I’d be the first to admit that at first I just didn’t get the whole social media thing. After dabbling with MySpace when it initially launched, I never really caught the Facebook bug when everyone else was signing up, put off by hearing about people incessantly posting pictures of what they were eating.
Then, three years ago when my daughter was born, I yielded to the pressure and gave Facebook a whirl - and now I’m a complete convert. Along with everyone else out there I use it to keep in touch with my friends, but now as I get older I use it even more as a tool for news and content tailored to my main loves in life: skateboarding and snowboarding. I’ve been following skateboarding in one way or another for the best part of 30 years and it’s amazing how the tricks and fashions have changed, in large part down to the evolution of the internet and the democratising effect that social media channels have had.
Once upon a time it was hard enough just finding out about what was going on in your own local scene. I used to subscribe to two monthly magazines, and only once did these cover my area. Now at the click of a button or two I can see all the recent events from not only near me, but also around the world - daily, if not hourly.
When growing up my skateboarding fix had to come from paying a visit to a skate shop to buy a magazine or VHS video; it was only then that I could see my favourite skaters, wearing their sponsored clothing and riding their team boards. Now, however, with social media levelling the playing field, the way in which skateboarding is consumed has become decoupled from traditional formats, opening up new possibilities. The potential that these online platforms offer has been capitalised on by what used to be more passive constituent parts of the sport, namely skateboarding brands and skaters themselves - arguably at the expense of traditional publications.
With its 60-second video capacity and focus on imagery, Instagram has now found itself the unlikely home of skateboarding online, and in many ways it provides a similar experience to magazines of old, albeit on a much wider scale and with an accessibility the sport tended not to offer in the past. Here is a closer look into some of the more prominent players in each of the above categories, how they have utilised this new hub of skateboarding and the impact it has had on the industry as a whole.
In the days of predominantly physical media, skate brands would have had to ensure that skaters featured in magazines and videos were wearing and using their gear, while having their products stocked in the shops so that eager enthusiasts like myself could rush down and quite literally buy a piece of the action. Fast forward to present day and the digital space allows brands to not only offer followers a constant stream of free, accessible content but also refine their industry positioning and consumer perception through it, without having to pay for advertisement space in print media or sponsor riders unnecessarily just to maintain connections between themselves and end users.
The king of sports labels, Nike, has a formidable social media audience across its generic brand accounts, but if the online world allows you to do anything, its specialise; by providing skate-specific content across four discrete social accounts, Nike SB has built a firm social media foothold of over 15 million followers of four-wheeled antics since launching in 2002.
The digital space allows brands to not only offer followers a constant stream of free, accessible content but also refine their industry positioning and consumer perception through it
The @nikesb Instagram account curates a feed of daily posts which seamlessly merge both video clips and casual shots of sponsored riders and others wearing their clothing or special collaboration footwear, as well as around 18% directly promotional product placements. To further encourage engagement, they run the #CheckMeSB hashtag which invites amateur skaters the world over to upload footage of themselves and run the chance of being featured in one of the brand’s ‘Tricks of the Month’ features. This essentially creates a part catalogue, part magazine format of their own but tied exclusively to the brand, soft-selling products in an environment which puts the sport first and outright sales conversion second by tying followers into their overall sphere.
Summer enders. #CheckMeSB August Tricks of the Month featuring: @jrodd210, @kyle_flegel, @mistergoodtimes, @gordocampos, @perkur, @popcornsthename, @s3bastio, @flexmontgumeri, @ttylerharriss, @_juniors9, @pabloandreskt, @edinsonazuaje, and @janhirt_. Tag @NikeSB & #CheckMeSB for a chance to be featured in the next Tricks of the Month video.
Ever the rival of Nike, and never one to shy away from reinforcing its status within urban subcultures, Adidas too has its own dedicated skateboarding channels totalling close to five million followers, giving their 30 years of skate wear its own playground. Despite only being able to boast one third of Nike SB’s audience on Instagram it nonetheless uses the platform to similar effect, overtly promoting the aesthetic appeal of its products in and around action shots and clips of sponsored riders wearing their apparel. Compared to Nike, however, their ratio of direct promotion to ‘natural’ Instagram content doubles to over 32%, implying that direct sales provocation is a key element of the channel.
Adidas also organises special events like the Skate Copa Court; pop-up trick competitions on sports courts in cities across the world, showcased and promoted on social media to further cement the brand within the sport’s wider culture, specifically those hyper-engaged online communities.
Overall this is an excellent example of how digital channels can be used to collate multiple strands of a brand’s activity and present it in one coherent package; from limited edition footwear collaborations to real world PR events, the online environment of Adidas Skateboarding invites both existing and potential customers to associate comprehensively with their brand, products and overall aesthetic - much like a curated magazine publication would.
A veritable old-timer, the roots of Vans go back over half a century and the brand is almost as synonymous with skateboarding as half pipes, ramps and rails in the California sun. Despite starting as a skate shoe-only company, it has since grown into a multi-faceted lifestyle apparel brand with wider product ranges for surfing, BMX and snowboarding.
