Sports Gazette asked the founder and CEO of Europe’s leading digital sports agency, Seven League, to reveal the secrets behind running a successful football club account.
Using a personal Twitter account is fairly simple: you follow people, and sometimes they follow back. You tweet, retweet, like and comment on matters that matter to you. Most likely, you have never cared enough to know about fan engagement, commercial benchmarking and content management. But football clubs do. In fact, they care so much they hire companies to help them manage all this.
Richard Ayers was the first Head of Digital for Manchester City, and his job was to ensure their social media and website was run properly. The club’s online transformation won him the Sports Industry Award back in 2012, and today, his long list of illustrious football clients includes Arsenal, Barcelona and Juventus among others.
His job can be difficult to explain to someone unfamiliar with digital jargon, so we asked him to describe it in layman’s terms.
“Someone says ‘I got this problem, what should I do about it?’ and we tell them the answer. But over the years we have become more of a hybrid between consultancy and agency.
Still confused? “It just means we now go “not only here’s the answer, but we can fix it for you,” he laughs.
At Seven League, they help football clubs understand how to engage more fans.
He said: “The first thing we ask our client is “what’s your business goal?” Once you understand your audience, and what’s working and what’s not, you make it fit with the brand’s identity.”
According to Ayers, running a successful social media account requires three steps:
“The first step is to remember the ‘social’ part. Don’t be a broadcaster. Many clubs just do social media because it’s cheap and easy but step two is having a clear business plan.
“The final step is not to delude how difficult it is to do it well. Don’t just go “oh this stuff is easy, I’ll just give it to my teen or 23-year-old.”
By following these steps, Ayers reshaped Manchester City’s online presence, and his team did 20 “world firsts” over the course of 18 months.
“The club had spent a lot of money creating a “sexy website” but they didn’t know what to do with it.
“For example, we created #together to improve fan engagement,” he continued.
— Manchester City (@ManCity) March 21, 2012
“We also came up with tunnel cams, which gave fans access to never-seen-before footage at half-time and full-time. Most football teams have that now. Inside City is another one of ours, a weekly behind-the-scene documentary, sort of like Big Brother at a football club,” he said.
But City’s digital transformation may not have worked for their rivals, Manchester United. Ayers explained that social media content is different for every club:
“It all depends on the brand’s identity. If we’re working with Marseille, they would want the opposite of what PSG stand for, and vice versa.”
Football clubs with a global reach have to think about language barriers, cultural relevance and even time difference.
“Territory is important. If you’re Juventus, you have no problem reaching the fans in Italy, but your goal is to make the brand international,” Ayers said.
“For example, we run Tottenham’s content, and we know we need to make the most of South Korea because they have Son Heung-Min. Every country has its own nuances. It not enough to just know about Chinese New Year, you need to understand what is means.”
The social media revolution continues to accelerate, with new platforms emerging every year and already-existing ones updating their features every month. But which platform do football clubs focus on?
“All of them. Every platform has its own challenges, and right now, social media is going through what we call ‘platform wars’.
Five years ago, if I posted a Youtube video on Facebook it would work fine, but now Facebook has its own video system, and wants to protect its territory and audience,” he continued.
“They don’t play nicely anymore because the absolute strategic goal is for you to stay on their platform for as long as they can keep you. They won’t achieve that, if they allow other platforms to integrate with them.”
If you have ever wondered how many people are actually behind your favourite football club account, it’s probably less than you think.
“The big clubs, let’s say top six, have a team of three and upwards. But if we’re talking mid-table, it very much drops off a shelf, as most clubs literally have one guy doing content and social,” Ayers revealed.