Last week, Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram experienced an outage that left users around the world unable to access the social media platforms for nearly six hours.
The outage, which was blamed on faulty configuration changes on its routers, was one of the worst Facebook has ever experienced. However, it also served as a stark reminder of our societal dependence on the platform as a means to communicate with one another.
This was, and is, true for businesses too, many of whom felt an impact to their communications, from ‘mom and pop’ grocers to global sports franchises. Social platforms have become not only a means to distribute content, but also one of the few places where communication with customers or fans can be two directional.
This was clear as individuals and brands migrated across to Twitter, which embraced its moment in the spotlight by tweeting “hello literally everyone,” garnering 2.4 million “likes” in just four hours, according to the New York Times. There was also a frenzy of activity from brands such as McDonald’s and Netflix, as well as sports teams such as Manchester United, who jokingly posted an old photo of Rio Ferdinand, Roy Keane, and Ruud van Nistelrooy inquisitively looking at their Vodafone-sponsored flip phones circa-2003.
While the digital and social teams at clubs like Manchester United may have been outwardly making light of the situation, the idea that these fan relationships could dissipate in a flash must have surely been stressful. After all, this is a club that emphasised their growth of users on TikTok within the highlights of their second quarter fiscal results in March. The value of reaching an ever-increasing number of users clearly ranks high on their priorities.
While social platforms offer tremendous reach and discovery for a club like Manchester United, the fan relationship is also held via a third party. This means that the club is, in essence, at the mercy of the social platform on which they reside.
As such, their ability to connect with these users could be cut off or affected at any moment. This may be temporary like the Facebook outage on Monday, or it could be more long-term if there is a change to the algorithms, government legislation is imposed, or a mass-migration away from the platform happens to take place.
The significance of owning your audience becomes incredibly obvious when you juxtapose the value of Manchester United versus TikTok. The Red Devils’ estimated $4.65 billion valuation, despite being the highest in the Premier League, pales into insignificance when contrasted with TikTok creator ByteDance, which hit a value of $425 billion for new private equity investors recently.
While this is obviously is not comparing apples with apples, it does help to demonstrate the value of an owned audience. Research conducted by global market agency, Kantar, estimates United have a worldwide fan and follower base of 1.1 billion. This much more closely matched to TikTok parent, ByteDance, who have logged 1.9 billion users across their vast array of services (which also includes Douyin, Toutiao, CapCu and Volcano Engine) than their valuations would suggest.
This is not to say that clubs should not use social platforms, they are invaluable in helping grow audiences and reach new fans. However, more caution should be exercised about maintaining the relationship solely on these platforms, where the connection is fragile – as recent events have demonstrated.
Going forward, clubs would be well advised to have a clear first-party data strategy and focus on building rich fan communities through their own marketing channels. This could be creating an email capture on their website that helps to build up their CRM database, providing more utility within their app to drive sign ups, or looking to find a new and innovative solution to the problem.