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Serving social media or backhanded marketing?

By Gary Morley, CNN
  • Social media has provided a new way for celebrities to interact with their fans
  • Maria Sharapova is hoping to combine her interaction with her business interests
  • Russian tennis star is the most-followed female athlete on Facebook
  • Other sporting heroes use social platforms such as Twitter in a more informal way

(CNN) -- The power of social media, with the global rise and mass usage of web sites such as Twitter and Facebook, has long since been the driving force reshaping the landscape of interactive communication.

The ability to speak directly to another individual on the other side of the planet -- regardless of their celebrity, status or position of power -- is an attractive feature of such platforms and one that has seen sport fans and sport stars alike sign up in their droves.

According to the official statistics of both companies mentioned above, around 250 million people use these sites on a daily basis; so it's also no wonder that many businesses and industries have also been attracted by what could be a lucrative new market.

The Internet has given sports stars a whole new way of interacting with their fans but, as sports marketing develops into the digital realm, is it increasingly being used to boost their income as well?

Maria Sharapova on her Internet plans

One sports star who has embraced social media more than most is tennis glamour girl Maria Sharapova, the world's highest-paid female athlete for the past several years and now the most followed of her gender on Facebook with more than four million "likes."

The Russian has relaunched her multimedia empire with a revamped website, using Facebook as a teaser that keeps fans updated with her latest activities on and off the court, giving them the chance to directly buy products she endorses.

"I started realizing how important social media was about two years ago when you started seeing so much happening online, with Facebook coming around," she told CNN.

"I launched my first website in 2008 and when I [thought] how important the Internet and social media was, I started gathering around my team and I said, 'I think it's so important to be able to incorporate all the things that the fans want to see, whether it's when they go on your Facebook or on your website, to have it all together.' "

My fans don't like to see too much advertising on my Facebook, that's why it's more of a teaser
--Maria Sharapova

Sharapova's Facebook following has doubled in the past two years to more than that of her peers Venus and Serena Williams, Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki combined, despite her lengthy playing absences due to injury problems.

But celebrities have to be careful not to overstep the line of over-commercialization when they interact with their fans, according to Drew Barrand of business analysts Sport Industry Group.

"Social media opens up a whole new window for people to have that one-on-one engagement with their fans. Sports fans are interested in the personalities of sports stars and like to have aspirational heroes," Barrand told CNN.

"A lot of the people who are driving the strategies on behalf of their clients are looking at social media and thinking, 'We can really increase the fan base of our player.' And obviously players have that same viewpoint.

What social media has done has done is uniquely change the relationship between the fan and the player
--Sport Industry Group's Drew Barrand

"Particularly with Twitter, if you're not providing that unique insight into your daily life, having the agent on there pretending to be the star, you're soon going to see through that as a fan."

Sharapova agrees, and insists she tries to make the experience as personal as possible.

"Publicity-wise, my fans don't like to see too much advertising on my Facebook, that's why it's more of a teaser -- I tell them about what I'm doing, I log in on my phone and I report to them where I'm traveling from, my ideas and thoughts, I also tell them about my shoots that I have coming up," she said.

"I give them photos, and if they want to see more they click on that and go to my website. Interacting with my fans is so important. I have a lot of them and I'm very thankful for that, and I really want them to have accessibility because I think they're important."

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Tennis stars, in particular, have a massive presence on the Internet.

Top men's players Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer both have more than six million followers on Facebook -- though still well short of footballer Cristiano Ronaldo's 23 million-plus -- and their web sites are an important tool in highlighting their charity work for example.

Some athletes are more informal in the way they use social media. For golfers such as Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood, it's very much a fun platform with which they communicate with fans and fellow celebrities -- the English duo both playfully taunted Tiger Woods when he joined Twitter, to a deafening silence from the American.

Cricketer Graeme Swann has a similar approach on Twitter, but also used it to promote his video diaries during England's Ashes series against Australia.

"They're not necessarily using it as a marketing tool, but because it's fun and something they like to do -- and they'd be doing it even if they weren't famous," Barrand said.

"It's not as cynical as to say they're doing it as a marketing tool, but once it's set up it does have its advantages. But if they just sat there on Twitter or Facebook saying, 'Buy this product because they sponsor me, everyone would switch off very quickly.' "

It remains to be seen whether social media can be harnessed as a separate revenue source.

"It's in its infancy so no-one has really worked out how to use it from a sponsorship point of view. In terms of gathering support and exposure, it's clearly a very valuable tool. But how do you use that for commercial purposes?" Barrand said.

"The end result might be that you can't, it's simply a way of engaging fans on a unique level and it works that way. It's really early days whether it can be seen in its own right as a commercial revenue stream, and I'm sure that there'll be another social media platform that takes over from Facebook and Twitter.

"But what it has done is uniquely change the relationship between the fan and the player in that it does deliver that one-on-one interaction that all fans seek."