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Spurs and Somerset lead the way on growing retail through social, but clubs still leaving money on the table

  • Research from marketing agency Red Hot Penny suggests clubs across the UK need  major rethink of how they convert social engagement into retail sales
  • Social media allows granular segmentation of audience and targeted retail marketing, but many clubs aren’t capitalising on the opportunities
  • Somerset County Cricket Club achieve biggest gains through clear brand definition and strong use of players as influencers

Increasing social media reach and engagement has become a huge priority for sport rights-holders in recent years. Many properties have taken a long-term approach to reaping the rewards from social media, but there are more immediate gains to be had – gains which sports clubs across the UK are currently struggling to make, according to recent research from marketing agency Red Hot Penny.

“Most, if not all, sports clubs now have a retail arm in some form or another, but we found that very few were using their social channels adequately to direct followers to spend money directly with their club,” says Red Hot Penny’s head of marketing Russ Powell, who oversaw the research behind the Social Scorecard report. “Diversifying revenue streams has become a priority for all levels of sports teams, who are now not just selling replica shirts and scarves, but leisurewear and fashion pieces as well. From our research, we feel there are still massive improvements to be made in the way clubs are promoting these product lines.”

Russ Powell, head of marketing, Red Hot Penny

The report analysed the Instagram, Facebook and Twitter profiles of 80 professional sports clubs across the UK and Ireland, from the behemoths of the Premier League to much smaller outfits in the Elite Ice Hockey League. Teams were ranked according to various factors, some fairly standard social media measures – such as average post engagement and overall engagement rates – and some novel to this report, such as followers per seat, which measures how many times over a team could fill its home stadium. It then performed a qualitative analysis over the ‘Black Friday’ weekend – one of the busiest shopping periods of the year – looking at how clubs were using their social channels to direct fans to a retail site or to make a purchase.

Retail in need of revolution

While Powell says there were several surprises to emerge from the research, the biggest was simply the lack of focus clubs have placed on boosting retail revenues through social media.

“It’s really one of the areas that clubs are falling down at the moment, in that they’re not placing much emphasis on driving sales despite often having these highly-engaged audiences,” he says. “There were very few club profiles that linked to a retail site. And even when clubs were posting retail-type posts to promote a new kit or new bit of merchandise – which were few and far between – even those often weren’t going directly to a shoppable site.”

Many clubs operate extensive retail operations – either independently or in collaboration with a licensed merchandise partner like Fanatics – but the lack of sophisticated strategies for transitioning fans from social engagement to actually making a purchase means a majority of sports teams are leaving money on the table, says Powell.

A more cohesive approach to retail can provide a crucial revenue driver throughout the calendar, both during the off-season and in between matchdays. “Obviously, clubs aren’t retailers, per se,” he says. “But they are retailing, and they need to start shifting towards a retailing mindset. There’s no point going big for a kit launch and selling all your kit in that two-week period, and then doing nothing for the rest of the season. It’s about driving consistent retail returns throughout the season. The holy grail for sports teams is driving online, non-matchday purchases. Clubs need to rethink their retail approach to be able to do that more effectively.”

Jon Ford, a senior consultant at digital sports agency Seven League who has worked extensively with Tottenham Hotspur – placed third on the Social Scorecard ranking – says a major part of the problem is simply that the sport business is playing catch-up to how the public is using social media platforms and mobile devices.

Jon Ford, Seven League

“Traditionally, social media has not been the key driver for your last-click conversions to sales,” says Ford. “Social media is typically consumed on mobile, and we are only a few years into a world where people are willing to make purchases without question on a mobile phone.”

There is still a tendency to see social media as something that “is great for building awareness and showing people products that they might then purchase on a desktop”, he says. “Until those mobile user journeys became slick and easy, whether it’s things like mobile payments or just navigation and browsing, the potential of social as a retail platform isn’t going to be realised.” Social channels are starting to provide this functionality, with Instagram offering an in-app sales platform, but it is up to clubs to take advantage of these features, something Ford says they aren’t doing presently.

Social media activity around retail can roughly be divided into proactive and reactive efforts, Powell explains – that is, regular posts which remind fans of the opportunity to buy merchandise, and those which push specific product lines in response to recent or forthcoming events. While most clubs do both to some extent, the teams that came out highest in the rankings – Somerset County Cricket Club, Scottish Premiership champions Celtic and Spurs were in the top three positions – were those “that are filling the gaps between fixtures effectively”.

“Rather than just posting ‘around game’ content, they were putting posts out that are pulling on the history of the club, profiling players, looking at community activity, competitions, stuff that effectively fills the gap between fixtures in terms of content and ensures that the club brand stays front of mind and in people’s news feeds throughout the week,” says Powell. “On top of this, they were relating that content back to the retail opportunities.”

In terms of reactive content, Powell says clubs need to start thinking “like retailers promoting sunglasses and swimsuits in a heatwave” when it comes to responding to major events in the course of a season. “If Spurs are going to be in the FA Cup final, for instance, that’s naturally going to lead to higher engagement on their channels,” he says. “They should then be pushing retail, promoting those one-off commemorative items like scarves as well as shirts.”

Even away from such exceptional occurrences, Powell says clubs can take a proactive approach. “If the team has a brilliant result and Harry Kane scores a hat-trick, why would clubs not be issuing a retail call-to-action saying, ‘buy the new kit, get Kane’s name on the back’, and offer deals on that kind of thing? It’s really about that shift in mentality, away from ‘build it and they will come’ to being much more proactive about engaging fans.”

