What Colin Kaepernick Can Teach Content Marketers About Building an Online Audience

July 12, 2020 by
Colin Kaepernick and Ed Reid kneel during the playing of the U.S. National Anthem before an NFL game in 2016. Kaepernick's persistent protests have built him a huge online audience.
Colin Kaepernick and Ed Reid kneel during the playing of the U.S. National Anthem before an NFL game in 2016. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Colin Kaepernick had seen enough.

That is to say, he had seen too much.

It was August 2016. America was reeling from the recent deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Korryn Gaines, and other black Americans killed by police—their deaths captured on eyewitness videos. Black Lives Matter street demonstrations had been protesting similar killings almost continuously for more than two years.

That month, Kaepernick—the star quarterback of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers—began a silent protest during the playing of the U.S. National Anthem before his team's games.

Kaepernick persisted in his protests throughout the 2016 season… at great personal cost.

When he opted for free agency at the end of the year, no NFL team was willing to offer him a new contract. By the following September, he found himself reviled by America’s Republican presidential candidate and conservative media.

Learning from an activist athlete about building an online audience

Today, new Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd have expanded into a worldwide social justice and anti-racism movement. Colin Kaepernick is suddenly in the news again.

The prevailing attitude, however, has changed. The NFL has issued an apology to its players for not listening to their concerns over social justice. Current and former NFL players and coaches, league officials, and journalists are calling for some NFL team to offer Kaepernick a new contract.

What has not changed is Kaepernick’s activism. He has persisted in standing up for his beliefs. In the process, he has built a huge online audience for his cause.

Regardless of how you may feel about his actions, I believe there are three valuable lessons content marketers can learn from Kaepernick about building an online audience.

Lesson #1: Stand up (or kneel) for what you believe in

In August 2016, Colin Kaepernick sat for the playing of the National Anthem at his team’s first three preseason games. His actions went unnoticed for more than two weeks before he was questioned.

Kaepernick had been in street clothes for the first two of those games; he was recovering from shoulder surgery and injuries to his knee and thumb. In uniform to play against Green Bay on August 26th, he was photographed sitting on the bench behind his teammates during the anthem. The press finally took notice when the photo was tweeted after the game.

During a post-game interview, Kaepernick explained his action. “I am not going to get up to show pride in a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said. “I am not protesting the anthem or the nation, I'm protesting organized brutality. To me, this is much bigger than football, and it would be selfish to look the other way.

“There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder,” Kaepernick said, referencing several deaths caused by U.S. law enforcement. He added that he would continue to protest until he felt the American flag "represents what it's supposed to represent."

Following that interview, Kaepernick backed up his words with his wallet. He pledged to donate the first $1 million of his $11.9 million 2016-2017 salary to organizations that help communities in need.

Be clear about what it is you stand for

At the start of the 49ers fourth and final preseason game on September 1st, Kaepernick and teammate Eric Reid knelt during the anthem.

After the game, Kaepernick and Reid stated their aim was to call attention to racial inequality and police brutality in America.

“After hours of careful consideration, and even a visit from Nate Boyer, a retired Green Beret and former NFL player, we came to the conclusion that we should kneel, rather than sit... during the anthem, as a peaceful protest,” said Reid. Boyer had advised Kaepernick and Reid that taking a knee would be more respectful than sitting. “We chose to kneel because it's a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”

Know that not everyone is going to see things your way

During the 2016 NFL regular season, several other NFL players joined Kaepernick in protest, most of them taking a knee during the Anthem.

Kaepernick's actions, however, were not universally supported by the NFL or its fans.

NFL viewership tumbled 8% in 2016. A survey by J. D. Power found the number one reason fans tuned in less often to NFL games that year was the players’ anthem protests.

The following offseason, NFL teams ignored Kaepernick in the free-agent market—even though he led his teams to two conference finals and a Super Bowl. At 29 years of age, Kaepernick was in the prime of his career.

Stay true to what you believe… and build your online audience

Yet, in spite of losing his primary income, Kaepernick persisted in his activism. He continued to speak out on issues of racism and social justice. He remained active in minority community support projects. He donated to Meals on Wheels, United We Dream, Black Veterans for Social Justice, and several other non-profit organizations.

In 2018, Nike released an ad featuring Kaepernick with the text, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” That ad won an Emmy for Best Commercial of 2018.

