Shaquille O’Neal’s All-Star Twitter Coach
Amy Jo Martin makes men—grown men, tough men, professional athlete men—do incredibly stupid things. She got Shaquille O’Neal to pose as a living statue for an hour in Harvard Square while fans took photos. She got UFC President Dana White to tweet his cell-phone number so fans could talk to him about an upcoming fight. She got golfer Bubba Watson to post a video of himself hitting a ball from inside his house, over his pool, and into a bucket before jumping in the water fully clothed—just to persuade Ellen DeGeneres to book him on her show. It’s less like she’s a public relations professional than a fraternity recruitment officer.
Martin, 32, is the kind of person male athletes listen to. She’s energetic, pretty, and self-assured; the two least surprising things about her are that she was a cheerleader in high school and went to Arizona State. For a person who seems to be online constantly, she’s out a lot; she’s already visited more than 80 cities this year, often to attend events with clients and point out stuff they should tweet. That’s her job: professional Twitter coach. As frivolous as that sounds, there is a real, urgent, and high-paying demand for her services. It turns out athletes need a lot more help with their writing than they do hitting golf balls and making free throws.
Sitting on the balcony at the Los Angeles outpost of Bouchon, barely touching her food, Martin is trying not to check her phone too often. But some tweets need tweeting back right now. Before the main course comes, she reaches into her purse to pull out a tiny wireless charger to resuscitate her iPhone. I am pretty sure she tweets about that.
Her company, Digital Royalty, has come up with social networking strategies for clients such as the Chicago White Sox, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Nike, Fox Sports, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and her original star client, Shaquille O’Neal. The UFC puts their fighters through five days of Martin’s social media training each year and has a bonus pool of $240,000 for fighters who tweet well.
At one point, in October of last year, 9 of the 10 trending topics on Twitter were related to her clients. The two-year-old company does in the “mid-seven figures” in annual billings, which are up 525 percent in 2011. Martin has done so well with teams and athletes that Digital Royalty picked up companies such as DoubleTree and Discount Tire Centers; non-sport clients now make up 70 percent of the business. She employs 15 people (mostly young, mostly women, mostly pretty) and is looking to hire at least five more. She’s moving all of them, the fleet of Digital Royalty-branded bikes, and the company’s CDO (“chief dog officer”) from Phoenix to Santa Monica, Calif. “I grew up in small-town Wyoming, so I’m not exactly the glittering Hollywood type,” Martin says in a way that sounds very glittering Hollywood type. “However, the networks, talent agencies, studios, and big brand opportunities are all in L.A.”
Six years ago, Martin had a public-relations job with the Phoenix Suns. She started doing a lot of online promotion for the team without being asked. She also wasn’t asked to call herself the Director of Digital Media. “I didn’t ask permission. Instead, I asked forgiveness.” She went on Twitter as@PhoenixSunsGirl and got a few thousand followers—and there weren’t that many more on Twitter back then—by tweeting about the team. Incessantly. “I would stay up all night and reply to every fan. I knew advertisers would find value, and I wanted to prove it internally,” she says. She quickly got 25 Suns employees, one of whom was the team mascot, on Twitter. (Sample tweet from @SunsGorilla: “What’s better than a photo of me? A photo of me with hundreds of bananas!”)
In 2008, Shaquille O’Neal, at the time the Suns’ center, asked to see her in the locker room. O’Neal recalls that “a guy wrote a nasty article about me. I asked him why he wrote the nasty article, and he said it was because of what I said on Twitter. I said, ‘What the hell is Twitter?’” Martin explained that someone had created a fake Twitter identity for O’Neal, and that the best way to fix the problem would be for him to set up his own account and write his own messages. “He was Mr. Christopher Columbus. There weren’t any other celebrities on Twitter besides Barack Obama and Lance Armstrong,” Martin says. “We were humanizing his brand. Everybody knows Shaq, but nobody knew Shaquille.”
O’Neal, as luck would have it, is up for anything. He became Martin’s guinea pig for every gimmicky idea she’d ever had. She invented Random Acts of Shaqness, in which she got the 7-foot-1, 325-pound center to use Twitter to interact with fans in the non-virtual world, thus making him surreally real. At Martin’s behest, he played a game of “you’re twit” where he sent out a tweet announcing that fans who touched him at the Fashion Square Mall in Scottsdale, Ariz., got free tickets to that night’s game. (Shaq ended the game after about 30 people showed up.) Future games gathered hundreds. He told fans where he was eating, or hid stuff for them to find in games he called Hide And Tweets. Each of these stunts got coverage not only on Twitter, but in traditional media, too. “We’re like the old Kobe and Shaq of the social media network. She’s the point guard, I’m the center,” Shaq says. “She gets it to me, and I do what I do.”
Sometimes the partnership means taking the ball away from him, especially when he wrote back to fans while he was still in the NBA. “He’d be in some random city, up until 3 a.m. responding to tweeters. He’d nap before the game,” says Martin. “He’d say, ‘Did you see what so and so said? I’m going to say this.’ I’d say, ‘No. You’re not.’ ” Which O’Neal appreciated. “Amy Jo always has my back,” he says. “If I do something wrong, she calls me within five minutes.”
Martin eventually left the Suns to start her own company and took O’Neal along as a client. Her work with O’Neal was so successful—he has more than 4.4 million Twitter followers, the 32nd most on the site and more than any athlete besides Brazilian soccer star Kaká—that advertisers asked to sponsor his tweets.
Digital Royalty charges companies a monthly retainer fee and also takes a cut of social media endorsement deals it gets for clients—all of whom it’s connected with through referrals. Because of the fear that labor negotiations will cancel the NBA season, Martin is being approached by more NBA players than ever before. They’re worried that their endorsement deals will fade away if they’re off the radar for too long.
If ESPN’s goal was to turn sports into entertainment, then Martin’s is to turn it into a constant chatter—a sports radio call-in station piped into our smartphones.
When Shaq retired earlier this year, she persuaded him to skip the press conference and announce it in a video he posted on Twitter through an app called Tout. “For the last 50 years you’d announce your retirement to the media, and the media members want to get the exclusive. If you look at all the followers that Amy Jo Martin and I have, that’s nearly 6 million,” O’Neal says. “My fans were the first to hear I was retiring. They could look at my face and tell if I’m really sincere or not. We built our own network. Bam.”