03 July 2014

Social media for football clubs: great content beats bad engagement

All too often social media remains a public relations bolt-on or becomes an unwelcome extension to the in-house journalists' remit at football clubs. Not every Premier League club has a specialist, a reality I just can't get my head around in 2014.

"A specialist" doesn't mean some inexperienced kid who got a load of followers for his own account by half-inching funny photos in the godforsaken and misappropriated name of "banter". It means a specialist.

Engagement is the ultimate social media tickbox, the go-to success measurement, the straight and narrow, but content is the real weapon in a football club's arsenal. 

Why? Because fans, while many would happily agree that they want to feel as if their club is engaging, don't care about the engagement statistics. They want the same value from their club as they get from the brands they follow and that means the clubs need a fully functioning, properly developed and professionally executed content strategy.

It's a matter of understanding and respecting the user experience. Too many clubs don't seem to understand the basic essence of the retweet mechanic: if you retweet a tweet, all of the people who follow you will, or rather could, see it.

It's worth considering whether they want to see it.

I follow my club on Twitter and like them on Facebook because it's my club. I could unfollow but I want the official news when it drops, and I want important updates about fixtures, new signings (only joking), tickets, all that stuff. I get that from what is a useful service; I don't want to unfollow the club.

The downside is an endless stream of "Fangagement 101" for which the industry has created a name after many years of negotiation and brainstorming: crap.

A retweet from the club of some gurning idiot wearing a club shirt probably makes his or her day, but for the rest of us it's pollution. Facebook pictures of supporters wearing their shirts at Land's End or up a mountain or by a palm tree are pollution. Baby pictures, amusing cute-as-hell club bib or not, are pollution.

The people who sit there knocking out retweets on a matchday probably think they're doing the right thing because that's the way they've been taught: engagement, engagement, engagement. Give the fans what they want. Make them feel part of it, because the rulebook says that we need to be human and authentic and accessible.

It's damaging not only to the experience for followers. It also exposes a club's lack of a clear tone of voice ("Happy Friday!" social team at Aston Villa? "Matchday Eve!" Really?!), the absence of a content strategy and a complete mis-understanding of the basic mechanics behind the well-intentioned decisions made at one end that turn followers' timelines into a deluge of valueless shite at the other.

Clubs are starting to produce brilliant, high-quality and creative content on a regular basis. It's a real boost to the supporter experience, from interviews with the players to behind-the-scenes footage or even commissioned artwork and photography that wouldn't be out of place on Hypebeast or in The Green Soccer Journal.

There are good content producers working with football clubs. There is content out there that really adds something to the experience of following a club, both online and in the longstanding figurative sense out in the real world.

I worry that it's overlooked wrongly in the name of engagement. It's a retweets game, ultimately, but the route-one "engagement" used by some clubs fails in that regard anyway. People retweet the best content, not user-generated guff whose relevance barely extends beyond the living room of one specific supporter. In most cases the club is the last to retweet this stuff before it hits a brick wall. That should ring alarm bells in the office and it concerns me that it doesn't.

Clubs, like the best brands in social, need to be creative, innovative and very, very picky about what they post because that's what supporters want as they develop into discerning consumers of branded content. Put your audience first by servicing them, not making them your weakest content. My recommendation to any club I worked with would be to never retweet any individual fan unless they have some previous link to the audience. I'm not totally heartless.

Because they don't employ specialists, some clubs are yet to get to grips with the idea that bad engagement (yes, bad engagement - comment below if you must) leaves one fan with a fuzzy feeling inside but thousands wondering what kind of professional is running social media at their club. It costs more in terms of potential engagement than it gains in actual engagement; slowly but surely, supporters are beginning to expect better.

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