The globalised nature of sport provides plenty of opportunities for the biggest teams, but how exactly do they attract new followers and maintain a close bond with their fans in the modern age?
Anyone with a keen interest in the world of sports who is also active on social media will have noticed how the presence of sports teams on social media has grown, along with a rise in content quality, over the last few years. This has become even more obvious over the last year when social media usage increased significantly as a result of the pandemic.
This seems to have been a bit of a delayed response to the vast potential in this area. However, teams are making up for lost time, as they look to synchronise social media and the on-site content they produce as part of a cohesive marketing approach that takes advantage of the exposure they have.
Transfer deadline day has become a major event in the sporting calendar; partly due to the fact that Sky Sports has managed to build up hype for it with their almost constant coverage of it in the days leading up to the deadline. As a result of that, the official announcements from clubs have become more elaborate over time as they seek to become memorable, and potentially even go viral. This encapsulates perfectly how clubs have invested in content creation to help build their brand.
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Previously, football club sites and social media accounts were mainly used for live updates surrounding games and official statements. Now, a scroll through a big club’s social media account is likely to see you encounter quizzes, exclusive interviews, highlights, stats-related content, ‘on this day’ posts, behind the scenes material, and match reports, which all drive engagement as they provide content for fans to interact with. Behind the scenes material is particularly interesting because teams are able to reward fans for their loyalty with valuable, exclusive content through tools such as Facebook Live.
There is also the growth of fan TV to consider as these have boomed in popularity with the most notable being Arsenal’s fan TV. Even though these aren’t officially linked to the club, they do highlight the demand for content in this area.
Unsurprisingly, they are popular among fanbases that feel separated from the owners or upper management of the club, as they provide a voice for their frustration. They clearly represent a failure by the club in some ways, as fans are looking elsewhere for engagement. Although the problem ultimately stems from the disconnect between the owners and the fans.
One of the key goals of a club’s content strategy is to aim to position itself as a modern, forward-thinking brand. PSG are a great example of this as they have successfully moved into fashion – the deal with the Jordan brand being the most notable. Onsite content is a pivotal part of this as they can influence the narrative around the club due to being seen as the authoritative source on matters concerning them, although the lack of subjectivity shouldn’t be forgotten. This has even extended to other areas such as the Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo rivalry - which dominated the past decade. Both Real Madrid and Barcelona, as well as Juventus at a later stage, have used social media and content to push the desired narrative and generate debate.
The importance of content creation and social media savviness can best be seen in the proactive marketing approach clubs take when targeting new regions. Barcelona used their famous world-beating side under Pep Guardiola to push the “mes que un club” brand.
The club were able to market this around the globe as it was underpinned by a philosophy that was played out on the pitch with great success. Language-specific accounts were, and continue to be, used to reinforce this, and academies around the globe ensure they are able to pass on this message.
By finding new talents in these regions they not only benefit the club on the pitch, but also provide someone to market towards fans from that country. The possibilities for this include attracting more supporters, more merchandise sales, better sponsorship deals, and so on. Their success in this area can be seen in how they have driven engagement across multiple platforms.
Leagues have also done the same in an era when the Premier League has become a financial juggernaut. The Bundesliga has opted to target the American market with a marketing approach that has content creation at the heart of it.
They have invested in their English content creation to create high-quality material that informs the reader, while also highlighting why their league is worth watching. Collaborations with YouTube channels such as Tifo Football, successfully brought their YouTube account and main site into the wider consciousness due to the cutting-edge analysis. They also highlighted how successful investment in quality can be. Through these videos, they actively pushed their product by providing a link in the description that redirected viewers to where they can watch the league in their country.
They even regularly gear onsite content directly towards that market. This approach has gone hand in hand with teams creating specific accounts targeted towards the US audience, with the best example being Bayern Munich due to their status as the dominant team in the league, as well as one of the best in Europe.
This targeted approach isn’t limited to just football, as the NFL has gradually ramped up their attempts to infiltrate the UK sports market. These have ranged from increasing the number of games played across the Atlantic in London, to utilising an active NFL UK Twitter account. This doesn’t just limit its interactions to within the sport, but it also deals with the BBC encompassing the NFL Show and the now-defunct NFL This Week.
This is all part of their plan to potentially move a franchise to London – likely to be the Jacksonville Jaguars. Therefore, they were able to lay the groundwork and establish the level of demand, while also satisfying that in combination with building up support in preparation for a move.
