Social Media and the ‘Reversal’ of Football Fans
With big companies doing their utmost to make the most out of the more popular social networks, it isn’t surprising to see football clubs doing the same. The trendsetters are also unsurprising; Manchester City’s ‘project’ has expanded across the media spectrum and onto Twitter with aplomb, Barcelona, Manchester United and Real Madrid enjoy huge Facebook followings, and Liverpool have delivered a Pinterest presence above and beyond most ‘regular’ brands’ use of the platform.
Barca, Real and United have a combined Facebook following close to 100 million, but it wouldn’t take a genius to place these three at the top of the pile. Of course they have big ‘Like’ numbers – they’re the biggest, most famous clubs in the world – and they already have huge fanbases which would stay huge regardless of social media.
This is potentially a problem, and the issue was brought up by Barcelona business intelligence manager Pasi Lankinen during a talk at the ‘Sport and New Media’ Sport Business Group seminar. At over 31 million, Barcelona enjoys the biggest Facebook following for a football club in the world, but Lankinen admits there is a strange anomaly sports teams face on social networks.
He said: “Commercial organisations have big budgets and purchasing clients, who they are trying to make into ‘fans’ of their products. We are trying to do the reverse, we are trying to use the emotion of fans to create clients and consumers – and not just viewers – around the world.”
This reversal of fandom – or preaching to the converted – poses problems. A fan is a fan for life, in theory at least, so can a Facebook account only serve to grease the wheel? “New media does not build fans or make more fans,” Lankinen believes. “It is not about how many fans we have, it is what we do with them.”
One club clearly catering to fans and fans alone is Liverpool. Liverpool’s Pinterest account features everything from fan art and fan tattoos to baby pictures and previous kits – all with a Liverpool flavour, of course. It’s a massive collection, put together with the fervour of an obsessive fan for other obsessives, and a brilliant example of exploiting a social network to cater to a pre-existing fan base.
Some clubs are caught in a flux when it comes to social media. Manchester United on Facebook, for example, seems stuck between appealing to core fans and casuals. Of course, the casual appeal of United has helped it become the worldwide football heavyweight it is today, with the likes of George Best, David Beckham to Cristiano Ronaldo drawing unprecedented worldwide mainstream attention to the club for over 50 years. However, the ‘casual appeal’ of United’s Facebook page could easily be viewed as lax by club fans. These same club fans will be ‘grinning and bearing it’ in the aftermath of local rivals City winning the league at their expense, so perhaps its Facebook presence should mirror this approach rather than posting generic status updates like the below (posted just a week after the 2011/12 season’s dramatic final day):
If there’s one thing United has done right, then it’s using Facebook timeline to maximum effect. Scroll back in time and you’ll find exclusive, hi-res imagery from famous club moments such as the 1968 European Cup win against Benfica, and even sobering photographs from the Munich Air Disaster. It’s not as in-depth as Liverpool’s Pinterest page, but it provides an interesting glimpse of what all clubs will hopefully be providing for Facebook fans in the future.
Across the city, and on Twitter, United’s ‘noisy neighbours’ City would barely raise a squeak with only 359,285 followers compared to United’s 25 million on Facebook. The quality of their output more than makes up for it though, as Manchester City’s Twitter account is a shining example of how teams should use the platform.
With hourly updates linking to exclusive video content and news, the account does the main thing United’s Facebook doesn’t: it services fans’ needs. Whereas the United Facebook account will rarely offer something a fan doesn’t already know, City’s Twitter constantly offers up exclusive video and interviews and, crucially, interacts with fans. The account will never coax someone into supporting City but, and like Barcelona’s Lankinen believes social media should, it will strengthen the bond between existing fans and the club: “We want to move fans to buying our products, whether it is tickets or merchandising, buying both online and offline … To monetise – that is where the challenge is. The short-term goal is to monetise the emotion felt for the club.
“Communicating values is more long-term, talking about what we are and making more loyal fans, so that when you stop winning then something stays and they don’t move to the next team that is winning.”