The fastest woman alive is making speedy sponsorship deals thanks to AI

By | 5 minute read | August 8, 2018

Olympic sprinter Carmelita Jeter is using OpenSponsorship to connect with brands.

Carmelita Jeter has built a career on moving quickly. At the 2009 Shanghai Golden Grand Prix, the sprinter blasted through the 100-meter dash in 10.64 seconds, making her the fastest woman alive—and the second-fastest woman in history. Two years later, she became the world 100m champion. A year after that, at the Olympic Games in London, she took home three sprinting medals. But when it came to securing sponsorship deals—an important source of visibility and extra funding for any athlete—Jeter recently found herself yearning to pick up the pace.

In the past, she’d typically only inked deals through an intermediary, with the kinds of sport-centric brands with which you’d expect a runner to associate. Often, the engagements required Jeter to get on a plane and speak at an event. Frequently, payment for her work took as long as two months to come through.

“The benefit was that I could just run and compete and train and I didn’t have to worry about getting sponsorships,” Jeter, who retired from track and field last year, told IBM. “But then I think I was missing out on opportunities I thought I’d be a good fit for.”

This year, Jeter’s sponsorship activity started accelerating when she learned about OpenSponsorship, an online platform that connects brands with athletes, events and teams to drive marketing and sales.

Jeter started using the platform in April, and has made about half a dozen deals since then, often with brands she never would have thought to represent before, including an eco-friendly laundry detergent brand and a pet-friendly cleaning product brand. Rather than flying out to events, she now mentions the brands she works with in her social media posts, which she shares with her 65,000 Twitter followers and her 88,000 Instagram followers.

“Everything is so quick. If I get a sponsor on a Monday, they’ll say, ‘If you finish your deliverable by Thursday you’ll be paid on Friday,” she said.

OpenSponsorship, of course, isn’t the only platform connecting brands to social media influencers. But the more than 3,000 athletes and 2,500 brands on the platform agree that it’s among the most effective. A major key to its success? An enhanced discovery engine powered by IBM’s AI system, Watson.

Going digital

OpenSponsorship’s CEO and founder is Ishveen Anand, who worked for eight years at a sports agency before setting out on her own when she noticed big shifts in media were going unrecognized by the industry.

“A lot of marketing dollars are obviously moving into digital. That can be social content, it can be online video. But the people selling sponsorship haven’t really adjusted to that, nor have the people buying sponsorship generally,” Anand said.

With OpenSponsorship, she said, she’s bringing both parties into a new era of digital marketing driven by transparency and measurability. And she’s been able to stay ahead of the competition by powering the platform’s discovery engine with IBM Watson, ensuring that her users don’t spend hours trawling through profiles that don’t suit their needs.

“We have 3,500 athletes on OpenSponsorship,” she said. “It’s hard to extract information from them directly. Obviously they’re busy. With IBM, what we have really been able to do is bring insights on the social side of things, which means we can make better quality deals and even higher value deals.”

Instead of asking every athlete on the site to self-report their social media activity, OpenSponsorship finds that information automatically by analyzing structured and unstructured data—including an athlete’s social engagement rate, reach, activity, as well as her most common talking points and the age, location, and gender of her audience. That helps give brands an infinitely more detailed and accurate prediction of how their messaging might perform through an athlete’s channels.

“When you’re spending tens of thousands of dollars, every extra data point you can get is really important,” Anand said.

The perfect match

Finding a genuine spokesperson and a receptive audience were high priorities for Dustin Elliot, senior brand manager at The Vitamin Shoppe, when he went on OpenSponsorship looking for athletes to promote the retailer’s private sports nutrition brands.

“A lot of influencer services tended to be very broad and have a lot of capabilities and a lot of bells and whistles, but then you get on the services and you have trouble finding influencers that fit your specific needs,” he said.

OpenSponsorship, he said, was different. After posting the parameters of his brand’s campaign on the platform, he didn’t have to spend any time at all looking for interested and qualified athletes. Jeter wrote to him expressing her interest, and based on her social media data, OpenSponsorship was able to quantifiably confirm that she’d be a strong match for the campaign.

“Before I even opened up her profile I knew there was a good chance she’d be someone we’d want to work with,” he said.

Rick Fenner, vice president of supply chain at Qualitas Health, had a similar experience. When he went on OpenSponsorship to promote iWi, the company’s algae-based nutrition brand, he wanted to connect with track and field athletes that were “very conscious about health and what goes into their bodies.”

Again, Jeter expressed interest and fit the bill. And so in April she found herself standing in her kitchen, posing with a bottle of iWi’s Omega-3 supplement. In the caption for the Instagram post she made in that moment, she pondered how, with her packed schedule, she’s still able to “get everything done”—jump on planes, attend workouts, write emails, take meetings and conference calls. Then she answered her question: “Well,” she wrote, “I’m a #phenomenalwoman and I also take @myiwilife Omega 3 Vitamins.”

The future of sponsorship

Global sponsorship was a $62.7 billion market last year, according to consulting group IEG, and it’s expected to grow 4.5 percent this year.

“Considering the huge amounts involved, you would imagine sponsors of athletes and events have clear answers when asked about their return on investment (ROI). You would be wrong,” wrote Jeff Jacobs, Pallav Jain, and Kushan Surana of McKinsey in 2014. “Industry research reveals that about one-third to one-half of US companies don’t have a system in place to measure sponsorship ROI comprehensively.”

As more sponsorship dollars go toward digital deals, that’s changing. By using Watson Analytics to calculate ROI, OpenSponsorship is providing the kind of detailed, measurable results that more companies require to do business.

But those kinds of analytics aren’t just a boon for companies. More data on successful sponsorships means a greater likelihood of future deals, and that’s ultimately good for athletes like Jeter, too.

“With Carmelita we started out with a small deal, where she just did a couple posts. But then we saw how it was performing and so we decided to do a longer deal over a couple months,” Fenner said. “The site helps you do that.”