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Why social media should be on Football Clubs’ radar

January 6, 2010 1 comment

My name is Ed, and I support Southampton FC. It’s been a while since I said that in public!

Anyone who follows football (soccer for the US dudes) may have noticed The Saints slipping further and further down the leagues in the last few years and they now reside in the third tier of English football. They succumbed to the same problem that has been plaguing many clubs, some much bigger than Southampton…they screwed themselves financially. I won’t go into the details as its fairly basic stuff, but this season, the same fate has befallen Southampton’s great south coast rivals, Portsmouth FC. This is by no means a post to gloat or rub the proverbial salt into Pompey’s wounds, rather one about how inept most football teams are at communicating with their fans.

So, Pompey continue to slide towards administration and seem to have resorted to the same tactics that other clubs and indeed businesses have done in in the last 12 months – pretend it isn’t happening and hold the ‘official party line’ of – All is good.

Tired PR tactics

The most recent post addressing the issue is here, clearly coming straight from the PR/Legal department. Read it, its non sense!

“Portsmouth Football Club has not been formally served with a winding up petition and is shocked and surprised this action has been taken in respect of VAT, PAYE and National Insurance Contributions which either have been, or are about to be paid, or are disputed.”

Shocked? That is what happens when you don’t pay the bills…your creditors come for you.

I remember when Southampton were going through similar financial hell last year and recall vividly how the tired, corporate spin each week on the official site would proclaim ‘All is well, carry on as usual’ It is so insulting to assume the fans, who are the clubs customers SHOULD be kept in the dark. It reeks of the kind of corporate arrogance that social media is gradually eroding in the business world. Organisations can’t pretend all is well with their product or service (in this case the football club) when the customers (fans) are seeing the reality – staff not being paid, team getting humped each week, costs being cut etc. And yet it continues….

Social Media

One way to keep the fans abreast of what is going on, really going on at the club would be to open a dialogue with them and social media is pretty good at that. So what is happening on the biggest social channel – Facebook?

Pompey have no official Fan page. In fact, if they wanted a nudge as to what their customers are demanding, they should check out the What Is Going On Group ! and yet nothing from the club.

They aren’t alone though, Even Man U do not ‘officially’ contribute to their page and they have 300,000 fans!

Chelsea have the right idea. Their Fan Page integrated with the official site, regular updates etc – is this systemic of a club not up the creek. They have no fear of being open? Liverpool as well do a good job and have over 1,000,000 fans. Arsenal, not too bad either.

I haven’t checked them all so apologies if your club is social media awesomeness personified, I am making a general point about how bad most sports teams are at engaging with their lifeblood – the fans.

Fanatical Brand Loyalty

I have been focusing on Facebook as the channel as I think Fan Pages lend themselves perfectly to sports teams  – where people are actual Fans. If brands such as Starbucks can do such good stuff through their fan page, then sports teams really have no excuse. The US sports teams are much better at it and examples such as New England Patriots show what can be done. We also see more of the athletes themselves embracing the tools, all be it under constraints from the various governing bodies.

Football fans are the most brand loyal people. It is the most adhesive, one sided relationship I can think of (maybe religion but that’s for another post!). If you support a team, really support a team, then even if you want to change allegiance…you can’t! It affects you on a cellular level and the clubs need to realize this. The non-playing staff at football clubs will move on to other jobs in other industries and in most cases don’t have any affinity to the club in the first place other than they pay their wages ( or not in Pompey’s case), they need to realize the fans make the club, they are the paying customers.

If major corporations are realizing they need to be open and honest with their customers then Sports teams need to wake up to that as well. It isn’t going to make the millions of pounds of debt vanish, but it may create a siege mentality amongst the fans and keep them coming through the gates and spending money. As soon as you create a them vs us scenario in terms of information, you are on the slippery slope. When you insult your customers intelligence by spitting out press releases that contradict reality, you are almost at the bottom of the slope and in the shit pit.

I don’t think sports teams realize the potential they have to bring the fans and the players closer and the kind of brand equity that will buy the club. Most clubs have ‘fans forums’, and by that I mean physical meetings once in a while where a few hundred fans are allowed into a staged conference with the manager, Chairmen, players etc. This is good but impractical to do on a regular basis. Social media can provide the next best thing and if nothing else will create the feeling that the club cares and respects the fans. If they can’t at least do that then they deserve to drop down the leagues…and stay there.

Its getting harder to control the message

Clay Shirky did a great talk at TED.com  just prior to the election in Iran, have a watch here . Plus a follow up Q & A article on the connectivity of people on the web today. In his talk, he uses an example of the Sichuan earthquake in China in 2008. Twitter had real time updates and broke the story before the mainstream media. Amazingly,  he points out that, “the last quake they had prior to that, took 3 months for them to admit they had even had one!” China have filtered the web for over ten years but the great firewall wasn’t built to stop information being sent out of China to the rest of the world. If you have a message to get out – you can, wherever you are in the world.

A key change in the media landscape is summed up by Clay Shirky’s comment of “media is global, social and cheap”.  In a business context, this presents a huge opportunity for brands and companies but a potential disaster if they ignore it. They will have to accept that the customer and communities will influence what information is circulated. With a limited number of media channels, companies used to be able to tell their customers what their brand was and what it stood for, now the customers define what a brand is.

