How NIL Has Paved the Way for Athlete Micro-Influencers

This past November, Shuckin’ Shack Oyster Bar revealed that they were jumping into the world of NIL for college athletes. The company took to Instagram on November 19, 2021, to announce its sponsorship of NC State gymnast Nicole Webb. Over the next several months, Shuckin’ Shack announced more sponsorships, building a team of student-athletes that became known as the “Shack-letes.” 

This was no ordinary influencer marketing campaign, though.

There’s one thing that all of the athletes had in common when they agreed to work with Shuckin’ Shack: each had less than 5,000 followers on Instagram. Consider them athlete micro-influencers. 

Icon Source connects brands with see the power of athlete micro-influencer marketing
Shuckin’ Shack announces the start of its Shuckin’ Shack Athletics brand ambassador program.

Shuckin’ Shack did this intentionally, laying out their goal to bring awareness to deserving local athletes, who in return will provide brand exposure for Shuckin’ Shack’s handful of franchise locations. This “hometown hero” approach to NIL marketing has picked up steam across the board over the course of the past year. This blog will cover everything you need to know about athlete micro-influencer marketing and give tips for athletes on how to become a micro-influencer

Who Are Athlete Micro-Influencers?

We’ve all heard of influencer marketing—a practice that involves brands partnering with individuals with a large following on social media to promote products through posts, ads, and sometimes even appearances at events. Micro-influencer marketing is essentially the same thing but on a smaller scale. 

In micro-influencer marketing, brands partner with individuals who have between 1,000 and 10,000 followers on social media. These micro-influencers are typically known for a particular area of interest (such as sports) and tend to have relatively high engagement rates from their audiences. Many brands see this as an opportunity to reach niche audiences.

Athlete micro-influencers are simply athletes who have gained a following on social media within that 1,000 to 10,000 window. All of the Shuckin’ Shack Shack-letes are micro-influencers, ranging from 1,000 to 7,500 followers on Instagram with an average of just over 3,000 followers. Athlete influencers of this caliber are usually more affordable than large influencers but also provide unique marketing value, which we will discuss more below.

The Value of Athlete Micro-Influencers

Many brands look at athletes and influencers with enormous follower counts and believe they will help them achieve their marketing objectives. As a matter of fact, going bigger isn’t always better. There are many downsides to working with larger influencers that can be solved by opting for micro-influencers instead. Let’s discuss some of the main benefits of working with micro-influencers.


As we briefly mentioned before, working with micro-influencers is far more affordable than with large influencers. As follower count increases, the cost to work with influencers generally goes up as well. This means that the same budget that could apply to a micro-influencer campaign involving ten athletes could only pay for maybe just one or two posts from mega influencers. Micro-influencers can make for more affordable partners for brands, and many micro-influencers are also looking to grow their own following in the process. This can lead to a much more involved brand-athlete relationship, as many athletes may even overserve brand partners in an effort to build a long-term relationship. All of these factors can lead to a strong positive ROI for brands.

Higher Engagement Rates

A common misconception about micro-influencers is that their lower follower count makes them less valuable. As a matter of fact, micro-influencer engagement rates and conversion rates are typically much higher than those of larger influencers. Micro-influencer engagement rates can be up to 60% higher than that of macro-influencers.

Icon Source connects brands with see the power of athlete micro-influencer marketing

In general, engagement rates for influencers peak when followers are in the early thousands. Because followers tend to trust these individuals, they’re more likely to comment, engage, and, most importantly, click the “purchase” button.


Authenticity is an essential trait of influencers. In today’s digital creator economy, sponsored posts are fairly common. It’s important that the influencers you work with are able to come off as authentic, and this comes easier for micro-influencers since they likely have fewer sponsored posts on their pages. According to one study, 88% of people say that it’s important that influencers are authentic and show genuine interest. Because micro-influencers are smaller scale and often reach out to brands themselves, authenticity generally comes easier, as they’re more likely to partner with brands they actually support and want to share with their followers.

Niche Markets

Most micro-influencers are experts or experienced in some particular area and consequently have a follower base organized around these interests. In the case of athlete micro-influencers, these will usually be particular sports fans. By working with athlete micro-influencers, brands can tap into these highly curated communities. This can also include geographic populations when brands decide to work with athletes at a particular school. For example, Shuckin’ Shack Oyster Bar has most of its locations in the Carolinas, which is why the majority of their Shack-letes are from schools in these states. Athlete micro-influencers provide a direct messaging channel to these niche audiences.

How to Become a Micro-Influencer

NIL legislation is paving the way for athlete micro-influencers across the country. Many NCAA athletes have already started adding their contact information to their bios and posting about being open to collaborations. Some have even started hiring marketing or talent agencies to represent their brand collaboration interests. This can definitely help but is in no way necessary. Here are some important things to consider if you are an athlete looking to leverage your social media presence as a micro-influencer.

Instagram is your best friend

In response to one survey, all athlete micro-influencers said that Instagram is the platform that has been the most beneficial to them. While respondents mentioned other social networking sites as well, Instagram was rated as the strongest, most interactive, and most entertaining.

Manage your own profiles

It isn’t uncommon for influencers to hire social media managers to help run their accounts and negotiate with brands. For micro-influencers, it’s much better to manage your own profile. This will give you that edge of authenticity we talked about earlier. It also isn’t as cumbersome managing an account with a few thousand followers as it is running an account with hundreds of thousands.

Split time between collaborations and growth

As a micro-influencer, collaborating with brands can be a great way to expand your own audience. With that being said, you need to work on growing your audience on your own as well, posting regularly to maintain an engaged audience that originally followed you to keep up with you and your athletic journey.

Work with local brands

When it comes to collaborations, don’t set your sights too high. Local brands can be great partners for marketing because they are often able to give you more attention and opportunities. Working with local brands can also solidify your place in your college community and bring about more opportunities. Athlete micro-influencers are increasingly more sought after in this new age of NIL legislation.

Share your collaborations

This one’s important. Any time you work with a brand, sharing those collaborations (and possibly showing some behind-the-scenes content) can go a long way in solidifying that relationship. Not only that, it shows other prospective brands that you’re a good partner to work with and will provide them the exposure to your followers that they’re looking for.

Start Your Journey with Icon Source

Are these points hitting home for you? If so, Icon Source is the perfect place to start your quest to become a true influencer athlete. Our marketplace brings together athletes and brands to form meaningful connections and brand endorsements. 

No matter what level of endorsements you’re looking for, Icon Source has it all. Create an account and start connecting with brands (or athletes) now!
For campaigns at the micro-influencer level, the Icon Suite is a great tool at your disposal. Our university-branded Icon Suite portals create centralized marketplaces on a university-by-university basis, allowing local brands to work with athletes from the university of their choice. Visit the Icon Suite and see which universities have already created their own NIL portal.

Drew Butler
You only have control over three things in your life: The thoughts you think The images you visualize The actions you take

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