We’ve all been there: scrolling through our phones, seeing the same faces on our feeds, reading promotional captions about the next great product. More often than not, on social media, we’re being fed paid-for-in-some-way content and it’s become nearly impossible to decipher what’s an advertisement and what’s actually an “organic” post. Of course, not everything on social media is an advertisement—there’s plenty of beautiful, inspirational content, too. But, more than ever, it’s becoming difficult to sift through the feed and decipher between the two.
What started as a photo- and video-sharing app in 2010—hard to believe, just 10 years ago—Instagram has grown into one of the most lucrative platforms for brands and individuals, alike. Along with the app came the new job title, “influencer,” and, thus, an entirely new avenue of marketing. Before the age of social media, brands were limited to their own followings or that of print media; nowadays, social media and influencers offer a broader reach at a much lower cost. And in skiing, specifically, it’s only now are we finally seeing the price of the quantity-over-quality mentality. While it’s a great way for athletes to land on the screens of potential sponsors, an over-emphasis on numbers—followers, likes and views—has cast a ghastly shadow over talent.
“I don’t place a lot of blame anywhere… [social media] was just this thing that kind of snuck up on all of us and, in a way, it’s such a new form of communicating,” says professional skier and alpinist Hadley Hammer.
Before Instagram, Facebook, TikTok or Snapchat, brands relied on print media for advertising, along with film companies like Warren Miller and Matchstick Productions to get their athletes in the yearly ski movies; it was, truly, as simple as that. Then, as the internet became universal, brands figured out they could fund trips for their teams to create their own edits and share them for a far smaller piece of the budget. But the obsession with followers has blurred the line between athlete and influencer, which, in turn, has created an uneven distribution of marketing dollars and opportunities for athletes, and has established a seemingly insatiable consumer appetite.
“That’s problematic,” says professional skier Rachael Burks. “Something is going to have to change… it’s taking away opportunities for young, ripping men and women because all of these sponsors have allocated a certain amount of money to their ambassadors and athletes, and they’re allocating to influencers instead of athletes.”
It’s not just the athletes noticing this monetary imbalance in the industry. Josh Malczyk, who served as the Global Brand Director at Line and Full Tilt for 12 years, has more than his fair share of experiences dealing with marketing professionals who often only look as far as social followings when picking up new athletes.
“A lot of marketing professionals I know are obsessed with Instagram and specially follower count,” explains Malczyk, who left Line and Full Tilt to co-found the new ski brand Season Eqpt. “But [engagement] is not about follower count; it’s about interaction and real people. I can buy 50,000 followers for $10,000 tomorrow and it doesn’t mean anything—you’re just talking to fake bots. But, if you have this number next to your name, you suddenly look valuable.”
That’s not to say that influencers aren’t valuable to a brand or haven’t worked hard to gain the following that they have. In the eyes of Brent Sandor, the vice president of marketing for apparel brand, 686, athletes are also influencers—the caveat, though, is that not all influencers are athletes, and that’s where brands have to make a clear distinction. “People need to be true to themselves and sometimes that’s going to come across great on social; sometimes it’s not. Brands need to understand what they’re signing up for,” says Sandor. “That’s where people get into trouble, relationships get into trouble between brands and skiers, both ways, when brands sometimes expect more than what they signed up for. Not everyone is going to have a huge social media personality and you can’t expect that.”
Along with exaggerated focus on followers, brands have also fallen into a “content trap,” so to say, where they expect the athletes and influencers to do the heavy lifting in media creation. What you don’t see on social media, in the magazines or the movies are professional skiers lamenting about photo and video quotas they need to meet for their sponsors. The underlying trouble here is that athletes aren’t often given a personal budget to work with a photographer (or videographer) to create the quality content they want (and need) to satisfy contractual obligations.
“It’s just a cop-out,” adds Malczyk. “If you sign an athlete, you’ve gotta double that amount of money and put it aside to actually promote the damn person. Get them on trips, in the gear, everything. [Social media] is one small piece in a giant puzzle.”
The responsibility of shifting the emphasis on social media doesn’t solely rely on brands, however. It’s also up to the athletes to carve their own tracks on the infinite landscape of media. For Hammer, that’s stepping away from Instagram as a meaningful messaging platform and creating her own storytelling platform offered via subscription service to make more significant connections with those who choose to pay for her content.
“Having [Discourse] behind a paywall makes it a little bit more private, which means I can have a safer place to share,” explains Hammer. “I write these drafts and keep going over them… I love that process much more than [thinking about] what kind of trendy caption I could put on Instagram that would get more followers, or spark more comments or likes. That [social media focus] eventually leads to all of us fishing at the bottom, going for the lowest common denominator in terms of peoples’ interests.”
Yet, at the end of the day, social media isn’t going anywhere and it’s undoubtedly a useful tool to reach the masses easily. It is truly something we can’t live with, nor without—a double-edged sword, if you will, with no right or wrong way to use it. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. While brands need to work on recognizing and highlighting talent over likes and comments, athletes need to stay true to themselves and play the game the best way it works for them.
“My bit of advice to anyone who wants to get into this is just look back at every step you take and be proud of every single step that you’ve taken,” says Burks.
Hammer adds, “We each need to control our own paths a little bit more. I hope every person out there can be inspired and motivated by what they see other people doing, but also take the time to think about how they want to do it themselves, and what works best for them. In doing so, that much thought will surely work out.”