Individuals within groups are more connected than ever before and consumers are relying on their connections and consumer reviews to make key purchasing decisions.  Whatever type of experience they have or read about will be spread throughout their communities and companies need to get a handle on this so they can use it to their advantage – they really have no other choice.

I think there are 4 main components (but I have no doubt these will change!)

Digitally optimize their company online. This covers the corporate website and how that should look and feel, the purpose of the company blog (if necessary), social media profiles which can be maintained and add value.

Listening to the conversations online about their company, competition, industry. They can then work out how to position themselves, how to market to the customers, what the market sentiment is, measure the trends. There are more and more tools for this cropping up each day and I will list the ones I have been looking at in a future post.

Talking to their customers and in a way that will add value to the community and individual. This needs to involve the whole company from marketing, PR, customer service, research and internal communications.

Engaging the community and the individual. A repeatedly good user experience will eventually lead to advocacy. The lateral communication which is now possible within any web community means that a few, loyal customers can help spread your messages wider than traditional push campaigns ever could.

What’s in it for Barbara?

June 18, 2009 Leave a comment

There is far too much crap on TV. I am talking about the UK specifically but having recently got back from travelling around the world, I think it’s a global issue. However, Channel 4 has been running a series called “I’m running Sainsbury’s” on Tuesday nights which I have enjoyed.

Basic premise is – The economic climate has meant Sainsbury’s is involved in a customer turf war with the other major UK supermarkets as consumers tighten their belts. Sainsbury’s Chief Exec, Justin King, thinks the next big idea will come from the staff on the shop floor (good move, I like it), so asked all the staff for ideas and gave the best four a trial with a view to rolling it out across their stores.

I want to talk about episodes 2 and 3 as I think it demonstrates the difference between advertising and engagement – old marketing and branding techniques vs a new social approach.

Episode 2 – Barbara

Barbara is from Leeds. Her idea was to “take the store to the customer”. This translated to Barbara walking round the store with hot crossed buns (her target product) and harassing customers into buying them. People would be accosted in the snack isles by Barbara armed with her buns, and then ‘hard sold’ the merits of them. When that didn’t quite work, she would physically put them into the customers’ trolleys!

She easily nailed her target of selling £450 worth of hot crossed buns in a day and as a result took the plan to head office, who liked it and it will be implemented in 20 stores in the autumn.

The best moment for me was when she, having finished her presentation of the trial to the Sainsbury’s board, asked “…if this gets rolled out nationwide…the thing I want to know is…what’s in it for Barbara?” while rubbing her hands together! Gold. Apologies if the impression of Barbara is negative, it shouldn’t be, she was awesome and a very good salesman.

Episode 3 – Niall

Niall is from Enfield. His idea was to improve customer service by setting up a ‘surgery’ in the store where customers could give feedback (mostly negative) on the store as the customer service desk was always busy with refunds and exchanges. He was charged with solving 50% of the problems himself without bothering head office, over a week. Cue a stream of irate customers and a harassed Niall,  who hadn’t workout a process of dealing with the complaints (if only this process was done online). However, he was successful in his trial.

Sainsbury’s head office however,  were not as impressed as they were with Barbara. They saw the surgery as a cost (two employees were needed to help run the surgery) and something which would only be used when a store had a refurb or changed the layout. I am guessing that without sales figures or any tangible metric to measure success, Niall’s idea seemed less attractive and certainly less cost effective.

I disagree with Sainsbury’s on this and think it highlights a common problem with brands and how they operate, especially online.

On the one hand we have Barbara and the old media technique of shouting (literally – she used the store PA system) the message and interrupting the customer to get them aware of the product. Of course sales increased, people were terrified and the hard sell does work in certain environments on a short term basis. Sainsbury’s saw the numbers going up in a short space of time and assumed success. What I want to know is; how many customers will never shop in that Sainsbury’s again for fear of running into Barbara and being forced to buy baked goods against their will?

On the other, we have Niall with the new, social media approach of listening, talking and engaging the customers. These were people who were willing to take the time to actually come and vent their anger and frustration – these are the people that matter, these are the people brands should really give a shit about. When he solved an old lady’s “you can’t buy donuts individually” issue and then called her to give her the news, she was “over the moon” and “couldn’t believe the service”. I am betting she will always shop at Sainsbury’s for the rest of her life. What is the ROI of that?

Brands (and loads are already doing this so its not an original concept!) need to use the social media sites now available to them to be better at customer service. They need to create advocates of their brand, and in today’s online world that is done by interacting and putting the human touch back into service. The best example I can find is Zappos – http://blogs.zappos.com/blogs/inside-zappos/2009/06/03/todds-blogzappos-live-chat – have a read; it’s genius.

People like dealing with people.  I don’t think that will ever change and the social media sites have made this type of relationship possible on a regular basis in real time. If brands do it right, it will take care of marketing, research, PR, and branding all in one.

The caveat to this is it requires a fundamental shift in how companies operate internally, how they budget for this new activity and how they measure it. It is also a long term game, not a short term, campaign driven one. The metrics have yet to be established to measure it effectively and the potential banana skins are everywhere…but they are crazy if they don’t jump on board as soon as possible.