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Content with social media content: how to run a successful football club account

Sport and football clubs have long used social media as a platform to connect with fans, but how do they ensure it is done properly? Sports Gazette asked the founder and CEO of Europe’s leading digital sports agency, Seven League, to share his expertise.

Richard Ayers was the first Head of Digital for Manchester City, and his online transformation of the club won him the Sports Industry Award back in 2012. His long list of illustrious clients includes Arsenal, Barcelona, UEFA, the ICC, the FA and BT Sport among many others. 

How would you describe your job 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.  

Which means?

We now go “not only here’s the answer, but we can fix it for you.”

Why did you choose this career path?

I found out I was much better at being a geek than a journalist, so I switched into being somebody who understands content and how to make money out of it by deliberately tell stories over the internet.

So what do you actually do?

We help any sports organisation, from FIFA down to British canoeing, understand how to engage more people, get them playing, attending and following sport, and to do it sustainably. The first thing we ask our client is “what’s your business goal?” Then we look at content management, the input and output, channel investment, themes, content types. Once you understand what’s working and what’s not, and your audience… you can say “okay, now we need to make it all fit with the brand’s identity.” 

The many high-profile clients of Seven League.

What are you hoping to achieve with this?  

 My mission is to basically help sport fix itself.

How is broken?

… How much time do you have? (laughs) It’s a long list. The high-level theory is that we are in the second age of sport. The first age was the innocent amateur game. The second age is about making money. We’ve gone crazy with rights, fees, sponsorships, betting, corruption, you name it. But hopefully we can move into the third age, which will be a more positive and balanced sense of social impact and responsibility: amateur enthusiasm combined with a sensible commercial value.

How did you “fix” Manchester City when you became Head of Digital?

The club had spent a lot of money creating a “sexy website” that looked good but they didn’t know what to do with it. So, I gave them a strategy by reshaping and restructuring the digital team –  getting rid of some people, bringing in some people and setting targets. You can either help the client adapt to the digital age or go through the process of an organizational change, which is what City needed.

 Can you give some example of some of the changes you made?  

“Over the course of 18 months, we did 20 world “firsts”. We created #together to improve fan engagement. By using the hashtag, City fans could share their pictures and experiences of being a supporter. 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, which is a weekly behind-the-scene documentary, sort of like Big Brother at a football club.

What is the best way to run a football account on social media?

Step 1: Don’t be a broadcaster. Remember the ‘social’ part. Step 2: you absolutely need a clear business plan. Many clubs just do social media because it’s cheap and easy. Step 3: don’t delude how difficult it is to do it well, don’t just go “oh this social media stuff is really easy, I’ll just give it to my 23-year-old or my teen to do it.”

Which platform do you recommend?

All of them. You have to think about your audience and your business goals. Every platform has its own nuances and challenges. 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. Youtube is doing the same and so is Twitter. They don’t play nicely anymore because they want you to stay on their platform for as long as they can keep you. They’re all fighting each other because owning the audience is the absolute strategic goal. And you’re not gonna do that if you allow the other platforms to integrate with you.

How many people run the social media accounts?

The big clubs, let’s say top six, have a team of three and upwards. If we’re talking mid-table, it very much drops off a shelf as most clubs literally has one guy doing content and social.

Your clients are globally spread. How do you cater to the different club across leagues? For example, does a Spanish club want different content than a French club?

It depends on the brand’s identity. Sometimes it can be radically different even within the same league. If we’re working with Marseille, they would want the opposite of what PSG stands for, and vice versa.

You also need to think about territory. If you’re Juventus, you have no problem reaching the fans in Italy but your goal is to make the brand international. 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. You need to target the right country, which means you have to think about language and cultural differences, publication challenges – is it day or night? How are you targeting? is there a particular social demographic segment you want to look at because of advertisers, and are you working to get partners in the region? All these variables impact your content commission.

How do you take language barriers into account?

Our company has 15 different languages, which is helpful, and we manage through a freelance network. Good localization is very important, as it’s not just about language but cultural relevance. Every country has its own nuances, what’s going on in the news etc. It not enough to just know about Chinese New Year, you need to understand what is means.

What about smaller clubs who don’t have big global fan base?

Newcastle think they are a bigger brand in terms of their audience but they are not, they actually are quite colloquial. AS Roma strategy was basically post anything crazy post that doesn’t make them look like a football account. Most fans like the idea of there being a real person behind the account. Again, it all depends on the brand’s identity.

Iman Alaouie
Iman is currently studying for her MA in Sports Journalism and NCTJ diploma at St Mary’s University, London. She spent a year abroad in Paris studying Photojournalism and English, and has a BA in English from the University of Copenhagen. She is multilingual and speaks Arabic, Danish, English and French. Iman was once featured on popular Danish TV Channel 6 in their national search for a ‘football expert’. Making it to the top 3, she shadowed famous pundits and was tasked with live half-time and full-time analyses of the Premier League game between Chelsea and Fulham. This extraordinary experience only cemented her decision to become a sports journalist. She has recently undergone a two-week work placement at Sky Sports News, and has since been offered freelance. She is an avid Arsenal fan and enjoys attending games and live-tweeting during matches.
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