Wifi and Sticky Rubber

Today, we’re pleased and delighted to share this guest post from our friend Steph Davis. In our opinion, she’s single-handedly redefining what it means to be a professional athlete in the outdoor industry. Steph provides something that nobody else in her space does: She provides context, and not just for her sponsors, but for retailers, the industry, and – most of all – to the outdoor enthusiasts who call her “friend.” In this, on a daily basis she answers the question: “Why are you here?” Her candor, her accessibility, and her willingness to – well – be real is what makes her different. This one goes out to all the other pro, quasi-pro, and aspiring pro athletes out there in #OIBIZ, because Steph is going to share now how it’s done…

Practical Social Media for the Professional Athlete
by Steph Davis

Climbing is fundamentally low-tech. You want the tools that work, because everything else is just weight to carry. I confess to having tossed a titanium stove into a crevasse because the thing wouldn’t burn, and I was not going to posthole across a glacier for two more days with 6 ounces of uselessness on my back.

I started a blog in 2007 as an extension of my book, High Infatuation. I quickly learned that it’s pure freedom. I can publish anything I want, whenever I want, with no need to propose, submit or be edited.  From the beginning, it seemed more natural and fun to have conversations than to write about myself all the time, and obviously I was a lot more interested in other people’s stories.  Highinfatuation.com has grown into a meeting place for diverse, like-minded people and all the things we find mutually interesting: climbing, camping, base jumping, skydiving, books, nutrition, cooking, dogs, dreams, relationships, fears, roadtripping, injuries, training, travel and lifestyle choices.

About a year after I started the blog, the same friend who helped me start it suggested I should get on Facebook and Twitter.  Those sites were not yet embedded into daily life, and like most people I didn’t really get what they were or what the point was, but I just went ahead and did it anyway.  I quickly came to enjoy the instant interaction of Facebook, Twitter, Twitpic and Vimeo and all the virtual pathways they led me down.

Now if I’m not on a cliff, I’m on a computer or iPhone.  Sometimes all.  I am generally underwhelmed by technology and gadgets (due to a suspicion of things that plug in), and I have zero tolerance for unnecessary complication. So this attachment says to me that social media has emerged as a piece of essential gear for a professional climber/outdoor athlete.

Benefits to the community

At first glance, a sponsored climber’s job might appear to consist of sending rad climbs and getting paid for it.  After twelve years as a fulltime professional climber, I can tell you it’s not. Climbing and adventuring (and climbers and adventurers) do not provide any value to the climbing community through mere existence.  Like the Velveteen Rabbit, they grow legs when they become meaningful to others, when they start to inspire, entertain, inform or assist.  Sharing is the magic ingredient, alchemizing a single person’s passion into community contribution.

In the past, professional athletes were stuck with something like the 1.0 version of sharing—going out and pulling off feats that someone else might report, perhaps accurately, or maybe writing a chapter for a book.  Social media blew the ceiling off of secondhand, irregular information supply.  Now top climbers need only a laptop and the willingness to be instantly accessible to anyone, all the time, with no constraint.  They can directly discuss their activities, tools, methods and interests—all things their community is looking for. The way I see it, my primary job is to share, and my top client is the outdoor community.

Benefits to sponsors and companies

Anything an athlete does to benefit the community reflects onto the companies s/he is associated with, which is the basic idea behind this type of partnering. This is so fundamental that social media participation of any sort by an athlete is worthwhile in and of itself, if it offers something positive to the community–who is also every outdoor company’s top client.

But connection and interaction are at the next level, and in the past have been harder to come by–most climbers are out climbing 90% of the time, and don’t have the opportunity to meet new people unless they turn up at the same crag.  Now through social media, people can meet anyone at any time, unhampered by physical happenstance.  Athletes who are active on Twitter and Facebook can engage in product discussions continuously, acting as another arm of a company’s social media team.  These sites give the unique ability to engage one-on-one while simultaneously speaking in an open forum, spreading the ripples of influence in countless, widening rings.

