The burgeoning significance of social media to the 21st-century global football club was illustrated clearly last month when Manchester United’s Ed Woodward’s conference call regarding the latest accounts began by focusing on the club’s digital presence.
“Ángel di María saw a 12-times increase on Google searches on the day of his transfer from Real Madrid, Falcao a 10-times increase compared to the day he signed for Atlético [Madrid]. When Daley Blind signed from Ajax his total Twitter following increased 72%,” United’s executive vice-chairman said. “The club has 61m followers on Facebook, 3.8m followers on Twitter with a cumulative total of 87m followers across all social media. We’re directly in contact with over 100m fans, when you add in our 37m of CRM records [“Customer Relationship Management”, United’s fan information database].”
Woodward’s last comment is the big reveal of why United and their competitors are in a social media arms race to engage digitally with supporters. The modern-day leviathan club views itself as a multinational concern involved in a quest to corral as many fans worldwide for optimal commercial return. And a prime way of doing so is through virtual platforms. The social media big four of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram offer instant and direct access to potential new supporters with the hope that these will become consumers.
The quartet have become vital to United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Real Madrid and Barcelona, as well as the other clubs that rank among the 10 most popular on their respective platforms. Today’s football is no longer about just the fans who turn up to watch their team; far from it.
As Tim Bridge, a consultant at football finance experts Deloitte, says: “Quite simply, clubs cannot afford not to. For many, social media has become their default source for information. If clubs don’t engage with their fans using the most modern and popular methods they may be open to criticism, or even lose fan support. The use of social media is only going to increase – the modern day fan’s connection with his or her club comes as much from an online video clip from training as it does from attending a match on a Saturday. Clubs know they must embrace this.”
United were viewed as relative dinosaurs for not having a Twitter account until the summer of 2013 but as Woodward’s conference call illustrates under his leadership the club is now primed regarding how vital and, more pertinently, valuable a slick social media presence is.
Bridge adds: “There is an opportunity to engage with a global population – inexpensive access to potential customers – [and] to give the “club message” free of any subjective opinion from outsiders. And an opportunity to direct people to their merchandising or ticket sale portals. There is a chance to be seen as a forward-thinking, modern club [and] access to the fans of tomorrow – this is how young people communicate and access information now.”
Of the big four Facebook has the greatest reach, according to their spokesperson Glenn Miller, engaging over “1.3bn people, including 500m football fans”; Barcelona have 79.1m likes; Real Madrid are not far behind on 77.7m; and United are third with 61.6m.
The same clubs dominate on Twitter and Instagram, which was bought by Facebook in April 2012 for $1bn (£629m), and is primarily a photo-sharing platform that allows clubs to offer visual content to fans. “With over 200m people now posting and interacting through Instagram every month there are a growing number of football fans on the platform,” says Miller. “Clubs who embrace Instagram are sharing content in a new and exciting way – it could be behind-the-scenes photos of training, or announcements of new signings or squad lineups. Fans love to get an inside look into the day-to-day of the world’s biggest clubs.”
Once the traditional pre-season tour may have been to Europe for a week or so. Now, United, Real, Barcelona and company fly to more distant destinations in the battle for greater revenue. However, not every part of the world can be covered in a summer. So might the virtual arena become as essential as the annual money-spinner? Tomos Grace, YouTube’s head of UK sport, says: “YouTube certainly plays an important role in the global visibility of the clubs. For example, fans in Indonesia will connect daily to the Manchester City YouTube channel to check for updates. Where else will they get daily video news on their favourite club?”
The English champions are in many ways the Premier League’s pioneers, constantly innovating in ways to freshen up product and content. In October the club launched its CityMatchday app. “The idea came from our fans – from observing what they do and understanding their needs,” says Diego Gigliani, director of media and fan relationship. “We’ve seen a growing trend of people using their mobile devices as a “second screen” when watching our matches on TV or live in the stadium. We looked at what people were doing with their devices but, more importantly, asked them what they wanted to do with them.