- Clubs and leagues using a more ‘human’ tone on social media to engage fans
- Strategy has been particularly evident in international markets, where clubs seek to differentiate themselves from the competition
- Data shows it leads to significantly increased engagement, improving value of propositions to sponsors and broadcasters
In April 2018, the top three social media posts by any football account worldwide all came from one club: Italian side AS Roma.
That month had seen Roma come back from 4-1 down against Champions League favourites Barcelona, winning 3-0 in Rome to progress to the semi-finals. The most popular football tweet of the month was the club’s official response to the full-time whistle of that game, which read:
DAJEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEeifefefbejfwjofnwjfnwjfbrufbwfubweufbewfuewbewbfwejfwjlfjfwfjlwfjbfjwfbwjfbwjofwjfnewjofnewjofnwjfnweAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!! #RomaBarca 3⃣-0⃣#ASRoma #UCL
— AS Roma (@OfficialASRoma) April 10, 2018
The tweet generated 182,000 retweets and 320,000 likes in the days after it was posted. It was arguably the culmination of a strategy set out several years earlier by the club to ‘humanise’ its social media channels in an attempt to win over new followers. It has meant things like heavy use of memes, cultural references and interaction with other official football accounts – as well as outbursts of raw emotion – and is part of a growing trend that has crested in the past year, with more and more football properties joining the ‘banter’ trend.
As Lewis Wiltshire, consulting partner at digital agency Seven League, puts it: “There has been an awakening in the last few years across football, as clubs have realised the potential for social media to be something more than a platform for press releases. Clubs like Roma have offered a greater motivation to the rest to take risks with their tone of voice, and it’s something that we’re only going to see more of.”
The attention economy
Roma was an early adopter of the lighter, more humorous tone to official content. Paul Rogers, Roma’s head of social and digital media, joined the club in 2015 and spearheaded its push in this direction. He says the foundations of the approach were to “be as engaging as possible, be fan-first, be entertaining, and ultimately be human.”
As Rogers saw it, social media had transformed quickly over the early years of its existence, from egalitarian communications platforms that allowed people to coalesce around shared interests to something that had been “hijacked by brands who started to use it more like television: a one-way medium where you have a faceless corporation speaking at, not with, people.”
The first step in changing how Roma looked at its own social media was to “think of ourselves as being in the entertainment business,” says Rogers. Rather than using the club’s social media accounts to “push corporate messaging”, he encouraged the club to devise ways to make people actively enjoy following its accounts.
“It’s become a cliché, but it’s true that attention is now the most valuable asset brands are looking for,” he says. “If no one pays attention to them, brands are technically dead. Content that we put out has to be engaging, it has to be something that makes people stop when they’re flicking through Instagram or Twitter.”
When Roma first adopted this strategy in 2015, banter offered a way to differentiate one football feed from another and “carve out a unique voice”, as Rogers puts it. He notes that a list of the most-followed clubs on social media would feature most of the same names as a list of the most commercially and sportingly successful.
“If we just do exactly the same as all the other clubs, which have a history of success and more money than us, then that gap between us stays exactly the same,” says Rogers. “I think one of the reason people like our content is that we don’t win every week, and we acknowledge that, and have some fun with it. We have to do something different to be noticed, we can’t necessarily rely on that on-pitch performance every week to build a fan base.”
Tapping into people’s emotions – whether that’s after a victory or a defeat – is a crucial part of the strategy, he adds. “How do we make people feel closer to the team? How do we make them feel more involved? How do we move them emotionally? Everyone is drowning in information, but when you attach an emotion to that information, I think people retain it, it sticks with them, and they come back for more.”
Evidence supports his claims. Two months after the Barcelona tweet, in June – during the Fifa World Cup, a month in which Roma played no competitive first team fixtures – the club’s English account broke new ground in engagement, with its posts announcing several new signings over the course of the month hitting an average engagement rate of 290 per cent – that is, Roma’s tweets were interacted with by almost three times as many people as actually follow its accounts. Its closest rival globally, Turkish side Fenerbahçe, hit an average engagement rate of 28 per cent that month.
