Social Services

What content works best for each social media platform, and how to exactly measure what ROI is for a social media strategy, are two questions every major outward-facing business looks to answer on a daily basis. Elisha Chauhan asked social media experts from across the world what the answers are in sport and, through a series of case studies, looked at the challenges and opportunities facing a variety of rights-holders.

It’s long been established that there isn’t a single best practice or a one-fits-all solution when it comes to developing a social media strategy.

However, by learning what works best for different sports properties – from athletes and leagues to sponsors and sports broadcasters – and tailoring the ‘best bits’ according to your organisation’s own aims, there’s no doubt a comprehensive and valuable strategy can be created.

With a plethora of online networks to sign up to, an often limited social media department can be stretched both in terms of producing content and adapting it for each different platform.

The ‘big four’ social networks for sport – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube – each serve a very distinct function for sports properties. Facebook is used for longer pieces of content and tends to have the largest reach in terms of likes/followers. However, fan engagement is typically better achieved on Twitter through its conversational and ‘live’ nature. 

Picture-posting platform Instagram – featuring images varying from action shots during a game to what an athlete had for breakfast – attracts fans that want a deeper engagement with their favourite athlete, team or event. Meanwhile, YouTube acts as the perfect platform for a rights-holder to complement its TV broadcast partnerships.

The specifics of exactly what content works best is harder to pin down, but Alex Trickett – Twitter’s UK head of sport – believes that for his platform, there are guidelines that can be followed that will guarantee an increase in followers and engagement.

“You can’t boil down the perfect tweet, but in terms of what content to include, there are a number of factors sports properties need to consider,” Trickett told SportBusiness International. “I always recommend that people use the acronym BRAVE, which means base content on breaking news [B], create rich media with videos and images [R], amplify using hashtags and handles [A], value others by bringing your consumers into the conversation [V], and finally use exclusive material to show people what happens behind-the-scenes, and so on [E].”

Outside the Box

Many sports organisations told SportBusiness International that it can be difficult to get their voices heard over Twitter amongst all the noise created on the platform. To stand out, Trickett says, sports properties need to approach their sometimes mundane announcements in a different way.

Longer content should be posted on Facebook and fast news and updates should be used for Twitter

“A clever example of this was just prior to the FIFA World Cup when the Belgian national team was looking to generate more fans. They tweeted, ‘We’re adopting fans! Belgiumize your name on belgiumizeme.be and cheer
for Belgium at the #WorldCup!’. This drove traffic to its website and also brought users back to Twitter when the result of their new Belgium name was tweeted in an automatically-generated message that also included their website address. It created a full-cycle effect.”

However, that approach wouldn’t work across all social media platforms, and fans tend to use more than one – says Starcount managing partner Nick Bennett – meaning they expect different content on each.

Starcount is a social media hub where consumers can access their platforms of preference in one place, but more interestingly, the firm creates a ranking of what sports and entertainment properties are trending on a daily basis. This can be split into various demographics – such as north American sports, sportswear firms and athletes.

“You need a social strategy that works across all networks, however longer content should be posted on Facebook and fast news and updates should be used for Twitter,” Bennett told SportBusiness International.

“People tend to take one piece of content and post it on every platform – it’s seen as the 101 social media strategy but it is just simply not good enough.”

Follow the Leader

Unless you’re a well-known brand that can generate enormous organic growth without producing particularly engaging content, building a social media presence isn’t easy.

The way for smaller organisations to do it, says Bennett, is to target key influencers – people who have a mass following on social media and who are also a fan of the brand. Sharing their content, or just engaging in conversation with them, will bring their network closer to yours.

“When approaching a social media strategy, think about who and where your key influencers are, because you’re only as strong as the strength of your fans,” he adds. “What you can’t do is grow a strategy outside where your strengths are, so discovering your key influencers is where you should start.

“Superfans are the ones who build your brand for you on social media, so you have to make programmes that involve these people because they clearly have a love for your brand far greater than anyone in your marketing department. That will always add variety to your content too.”

There are various tools to identify who the key influencers are for a sports property, including Twitter’s TweetDeck, as well as a host of third-party sites that analyse social media content.

“From recent research we’ve carried out, we now know that one Arsenal fan who has a massive network of Twitter followers is on the club’s exclusive list of contacts for when they have an announcement to make,” says Twitter’s Trickett. “He’s not a journalist, but yet they recognise he can reach channels the media cannot.”

Going Global

In addition to the top four social media networks, there are also regional platforms that can help expand a brand into different markets.

Having a presence on these in places like China and Russia is particularly important as citizens of the countries have limited access to the world’s most popular social media platforms. In China, for example, Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube are all restricted.

As an example, Manchester United joined Chinese social media site Sina Weibo in July last year and already has 6.5 million followers. It also launched its Twitter account at the same time but currently has only 3.6 million followers.

Connecting with overseas key influencers can also be an effective strategy, as they can provide content in different languages – something that many sports properties find difficult given time and resources. If, however, that investment is available, sports properties should consider setting up various accounts for each platform to accommodate different markets.

European football giant Barcelona has 13 million followers on its English-language Twitter site, but in total it has 26 million followers across different Twitter accounts including those in Indonesian, Thai, Catalan and Spanish languages.

“There will be fans in every country that will post fantastic content about you – that hits two birds with one stone, because you don’t have to worry about translating text into different languages and you are also engaging with your key influencers,” adds Bennett. “Your role on social media, therefore, should be that of a curator and not always a creator.”

Return on Investment

Monetising social media efforts is still a process that needs development, and is the million-dollar question for nearly every sports organisation.

Whilst sports properties can promote ticket sales and merchandise on social platforms, they are not a shopping destination and consumers have to be directed to an organisation’s own or third-party website to make a purchase. This can make it difficult to measure the revenue directly derived from social media, even in simple sales terms.

To better understand the value of a social media footprint, Bennett says sports properties should first gain a clear understanding of what their KPIs are and what their share of the “social voice” is. Then they should measure income streams against peaks in interest and engagement on social media sites.

There are more and more instances where content has been associated with a tangible income

“The thrust of what most sports properties have been doing on Twitter to date has concentrated on fan engagement, however there are more and more instances where content has been associated with a tangible income,” adds Trickett.

“For example, Newcastle United wanted to sell more season tickets so the club posted a tweet saying that if fans bought a season ticket today, they were in with a chance of having it delivered by the first-team goalkeeper, who then tweeted pictures with the winner.”

A strong social media following is also attractive to sponsors. Trickett takes the case of Budweiser which, as part of the activation its 2014 FIFA World Cup sponsorship, ran the Budweiser Man of the Match poll on Twitter during every single game of the tournament. The only way fans could vote in this poll was via the FIFA website or the sponsored function on Twitter.

Twitter also has an Amplify programme where it partners with a rights-holder and sponsor to generate promoted media. The sponsor pays the rights-holder for exclusive content and also Twitter for promoting it to a targeted demographic.

Twitter is also currently in the trial stages of the Buy Now programme that allows users to purchase products on the site without having to go to a third-party platform. It is currently being tested with 10 per cent of Twitter users in the United States, and is a functionality that could be well suited to numerous stakeholders in the sports industry.


To read case studies detailing leading sports rights-holders' social media strategies, please click the links below.

Case Study 1: Past Event – 2014 FIFA World Cup
Case Study 2: Future Event – ATP World Tour Finals
Case Study 3: Team – Dallas Cowboys
Case Study 4: Athlete – IMG Golf
Case Study 5: League – NBA
Case Study 6: Sponsor – Puma

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