Pittsburgh Steelers rookie wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster wasn't expected to be relied upon so early in his career, but he has showed up on the field, consistently catching a few passes from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger per game. Last week he scored a touchdown and and he is expected to have an even larger role this week with wide receiver Martavis Bryant on the sidelines.
But Smith-Schuster is not only surprising fans with his on-field play. He is also quickly becoming a sensation off the field due to his social media antics, which includes recently shutting down former porn star Mia Khalifa's overtures on Twitter. I recently spoke with his advisor for all-things-social-media, Karan Gill, who generously provided some insight on what makes Smith-Schuster a special personality.
"The biggest problem with athletes today is they don't necessarily care about social media that much, and marketing professionals and agencies don't put in the time to strategize and guide these athletes on how to navigate it early," explains Gill. "They think there are other things to better spend their time on, mainly recruiting the next batch of clients, but that's a completely separate issue."
However, Smith-Schuster has been extremely active and engaging with his fans on who he is, what he's about, what he likes to do and what he does for fun since he was drafted by the Steelers in the 2nd round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
"Now, all that immediately doesn't necessarily make him significantly more marketable than other athletes who don't do it as much or at all," admits Gill. "In May or June, he probably didn't have many more opportunities than John Ross or Mike Williams, two high-profile, top-10 picks who came from big universities. But, look at how it's all changed over time for JuJu. It's a gradual process, something other marketers and agencies aren't patient enough to focus on, and don't see the value in right now."
It took Gill and Smith-Schuster roughly 2 years of working together to build the phenomenon he is today.
"When at USC, since I worked with the team, we would meet up in position rooms, or in hotels during the season, and talk about what we should do for the week," says Gill. "JuJu has an incredible, fun personality. He wore a Minions backpack around USC for class and to be different. So with my knowledge of the social media space in terms of what gets significant traction among fans, we are a perfect fit."
Gill and Smith-Schuster are constantly texting, calling each other or FaceTiming to strategize ideas on what to put out on social media. Gill will shoot Smith-Schuster all the content he needs to make it simple for the wide-out to post quality content on a consistent basis. Because Gill has a graphic design background, he can help create the content.
"I am a huge believer in the maintenance and consistency of social media," adds Gill. "Fans are thirsting for authenticity from athletes. In today's day and age of media coverage, athletes are so hesitant to show what they truly are like. Athletes and personalities that do, Marshawn Lynch, Lavar Ball, Odell Beckham Jr., have incredible social followings, brand recognition and can convert their audiences into selling product better than those who do not. What JuJu has done these past four-five days goes so far beyond him losing his bike and celebrating on Sunday's."
Now, everyone is talking about that missing bike or #TeamStartJuJu. His social media following has jumped from roughly 300,000 total followers to over 435,000 in only 3 days, with nothing incredible occurring on the field of play.
"So many athletes think a picture is cool, so they'll post it. But what they, along with most marketing professionals and agents, don't understand is that it's not so much what pictures does the player like, but what will fans like, and what builds his brand and marketability," says Gill. "How many fans really want to see a picture every week about a player's girlfriend or wife? An athlete may love his partner to the moon and back. While seeing the personal life of a player is important for brand development, it loses value quickly."
Instead, Smith-Schuster and Gill have focused on giving followers a glimpse into what Smith-Schuster does to have fun, and Gill's main role is to convert that fun and unique personality into making sure Smith-Schuster is building his brand and profile. The duo is off to a very strong start in Smith-Schuster's rookie season.