Similarly to Nike and Adidas, it benefits from millions of followers on its central social media channels, but dedicates separate Instagram and Twitter profiles for the Vans Skate team, garnering a combined audience of nearly two million. Being so deeply embedded in skateboarding culture, the brand can clearly rest on its laurels in terms of having to use social media channels for direct product promotion and subsequently dedicates a modest 15% commercial component to its Instagram feed. This leaves plenty of space to explore and celebrate all forms of the skating world and put riders centre stage, not least its own Vans Park Series world tour, a global park skating competition which further deepens the brand’s implicit association with the sport.
As with Adidas, these brand building techniques are tried and tested, but in the context of social media are combined with entertaining content and product promotion into one coherent experience which would otherwise only be consumable in disparate threads.
Summary: by connecting themselves more closely to the action, brands are able to weave their products into the wider skateboarding world in a relatively natural manner, softening the advertorial edges of their online presence and potentially encouraging aspirational purchasing as a result. However, the lack of personality common to a corporate entity means that overall content engagement with followers barely rises above 5%, so looking for ways to inject more individuality into their personas may help to drive a deeper interaction with fans and followers.
If one thing the power of social media has done to disrupt the hierarchy of skateboarding as an industry, it’s the empowerment of skateboarders themselves - both professional and amateur - to curate their own audiences, develop unique content and, pivotally, build their own brand persona.
With traditional media, the vast majority of a skateboarder’s publicity would have been partly in the hands of the clothing and equipment companies sponsoring them and partly down to the editorial preferences of the principle skating magazines and video publishers - the gatekeepers to the sport. Now, skateboarders and collectives are harnessing potential direct audiences of millions, bypassing the previously entrenched routes to recognition and popularity and creating channels which directly engage, entertain and satisfy the insatiable digital appetites of their fans, and Generation Z’s wider skating fraternity.
Skateboarders and collectives are harnessing potential direct audiences of millions, bypassing the previously entrenched routes to recognition and popularity
Skateboarding’s current golden boy is undoubtedly Nyjah Huston who, after taking the scene by storm in the mid-2000s as a ten year-old child prodigy, went on to win numerous street skating championships and secure himself some of the most lucrative sponsorships and endorsements in the business. Such is his attraction as a skateboarder that his Instagram following of almost three million followers is in fact larger than some of his sponsors themselves, with his lifestyle orientated feed moving away from his central vocation and instead giving his audience a regular glimpse into the world of a wealthy, famous and talented young man at the pinnacle of the sport.
The fact that most of his video content consistently receives around 500k views (almost 25% of his audience) shows the level of baseline interaction his fans commit and the magnetism of his brand persona. To further illustrate, Vans upload more than twice the volume of video content to their Instagram profile but enjoy less than a fifth of the engagement that Houston commands.
The concept of skater-as-brand is no more evident than in the fact that promotional angles of Houston’s social media activity can be identified in over 40% of his posts, from Nike and Monster logos adorning the walls of his private skatepark to the branded clothing he wears ubiquitously. Despite that fact that Adidas, even as the most product-focussed of the big skate brands, is on average 10% less overt than the industry’s primary skater, they still appear to be much more transparently promotional. Houston’s profile certainly seems to take subliminal, brand-in-situ marketing to a new level and surely justifies the presumably sizeable endorsement that his main sponsors shell out.
Paul Rodriguez is a pro skater of over 15 years with his own well-regarded brand of decks and apparel. As a result, he has a significant profile within the sport and an Instagram following of 1.5m, half that of Nyjah Houston but still equivalent to that of Adidas Skateboarding and Vans.
His Instagram account strides the middle ground in terms of video content (40%) and promotional activity (20%), with a healthy video engagement rate of 6.2%, which is at least half as much again as any of the aforementioned brands, suggesting that people may passively follow brands in greater numbers but be much more actively engaged with individuals.
The account promotes product, naturally, but it does so in a balanced way which implies that ‘P-Rod’ recognises skaters of all forms as both his customers and his audience. Alienating them would undoubtedly be damaging to his commercial activity, so he keeps them sufficiently engaged and entertained while ensuring they are always abreast of his product range.
Veteran Daewon Song is one of the legends of the sport and has been a professional for over 25 years, amassing almost a million followers on Instagram. As a member of skateboarding royalty, he is in the unique position of having already proven his credentials and justified the size of his audience. However, in the light speed world of social media he clearly understands the need to consistently offer something fresh and avoid disappearing into obscurity, surpassed by some younger, hungrier, more inventive upstart.
In light of that, the unique aspect of his Instagram account is that he exclusively posts video clips of himself skating, often experimenting with novel tricks, locations and camera work. Rolling over cars, diving under shutters and dunking basketballs all feature in content that combined his technical prowess with off-the-wall creativity.
