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Laughing, tweeting and eating: the soft power of Shaquille O'Neal

Laughing, tweeting and eating: the soft power of Shaquille O'Neal

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When Amy Jo Martin started Digital Royalty, her social media marketing company, in 2009, she had one goal: take the "soft power" influence of professional star athletes -- their unshakable hold on their fans' emotions -- and turn it into hard cash. Over the past several years, the idea of soft power has gained currency with political theorists. It is a way to describe a nation's ability to persuade others to do what it wants without the hard power of force, threats or bribery. It includes culture, trade, diplomacy and engagement.

The theory, long associated with the persuasive arts of marketing and advertising, has likewise gained traction and urgency among the world's largest consumer brands and their well-paid spokespeople as they navigate the fickle world of social media. It's no longer enough to slap a logo on a Super Bowl ad or to pitch a pair of Nikes in a magazine.

Witness Martin's first big project: a guy named Shaquille O'Neal. When O'Neal retired from the NBA in 2011, he announced it in a Twitter-linked video that went viral in minutes. As he plotted his post-career livelihood, inviting 30 brand executives to his Orlando home a month later, O'Neal made it clear to the folks from Oreo, TNT and Toys 'R Us that he didn't plan to just rely on a SportsCenter gig to remain relevant to his fans. Instead, he would talk directly to them, becoming his own soft power media channel.

Martin knew the way to do this was through Shaq's massive fan base on Twitter. With 4.3 million followers, Shaq is among the most prolific jocks on the 140-character court. Over the past several years, tweeting a product plug has become a staple of many top athletes' endorsement deals, right alongside TV commercials, print ads and trade-show appearances. There is also a growing pay-per-tweet market -- one-off product shout-outs that can earn a player $20,000 a pop depending on his audience size. Guys like former New England Patriots wide receiver Chad Johnson (4.8 million Twitter followers) pull down a reported $5 million a year doing this. Martin, however, dislikes this model. "You're not engaging with fans, so there's no real influence there," she says.

So she encouraged O'Neal to build his personal brand by sharing genuine details of his life or his take on the previous night's basketball games directly with his fans. He could then build endorsement deals around that soft power center, which would be "stickier." O'Neal shoots 15-second videos of himself doing stunts for fans and integrating product pitches into his day-to-day life. "I never say, 'Go buy this on my Twitter," Shaq told me shortly after his retirement. "I make people laugh, I inspire people. I have a deal with Oreos. I do a shout-out saying, 'I'm eating Oreos. How many can I eat in 15 seconds?' And that makes you laugh, you talk about Oreos and then 10 percent of the 4 million people go buy Oreos." Shaq makes $15 million a year on traditional endorsements, but these blasts earn him an extra $5 million. In the process, he not only cements the brand's credibility, he creates a bond with fans and builds his post-career financial longevity.

As the concept of soft power has spread from academia to the boardroom -- and even to the locker rooms of professional sports -- it has spawned an innovative generation of business thinkers like Martin and DIY pitchmen like O'Neal, whose Web site, with its interactive March Madness polls, its Original SoupMan sweepstakes on Facebook (Win a soup with Shaq!) and its banner ads for his personal designer jewelry collection at Zales, is a study in the nexus of soft power and marketing. O'Neal's brand, honed over a 19-year NBA career, is one of the best managed and most authentic in the social media realm. It is never put on autopilot, like a lot of celebrities and athletes, where Tweeting a bunch of pitch-speak is no different than blasting out junk mail. Martin advises brands on this same model. "A lot of corporate brands we work with, they have well-known logos," Martin says. "With social communication, it's important to humanize the experience with an audience no matter who they may be. Humans connect with humans, not with logos."

For instance, Martin's company trained dozens of Hilton employees to promote its Hilton Worldwide properties with an innovative Twitter approach called Hilton Suggests. The company has some 30 or more workers who monitor Twitter for random queries about, say, restaurant or bar recommendations. So if a visitor to Washington, D.C., tweets that he's looking for a good burger joint in the capitol, a Hilton rep will tweet back, "Welcome to DC! Check out BGR Burger. Awesome food, better atmosphere."

