As 2012 begins, Manchester United is closing in on reaching 22 million fans on its Facebook page.
The club’s arrival at the 20 million mark was much heralded by the club and media just over a couple of months ago but in reality what does it mean and what if any significance does this statistic hold.
For United fans from Manchester who have grown up supporting the club from their formative years I suspect that this information will hardly bat an eye-lid.
Nor will it carry much weight with those supporters that have become genuinely disenchanted with the club during the recent years of Glazer ownership.
However in a period that some have started to feel alienated, the club has amassed almost 22 million followers on the social media network. So what’s it all about? And why are all football clubs, not just United, spending so much time developing their social media strategies and platforms?
It’s simple, the landscape on which the foundations of English football were built have changed inextricably over the last 20 years.
From Hillsborough and the ensuing Taylor report, to Italia 90 and the idea that football could be fashionable, to the creation of the exclusive Premier league. Football has moved down a path that can never be un-trodden with a far greater commercial emphasis prevalent than ever before.
Stadiums were remodelled and restructured, ‘Super Sunday’ replaced ‘The Big Match’ and World stars like Juninho, Jurgen Klinnsmann and Eric Cantona came in their droves. All highly skilled entertainers helping clubs and more importantly Television to sell football as a product. The last Tv deal alone was worth £1.782bn between 2010 – 2013; a far cry from the £190m pumped into clubs between 1992 – 1997
Football then has become about generating incomes. Fans are seen as customers of the club with terms like ‘monetising the fan base’, more and more common in boardroom’s up and down the country. Football clubs have not forgotten their origins nor the traditional social groups and communities from which they once derived, it’s just that they now sit alongside global communities.
Club’s up and down the country still actively engage in worthy community projects across areas like crime prevention, education, health and social inclusion, however, whereas once sports historians like Tony Mason described them and players as ‘exemplars of spirits and behaviour for the communities they represent’ and as offering communities a sense of ‘identity with or belonging to a group or collectivity’ –things have moved on. The top end of the Premier League has become placeless. Local lads made good like Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes at United, Steven Gerard and Jamie Carragher at Liverpool have over the last 5 years become the exception to the rule and not the norm.
Foreign stars like Ji Sung-Park, Nani, Anderson, Sergio Aguero, Yaya Toure et al open up new boundaries for club’s to break through new social barriers and create and attract more fans. Community is no longer bound by a geographical area or social class it is global and crucially online.
Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube give clubs the opportunity to offer fans additional areas of interest and engagement above just the match day experience. Each of these areas, in turn, represents a potential sale opportunity, particularly if offers are tailored to, say, facebook fans only, which create a sense of exclusivity.
Football clubs, which have traditionally made their money from ticket sales, media rights, sponsorship and merchandising, have good reason to invest in this area. Few fans are as rabidly loyal as football supporters and many are happy to increase the cash they spend on their team.
Only so many fans can go to games each week. Old Trafford has a capacity of around 76,000 but what of the estimated target audience of 500m fans globally that United has identified? While the 500 million figure is open to question, the current facebook following in itself provides evidence that not every fan is going to be able to satisfied by the match-day experience. So clubs like United and long-time rivals Liverpool with 7.6 million facebook followers and a 45,000 capacity need to cater for a wider market.
The ‘like’ button that provides a social endorsement and is a tiny mnemonic designed to make club branding catchier also acts as a consistent messaging tool. By clicking ‘like’ you are effectively opting in to club communications hitting your news feed. The underlying principle being for club’s to place communications in your feed and sub-conscious to help them to deliver direct and indirect income streams into their accounts.
The ability of facebook and other applications to allow users to ‘check in’ from various physical locations also provides club marketing teams with vital data that they can utilise to target advertisers.
“I see this as a huge opportunity,” Richard Ayers, Head of Digital at Manchester City.
“We get 40,000 people turning up every week, all carrying these cards – if you can’t do something with that, then you’re doing something wrong.”
It would be wrong however to assume that revenue opportunities are only aimed at fans. Apps, games and social media sites contain advertising space that can be used to increase the value of sponsorship packages sold to brands. Liverpool, for example, promotes its sponsor, Standard Chartered Bank, on an iPhone and iPad app called Liverpool Shootout.
Still, many of the Premier League’s big boys have a lot to learn about social media, and yet clubs have a distinct advantage over regular brands – their target audience is far more willing to be engaged through the medium.
Recent media reports suggest that Manchester United’s appointment of SapientNitro as its global digital agency will attempt to address this issue through the creation of its own global social network for fans. Hosting multimedia content, offering advertising space and sponsorship opportunities for brands will be central to this project as will the ability to provide the club with an e-commerce facility to generate income from club merchandise.
The aim – to drive engagement with the club’s fans and tap into Asian markets, where United has a strong following and Smartphone use is growing rapidly.
2 miles away from Old Trafford, City are making huge strides of their own on and off the pitch. With a fraction of the fan-base of their more illustrious neighbours and indeed the likes of Liverpool, Arsenal et al – City undoubtedly helped by their status as the world richest football club have been able to roll out a number of digital offerings to increase fan engagement and boost their online presence.
Since their 2008 emancipation by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Citizens have moved from strength to strength on the field. A £500m spend on players has ensured that City now sit proudly on top of the Premier League having usurped Chelsea as the competition’s big spenders.
However while on field performances have improved as dramatically as their transfer activity significant funding has also been pumped in to the club’s other areas of operation. Merchandising, Marketing and Communications have been cranked up a notch. Their digital agenda now augments City’s vision to become financially self sustainable and England’s No 1 Club.
Losses of £194.9m last year, the biggest ever reported in English football history and £121m and £93million in the seasons preceding 2010-11 are perhaps indicative that there is still much to be done but the club is still bullish about its future.
Turnover and commercial revenues have increased considerably and City’s step to partner with YouTube earlier this term should only strengthen their ability to grow their brand. By partnering with YouTube City are effectively opening themselves up for business with billions of worldwide users of the online video distribution platform.
The club’s move in this direction is all the more insightful when you consider that virtually every other club in England currently charges its website users for access. City have had the foresight to buck that trend but how long will it last?
Ayers, for one believes City are well placed to serve their next generation of fans.
“Our goal is to deliver a market-leading experience for fans and in terms of online video. That means delivering the great content we make to where the audience is – ie on YouTube.
“The ability to increase our reach and to increase accessibility to audiences is great but we’re also looking forward to exploring the way in which we can put an entire architecture across the whole website.
“The YouTube deal is part of the club’s long term strategy to develop ongoing commercial partnerships with leading online and social media companies.”
The big challenge for City and all clubs is to engage but still be in a position to look for a return on investment. The YouTube partnership helps to address this issue but it is only a part of the solution. While City, publically at least are keen to stress fan engagement is paramount, it will become critical for them in the not too distant future to somehow further increase the revenue to meet Uefa Financial Fair Play Regulations. Champions League Football will help but the club must also maximise returns from the hardcore 40,000 or so fans that regularly turn up at The Etihad Stadium.
One way this is being done and will continue to grow is via the use of the club’s corporate hospitality and membership and loyalty card scheme.
There will be a point where all clubs reach saturation point in this respect, where engagement becomes purely marketing but that is the challenge facing club’s up and down the land as they move slowly into the digital age.