4 Lessons We Learned Being Muhammad Ali on Social Media

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One of the more interesting clients we've enjoyed working with is the Muhammad Ali Center. For two years one of the services, among many, we provided was social media management. One account in particular was the Muhammad Ali Facebook page which is managed by the Ali Center and now has over 10 million likes. It even received verified status over the other Muhammad Ali pages managed by other corporations with rights to the name.

When we first took over, the Muhammad Ali page had 973,424 likes. In the first year, 2012, we added 453,281 likes. In 2013, our strategy added 1,862,133 more likes. As you can see, there was an exponential jump in our second year. And, in our second year, the acquisition cost per like dramatically fell. (You can read our case study here.) Every year after, the momentum grew to the 10 million likes today. This is because we learned, and eventually taught the Muhammad Ali Center, some critical lessons along the way. Here are our top four.

Lesson 1: Celebrity Status Does Not Mean Instant Success on Social Media

To be upfront, we were initially perplexed as to why a global icon like Muhammad Ali, did not have more likes on Facebook. In fact, a fan page had more likes than the official one of the Ali Center. And many might think that it would be easy managing a celebrity's social media. It's not. The expectations are higher because people assume automatic success is possible. In fact, it just made everything more complicated because of those expectations, commercialization and other legal details involved with the Muhammad Ali name. We had an entire board to report to. Not to mention the Ali family. And unfortunately, because of the celebrity exposure, many so-called social media experts had opinions and promises trying to win that particular piece of business. We learned some good lessons, some of them the hard way.

Celebrity status is an asset just like any other resource. It has to be stewarded carefully or else it can be squandered, again, just like any other resource. We became trustees of the Muhammad Ali name. A responsibility we took very seriously.

Lesson 2: Fans Expect to Engage the Person, Not the Brand

The truth is, nobody actually expects the current Muhammad Ali, who is bravely fighting Parkinson's, to manage his own social media. That doesn't mean they don't expect things to be personal. They are fans because they want to relate to the person and not the brand. Yes, users of social media understand and accept a certain amount of brand marketing when following a celebrity. That doesn't mean you can take that for granted.

The biggest mistake we saw others commit, when trying to monetize the Muhammad Ali brand, was they didn't make it personal. It's called social media for a reason. You cannot be social with a brand. But the person behind the brand is a whole other story. That's one of the reasons why, when a celebrity manages their own social media, such as Twitter rants by Kanye West, they attract such huge followings.

Regardless of the fact that fans knew there was someone managing the Muhammad ALi Facebook page, we made sure you speak to current events and trending topics and inserting Muhammad Ali's voice into the social conversation. For example, the 2012 Olympic Games and celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela after his passing gained us huge amounts of social authority. We didn't use these events just to get attention. We actually participated in a relevant way that was true to the heart of the fans.

We also spent a lot of time liking people's comments. Not just any comment, but comments from "influences," individuals we knew would appreciate it and continue to share our content. We spent a lot of time encouraging up-and-coming celebrities and athletes that shared how Muhammad Ali inspired them. This was a lot of work because some posts would gain over 100k likes and comments. But the payoff long term was invaluable because there is a certain level of magic when you saw a notification that Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest boxers of all time, whether it was really him or not, liked your comment on Facebook.

Lesson 3: When Fans Own the Brand, Don't Fight It, Go With It

Of the more interesting observations we made was that the initial team managing Muhammad Ali's Facebook page didn't really acknowledge why fans love Muhammad Ali. It's not to say there weren't good intentions there. The problem was, the team wanted to focus on Muhammad Ali as a philanthropist, a leader of social responsibility, and not the boxer that fought the Rumble in the Jungle. In actuality, we don't think the people that has managed the social media to date really liked that Muhammad Ali very much at all.

Opinions of Ali's life choices, brash personality, trash-talking, and marriage history aside, the reality is organizations that manage Muhammad Ali's brand don't really own the brand any more. The people own the brand. The passionate fans.

To the passionate fan, the Muhammad Ali they know is the larger-than-life champ yelling, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Rumble young man rumble!" Ali was an entertainer as much as he was a gold medal champion boxer. He did this on purpose. He knew he needed the attention of the masses and media in order to spread the principles behind the philanthropist he is today. But when the Muhammad Ali Center initially tried to reach fans with Ali the philanthropist, there was a lukewarm reaction at best.

This is why we started with a particular voice that the fans expected from Ali as if he were really posting on Facebook. We didn't put words into his mouth. But we stayed true to the source of why he was so famous to begin with. We even coined the phrase "Greatest Facebook Page of All Time." If social media were a thing back in Ali's day, he would have used it to trash-talk and gain media attention. So we went with it. And once we had that engagement, we began to introduce deeper messages and create a funnel that led fans to the Muhammad Ali of today and a visit to the Muhammad Ali center.

Make no mistake, not every fan of Ali the boxer will become a fan of the philanthropist. Nor will everybody care that Ali stood for civil rights and global peace. They don't have to. We don't need everybody to make it all the way through the marketing funnel. This is because the boxing fan will attract other fans for to our strategy. Fathers and coaches will tell the next generation of the "Greatest of All Time." And some of those fans will be the ones who will be receptive to the social message of the Ali Center and make a visit. Ultimately, this is a numbers game. And the more fans in the funnel, the better the numbers, and ROI, will be.

Lesson 4: You Don't Have To Be A Celebrity To Use The Same Principles In Social Media

What we realized through our experience is that the same strategies we used with Muhammad Ali's Facebook page can be used for really any business. The principles are universal. No, we don't expect 10 million likes and global recognition. And the expectations are at the same level. But ROI, whether you are reaching hundreds or millions, is still ROI. You may not be at the scale of a Muhammad Ali. But you can still go ten rounds and win the ROI fight. We've seen it proven with our clients and other companies we follow. You can too.

Let us know if we can help.

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Social MediaEd Kang