Social smackdown: Is WWE the ultimate social brand?

Mention professional wrestling and a lot of people will respond with: “it’s fake”. The sport’s pre-determined nature has long been a topic for debate; is it a real sport? Do the wrestlers actually get hurt? What genre of entertainment does it fit into?

It’s not always been this way. For decades, the pro wrestling fraternity was a notoriously closed circle. In a similar way to the circus or The Magic Circle, the tricks of the wrestling trade were closely guarded secrets. Wrestlers protected their characters to maintain the illusion that their on-screen persona was the person they really were. Masked wrestlers always wore their disguises in public, bad guys (“heels”) and good guys (“babyfaces”) dressed in separate locker rooms and were never seen travelling together. No one was privy to the fact that the results of matches were determined in advance and that champions were selected by senior members of the company they wrestled for due to their popularity with the fans, not through their athletic prowess in the ring.

But in the late 1990s, everything changed. World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) (then known as the World Wrestling Federation) ascended to mainstream popularity thanks to characters like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Triple H and The Rock and, as a result, the curtain began to be peeled back as WWE satisfied the appetite of the fans for behind-the-scenes content. WWE owner Vince McMahon saw the opportunity to turn wrestling into a multi-million dollar business; wrestling was no longer a sport – it was “sports entertainment”.

In the last five years, the game has changed again. The explosion of social media has dissolved the divide between fans, the media they consume and the celebrities they idolise. For WWE, this trend threatened the very nature of its business – but rather than fight the revolution, the company has embraced it.

This decision to utilise social media dovetailed with WWE’s decision to pivot its product from TV-14 to TV-PG in order to appeal to a wider audience. By creating a presence on networks like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Vine and YouTube, WWE and its roster of wrestlers and other on-air talent could reach and engage with a larger audience than ever before.

Charity begins on Twitter

Wrestling and WWE garnered a lot of negative press from the mainstream media during its popular run in the late 1990s and early 00s, mostly due to the in-ring violence and element of danger. But the switch to PG programming coupled with the rise of social media meant the company could reposition itself, its wrestlers (known as “Superstars”) and its female wrestlers, or “Divas”, in a much more positive light.

Key to this was (and is) its philanthropic endeavours. The company is heavily involved with a number of initiatives including its own anti-bullying programme Be a STAR, breast cancer research and support organisation Susan G. Komen, and children’s charity Make-A-Wish foundation. The company’s main star, John Cena, has made more than 300 visits to ill children through Make-A-Wish – with social media acting as the engine that drives the change in the mainstream perception of the company.

Out of character

Engaging with its fans is the core aim of WWE’s social media strategy. And it’s the same for the company’s Superstars and Divas. They are usually limited to whatever time they are afforded on television, but now they can share photos, post videos, talk to their fans and even develop on-screen storylines 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The writers and producers carefully craft the personas shown on TV, but away from the ring Superstars and Divas have taken advantage of YouTube shows, backstage segments on the WWE app and Instagram/Vine videos to show more of their true personalities.

It’s something that’s actively encouraged. In a recent interview, Stephanie McMahon, WWE’s Chief Brand Officer (and on-screen villain) recently highlighted the virtues of social media honesty.

A quote from WWE's Chief Brand Officer, Stephanie McMahon.

McMahon credits Cena as the perfect example of how a WWE Superstar should utilise social media – but he’s not alone. Every Superstar and Diva has at least a Twitter or a Facebook page, and lots of them have Instagram accounts that they regularly update. The reach of WWE’s talent (both past and present) is significant. When combined, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and John Cena have more Twitter and Facebook followers than Coca-Cola. With brand advocates like those two, it’s no surprise WWE’s social media strategy is going from strength to strength.

WWE wrestler social media following chart.

Hash-tag team champions

Twitter is arguably the most influential network for WWE. With 5.3 million followers, it has some way to go to match WWE’s 25.1 million-strong Facebook audience, but for fan engagement it’s real-time stream means it’s unrivalled. Every match on TV is accompanied by a hashtag, displayed in the top-left corner of the screen and every time something WWE-related trends on Twitter, an on-screen graphic encourages viewers to join the conversation. It’s no coincidence that every Monday night in the US, when WWE’s flagship show Raw airs, WWE-related hashtags appear on Twitter’s top trends list.

The pinnacle of WWE’s hashtag influence was Wrestlemania 31 in March. The show is the biggest of the year for WWE – and the wider wrestling industry. This year Wrestlemania drew nearly 77,000 fans from 40 countries to Levi’s Stadium in California, while more than 1.3 million US consumers bought the show on pay-per-view or watched it on WWE’s online video service, WWE Network. Wrestlemania 31 also threw up some interesting social media statistics:

A graphic displaying the social media performance of Wrestlemania.

Painful defeat

Not all WWE’s ventures into social media have been successful. In 2012, the company joined a $13 million investment in Tout, the real-time video message sharing app. WWE pushed the network hard. Vignettes were aired on WWE programming, Superstars and Divas were made to share updates on the service and the app was placed prominently on the company website. But ultimately, Tout wasn’t widely adopted and succumbed to the greater popularity of Instagram and Vine. Despite the app’s failure, it proved that WWE was willing to take risks to build its social media presence.

Tough matches ahead

Social media is constantly evolving and not all platforms are positive for WWE. Smartphones have given fans the ability to record live events and distribute the material via their social networks. WWE operates a no video recording policy, but as with most live events it is incredibly hard to enforce. And there are now new video-based threats emerging. Streaming apps such as Periscope and Meerkat enable users to supply a live video feed directly from an event – in breach of WWE copyright. As a company that has a close social media relationship with its consumers, it will be interesting to see how WWE handles protecting copyright without jeopardising fan engagement.

Break the walls down

Wrestlers now flit between their character and real-life personas on a daily basis. While that helps them – and WWE – grow their social brands, it’s not without its challenges. WWE provides fictional entertainment and, as such, the audience has to suspend their disbelief in order to immerse themselves in the show – but if they see an Instagram post of an on-screen villain on a charity visit with a sick child, it can jar with their perception of him. WWE has to be wary of allowing too much separation between the real-life performers and their on-screen personas or risk a disconnect with the audience.

WWE World Heavyweight Champion Seth Rollins.

Few other global entertainment brands offer such an incredible wealth of social content, and an even smaller number are willing to engage with their audience to such an extent. WWE has managed to improve public perception of the brand, raise the profile of all its Superstars and Divas, and offer real engagement with its audience. These achievements have been driven by WWE’s comprehensive cross-platform social media strategy. New social media channels will come and go, and not all of WWE's ventures will pay off, but as long as the company continues to take the initiative and use social media to its advantage – rather than view it as a threat – it can remain a social brand champion for many years to come.

To paraphrase the legendary Hulk Hogan: Whatcha gonna do, brother, when social media runs wild on you?!

Chris has left The Frameworks.


  • Social media
  • WWE
  • Wrestling
  • The Rock