How influential are Olympic athletes on Twitter?


When Olympic snowboarder Shaun White tweets about KRAVE jerky or U.S. swimmer Katie Ledecky talks about swimwear brand TYR on Twitter, people listen.

It’s no secret that brands seek to partner with social media influencers who have large numbers of followers and positive back stories. And who else is featured on the world stage leading up to, during, and following the 16-day giant cultural event known as the Olympics than the athletes themselves?

But consumers in 2022 are smart. They know that when celebrities are paid to tweet on behalf of a brand, that endorsement may lack authenticity, which in turn, decreases the effectiveness of a sponsorship.

One researcher from The University of Akron—Alexa K. Fox, Ph.D., assistant professor of marketing—along with Marla B. Royne Stafford, Ph.D., William F. Harrah Distinguished Chair and Professor from The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, recently studied how tweets by Olympians influence consumer response. Their results were published in The Journal of Current Issues & Research in Advertising.

To avoid the bias of asking a specific group of people about a specific tweet or a particular athlete, Fox and Stafford collected 27,000 tweets sent out by medal-winning Olympians who represented the United States during the 2016 Summer games. The pair then analyzed the tweets using a computer program called Linguistic Inquiry Word Count, or LIWC.

The program resembles a giant dictionary that can classify texts like tweets into categories based on beliefs, emotions and other concepts.  Fox and Stafford also collected the retweets of Olympic athletes by ordinary consumers in a random sample of ordinary Twitter users during that same time period.

To start, they found that the language in Olympians’ sponsored tweets was less authentic but had more clout than tweets by ordinary consumers.

In addition, the Olympians’ sponsored tweets were counted as less authentic but more influential than when tweets were not sponsored by a brand.

As you might expect, Olympians’ tweets judged as high in clout were more likely to be retweeted by consumers. Tweets with low authenticity were less likely to be retweeted.

The relationship between clout and authenticity became more interesting when Fox and Stafford sorted the Olympic athletes by type of medal.

For Bronze winners, the clout of winning an Olympic medal was not enough to overcome the lack of authenticity in a brand-sponsored tweet. These athletes were also less likely to be retweeted.

For Silver and Gold medalists, the lack of authenticity was overshadowed by their clout—and more likely to be retweeted.

So, what’s the implication of this study? Fox and Stafford suggest that brands should sponsor the best athlete in a sport and instead of a brand writing a typical marketing message, let the Olympian tweet in his or her natural authentic language—and then hope that the Olympian finishes first or second!

Media contact: Cristine Boyd, 330-972-6476 or