Online communities are not shy about giving strong feedback about anything that resonates with them, whether it makes them happy or makes their head spin around. Responding appropriately and immediately is perhaps the single best thing a company can do to build a relationship with a customer, though this is also one of the hardest things to do consistently.  An accessible and responsive sponsored athlete does it constantly, by proxy, and creates more relationships.  And direct interaction and feedback from a focused customer base are useful not just for community relations, but also for branding and product development.  Just as social media participation dramatically increases the value a professional climber brings to the outdoor community, it multiplies the benefits to a sponsor (the athlete’s other top client).  Everyone is receiving a lot more than ever before.

Benefits to the Athlete

From my own perspective, social media is awesome.  Above all, it removes the filters.  In the past I had a voice in my community only through second or thirdhand reporting and interviews. Now everything I say literally comes directly from me, and I can communicate directly with anyone who wants to talk to me about anything.  From my point of view, this is a flat-out miracle.

I also turn to the online community for help–as with all genuine, positive relationships, it’s a two-way street. When legendary climber Layton Kor needed some help with medical costs, we banded together to create a web-based fundraiser to raise money for him, an effort which is still going on.  When United lost all my base gear on a flight home from Switzerland, I used Twitter and Facebook to ask for help.  The support and complaints snowballed into the thousands and sprouted into online news reports, and eventually United caved in and paid up.  Last winter I was looking for extra motivation to do pull-up pyramid workouts and mentioned it on Twitter.  Within an hour of excited tweets back and forth, a Twitter team called “Team Tpup” was spontaneously formed for anyone who wanted to join the group.  A few days later someone created the @teampup Twitter page, and someone else wrote software for a bot to electronically keep track of our pull-ups and tweet them daily as a running group total. Team Tpup is still going strong, a year and 36,000 pull-ups later.

Professionally, social media changes the game for a sponsored climber.  Its inherently non-formulaic nature is exactly why climbing is so great, but on the other side of the coin, professional climbers have traditionally had a hard time demonstrating returns in a format that can be plugged into a business equation.  Pure stats are easy to share with sponsors and allow them to clearly track the effects of an athlete’s online interaction with their target consumers.  I use the Site5 Backstage statcounter to log the traffic to my blog and website, which is split out between unique visitors, daily hits, page views and bandwidth. It also provides a lot of other information such as time spent on the site, viewer demographics, search terms and popular topics.  Facebook lets me know how many people are following my personal and fan pages and gives statistics about views and responses to fan page posts. Vimeo Plus gives detailed stats about views, comments and shares of my video posts.  These tools make my efforts quantifiable and easy to see, removing the mystery for everyone.   Beyond these basic tallies, with a few mouse clicks between these pages, I can get a big picture of who is using my content, when, where and how.  This virtual map influences me and guides me in fresh directions—and the constant feedback leads to constant improvement.

Last, but certainly not least, engaging with others is a treasure I cherish, all the more because it was a thing I used to have to sacrifice. Before cell phones, before Skype, Twitter and Facebook, a strong community connection was part of the price to pay for choosing to live under a rock.  Now I can easily talk with friends all over the world and be found by anyone who would like to become friends—and I can live under a rock.  Every day, new tools crop up, making engagement and expression better, easier and more fun.  The sky is the limit, and that’s always nice.

At this point I’m online whenever I have an iPhone or internet connection, which is both less and more than it seems like it would be.  In offering an infinitely better tool for the job and thus expanding the limits of possibility, I’d say social media is a climbing innovation right up there with sticky rubber. It’s that big.


Steph Davis is a climber, base jumper and writer from Moab, Utah.  She is currently climbing and jumping off things and writing a second book called “Learning to Fly.” She can be found at her blog highinfatuation.com, on twitter @highsteph, on Facebook facebook.com/stephdavisclimb and Vimeo.

2 responses to “Wifi and Sticky Rubber

  1. This is the single best piece I have ever read on “ambassadorship…” which is saying a lot, because you’ve written good stuff before, Steph.

    Well done, you amazing woman you! Thanks, Pemba, for providing the venue for this one.

    Hugs all the way around…

    -Sara. :)

  2. avatar David Sweeney

    Awesome. Great post Steph. Looking forward to seeing y’all at OR.
    It will be nice to be out of the pembacave, if only for a little while.