Fans Have Never Been So Engaged Thanks to Social Media

To delve into the opportunity social media presents for fan engagement we enlisted the expertise of Julian Goode, a digital, editorial and content production specialist with over 25 years experience in journalism and digital media. Julian is also co-founder of DigitalMode and equally as importantly, is a life-long, passionate sports fan. Over to you, Julian:

Remember the days when you had to go to great lengths to get info about your favourite team? It’s only 30 years back I was forced, as a Brighton fan at university in Hull, to trudge to a phone box in the rain at 10.30 at night to pump it with change and call a premium club line to find out the result (let alone what happened) from an ‘important’ League game that evening. Boy have things changed, and not only for phone boxes and Brighton fans.

The whole information paradigm has shifted massively in the intervening decades. As fans we’ve never been better informed. And as clubs, whether in football or other team sports, the opportunities for fan engagement have never been greater, with the never-ending rise of social media this decade.

In truth, as a fan, the mass of information sources pumping us stuff to consume is sometimes exhausting. Not only because of the effort required to sort the wheat from the chaff, sift the nonsense and enjoy the worthwhile, or turn down the volume on a welter of overly-irritating conflicting opinion on social media or talk radio.

But the path to info nirvana is lit up for those lucky enough to be able to construct a consumption model suited to their unique tastes as a fan. We all kind of believe that our team is only really out there for us, and we’re the only ones who really appreciate and understand what’s going on. Digital media now allows us to pad out that delusion by filling our non-matchday dreariness with everything we could possibly dream of, if you’re lucky and follow a club satisfying just enough of your preferred digital touchpoints.

Engagement with fans used to be pretty non-existent

Reverting to history for a moment, back in the day what real engagement did most clubs actually have with their fans? The transactions were simple: fans turned up on matchdays, paid anonymously in cash, maybe bought a programme, maybe bought something nowadays condemned from an in-ground food outlet, maybe ventured into a club shop in the unlikely event there was one, then went home. Nothing more for two weeks. Silence and blackness as the floodlights faded into the distance on the walk back to the car.

These days your biggest challenge post-match is not falling over other people busy staring at their smartphones rather than looking at where they’re going, especially as you’re also frantically refreshing Twitter to get that first managerial comment on the dodgy penalty decision that just cost you three certain points.

So pause for a second, freeze-frame the fans shuffling home in the winter darkness, and put yourself at the helm of a club’s digital communications – and just think for a moment how great those engagement opportunities are. Assume money’s no object, some sporting success is a given, and you’ve obviously got a great website and app in place because, let’s face it, you really should have by now. And, wow – where do you start?

Social media driving how clubs interact with fans

Well, okay, let’s start with the assumption that high-quality content is going to be at the forefront of everything you do – and that we’re looking at social media, because we’re talking engagement and interaction. And that you could neatly slot all the things you do into three broad reasons for doing them:

  1. Commercial opportunities, whether that’s extended sponsor branding, co-branded content creation, ad space, or simply selling things, like tickets, shirts, or even food and drink in-stadium
  2. Building an audience and data harvesting, because having an audience has got to be a good thing, to help with those commercial opportunities above, or driving people to your great website or app; or for that next digital opportunity sure to come around the corner next year
  3. That often overlooked reason of actually delivering a great fan experience, just for the hell of it

You could break things down into social networks, opportunities that work best on one particular channel. So a live stream from the training ground midweek, not giving any tactical secrets away, is ideally suited to Periscope, pushed through Twitter. While a live stream following the players out onto the pitch for a pre-match warm-up slots nicely onto Instagram, because you’ve been posting a stream of photos on there already from the moment fans started arriving outside the ground.

Pre-match predictions work nicely on Twitter with its polling functionality. But Facebook is a better place to put your longer-form post-match interviews, even if some of them only act as teasers for full versions behind a pay wall.

The truth is, a lot of content and content ideas end up being pushed across multiple channels. Such is the life of the knowledgeable club digital or social media team, constantly repurposing and tweaking content so that it is sized and edited to suit the bespoke needs of each channel.

Your fans are out there – give them content and they will come

Your fans are out there, and they’re out there in ever-increasing numbers, sometimes thousands of miles away from where you are. But of course they’re not all in one place online. So even if money is no object, the challenge is hitting the right networks with the right content at the right times, which usually means prioritising and not doing everything.

The challenges don’t stop there either. Savvy players are becoming savvier, or their agents are anyway. The growth of athlete-led channels such as The Players’ Tribune are a foretaste of battles to come over appearances and content ownership. So, for now, if as a club you have a great relationship between social media team and actual team, make the most of it, and grab as much content as you can. Your fans will love you, when it’s content they can’t get anywhere else.

And don’t forget that you know more about your players than any other outlet does or can be bothered to. So max out the opportunities for stats, and facts and figures, and unique insights. Pre-match team news graphics are de rigueur, but following up with an infographic on that new signing making his debut, or a player hitting an appearance landmark all feed the fan sweetspots not maxed out by match programmes and concourse TVs.

Video provides the big opportunity

Broadcast rights-holders obviously dominate the moving picture landscape, putting cameras in more and more places from in corner flags to on match officials. That’s not going to change, and limits the club’s ability to push match video on social channels. But the boundaries are still there to be pushed.

Live streaming non-rights games on social, such as pre-season friendlies in parts of Europe your average fan can’t quite convince the family to holiday in, are a great bonus for loyal supporters. As are reserve or youth team games, giving fans the chance to see the stars of the future.

Ironically, at lower levels of the game not blessed with the TV money but unhindered by rights deals, creative non-league clubs with dedicated staff or volunteers, are pushing out a mass of in-match video: from on-coach journey updates, to warm-up routines, goals and highlights themselves, to instant post-match interviews. It can be a great watch, putting ‘bigger’ clubs to shame a lot of the time.

In a lot of cases, the people behind the camera are fans themselves, volunteering to perform content creation roles just so other fans can consume from afar on social media. That’s how far we’ve shifted the paradigm when it comes to fan engagement – and, as a fan, that can only be a good thing.