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In the future: clubs will be more social

Ten years from now, football clubs will be the leading beneficiary of the power of social media, and a model for other companies and organizations to follow. They will interact with their supporters and the broader football community in a way few today can imagine, beyond selling t-shirts and tickets and posting exclusive videos of players playing practical jokes. Clubs will use social media for recruitment, for research, for community engagement and even investment. For football teams both big and small, social media will be just that: social.

You’d be forgiven if you think this vision is far-fetched. Today, most companies regard social media as a marketing tool, a means to dice and slice online communities into lucrative demographics for targeted advertising. It’s an old adage in silicon valley for example that social networks like Facebook and Twitter are free because the users themselves are the product, sold to the highest bidder, ie advertisers.

Football is no different. While the World Cup is six months away, Twitter has already sold ad packages, which include promoted daily trending topics, in an auction last July, with the total value estimated at $9.6 million USD. Yet there is little in the way of real user engagement here; rather, Twitter users watching World Cup games will see promoted brand names in the trends list for a host of different products. For many social media users, this kind of “engagement” is just background noise to the main event—football.

Unlike most companies however, football clubs are beloved institutions with a strong and very loyal local and global following. This offers them a tremendous, built-in advantage that few have yet to fully explore in their social media strategies.

There are some exceptions, however. Manchester City’s social media executive Chris Nield has taken the lead in moving away from traditional “corporate speak” online to a more organic, conversational interaction with supporters. While one has to read between the lines a little to see City’s bottom line in this strategy, this social engagement is a vital means for the club to expand its reach and popularity, which further highlights the club’s brand. This is key in expanding the club’s commercial revenue in future sponsorship deals. The club strengthens bonds with new and old fans alike and in turn becomes an attractive brand for sponsors. Those candid tunnel cams at the Etihad might lead indirectly to major commercial deals down the road.

Yet there are other advantages to the ‘authentic’ approach to social media, advantages which could benefit smaller clubs, too. For example, clubs could ‘crowd source’ on social media networks to improve their chances of getting a first look at interesting overseas talent, and leagues like MLS, which often regard recruitment in terms of improving the brand, can use social to assess a player’s commercial value and popular appeal. (We’ll be looking in more depth at how social media can help with talent ID and recruitment over the coming weeks).

Clubs could also forge connections via professional networks like LinkedIn with industry leaders around the world, not only to increase their executive (front office) hiring options, but also to keep tabs on developments and best practices in all aspects of the game. Finally, teams can engage with leading academics and researchers in statistical analysis, transfer market economics, and fitness and nutritional science for consulting or for hiring full-time. They can use social media to reach beyond the borders of their sport too, perhaps into American professional leagues for example, to expand their knowledge base and to canvas new ideas.  

Furthermore, as more and more teams seek creative ways to increase revenue in a post-Financial Fair Play world, social media could offer some teams a crucial lifeline by giving them direct access their one, major financial resource: their supporters.

Witness the example of Real Oviedo, who play in Spain’s Segunda Division, Group 1. In November 2012, the club found itself needing €2 million in order to stay afloat in the short-term. In response to the crisis, the club took to social media to sell direct shares to supporters, helped along by Guardian’s Spanish football writer Sid Lowe and the hashtag #SOSRealOviedo. This share offer was not a goodwill gesture either—a purchase of four shares entitled fans to attend the club’s Annual General Meeting.  

The result was incredible. Fans and non-fans alike pitched in, along with high profile former players, to do their part. In the end, Real Oviedo passed their target and the 87 year old club survived another day (and season).

Though not all clubs will want to go down this route, outright supporter ownership may not necessarily be a precursor for success in a share scheme. Manchester United’s New York Stock Exchange IPO, with Class A shares offering 1/10th of the voting rights of Class B shares held by the Glazer family, indicates that investment can succeed without ceding control. Despite fears the IPO would tank last year, United’s shares are up 20% in value from 12 months ago.

In the end, football clubs are far better positioned than most other companies and community organisations to take full advantage of social media in an open, authentic way that serves both their own interests and the interests of their hardcore tribe. In the future, honesty will be the best policy, and clubs will be far more audacious in how they engage online with other clubs, other professionals, and most important, their fans.

This article by @RWhittall is the third post in the ‘Future of Football’ series for @21stClub.

Related posts:

#1 The Future of Football series – how teams will win 10 years from now

#2 In the future: the manager will become obsolete 

About Richard Whittall

Richard Whittall has created 28 entries.