Support from sponsors— such as this Emmy-winning advertisement from Nike—has helped Kaepernick in building an online audience of millions.

Kaepernick has organized Know Your Rights camps for young people of color. In April 2020, the Know Your Rights Camp launched a relief fund for individuals impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Kaepernick donated $100,000 to the fund.

In just four years, through his ongoing activism and community involvement, Kaepernick has built an enormous online audience. He currently has well over 1.3 million followers on Facebook and more than 2.3 million on Twitter.

Take a stand

The lesson for marketers here is this: don’t be afraid to take a stand.

Building an online audience requires broadcasting a message that people can identify with and getting it to the people who can identify with it. You're trying to attract disciples.

So, position your brand as an evangelist for what you believe in. Get your message out there. Put it in content that is engaging and useful to your target audience.

Maybe your message is about superior performance. Maybe it's about lower total cost of ownership. Whatever it is, make it shine through in your content. Let your audience know what you stand for.

Finally, don't be afraid of alienating a few people. Those people are not your audience. They’re not your prospects. As Brian Clark, founder of Copyblogger puts it, “The point is to bond strongly with someone rather than boring everyone.”

Share your beliefs with those who can identify with them. Preach them loud and long. Preach them in different ways, in different types of content. That’s how you build belief and trust. That’s how you build an audience. It’s a strategy that has worked extremely well for Colin Kaepernick.

Lesson #2: Don't let opponents redefine your message

In September of 2017, at a rally in Huntsville, Alabama, U.S. President Donald Trump said NFL owners should fire players who kneel during the national anthem. He called the players' protest "a total disrespect of our heritage," and encouraged fans to walk out of games. “This has to do with respect for our country and respect for our flag,” he said.

Of course, President Trump has a huge audience of his own, one that’s far different from Kaepernick’s. Thanks to his office, his media attention and access are far greater. His message resonated with his support base. It was repeated and amplified by scores of conservative media outlets, pundits, and political allies.

Most of that week’s NFL games were played two days after Trump made his statements. That Sunday, over 200 players sat or knelt during the anthem. Many players, coaches and NFL teams protested or issued statements expressing dismay with Trump's comments.

Yet Kaepernick's message was drowned out by the President's.

Learning from a Kaepernick misstep

Here's where we can learn from one of Kaepernick's mistakes.

Kaepernick has said on numerous occasions that his sole purpose in kneeling during the national anthem is not to disrespect military personnel. His stated goal was to use his social platform to bring to light topics regarding police brutality and the oppression of people of color.

He expressed his concerns about how his actions have been labeled as "anthem protest," which he considers a diversionary tactic. But he did so primarily in response to media queries. Kaepernick and his allies were weak in defending their message. They relied on others (the press) to get the word out.

Kaepernick is building an online audience on Facebook that now numbers over 1.375 million followers.

As a result, Kaepernick’s response to Trump’s attacks got lost in the noise, overwhelmed in the media by the conservative backlash. Trump effectively redefined Kaepernick’s message—in the minds of many—as one of disrespect.

The best defense is a strong offense

I believe Kaepernick could have achieved a different result if had counterattacked—if he had gotten his message out in a more meaningful and memorable way.

For example, he might have challenged the veracity of Trump's accusations in an open letter to the American People. He might have published that letter in a major news magazine and publicized it through his social media channels.

An excerpt of that letter might have read something like this:

Since when has kneeling become a sign of disrespect?

When a peer of the realm kneels before his sovereign… When a Catholic cardinal kneels before the pope and kisses his ring... Are those gestures of disrespect?

What of the kneelers built into altar railings and the backs of pews in so many Christian churches? Does the Church put them there to facilitate disrespect? Does kneeling in prayer now disrespect God?

Of course not.

Throughout history, kneeling has been a sign of respect, reverence, submission, and even supplication. One would be hard-pressed to think of a single example of kneeling being used as a sign of disrespect.* The President and his allies have attempted to spin our protest into something it is not, simply to draw attention away from the true issue at hand.

We choose to kneel during the National Anthem not as an act of disrespect but as an act of peaceful nonconformity. We want to call attention to a situation of widespread injustice in America that must be addressed. We consulted with a former U.S. Army green beret who suggested kneeling during the Anthem would be more respectful to our veterans and active military personnel than sitting.