"The value is about dialogue," says Martin, who has fast become one of the most innovative forces in social media marketing. "It's entry point into people's conversations, and that's how the relationship begins."

Martin often sees brands that want to entirely skip this most important step in the social media relationship -- the exact moment where soft power and soft engagement in the consumer's life is defined and later developed. "Whoever coined the term social media didn't do us any favors," she says. "Marketers and brands want to treat it like old media, where the ads talk at people, not with people. It’s more a dialogue now. I tell people, 'It's more like a telephone than it is like TV.'"

In the short lifespan of Twitter (a mere seven years), Martin is an old hand. She made her name as the NBA's first-ever digital media and research director at the Phoenix Suns. There, she helped team and league sponsors figure out how to leverage their brands on Twitter and Facebook. She also conducted Twitter boot camp for hundreds of athletes, showing them how to choose a screen name and to use the appropriate hashtag to a mark keyword or topic -- such as a sponsor's product. But equally important and insightful, she taught them that their biggest soft power asset with fans is their on- and off-field relationships with fellow teammates and players. "We tell them to tweet each other because, for fans, it's like being in a club with them," Martin told me when we first spoke during O'Neal’s Twitter push. "The goal is to build their influence online, measure it and to monetize it."

O'Neal knew what Martin wanted. He had seen fellow athletes use Twitter in bone-headed ways -- not just from a business angle but a personal one. "A lot of guys are just bigging themselves up," he said. "I don't want to see your car or your chain. I don't want to see every three minutes of your life. Get rid of your chain, show me a karate move."

Not every jock or TV star has the creativity or showmanship O'Neal has. For those, there are a growing number of outfits that tweet product blasts for them in their voices, mimicking their tone and style. One such outfit is Beverly Hills-based ad.ly. With more than 1,000 celebrity spokespeople, ad.ly has helped craft more than 25,000 Twitter plugs for such brands as AOL, Samsung, Coca-Cola, Groupon and American Express. Their endorsers have included Mariah Carey (10 million Twitter followers), Kim Kardashian (17.5 million) and even Dallas Maverick's billionaire owner Mark Cuban (1.6 million). Martin's team doesn't view this model as effective soft power.

To them, it's headed in only one direction -- out -- and ignoring the entire interactive relationship that defines social media and much of soft power. Alana Golob, the director of digital education at Digital Royalty, first asks clients to evaluate their relationship with their customers and their audience. "How do you deliver on the relationship? What value are you bringing to the marketing channel?" she says. Many brands and celebrities are not accustomed to thinking like this. Their product or service was once all they needed to deliver, or their performance on the basketball court or in a soap opera, delivered by a network TV station. But now they are the channel. "Until you deliver value," says Golob, "you can't ask anything. Once you do, then they'll reciprocate the value. It's like starting a new job. You can't ask for anything the first day, not until you pay your dues."

Golob's task is to teach corporate clients, and even personalities, how to "humanize their online brands." To this end, she has helped launch DigitalRoyaltyUniversity.com, an innovative series of online courses ($40 for as many as 10 lectures) on such topics as personal branding (through Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest), master Twitter classes for entrepreneurs and bloggers, and strategies for using social media for customer service. "One of the mistakes brands will make is they run a sweepstakes" she says, "but they haven't built out their audience for a sweepstakes. So you are attracting what we call hollow followers, and that sweepstakes is not getting converted into sales. So you're reaching the wrong people. Brands need to keep focus always on relationship building."

Or, as Shaquille O’Neal would say in his entertaining way, "Show me a karate move."

Photo: Digital Royalty

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Kevin Gray

Contributing Writer

Kevin Gray is a freelance writer based in New York. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, New York, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Details and Men's Journal. Disclosure