gaps, that's also a mandatory downgrade. Multiple chances, plenty of time for a crash recovery, but accountability where it matters most. Fifth, this all would act as a deterrent to fake athletes -- no, you're not 'pro' because you have 100k followers. Athletes wouldn't get a pro license unless they can show elite wins or ranking within the current system, etc; they can be an aspiring pro, a semi-pro, a hobbyist, an amateur or even a one-eyed-giant-purple-people-eater... Up until they throw down, they're simply not. Sixth, this would act as a checks-and-balances to steer companies and brands away from all but the best and the brightest, because the 'brand ambassador' just looks cheap. 

The issue is still that the term 'pro' has been diluted. Any step taken towards less watering down and more straight up badassery is a win in my book. 

What do you think? 

*Not actually a Han Solo quote. C'mon now. 

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