In terms of Instagram feed composition, his video engagement rate of 25% is easily the highest of any of the accounts studied for this article, although it should be noted that with all of his posts comprising video clips, this figure will be artificially high. However, the main noteworthy point is that a full three quarters of his uploads involve tagging at least one of his sponsors, principally Adidas Skateboarding who began sponsoring Song in the middle of 2016. This demonstrates that the additional weight carried by his more elaborate video creations is being directly utilised for commercial promotion; the videos exist because of the brands and the brand mentions exist because of the videos in some sort of advertorial skateboarding symbiosis.
Summary: with a channel like Instagram, skateboarders are no longer reliant on magazines and videos to broadcast their talent and personality which, in turn, allows them to directly invite fans and followers into their world in a drastically more intimate way. This immediate connection leads to vastly better engagement rates than standalone brands as people look to share in the life of their idols. That said, product placement on the social media feeds of the professionals can often be significantly higher than brands themselves, and the phenomenon of skater-as-brand has developed to the extent whereby in some cases the vast majority of posts are in some way or another promotional, either by touting sponsors’ products or pushing self-owned commercial ventures.
The danger of this is the potential to alienate an audience that has grown up consuming a skater’s content, should it eventually grasp the extent to which its passion for prominent individuals in the sport is in essence being manipulated for promotional purposes. As a result, pro skaters would be wise to not overuse social media for commercial ends and make sure to regularly reinforce the reasons for which their fans follow them in the first place: talent and personality.
One of the most recognisable entities (and indeed logos) in skateboarding belongs to Thrasher magazine, established in 1981 and by the late 1990s selling over 150,000 copies per month, read by a total of 1.5 million people. Despite the decline of many print formats as increasingly more publications chose to base their content online, Thrasher has not only maintained its status in the digital sphere but indeed strengthened it. A readership of 1.5 million in the 1990s seems tame in comparison to the more than seven million people who follow its Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube accounts combined (half of which can be attributed to Instagram, further demonstrating how the channel has become a focal point for skateboarding online).
Thrasher has clearly been able to make the transition to online content a successful one and has maintained a traditional position, holding the middle ground of the sport between brands, skaters and the audience. Only a few percent of its posts take the form of still images, and this video focus results in a healthy 9% viewing rate; not quite the remarkable figures of top skaters, but more than double that of the leading brands. Speaking of brands, the fact that precisely 50% of Thrasher’s posts contain some form of promotion or mention and the other 50% just good old fashioned skateboarding is another example of how the magazine occupies a central standpoint - one not dissimilar to how they would have looked in a magazine format.
Transworld Skateboarding is another long-standing magazine that has successfully shifted from print to digital; established in 1983 as a more accessible alternative to Thrasher which often courted controversy with its ‘Skate and Destroy’ mantra. While it can only boast less than half of the Instagram followers of its competitor (1.2m), its similar approach to video content, which constitutes three quarters of all posts, results in an equally as healthy engagement rate of 8%, sitting somewhere between the highly proactive followers of individual skaters and the passive nature of those who choose to let brands feature in their feeds. Interestingly this is all achieved with only half the rate of promotional mentions, suggesting Transworld can boast slightly more integrity than its long-standing counterpart.
Aside from the longer-standing, ‘household’ skate magazines is a newer crop of publications focussed on taking it back to the origins, combining online presence with a high quality, good old fashioned printed magazine available in specialist outlets, skate shops and the like. Grey and Free are two such examples which demonstrate how there is still space in the modern era for physical media and that it can indeed set you apart.
Social media has levelled the playing field, and the way in which skateboarding is consumed has become decoupled from traditional formats, opening up new possibilities
Both outfits can only boast relatively modest followings on Instagram, in the tens rather than hundreds of thousands, but the intriguing fact is that their video engagement rates of 15% and 25% respectively match those of the biggest stars in the sport, while only needing to mention skateboarding brands and products slightly less than even the softly-softly approach of labels Nike and Vans. This would suggest that the newer breed of print magazines are not out for commercial gain but created for the purists, by the purists. They certainly sport a loyalty of following that the much bigger brands would surely strive for.
Summary: with all that said, print and print advertising still has a massive part to play and over recent years with competition from free online content and a growth in independent free magazines, paid-for print publications have had to up their game, which can only be a good thing. Magazines often now have a lot more thought put into their final visual appearance, with paper stocks being considered to a greater extent, and the use of special finishing such as spot UV and laminates - both outside and in - can help to create a beautiful product, if used well. With piles of magazines going back over 25 years, I admit I’m a bit of a hoarder, but I for one would never want this art-form to die out.
It’s clear that platforms such as Instagram have contributed to the re-shaping of the traditional marketing dynamics within skateboarding, disrupting established hierarchies and offering new opportunities where there previously were none. Brands have become content creators, skaters have turned into business entrepreneurs and the newer range of humble magazines have stripped away the noise to focus on what, ultimately, it’s all about: ripping it up on the concrete.
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