Just a few years ago, social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram were used by athletes mostly for status updates at the spur of the moment, random photos at the gym or loose chats back and forth with close friends. But players like Portland Trail Blazers star point guard Damian Lillard have quickly learned how powerful those platforms can be.
Unlike players now, who have accounts before they reach high school and have massive followings by the time they're making college decisions, Lillard didn't take the plunge and create an account until some nudging from a friend at Weber State, which led to his aptly titled initial @MrWeberState Twitter account.
At the time, building his brand was a distant thought, and he mostly used the account to fire off commentary during live games, tweet out his favorite song lyrics and talk to friends.
"I never really dove into it," Lillard said of his social media use in college, during a recent episode of the Nice Kicks podcast. "I was really just consumed with trying to make it to the league. I never paid attention to it."
That all changed once he turned pro. After being selected sixth overall by the Trail Blazers in the 2012 draft -- deemed a reach by pundits at the time -- Lillard established himself on the court right out the gate, racking up countless awards in his first year. He won co-MVP of the summer league, was named first-team All-Rookie, and went on to win Rookie of the Year, all while leading the league in minutes played. He also won a much less publicized award that the league had quietly added to the mix: Social Media Rookie of the Year.
"When I got to the league, that's when I realized how useful it could be," said Lillard, "as far as growing your brand and allowing people to get to know you as a person."
During his time in the NBA, Lillard has racked up a total of nearly eight million followers across his Instagram, Twitter and Facebook channels. That's far from the most -- LeBron James has a combined 80 million -- but Lillard consistently ranks among the top handful of NBA players in terms of engagement and activity, an ever-valuable measure of influence online. He's also taken up an interest and learned how to navigate each separate platform differently, working in tandem through the years with Nate Jones, his marketing rep at Goodwin Sports Management.
Part of the strategy involves weaving in his seven global endorsement deals and three regional sponsorships through his flow of social posts, while also keeping a tone that strays away from feeling too forced, pushy and promotional. Among all eleven current NBA players with a Nike, Jordan, Adidas or Under Armour signature shoe during this past season, Lillard had over twice as many branded Instagram posts as the next closest athlete, James Harden.
He was routinely featuring his "Dame" signature series and his Adidas association within his feed, amounting for more than 3.5 times as many branded posts as Nike's signature stars Kyrie Irving and LeBron James, who ranked third and fourth. Nevertheless, he feels he's mastered the balance of posting products, while also maintaining every brand's favorite buzz word: "authenticity."
"People know that what I'm doing, they know it's going to be genuine. They know it's real," Lillard said. "I'm not pitching nothing at you. It's never going to be fake. When I'm constantly posting stuff, it's always related to me. It's never like, 'Sign up for this, and use my code.' [laughs] It's never like the corny stuff where you're using people. It's more inviting them. You're inviting them to be a part of something, as opposed to just trying to sell something."
Lillard's deal with Adidas includes a set annual budget for his social media campaigns, encompassing anything from photo shoots for imagery to money used to boost reach and promote an individual post to a wider audience. Earlier this year, Lillard took an entirely unique approach to seeding his third signature shoe out to media members and influencers.
Rather than package the shoe in a grandiose box or include a gift card to a high-priced restaurant, as other athletes have done, Lillard provided a $500 charity donation card, nestled next to a pair of his new Adidas Dame 3 sneakers. Recipients were able to pick any charity or organization of their liking. The donation concept went on to benefit dozens of charities around the United States.
"The simple answer is four years of college better prepared Damian for the responsibilities that go with being a superstar athlete and pitchman," said Eric Goodwin, who along with his twin brother Aaron, represents Lillard and other NBA players at their Goodwin Sports agency. "He understands the value of connecting with fans in authentic ways and there is no better way to do that today than through social media."
As he's grown more comfortable with sharing his voice, Lillard hasn't shied away from using his platform to speak on social issues that he feels warrant his attention. Each spring on Instagram, he'll often highlight and congratulate fellow family members graduating from high school and college, as he did. He's a key global ambassador for the Special Olympics and an advocate for anti-bullying initiatives.
In addition to his community events centered in California and Oregon, Lillard has also built up an online community of aspiring musicians, through his own #4BarFriday concept. "Four bars" is a technical phrase in rap music, simply representing four lines of written lyrics. It also just so happened to fit perfectly within a 15-second video, the initial time limit when Instagram first introduced video to the platform in 2013. (Users can now upload videos up to 60 seconds in length.) Lillard came up with the concept himself while jotting down notes in his journal in his bedroom.
"I always share my ideas with Nate Jones, and he's the person that brings it to light and makes it as strong as possible after I come up with the idea and my vision for it," he says.
Since Lillard's first post, rappers have posted their #4BarFriday submissions weekly, racking up almost 70,000 posts. Each Friday, Lillard will also re-post a few of his favorite raps on his own account, providing massive visibility to a sea of aspiring artists.
"It started off with me just saying, 'I just want people to be able to hear me rap,'" Lillard reflects. "From there, it turned into people caring about what they submitted and taking pride in it."
In recent years, it's blossomed into more than just a weekly Instagram contest. Lillard now leverages his endorsement deal with JBL Audio to provide speakers and headphones to weekly winners. He's even flown out #4BarFriday rappers to perform at concerts that he's hosted during NBA All-Star Weekend. His willingness to share his own music has also grown each summer. He started out by posting a new song on Soundcloud each Monday during the summer of 2015. Last year, he released a full studio album, "The Letter O," which quickly rose to No. 2 on the iTunes Hip-Hop chart.
While he's grown to enjoy utilizing all of the exposure and visibility that social media has afforded him so far as a pro, Lillard is still wary of the effects and impact of too much attention for younger athletes, like prep phenoms Zion Williamson and LaMelo Ball. The duo faced off in an exhibition game in Las Vegas before Adidas' annual summer championship AAU tournament last month. A livestream of the game on Facebook drew in as many as 75,000 viewers at once. Lillard arrived 90 minutes early to secure his front-row seat.
"All the other athletes [there] are fans of dudes that are the same age as them. I'm not used to that," said Lillard of the frenzy caused by Williamson and Ball among their peers. "You're supposed to look at them like, 'They not that good!' Almost hating on them. They're competition. That was different. I think back to when I was in the 10th grade, and I went to a game with my boy P [Phil Taylor] and Jerryd Bayless was playing. They're like, 'He's gonna be the No. 1 pick!' We're looking at him like, 'He good, but he's not better than me.' [laughs] Now, these dudes have their phone out recording another 16-year-old."
More than anything, Lillard knows firsthand just how ruthless people can also be at times online, whether it's commenting to him on Instagram or Twitter when things don't go right, or, even worse, sending harsh messages to a phenom still in high school. He expects both players to handle the pressures well, and continue advancing their careers. While everyone deals with naysayers in their own way, Lillard still enjoys firing back at critics online from time to time, pointing to the continual improvement he's made each year in the NBA.
"People tell me all the time, 'Man, you don't gotta respond to it.' But I'm always going to say something," Lillard said. "Sometimes, that's the last thing they expect. Or, they don't want to have to explain what they said, or they don't want that type of confrontation."
Regardless, Lillard doesn't stress it, because his routine doesn't allow him to lose sight of his priority: the game of basketball.
"It's easy for me to dismiss, because I know the first thing that I do every day is get up and go work out. I do my conditioning, and I'm in the weight room. I know first things are always first," he said. "And then, I can go rap as long as I want to [laughs]. If I put out a quality album, and then I come out and have my best season ... How much weight does what they're saying have?"
Nick DePaula is the creative director for Nice Kicks and former editor-in-chief of Sole Collector Magazine.