Understanding your brand

The model is of sports clubs building better social media strategies to drive custom to major existing retail operations, but number-one club Somerset has done it the other way around.

At the time of the Social Scorecard research was carried out, the cricket club didn’t even operate its own retail arm – it used a third-party affiliate, Somerset County Sport, that focuses more on sporting equipment than official merchandise.

Such was its success at directing customers, the club has recently taken the decision to launch its own leisurewear and merchandise range, which will be managed by an in-house retail department.

Its social media power is no accident: Somerset was among the first county cricket sides to appoint a dedicated employee – digital marketing and communications executive Ben Warren – and it has since led the way in the sport, with higher average engagement rates and more followers per seat across its social channels than any of its rivals.

Ben Warren

What can other clubs – from within cricket and across sport – learn from Somerset’s approach? Warren says it’s all about brand.

“We’re at a point where the brand of Somerset County Cricket Club has never been stronger,” he says. “Our new chief executive, Andrew Cornish, is very brand-centric, and he’s asked us to look at exactly what it is that we see as the ‘Somerset brand’, with very strict guidelines about how we present ourselves.”

Taunton, where the team plays its home fixtures, has a population of just 60,000, but Somerset as a county traditionally has a large cricket fanbase and lacks other high-profile professional sport teams. So for Somerset, the brand is community, and the club has turned a former weakness into a strength.

Warren explains: “We’ve become something of a community hub for the area, and for a while that was hurting us,” says Warren. “We were doing so many things, we were saying to people not just ‘come to the cricket’, but ‘come to a concert here, come buy a coffee, come to this show, come shop here, host your wedding here.’ It was too much messaging; we were saying too much. But what we’ve done is turned that into a positive for the club and led with the fact that we are at the centre of a community.

“We’ve been working really hard on social media for a few years, which has allowed us to shape that brand very precisely and directly to fans. I think the shop that we now own plays into that, and the major benefit is that we control everything. It gives us that opportunity to grow Somerset through our own channels.”

Running the store in-house, in combination with the data Somerset can gather from its social media channels, will allow the club to do “very concentrated campaigns on each audience segment”, says Warren. “The shop will be interesting for us to really nail down and look at what people want, what ranges are popular, what times are most popular and what sort of campaigns we can run digitally to make it successful.”

The community feel has been baked into the club’s retail offering, which focuses significantly on the players who, while not being high-profile influencers in the way that Premier League superstars might be, fit in well with Somerset’s market positioning. “Cricketers are very accessible and attainable as people,” Warren says. “There’s a more direct, human relationship between players and fans, it’s more of a one-to-one connection, and we find that having [former England opening batsman] Marcus Trescothick, for instance, appear in an endorsement still carries a lot of weight for us.”

Powell notes that while not all sports clubs will share the same advantages as Somerset, they will all have some advantage they can leverage to strengthen their brands: “What works for Somerset is not going to be what works for [British Basketball League side] the Bristol Flyers or [Pro14 outfit] Ulster Rugby, but they will all have something that they can find that’s a hook, and then it’s about relating your retail efforts back to that.

“Are they the outsider that that no one likes, them against the world? Are they the heart of the community? Are they all about youth development? And it’s about harnessing that unique personality that a club has as well and using that to engage fans.”

Tottenham Hotspur have been successful in using player endorsements to promote their retail efforts on social media

Understanding your audience

Grasping the unique appeal of a club’s particular brand is crucial to the success of social media retail efforts, says Ford, who notes that “without high-quality content that has a distinctive tone of voice, with the long-term objective of being market-leading, none of this really works. You can keep banging the drum of trying to get people to buy products, but firstly you have to engage them, get them to buy into what it is the club stands for and is trying to achieve”.

Furthermore, says Warren, a nuanced understanding of the makeup of your audience is crucial to tailoring a social retail strategy. Cricket in particular, he believes, has held itself back by holding onto some demographic stereotypes, and actually has more growth potential than most other sports because of clubs’ reluctance to enter the digital game.

“We’ve seen a massive shift in the perceptions of our audience in the last five years,” he says. “Our members tend to be of an older demographic, who perhaps wouldn’t have touched social media back then. But now they’re on Facebook, they’re on Twitter, and we can see how our audiences on those platforms break down and make informed decisions about what we’re trying to sell, where, and to who.”

Ford notes that in a crowded marketplace, using paid promotion on social media, rather than relying purely on organic reach, is an even more effective way of capitalising on that data, but is something clubs have been reluctant to do, having enjoyed unfettered access to their fanbases until recent algorithm changes by the networks.

“Historically, clubs have been incredibly lucky,” he says. “You become a fan of the club based on the postcode that you’ve been born into. It’s only at the point at which sports entertainment has become a global business and the land grab for those previously neutral fans, has meant that clubs have to understand better how to market and position themselves around the world.

“When it comes to retail, I think clubs are lucky that they have large, devoted fanbases. But in a world where organic posts on social media may only reach one per cent of your fanbase, it would be unwise to assume that you couldn’t drive greater value out of those channels by utilising paid to reach a targeted audience, which is then all about understanding the segments and understanding who is most likely to buy and at what time and via which channel.”

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