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What opportunities does Clubhouse present for fan engagement in sports?

Clubhouse, the audio-only, real-time, invite-only social app that lets users engage in virtual ‘rooms’, has exploded onto the social media stage recently. David Brake, consultant with specialist digital agency Seven League, outlines the benefits and risks to using the platform for sports rights-holders.

Clubhouse is an audio-only, real-time, invite-only social app that lets users engage in virtual ‘rooms’, with no recordings or later playback, that has exploded onto the social media stage in recent months. First launched in May 2020, it became a household name in early 2021 after Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg made appearances on the platform, followed by US entertainment stars including Oprah Winfrey and Kevin Hart.

What’s the angle for sports organisations?

This is a question Seven League is currently exploring. As with any new platform, there’s the temptation to just ‘jump in’, but it’s important to take a step back and analyse the value Clubhouse can deliver, and the risks associated with it. If you’re desperate to get stuck in, I would encourage sports and digital media executives to begin exploring the platform from a personal perspective to start drawing lessons they can use to develop a strategy for their brand.

In mapping out a Clubhouse strategy, we are mindful that different sports have different areas of risks and opportunity, with different stakeholders and talent accessibility. To provide the basis for an exploration of the benefits and risks, let’s use the standpoint of a single professional team, across no particular sport, considering getting their talent to engage with fans via the platform.

The benefits

It’s easy for talent to participate – Having professional athletes engage with new technologies, learn new software, test devices, and more, as they get to grips with a new media channel are headaches no-one needs. One positive for Clubhouse is that it’s very simple to use. The talent is able to do it from most locations using their smartphone. They only need to ensure a good, clear audio microphone (EarPods work), a solid Internet connection, and away you go.

First-mover advantage – There is value in being a ‘first-mover’, and there has been low engagement so far from global sports organisations on Clubhouse. If you are successful in your pilot, you will forever be a pioneer within the space, and that’s no small feat.

Direct engagement with fans – Clubhouse is unquestionably a very intimate and personable experience for its audience and the speakers. Fans get a platform to ask questions directly to their idols, and many will get joy from just listening to them answer. For the speakers, it is direct, live, and can create genuine and positive connections with listeners. This type of engagement is rare on social media and will surely develop further evangelists among participating fans.

Low effort – With easy-to-use technology and an audience waiting for content, Clubhouse right now offers a very low-cost opportunity for rich engagement. You can start a room immediately, invite guests, give fans a quick shout-out on Twitter that a conversation is happening, and that’s it. If you prefer to make a bigger splash, you can schedule it for a given time and allow fans the chance to plan their diaries.

Feedback – Clubhouse has potential to be a direct and efficient way to get feedback from your most important stakeholders, your fans. If you set up or join a room, there will be a selection of moderators by default. This means the moderators can bring up key topics (as chosen by the team), and then pick the fans within a room to give them the chance to speak. It is an opportunity to listen to their needs and desires with your team. These initiatives could lead to ground-breaking communications, and structural and organisational decisions.

Sponsored engagement – It is not unusual on Clubhouse to weave in a sponsor message, just as you hear on podcasts. Sponsors will be curious to explore this medium as it is such a novel and intimate fan engagement tool. This is still largely unknown territory, so do tread with some caution.

Multiple touchpoints – For a team with limited talent time, Clubhouse offers the chance to deploy assets across multiple touchpoints. The digital team could liaise ahead of time with the moderators of several scheduled rooms to offer them time with the talent; an obvious example being different fan clubs across different time zones. When the athlete becomes available, they could stop into these multiple rooms within a tiny window and make an impact across key communities and influencers, creating a lasting ripple effect. This would require some grassroots research beforehand, exploring and experiencing the rooms firsthand before suggesting talent, but this is a relatively light lift.

Elon Musk’s use of the Clubhouse platform drew further attention to it. (Photo by Britta Pedersen / POOL / AFP) (Photo by BRITTA PEDERSEN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images).

The risks

The risks will vary for different organisations, but there are some obvious, general risks that should be borne in mind.

Live audio is unpredictable – As with any live production, Clubhouse can be unpredictable, with spontaneous statements, questions or insults thrown. You will need to be prepared for anything. As we know, social media gathers all types and, with that, undesirable aspects like racism and hate speech must be planned for. Whilst there are moderators, Clubhouse doesn’t have the track record yet to boast a 100-per-cent safe activation.

Recording isn’t a feature, yet – As it stands, Clubhouse doesn’t allow users to record and share the audio chats. We believe that is a good thing. Consistent with Clubhouse’s key selling point of being ‘in the moment’, if a team decides to move into Clubhouse, the experience should feel genuine, unedited and personal. The audience will be experiencing something exclusive which will only heighten the experience and encourage a wider audience to become involved with the team on Clubhouse so they don’t miss out.

However, nothing stops users from recording sessions on their own devices, and this feature may not be around for long as the demand for replays will grow. Not being able to record and share means reach is limited and, therefore, if you get your timing wrong, you could waste your precious time and resources.

Athletes talking on the fly – Before raising this opportunity with corporate communications, you must acknowledge the confidence and maturity required of the talent participating. Media training is a superpower at most major professional sporting codes – many have trained talent not to speak, and, when doing so, to say little. Maturity and common sense will protect you from unwanted debates and emotional responses, and ensure negativity is dealt with using calm professionalism.

Clubhouse is still small – The ultimate con of being a first mover is that you are going into a space with a small, although burgeoning, audience. Clubhouse purportedly had 10 million active users as of December 2020; a tiny number compared to Instagram, Snapchat or Twitter. However, for smaller organisations with the ability to move fast with little backlash, Clubhouse could at worst be, a ‘nothing lost-nothing gained’ venture.

Security concerns – As with all new apps, Clubhouse does not yet know what all its faults are. Security concerns and audio leaks are already happening and user security is a concern, especially when you are working with high-ranking talent.

Read the room – Clubhouse’s appeal largely hinges on the talent it is attracting. A brand charging in with little care to the sensitivities of the ‘rooms’ and the culture of Clubhouse could cause more harm than good. Word could spread very quickly through the community with an ill-judged first move, for example a big-name star delivering a short, poor, uninteresting chat. That could make it difficult to return to the platform for a second go. First impressions matter.

Tips for countering the risks, amplifying the rewards.

Good moderators are everything – It’s the moderators who will drive the conversation, select the fans to speak (and possibly pre-screen them) and mitigate challenges as you go. It is best to ensure the moderators are well trained and have adequate experience on the platform before getting started.

Brief the talent – A good brief ensures the talent is comfortable on the platform. Encourage them to listen in on other rooms to get a sense of how the conversation flows, and only have them participate when they are confident. There will be enormous interest from fans in the talent – they will be assessing openness and confidence, and not looking for PR-speak.

Get feedback – Use the opportunity wisely by ensuring you hear enough from the audience where possible and seek more feedback when you can. People love to speak and, more importantly, to be listened to. If you’re open to the platform be sure to communicate that clearly.

Share on other channels – And last but not least, be sure to share your activity on Clubhouse through your social media channels, website, membership base, and external PR.

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