The battle for attention is even more pronounced when rights-holders are attempting to communicate with new fans in international territories. Germany’s Bundesliga is another football property that has made banter a core part of its social media strategy and has placed social media at the centre of its push to win fans outside its domestic territory.
“Social media for the Bundesliga is really all about building the brand,” says Andreas Heyden, chief executive of DFL Digital Sports, the arm of German football’s governing body that handles social and digital activity. “But in Germany we have a challenge: 1.5 billion people in the world speak English, 600 million speak Spanish. Only 150 million people speak German. So the question for us is: how do we get a 17-year-old Thai school boy with a €200 Android phone excited about and engaged with the Bundesliga?”
Like Rogers at Roma, Heyden and the Bundesliga’s solution was to engage fans with a more humorous, more human tone, tailoring their efforts by using local cultural references in “key trigger markets.”
“The approach we found best is that it’s not about just translating content, it’s not about internationalising content,” Heyden says. “It’s about creating locally relevant stories, in the local language. That means using local agencies, having as much local knowledge as you can gather, and especially using data from past efforts. The best thing about social media is that it’s instant feedback: if a piece of content gets likes, it’s working. If it doesn’t, it’s not. Then you go back and start again and look at the data we get.”
The Bundesliga looks at multiple data points from each piece of content – not only how much engagement a post got, but what kind of users it attracted, in which geographical territories, in order to streamline and improve its strategy and land upon the right tone and kinds of content.
There are several reasons banter content has tended to be more visible on international platforms than native-language accounts. The first, Heyden explains, is simply that international accounts allow clubs and rights-holders the chance to experiment away from their core audience, to try new tones of voice and kinds of content.
“Here, the German language is our advantage,” he says. “Everything the Premier League says can be heard around the world. But if we put something out in English or in Japanese, those messages will never be seen by the German market; there is a lot of banter we are doing that is never seen by a German fan. We can see what works and what doesn’t in different environments.” On platforms which allow it, such as Facebook and YouTube, content is often geo-blocked so that users in Germany, Austria and Switzerland can’t access it at all.
Furthermore, international growth is a – if not the – key objective for major football rights-holders whose exposure is often at saturation domestically. Bundesliga champion Bayern Munich, for example, plays it relatively safe with its German- and English-language accounts, but has established a separate US-focused Twitter presence, operated from its office in New York, that is notable for its conversational tone.
“The US is the most competitive sports and entertainment market in the world, and while the sport is growing, interest is still low,” says Rudolf Vidal, Bayern’s president of Americas. “It doesn’t matter how many titles we have won in Germany, we need to do something to distinguish ourselves against all the sports leagues and other forms of entertainment that are all competing for the attention of fans. In tactical terms, that means adopting a more humorous, interactive and real-time approach.”
Learning to ‘speak social’
It is difficult for purely match day-related content to break out beyond the typical Bundesliga audience, says Heyden, unless something truly exceptional happens on the pitch. When Bayern striker Robert Lewandowski came off the bench to score five goals in nine minutes, it drew the eyes of football fans – and even non-football fans – from around the world. “But something like that is rare, and we can’t rely on Lewandowski performing miracles every week to boost our engagement,” says Heyden.
The problem with match-day content, he says, is that “you only reach the audience who are already looking for that kind of content, who already know about the game or have already seen the game.”
Banter content, on the other hand, appeals to a far wider spectrum and can draw in social media users who wouldn’t usually be interested in the Bundesliga, or even in football content.
