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SportBusiness in Numbers 7 – Broadcast & Digital Media - Taming Big Data

SportBusiness in Numbers 7 – Broadcast & Digital Media - Taming Big Data

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By: SportBusiness International team

14 Mar 2014
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Executives in sport and in business have shifted rapidly from being glassy-eyed over social media numbers to demanding meaning from those that quote them. Social media reporting firm numKrunch is determined to go beyond the numbers to extract muchneeded learning and strategy points.

In 2012, the “socialympics” saw the peak in the reporting of social media data with every PR agency and newspaper reporting ever inflating statistics. One year on and the tide has truly turned: sports executives, brand marketers and agencies have become increasingly suspicious of superficial numbers relating to follows, fans, likes and retweets and are much more likely to ask what the numbers mean and whether they have any value. To help give them some answers we asked ourselves 4 questions and set about trying to draw real life lessons from the data. The answers may surprise you.

Question 1. Who are the winners in social media and what do they do that’s different?
numKrunch has tracked the social media traffic of a number of European football clubs for the past year. The raw data shown in Figure 1 is neither surprising or insightful. 

All we can say from this snapshot data is that bigger clubs have more social media traffic compared to smaller clubs. It is impossible to know whether the numbers are acceptable in themselves or what value followers might represent to either the clubs or their sponsors. 

Overlaying the numbers with our proprietary performance algorithm we are able to add a layer of data which indicates performance. The numKrunch Performance Rating uses our in-house formula to assess: how many social tools each club is actively engaging with, how much effort they are putting in to these platforms (excess or under-use are penalised), the size of the audience compared to the effort exerted, relative growth rates, response rates and a combination of performance ratings across each of the social platforms employed. 

For the snapshot above the result is now shown (Figure 2). This would appear to show that, whilst Manchester United and Barcelona enjoy traffic which is an order of magnitude bigger than lowly Crystal Palace (and no comments about performance on the pitch!), the same is not true when it comes to their performance on social media. Manchester United’s performance rate is outpaced to the tune of almost 10% by Crystal Palace and Barcelona suffers the unusual position of being completely outplayed by the other two and this may be linked to its much lower growth rate.

Running the numbers over time further insights can be drawn (see Figure 3). 

Clearly October 12th was no one-off freak result for recently promoted Palace. They have a consistently higher rate of fan engagement on social media than all the other clubs studied despite their overall audience size and their league position. Manchester United have the biggest audience size in the Premiership by far, but have a much lower rate of fan engagement than Crystal Palace. Barcelona have the biggest audience of all European football clubs but have performance rating average over the first 8 weeks of the season at 49.11% against Manchester United at 62.67% and Crystal Palace at 71.89%. 

In terms clubs to emulate, Crystal Palace is the one to follow in terms of social media performance. In one sense the club benefits from a lower amount of traffic as most of its social media fans are within its timezone. However, the Club taps into its celebrity fan base and has a policy of answering fans questions directly. It seeds its social media output with background information, insider chat and fan comment which cannot be hard for clubs many time larger to replicate.

Question 2. How can I differentiate between ‘Buzz’ and Bust?
Whilst there have been attempts to monitor sentiment as well as just traffic, social media numbers vary wildly. What may help is a way to spot when external factors are boosting traffic or affecting sentiment and extrapolate a discount factor which might be applied to arrive at a more realistic level representing true fans with whom a relationship might be built by sponsors. 

Whilst every club is a soap opera, Sunderland has had more than its fair share of controversy during the reign of controversial manager Paulo Di Canio in his sacking in September 2013 and the appointment of replacement Gus Poyet. Figure 4 shows the fortunes of Sunderland on social media over this period. 

The turbulence has taken its toll on social media at the North East Club. Its growth rate is consistently low giving the lie to the “all news is good news” mantra of some (its social media traffic over this controversial period was hugely volatile without significant new fans being added to it audience). It suffered from poor performance too over the first half of the period being monitored showing a clear link between a troubled time and how willing fans were to engage with the club. 