Connecting with the audience on social media is key for anyone seeking to push a product; and this is no different in sport. Though, some strategies have had more success than others. Leeds United’s Twitter account was in the news recently due to calling out pundit Karen Carney for a comment she made regarding the club’s success last season, which unleashed a wave of toxicity in her direction.
Naturally, Leeds’ social media style has been criticised since, even if the fans enjoy when the club ridicules pundits who were proven wrong by the team. Interestingly, NFL teams have done this previously without the level of abuse sent in the direction of the pundit by fans. However, the popular approach is to incorporate pundit analysis into post-match onsite content. This reinforces how a social media style has to be tailored to the audience and can’t be simply transplanted from one sport to another due to the idiosyncrasies of the community.
A common tactic is the “banter” approach, which has been popularised by betting company Paddy Power, as they aim to create “sticky” content that provokes a response and could potentially go viral - such as the Huddersfield Town stunt from 2019. This is often combined with interactions with other accounts such as teams they are playing, individuals, or brands in order to expose themselves to potential new customers.
The issue with this approach is that a lot of clubs have used the same tactics and, by doing that, they blend in with the pack. Therefore, innovation is key, especially for the smaller clubs, as highlighted by a certain Italian club.
AS Roma’s English account has mastered this approach as they have maximised engagement, while also avoiding controversial tweets. Their success can be seen in the sustained growth they have seen over the last few years, especially in 2018. Arguably, they have influenced the shift towards this style by football clubs, although no other team has achieved the level of notoriety. Examples of their viral posts include the mockery of Mark Wahlberg’s daily routine and a dig aimed at Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus.
The impact of Covid-19 on the world has been monumental for a number of reasons, and sport hasn’t been immune to this. During the first UK lockdown, sport came to a grinding halt. This posed a number of issues for clubs, with one of them being how to maintain a close connection with fans when they weren’t able to come into the stadium.
One of the major shifts was into eSports as clubs recruited professional eSports players, celebrities, fans, or even players to represent them in FIFA tournaments such as in the Ultimate QuaranTeam tournament. Players and celebrities also took part in the ePremier League Invitational, which Sky Sports hosted.
Naturally, this paled in comparison to football on the pitch for fans, but it did provide an opportunity to root for the club in an alternate setting, essentially filling the gap during a unique period. It also provided the opportunity for clubs to expand into a rapidly growing industry at the same time. However, the issue around maintaining a close bond with fans didn’t go away when the season restarted either as most fans weren’t able to enter the grounds.
The site of empty stadiums was a bizarre situation for everyone involved or watching the games. To make the conditions somewhat similar to usual teams came up with a number of methods.
Screens live-streaming fans watching the games from their homes became a popular initiative across a number of sports including basketball and football. Cut-outs of fans, who sent in pictures, in seats around the ground also became a common sight. Broadcasters also incorporated crowd noises in order to provide an atmosphere for the viewers, as the lack of fans exposed how integral they are to the whole experience.
By recognising the value of fans, and providing something tangible for them to engage with during an unfamiliar time, the clubs were able to reinforce the positive feelings associated with them and maintain the connection in order to draw them back in when normality resumed.
A cohesive social media strategy is undoubtedly a pivotal tool in bringing in new fans, and developing a closer bond with existing ones, through the amount of engagement it provides across a number of platforms and the loyalty it rewards. The quality of social media content has ramped up in recent years in response to this. There has to be a coordinated strategy across the various elements for it to be worthwhile. Moreover, the creation of onsite content causes there to be a reason for followers to click through on to the site. Through this, the club is not only able to press their viewpoint or desired narrative upon them, but also push their merchandise.
The use of social media is also important as part of a proactive marketing approach to infiltrate new markets and expand the club’s reach through pushing their brand. However, a clear long-term plan is needed, and success is often hinged on either high quality, innovation, or a combination of both.
Without understanding the audience’s needs clubs are unable to maximize the potential of the large follower counts they are able to assemble with ease, and the battle for supremacy among clubs and leagues is increasingly being fought off the pitch as they shift towards commercialisation. Staying ahead of the curve and spotting future trends, whether that be upcoming platforms or a popular social media style, is where the well-prepared get an advantage in developing “sticky” content to promote and positively alter the perception of their brand.
The Covid era has essentially acted as a stress test for the virtual presence and digital marketing strategy of teams across sports, as it has exposed those who weren’t prepared, as well as highlighting the forward-thinking clubs. If nothing else, this time should have served as a learning exercise for their shortcomings, and for showcasing the possibilities an interlinked social media and content creation strategy can bring in the modern age.
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