A recent example from the Bundesliga’s Twitter feed involved the use of a famous sketch from the British comedy show That Mitchell and Webb Look, lampooning the constant barrage of football pushed to viewers by pay-TV channels. The Bundesliga advertised its own weekend fixtures using quotes from the sketch, with one tweet reading:
Also coming up Saturday, the giants of Bremen play host to the titans of Frankfurt
…making them both seem normal sized. pic.twitter.com/Gu7mJDajyB
— Bundesliga English (@Bundesliga_EN) January 24, 2019
The series of posts earned retweets, replies and likes into the tens of thousands, on an account with around 800,000 total followers. It was suggested, Heyden explains, by one of the US-based agencies DFL Digital Sports works with, which had noticed the popularity of the sketch among football fans online.
Fluency across multiple platforms and knowledge of the language of the internet is key to any successful social strategy, but particularly when a rights-holder wants to achieve an authentic, human voice.
“It’s absolutely key that we all use social media in our personal lives,” says Rogers. “We don’t turn off when we leave work and we don’t turn on when we come in. We’re constantly engaging with social media and digital media in our own ways. The way people use social is constantly evolving so we need to keep up with that. I don’t want to name any names, but you see some clubs on social media trying to do ‘banter’ and it doesn’t work because they’re not posting how people actually post.”
Heyden adds that it is crucial to have young people who “speak social” on your team. “It’s important to have talent, but it’s also important to understand the language,” he says. He reels off a diverse list of platforms, some established, some new and emerging – Reddit, 4chan, 9gag, TikTok, among others – which he says DFL Digital Sports staff regularly use, “just to get a sense of the tone and the new emerging memes. One thing you don’t want to do is use memes that your target audience are bored of or which have played out – that’s a sure sign you’re not doing it authentically.”
Wiltshire says there is significant evidence to suggest that an authentically human approach to social media posting results in increased engagement – which, more than reach, is the ultimate goal of clubs and rights holders.
“Of course you want reach as well as engagement, but one without the other is pointless,” he says. “Social media companies put the follower number in great big numbers, front and centre, on your account, as a kind of live public score, but it’s actually one of the worst metrics possible. Reach without engagement is like having people queuing up outside your shop, but no one is coming in to buy anything.”
Wiltshire notes that posts from Seven League client Tottenham Hotspur’s Twitter account tend to attract far higher levels of engagement than that of Manchester City, for example, despite the English champions having more than double the total number of followers. “And that’s all down to tone of voice and targeting of content to an audience,” he adds. “Even though they’re a ‘top six’ team and maybe didn’t need to do it, Tottenham took a risk on their social strategy, and we can see that it’s paying dividends now.”
Engagement into revenue
Once that higher engagement has been won, the challenge becomes converting it into revenue – although Rogers notes that, while revenue growth is ultimately the aim of everything a professional football club does, “it’s not something I need to sit here and think about. We know that, in the long term, engaged people pay off.”
He points to Roma’s recently-launched Pidgin account. “We interact with lots of Nigerian fans through our English account, they were asking for a Pidgin account and it’s quite easy for us to offer that,” he says. “And now those fans are engaged in a much stronger way than they would have been, and already we’ve seen some of them saying, ‘this is unreal, I’m going to buy a Roma jersey.’ We haven’t done anything to direct them to do that, but simply by providing a service, by showing some respect to those Nigerian fans, we’ve seen some commercial gains in the first few weeks after launch.”
Adds Wiltshire: “There’s no harm in just building a large audience, even if you don’t see any direct revenue from it…you build a large and engaged audience that sponsors then notice.”
For the Bundesliga, which lacks any direct-to-consumer sales channels, social media is at the heart of its international marketing. Heyden explains: “Every marketing activity that we’re doing right now is a bet that in one to four years, whenever the next rights cycle comes, we have reached more users, those users are more engaged, they’re driving value in the local market, and the value of our brand and our media rights has grown.
“Social and digital is the chance for us to fire up new markets. If we can grow interest in a territory where football is popular but the Bundesliga has low recognition – US, Mexico, Indonesia, South Africa, Philippines for example – and show this to broadcasters, then we have done our job.”