Figure 3 above shows that performance tends to bounce for all clubs at the start of a new season and Sunderland was no exception with performance numbers 12% higher than the average of the previous season. In this case, the performance has been sustained as the club showed it was getting a grip on its situation. 

So, what can we learn from this sorry episode? First through the entire period monthly growth has increased suggesting new fans are being added despite the turbulence. The increase around the start of the season maybe part of the normal bounce. Performance (a measure of engagement and sentiment) has dramatically improved as stability has been obtained. 

Finally, from a sponsor’s perspective their association with the club however positive and well meaning will suffer at the hands of poor management and a swirl of negative publicity. In this case spikes in traffic may indicate simply a good time not to try and engage.

Question 3. Do international competitions or releasing players for international duty help or harm a club’s social media?
In the era of club dominance over country, managers are often accused of looking for excuses to prevent their charges from risking injury by turning out for their country. The data shows that, from a social media perspective anyway, they could be more sanguine. And if they can capitalise on the value of social they may even find their fortunes improve by their players putting in good showing for their countries.

Figure 5 shows the relative performance data from our three benchmark clubs at the start of the current season, during the first Champions League game and during a period when some of their stars were playing for their national team and as a consequence the clubs were not playing. 

Starting with Crystal Palace who have neither a Champions League (or Europa League) competition to distract them nor any internationals in their squad, the club’s performance does seem to be affected by the lack of games. Their performance rating slumped to its lowest seen in the period whilst their bigger rivals were in European games although it must be recognised this was mid week when performance might be expected to tail off. On International weekend the performance was back up to just short of their long-term average. 

Barcelona social media performance remained aloof and indifferent to whatever the club was actually engaged in (despite a 4-0 spanking of Ajax in the UCL) perhaps showing they really are “mes que un club”. But the real variance in the data was with Manchester United. It is perhaps no surprise that an appearance (a win over Bayer Leverkusen) in the Champions League would spark their international fan base. But the appearance of United’s many internationals in World Cup qualifiers seems to have kept the club’s social media performance well above their long-term average.

Question 4. What is the best thing I can do to boost social media performance?
Social media managers are often faced with some difficult choices around where they prioritise their efforts and where their investment is best placed. 

Figure 6 shows our three clubs performance on Facebook and Twitter. It is notable that Crystal Palace still tops the scores on both channels but Barca does rather better on Facebook than it does across the medium as a whole. Differences in days (and likely times of day) for engagement are an area worth probing for social media strategists to establish when they are likely to get the biggest bang for their bucks. Figure 6 shows equivalent data for Google+.

Whilst the percentages are exceptionally high, the absolute numbers of fans are tiny. Consideration needs to be given in the short term to the value and cost of keeping such a small group satisfied but over the longer term Google+ is forecast to be an essential platform.

Question 5. How do sponsoring brands fair alongside the clubs they lend their logos to?
This is not a straight forward question. Many sponsoring brands don’t have a single website or social media source so it is hard to compare like with like. There are three who have created dedicated sites associated with their sponsorship activity which makes the comparison more meaningful Figure 7. 

Figure 7 Relative performance of club versus shirt sponsor’s dedicated club site. 


The first thing to say is that in every case associating with a club gives the brands concerned access to a hugely greater audience than they are able to access alone. Even Qatar Air with its audience of over 2.5m has a following just 4% of Barcelona. The key then is to ensure the performance matches up to the exposure and here both Aon and Telekom would appear to have an opportunity. 

Evaluating what strategies work for football clubs in general and for their sponsored clubs in particular and adopting them should boost their performance and deliver even greater benefit from their exposure.

First, the numbers alone require context to become meaningful but can be harnessed to provide valuable insights and drive value. Secondly, setting out to answer specific question will always be a better approach than simply recording things that are easy to measure. Finally, being prepared to overlay the data with small amounts of “real-world” research is likely to yield better results again.

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