Football's tactical switch: how a surge in digital content has shifted the relationship between clubs and fans

The rise of technology and global media coverage of football has shaken up the way clubs market themselves to fans and work with brands. The opportunities are huge but so are the potential pitfalls.

Someone at Arsenal Football Club had a great idea about how to promote Adidas as its new shirt sponsor. 

It sounded perfectly fine as a concept: "We’ll get people to like our tweet about the new shirt launch, some nifty tech will automatically create an image with people’s names on the back of the shirt. It will go viral across social media!"

But there’s nothing quite like digital media for turning good intentions into marketing nightmares. Soon, Twitter was replete with pictures of Arsenal shirts that carried phrases such as "GasAllJews" and names such as "MadeleineMcCann". These were being shared by online mischief-makers who took pleasure in creating ever-more offensive versions as a tool of abuse. 

Within hours that part of the "#DaretoDream" campaign was extinguished in a puff of ignominy. But Arsenal is not alone among a rising class of football superbrands frantically trying to reap the rewards from a global, digital audience.

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The surge in digital content has shifted the relationship between clubs and fans, especially the younger generations, to a point at which fans expect to be in conversation with their club 24/7 – not just on matchdays at the turnstile or via the programme. News, opinions, jokes, experiences all get shared, all the time, as the world of the football fanzine has itself gone digital. 

A 21st-century fan takes part in forums, interacts with blogs, checks Twitter feeds and watches dedicated channels on YouTube, none of which needs to involve the club on an official level. Moreover, the tone of this media has tended to be much more saloon bar than sanctioned. The modern fan no longer has to go to an actual football match to be part of the club.

Nuria Tarré, chief marketing officer at City Football Group (owner of Premier League champions Manchester City), says: "We might play one or two games a week, but we have a fanbase who wants to engage with the club they love all year round, whether they are in Manchester or another part of the world."

This means taking a highly tailored approach to different parts of a growing global audience. Manchester City now employs a team of producers and editors that creates bespoke content for each of the 12 languages it publishes in. In July it launched a video-streaming platform, Man City for TV – yet another direct-to-consumer channel that gives fans exclusive content – and last year there was All or Nothing, a multi-part documentary series that aired on Amazon Prime Video. Gone are the days when exclusive media broadcasters such as Sky and BT Sport were the only way that fans (and brands) could connect remotely with football clubs.

"One of the benefits to our global reach is having the ability to share brilliant moments, captured behind the scenes by our cameras, almost instantly on our platforms," Tarré adds. "Winning moments, defeats, getting to know the players’ personalities and how the team interacts off the pitch."

Historically, football clubs didn’t need to reach out to their supporters. For decades their notion of marketing extended simply to building a stadium at which tens of thousands of people would turn up every other Saturday come what may. Then, those same people would see to it that their children and grandchildren carried on the tradition. 

Even when club shops sprang up and replica shirts became the stadium must-have, those in charge of football clubs were confident, and correct, that it wouldn’t take a series of marketing meetings to find a way to convince someone watching the football in the pub that they ought to be wearing the same top as [1990s England and Newcastle United captain and current TV pundit] Alan Shearer.

"The commercial proposition that football clubs had always had with sponsors was how many times their logo was seen. On the shirts and the perimeter boards and on TV – and it had been like that for decades," Drew Barrand, until recently marketing director of the English Football League, says. 

"Digital was originally an add-on to those contracts: I’ll just stick the logo on the club website and on the official partners pages. That’s just a tiny little thing and was never the driving remit of why a brand would invest in a football club, it was just another bit of inventory that was chucked into the contract to beef it up a bit."

Barrand continues: "Then brands started to demand more access to the fans – it wasn’t enough just to have their logo in front of them on a match day, they wanted to know what they were doing the other six days of the week and actually develop a one-to-one conversation with them. These big brands had been using digital that way in their broader marketing efforts, so why should their  relationship with sponsoring a football club be any different? They played a huge part in pushing clubs in that direction."

The array of digital activity that big football clubs now pursue seems to widen by the day. There has been an explosion in clubs seeking to engage with their fans on all sorts of new levels. Official websites are now no longer merely service facilities for other departments, such as ticket sales and fixtures lists, but a destination in their own right. 

Social media has also become crucial. The pre-World Cup campaign this summer for the England women’s team was carefully drip-fed into Twitter to build anticipation and excitement. Celebrities such as Ellie Goulding, David Beckham and Prince William were recruited to announce the team’s squad.

Clubs have even tried their hand at games. An early example was Tottenham Turfies, an online game aimed at seven- to 10-year-olds. Elsewhere, there was Southampton’s #EarnYourStripes Twitter-enabled treasure hunt in 2014 in which people could seek out hidden footballs in order to win a replica shirt. 