Our act of kneeling during the National Anthem is one of supplication. The United States flag is a symbol of the ideals of our country—a country dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal, a country of liberty and justice for all.

We are imploring our country to live up to those ideals which all Americans hold dear.

* NB: This letter would have been published in 2017, three years before a Minneapolis police officer knelt on George Floyd's neck.

Counterattacking with content

Luckily for us, as B2B marketers, we don't normally have to contend with an opponent as formidable as one side or the other of the American political machine. But we will occasionally have to defend our message from our competitors' attempts to redefine or diminish it. One of the oldest tricks in sales and copywriting is to sow fear in the prospect’s mind by casting doubt on a competitors’ claims.

So, we need to be proactive in defending our beliefs. We can do so with another time-tested sales and copywriting technique: addressing all our prospects' possible objections.

Yes, we normally do that as a matter of course. We do that throughout our marketing materials. But if our competitors attack our message, we need to be more aggressive.

We need to address those attacks with dedicated content. We must get the word out through our social media channels. If we don't, we risk having our voices drowned out by our opponents, just as Kaepernick's was by President Trump and the conservative media.

Lesson #3: Be consistent and persistent

In October 2017, Kaepernick filed a grievance against the NFL. He claimed NFL owners colluded against him to deny him employment. Some sports news outlets confirmed that team owners did fear a loss of revenue from reduced ticket sales and TV viewership. NFL policy changes in response to the player’s protests reflected that fear.

As of this writing, Kaepernick has yet to be offered a new contract by any of the NFL’s 32 teams. Yet he continues his activism, remains in the public eye, and maintains his huge audience.

Renewed protests and the resurgence of Colin Kaepernick

The killing of George Floyd by three Minneapolis police officers in May sparked new, more intense protests against racism and police brutality across America. Those protests have now spread around the world. Suddenly, Kaepernick is being viewed in a different light.

Kaepernick is building an audience on Twitter that now numbers 2.3 million followers.

In June, a group of prominent NFL stars led by New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas released a video titled What if I was George Floyd? in which they demanded that the NFL “condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people… admit wrong in silencing [its] players from peacefully protesting,” and that they “believe Black lives matter.”

Shortly thereafter, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell put out a statement where he apologized for not listening to the concerns of African-American players. That statement was widely criticized, however. The New York Times wrote that Goodell's “words were panned as hypocritical because of the league owners’ rejection of Kaepernick.”

The NFL has now pledged $250 million to help fight systemic racism, and Kaepernick is being recognized by many for drawing attention to the matter. He has launched his own publishing house—Kaepernick Publishing—through which he will soon release a memoir. And Netflix recently announced acclaimed director Ava DuVernay will helm a limited series about the Kaepernick, in which the activist athlete is slated to appear.

Michael Rosenberg of Sports Illustrated wrote, "Mainstream white America is going to reconsider Kaepernick at some point — the way it reconsidered Muhammad Ali years after he refused to go to Vietnam, the way it reconsidered Jackie Robinson and Jack Johnson… Progress comes in fits and starts, and this country tends to punish those who urge it to move faster. The reconsideration of Kaepernick has begun.”

Stick to your guns

The lesson here is simple, but one that requires courage: Hang in there! Building an online audience takes patience and perseverance.

Be persistent and consistent in your beliefs and your message. Your audience will only continue to believe in you and trust you if you stay true to your beliefs and stand up for them.

Remember, if you really believe in what you are doing—if what you are doing is good for your customers—and you continue to broadcast your beliefs consistently, time is on your side.

Eventually, more and more people will come to believe in you and trust you. You’ll audience will grow, as Kaepernick’s has. You’ll expand your customer base, increase customer loyalty, and build a stronger brand.

Takeaway Points

  1. Building an online audience for your content requires that you take a stand and be an evangelist for your beliefs.
  2. To maintain that audience, you need to aggressively defend your message from competitors' counterclaims and any attempts to distort the meaning of your message.
  3. If you are consistent and persistent in broadcasting your beliefs, more and more prospects will join your audience, believe in you, and learn to trust you.

Next Steps

Need help developing effective content that draws an audience and builds belief in your message and offerings? Contact CopyEngineer at info@copyengineer.com.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.