Social Media, Sports

How NBA Stars Are Using Twitter To Brand Themselves

May 11, 2009

Ever wanted to know what Shaquille O’neal does before a game or where Baron Davis likes to go on his off days? Thanks to Twitter, now you can. For the last 4 months, I have been watching the accounts of players like Shaquille O’neal and Baron Davis and have been paying careful attention to the number of followers that they have. The amount of influence that athletes like Baron and Shaq have accumulated in just the past few months is impressive

In the last 3 months, Shaquille O’neal, better known as The_Real_Shaq on Twitter, has gone from 50,000 followers to nearly 1 million. At first glance, you may think that it is the “Shaq Brand” that has drawn in the large number of followers, but that is not entirely true. Companies like Dell and have all tried to do what Shaq has done with Twitter, but they can’t because of what Shaq and other NBA stars have been doing.

Yes, Shaquille O’neal is a world famous athlete, but he is also a brand in himself. Like the Nike swoop that has become an iconic figure in sports, Shaquille’s personality is the same. NBA stars are branding themselves not as just athletes, but as ‘real people.’ If you look at what NBA players are tweeting about, they aren’t talking about how many points they scored or if a referee got a play wrong, they are tweeting about what regular people like you and I would tweet about. From Shaq’s thoughts on the recent Manny Ramirez drug suspension to Derek Fisher’s NCAA Bracket results, when you are following an NBA star you feel like you are following a real person.

Are You Real?

One of the biggest mistakes that I see many influential people who use Twitter are doing is saying that they really aren’t the person and only a ‘ghost-writer’ that tweets for them. For example, this is what Britney Spears has on her Twitter profile account:

Yes! This is the real Britney Spears! We’ve got updates from her team, her website and yes, even Britney herself!

While Britney’s numbers don’t reflect users hesitance to essentially follow Britney’s assistant, it does bring one important element. Britney’s account is drawing in her fans and not creating fans. By causing doubt that you are not the ‘real’ person that people expect to be following, people may follow you but have no reason to interact with you.

I reference Shaq in many of these examples because I believe that he has done the best job in building up his brand through Twitter. Shaq has not only publicly claimed his Twitter account but he actively uses it and interacts with his followers. From offering free tickets to whoever can find him at the mall to posting photos that he takes throughout the day, not only are basketball fans following him but also the average Joe.

One of the biggest reasons why Twitter has become such a powerful tool is that it allows companies as well celebrities to take down the corporate walls and interact and build a community around themselves. Just the other day Charlie Villanueva of the Milwaukee Bucks replied to me his thoughts on a recent blog post I wrote on NBA Team Social Media Authority Ranks. I was so thrilled to have heard back from Charlie that I have become a big fan of his. In the same day, I also received a re-tweet from Steve Mason of ESPN. After I got the re-tweet, I actually listened to the show online while I was doing work for nearly 4 hours straight.

When people start following NBA stars, they not only want to stay updated on what their favorite players are up too, but also hope that they might actually get a reply back. Similar to how people crowd around the red carpet at the premier of a movie hoping to see their favorite stars and be lucky enough to get a signature, the same goes with Twitter and NBA stars. The only difference is that instead of a signature, you get a tweet.

So What’s To Come?

Very soon Shaquille O’neal will break 1 million users and when that happens he will have joined an elite group of people. Not only will Shaq join a short list when it comes to having 1 million followers, but Shaq will also become the first NBA player to break that number. With teamates Steve Nash and Jason Richardson already on Twitter, it is my estimation that very soon your NBA teams will start encouraging their players to start their own Twitter accounts. While I may not be as famous (yet) or as popular as some of the big name stars of the NBA, something I have thought about doing is switching my Twitter account name from Joseph_Yi to The_Real_Joseph_Yi.

Look out Shaq, here I come.

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  • Reply Brett Borders May 11, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    No doubt at all that using Twitter is a really good way to strengthen your personal brand. I wouldn’t suggest changing your Twitter handle to such a long one, though.I don’t think it’ll make you any more real seeming. People like Shaq play by an entirely different set of rules than normal people like you and I. They can Tweet about anything, call themselves anything – and people will still follow them.

  • Reply Joseph Yi May 11, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    @Brett – Thanks for the comment Brett! I probably won’t change my Twitter handle to “The_Real_Joseph_Yi” but it would have been fun to challenge Shaq. For now I will try to carve out a place for myself and hopefully meet some great people like yourself!

  • Reply @MattWilsontv May 11, 2009 at 3:05 pm

    Hey Joseph, the Shaq brand is what is blowing this up. He’s the leader on Twitter, but also one of the most admired players of all time. He’s funny, ridiculously successful, and just an all around interesting guy to follow. Nobody cares that his game isn’t what it used to be–he’s just a cool guy to follow.

  • Reply Ashley May 12, 2009 at 12:17 am

    I think you hit it on the mark here with “it allows companies as well as celebrities to take down the corporate walls and interact and build a community around themselves”. I think twitter separates the artists from the celebs and companies just in it for the fame. I feel like the great companies/celebs worth following on Twitter are really passionate about their work and connecting with their fans and customers on a deeper level. Rain wilson, Zappos, and yes, Shaq! to name a few. I sometimes click on their responses to see who they are and find it’s just an average person with 25 or so followers. I feel like some celebrities (cough oprah) just go on it because they feel like they are doing us a service by twittering. But really we want them to hear us as well!

    maybe I’ll take @the_real_joseph_yi and start fake twittering from your account and then announce it and change mine to “fake joseph yi” and Ill be famous too!

  • Reply Ryan Stephens May 12, 2009 at 3:48 pm


    Ashley touched the point that I really wanted to emphasize, and that’s that these guys can start now building a legacy that sustains them long after their career is over.

    In addition, when the tabloids break something that isn’t true, it’s easy for the athlete to say, “Here’s the truth, straight from my mouth (keyboard).”

    They have increased control of their messaging, but the ones like Shaq, Charlie V, and others who actually listen and respond to some fans are also, as you’ve mentioned, not just attracting their fans, but creating new ones.

    Great insights.


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