“If I want a couch or something, I get ahold of the company and ask for it and they send it.”
“Do you have to post about it,” I asked.
“No. But they still send it.”
This was part of a discussion I had with a social media influencer this past spring at Hotel Tacoma, a weekend-long media event filled with all sorts of outdoor sports, social media humans, and pro athletes. It was like a Red Bull shoot mixed with the inside of a Filson catalog. I had this conversation with a woman who makes her living, and, from what I gathered, a very good six figures living from posting photos and videos on her social platforms. It kind of blew my mind. The idea that documenting one’s life could equate to a paycheck, and a fat paycheck at that, was shocking. Throughout the weekend, I noticed pro athletes and social influencers documenting, filming, and photographing a lot of the time, if not all the time. And I began to wonder about the business of a social media presence.
I am not naive. I understand that for influencers and today’s pro athletes it’s a job, or at the very least a part of the job. But I became very curious about how the ever-changing social media dynamic plays into the everyday life of professional outdoor athletes. Does posting turn into actual coin? For the social influencers in attendance, posting is the entire job. But for athletes, especially those whose careers began before the advent of the social-digital age, it’s more complicated than that.
Ian Walsh is a 34-year-old professional surfer from Haiku, Hawaii. He started surfing when he was still in diapers and turned pro after graduating high school. He first began using Instagram sort of randomly. Walsh was looking for photo editing software and stumbled upon the app. He started posting photos to his account when Instagram, and social media as a whole, was still in the prenatal stage of development.
At the beginning of Walsh’s career, before social media was even a concept, he brought a digital, disposable, or film camera with him everywhere. Capturing images at all times was always part of his experience. It makes sense. The life of a pro surfer, the travel, film shoots, competitions, breathtaking locales, the romantic concept of chasing waves around the world, it’s all pretty darn cool. When social media exploded, especially Instagram, it was a smooth transition for Walsh.
“I grew more interested in that avenue of social media,” Walsh recalls. “With the current state of action sports, and sports in general, it is almost a necessity at this point. It really gives direct engagement with anyone you may influence and is a very powerful tool for communication, content releasing, and staying connected with friends all over the world.”
Now more than ever, capturing the cool parts of Walsh’s life is a lot easier, which makes his sponsors happy. He is required to “organically use the product(s) in my every day routines and find a creative way to capture that and share it, rather than a forced, staged product shot.” Social media accounts for around 5-percent of his total income. But Walsh likes the practice for a different reason. “Maybe it does consume too much of our time here and there,” Walsh says. “But at the end of the day, when I am old, I will have a catalog of memories from my life and incredible photos to remind me of everything.”
Elena Hight’s father taught her how to snowboard at the age of six after the family relocated from Hawaii. She started competing in amateur contests at 7. In 2003, Hight qualified for her first professional event. She then started full-time travel on the pro circuit at 14 and went on to the Olympic games in 2006 and 2010. The 27-year-old has a large social media footprint and she is active in posting and engaging. I sat next to Hight on a Hotel Tacoma truck ride that started in the woods and ended with spinning doughnuts on the dunes. Her phone and GoPro were at the ready the entire time. It’s a part of her job that she’s had to grow into.
“When I became a professional snowboarder there was no such thing as social media,” Hight explains. “There was barely an internet presence for snowboarding. Everything was about TV broadcast, magazine coverage, competitions, and in-person events. In the past few years, with the growth of social media, my responsibilities and outlets as an athlete have dramatically changed to reflect the push in digital marketing.”
To fulfill snowboard specific contractual obligations, Hight is required to post a certain number of captioned pictures per month, tagging and supporting each sponsor. For a short-term social media campaign outside of or on the periphery of the snowboard world, Hight receives a dollar amount based on the number of posts within a specific time period with the company’s product and message highlighted.
Even if it is not directly paid for, Hight’s posts add to the value of her personal brand. Her social media work accounts for 10 to 15 percent of her income. And the value of her personal brand, her captivated audience of hundreds of thousands of followers, is what sponsors and brands want to access. And that is the conundrum. The authenticity of her posts, the documentation of Hight living her real, adventurous life, is a commodity. So then, is it in fact real?
For Hight, the answer is emphatically yes. “Content creation is a constant thing,” she explains. “Creating content and consistently posting is a huge part of keeping your brand relevant. Without consistency the digital world will continue without you. I personally find it hard to constantly document my experiences and feel I am experiencing them to their fullest. I try to get a few photos or videos of key things, people, and places, and then put it away so that I can actually experience life. I have tried to create a system that works to get cool content, share that with the world, and also be able to actually enjoy my world as well.”
Professional adventure skier Brody Leven was not at Hotel Tacoma, but he is a social media phenom. The frequency and quality of the 29-year-old’s social media presence is astounding, even though, according to Leven, it does not “directly” account for any of his income. “My social media would likely be worthless without mountain endurance, training, expeditions, and the media I produce from trips,” Leven explains. “Social media is mostly used as yet another vehicle with which I can deliver these stories. But the more I deliver compelling stories from social media, the more likely I am to receive opportunities to make money by doing one-off promotions for brands.”
Leven pursued a professional ski career immediately after he graduated from college in 2010. He had never before used social media but saw its profound impact on commerce and the careers of celebrities, athletes, and other public figures. As he pursued sponsorships, creating Facebook and Instagram accounts was a no-brainer. In the winter of 2012, Instagram featured him to new users and, for a short while, he was the most followed skier on the platform. Four years ago, Leven partnered with Salomon and today he and his name are among the most recognizable in the ski world.
Is Leven’s success due to his social media presence? I’d say that like Walsh and Hight, Leven’s success is due to his uncompromising work ethic and absurd athletic talent. But, just like Walsh and Hight, his social media platforms give him the opportunity to highlight that. And people want to see that talent and get a look behind the curtain of what it takes to maintain a professional ski, surf, and snowboard career.
Leven’s only job since graduating college has been skiing. That is, ahem, remarkable. Since graduating college, I’ve had more jobs than I can recall. I once earned my keep by sweeping up chicken shit. True story. And you can bet your sweet petunia that if someone wanted to pay me extra coin to post photos of my fowl excrement removal talents I’d take them up on the offer. Would that make my job or life any less authentic? I don’t think so. Sponsor or not, I’d still be pushing that broom. I think the same can be said for the lives and passions of Walsh, Hight, and Leven. It may not look as glamorous but I bet they’d still be doing what they do.
“I try to be an athlete first and influencer, in the contemporary definition, second,” Leven explains. “One objective in my career, and thus in my social media, is to create a symbiotic and nearly synonymous relationship between the brands I partner with and my own brand. When people think ‘Brody Leven’ I want them to think ‘Salomon,’ and vice versa. If used properly, social media can help facilitate that.”
Photo by Zach Dischner