Football clubs finding a voice their fans can relate to in social media gold rush
Banter is positively flowing from football club social media accounts. This summer has seen a space race of clubs attempting to outdo each other with creative videos and memes. Social posts have been going viral to the point of epidemic.
Aston Villa's July 3 Twitter announcement of John Terry's signing through the medium of a WhatsApp conversation between club owner Dr. Tony Xia, manager Steve Bruce and a host of current and former players was retweeted almost 21,000 times and liked almost 29,000 times.
"A couple of people in our content team came up with that one," Villa's head of communications, Tommy Jordan, explained to ESPN FC. "We then had to discuss the technical details of making the WhatsApp group, but we're going to keep that a secret because I know others have tried to find out how we did it.
"And the feedback was incredible. It does help when you are making one of the biggest signings in the club's history. We actually didn't seek approval from the owner, chief executive, manager or players. It came as a pleasant surprise to them all. Keith Wyness, the chief executive, actually discovered it during the press conference. We were on a tight turnaround after the announcement, and because John and the manager were flying to preseason training."
A marker had been laid, and a burst of creativity followed before last week, when Southampton lampooned the craze with "Another Unnecessarily Elaborate Football Club Signing Video," featuring motorboats and helicopters, to announce reserve goalkeeper Stuart Taylor penning a contract extension. That drew 30,000 retweets and 56,000 likes.
Its sharp satire was copied and pasted on Thursday when, in tribute, AS Roma overwrote the same footage to announce French forward Gregoire Defrel's arrival.
It is now not nearly enough to post images of players signing a contract on a desk to accompany a tweet, Facebook post or Instagram photo. In the view of Lewis Wiltshire, consulting partner at Seven League, a digital agency that has worked with clubs like Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Leicester City, Barcelona and Juventus, everything changed in August 2016 once Manchester United had announced Paul Pogba's world-record transfer with their "#pogback" campaign, featuring grime artist Stormzy, and a swirl of branded advertising for club sponsor Adidas.
"The same week United signed Pogba, Manchester City announced John Stones' signing," Wiltshire told ESPN FC. "The way they did it would have been OK in previous years and was really quite nice, but it happened at the same time as their biggest rivals had announced a signing in the most innovative way.
"Pogba changed the game. After that it had to be something different and you have seen it morph into the stuff we are seeing now. Some have hit the mark, others less so, but the Aston Villa Terry announcement was fantastic. And Southampton probably killed off the latest fad, but I don't think the trend will stop. There are 500 million tweets every day. There is so much noise that clubs have to cut through."
The name of the game is engagement. Social media can open doors to clubs that have been closed for decades, but the door is two-way. Clubs can get to know their fans better, too.
"I grew up as a Spurs fan," said Wiltshire. "I would write letters to Glenn Hoddle. And you would never have the first idea if he ever saw it. Now, a 10-year-old can tweet Harry Kane and maybe he might like their post. That proximity is good for fans, and for clubs, it's the data, because you know the click-throughs. And data is becoming the lifeblood of any organisation."
On Tuesday, Joe Hart was welcomed to the West Ham family with a 30-second video of him lined up within a team of Hammers fans, and there followed a subsequent barrage of media, including, on Thursday, a training clip of Pablo Zabaleta volleying the ball past the new goalkeeper. Amar Singh is head of content at the club.
Welcome to the family... pic.twitter.com/tx5cpRQDfg— West Ham United (@WestHamUtd) July 18, 2017
"As a club, it's vital we keep our fans informed in the best possible way and find new ways to engage with them," he told ESPN FC. "Social media tends to open up new and innovative avenues for this."
Singh acknowledged this summer as a spurt in creativity: "I'm enjoying seeing all the experimentation. It's indicative of how clubs have evolved their content strategy. Going viral is great and creating content that transcends our fan base will inflate the numbers, but I'm more interested in finding new ways to engage with fans and make them feel closer to the club. We all spend hours on our smartphones each day, so it's important to create content that resonates on these devices."
With the opportunities it offers, clubs have thrown themselves into social media. At Manchester City home matches, one row of the Etihad press box is filled with a phalanx of staff members tweeting out material across social media platforms in a variety of languages to reflect the global scope of the club.
However, some clubs are better than others within this brave new world. In the opinion of Wiltshire, "Spurs weren't always firing but they have vastly improved, though maybe I'm biased. A colleague from a top London social media agency who supports Arsenal admitted to me recently that Spurs are the best."
Manchester United's Pogba campaign reflects a strong overall social media strategy. "United were late to the game," said Wiltshire; United did not launch a Twitter page until April 2013. "But it was almost as if they spent their time watching and waiting. They were quickly very good, having seen others make mistakes."
And those arch-satirists at Southampton have carved out their own niche. "They use a tone that some of the bigger clubs couldn't get away with. Mischief is what their fans want. I think they can be uniquely Southampton."
Finding a voice fans that can relate to is vital to football's social media gold rush.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.