Simon Dent, founder and managing director of sports marketing agency Dark Horses, points to the global reach of football, with the mega rights deals with foreign broadcasters acting as the catalyst. Suddenly, Premier League football had to address a global armchair audience that demanded a fan experience without the expectation of actually attending a football match in person. 

"The penny finally dropped with clubs that they live in this global village and these countries that have bought into the Premier League over the last 20 years have now started supporting clubs. There’s a huge land grab at the moment, and in the summer, the top clubs tour Asia, India, China or the US trying to establish a foothold. Then when they can’t physically be there, they have to serve content to those countries, and [it’s about] how they serve it, how exciting and engaging it is, is how they build their brands in those territories," he says.

"The same can be said for the domestic market as well – this is especially true for the mid-table clubs which aren’t necessarily going to attract huge crowds, but can still grow their fanbase at home and abroad by creating engaging digital content that fans will share, contributing to the experience. We’ve been given briefs to create digital content that essentially say: ‘Do something that fans of other clubs wish their club had done’ because even if it’s not my club, if something makes me laugh on a boring Monday afternoon, I’m going to share it with my mates."

For Arsenal’s aforementioned campaign with Adidas, things had all started so well, explains Iris managing partner Nico Tuppen. The agency made the ad for the Arsenal/Adidas kit launch, featuring the club’s stars past and present and a cameo by actor Idris Elba in arrestingly mundane situations. Even though Iris did not work on the ill-fated social-media activity, Tuppen recognises the tonal tightrope that football must walk nowadays. 

"Dealing with football and football clubs is one hell of a responsibility because all clubs are deeply personal to people. We needed to capture the spirit of the club generating insight through the axis of Arsenal, Adidas and London," Tuppen says.

"Then, because there’s a retro element to the kit, we had to capture the spirit of the club by being respectful to its history but not going on about past glories too much."

Humour was important, too, Tuppen adds, given that comedy plays such an important role in the way that fans talk about football. This is even more apparent for a club like Arsenal, which, on the pitch, has been a relative underperformer in recent years: weary fans are liable to sharp bouts of cynicism when it comes to appraising commercial work against the backdrop of lacklustre performances.

This means sometimes a club’s brand has to be brave enough to make fun of itself, he says. "One way to deal with that was to put humour into it, like [the Gabonese and French players] Aubamayang and Lacazette talking cockney over a fry-up in a Holloway Road ‘caff’. Nobody’s going to criticise it if it’s got some self-deprecating humour in there."

The success of that particular film shines a light on another positive for digital marketing; it was leaked online a week before its planned release and went viral almost immediately.

"We knew we’d got it right when that happened, and it was so positively received by the fanbase, it travelled without any media support in the first 48 hours purely on the basis that fans were sharing it," Tuppen says. "They were doing the work, and it felt like it had come from that community. If you capture the spirit of what the club is all about, you don’t need to promote it at all, the fans will do it."

Meanwhile, being a big club at the time of the internet revolution created a first-mover advantage: England’s most successful teams of the past decade (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, and Manchester United) command the biggest number of social-media followers. So, their particular ability to reach millions of fans directly has made them more powerful when negotiating brand tie-ups. And football clubs are happy for brands to use them in digital marketing, as long as the brands are willing to activitate it themselves (such as the Arsenal and Adidas film, created by Adidas’ agency Iris). 

Dent agrees: "There are a number of clubs where, when a commercial partner comes on board, a percentage of that money is held in a pot by the club, 10% is the usual amount. That is then used to activate the partnership – that is, create content."

He adds: "Clubs will always have the final sign-off and be involved from the start, but, essentially, they’re leaving it up to the experts."

But Barrand has an altogether more cynical take on why football clubs rushed to digital marketing: "The reality is football clubs worked out – some much earlier than others – there is a huge value in their fan database and the depth of information that has been provided. Their sponsorship on a global basis is basically selling data. We all sit there and laugh when we hear about a club acquiring an official Taiwanese crisp partner or whatever, thinking ‘That’s crazy!’ But that sponsorship package, other than using the club’s logo in marketing materials for those crisps, doesn’t include any of what I’d call the traditional rights inventory – there are no perimeter boards, there are no logos in the stadium, all the stuff that used to form a traditional sponsorship package. 

"The club will provide the crisp manufacturer with information about their fans in Taiwan, their contact details, and [the brand] can go on to use that to sell them crisps. That’s what so much sponsorship is all about in the digital age – IP and data."

This raises a wider question for football clubs and brands: how much of their new relationship is based on marketing their common brand values versus the ability to understand each other’s customers better through data?

For a sneak peek of what’s to come, Tarré reflects on how important analysing fan data has become to Manchester City. "We feel closer to our fans and we can get real-time feedback on anything we do and then adjust our strategy accordingly," she says. "We always feel accountable to do better and try new things to engage with our fans, wherever they are."

A version of this article first appeared on PRWeek sister title Campaign

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