The Rules of Fan Engagement

Guest Post by Eugene Burns

Given our interest in ‘Sports Marketing 2.0′, we are always on the look out for good articles covering ‘Social Media in Action’ in the sports sector.

Thanks to Eugene Burns for this third, very interesting, guest post following up on the theme of football fan empowerment, involvement and engagement in a social media age. In this article, Eugene focuses on ‘twitter ghosting’ i.e. PR agency management of the twitter accounts of well known football personalities. As usual, comment and feeback are most welcome.  Jim H
In recent blogs I looked at how some of the more enlightened sports clubs are placing greater trust in their own fans by allowing real input and effective ownership of their official social media and digital output and the pioneering work by the New Jersey Devils.

I also looked at the example of Arsenal fans dismayed that their officially sanctioned fan forum had been wound down in favour of more manageable social media. When you examine the official @Arsenal account in close detail using a tool such as http://twtrland.com you find it used almost exclusively as a broadcast tool posting mainly links (76% of all tweets) and plain tweets (22%) with no interactivity with the followers and little in the way of meaningful fan engagement. The account does follow over 127,000 accounts but with virtually zero mentions you have to wonder if the account really interacts with any followers at all.

It’s unfair to single out any one account as clubs have a tendency to want to manage their brand and PR message in the 24 hour media age. Manchester City’s @MCFC account offers little more in the way of replies (6.1%) with a large measure of links (23.8) and plain tweets (50.3) giving fans and followers scarcely more interactivity than the London team.

Players themselves, usually advised by agents and media managers, tend to control their image and brand on Twitter. Ex-Arsenal player now with Barcelona, Cesc Fabregas, @cesc4official does manage to include some interactivity (10.6% replies) but, in spite of posting many behind the scenes photos, still feels like a tightly managed PR and promotional tool with a high wall of untouchable security build around the communication and the messages. The follower is left in no doubt that this is the account of a 21st century football star.

I can’t help feeling that clubs and players are missing out on the real benefits that social media can bring to both supporters and their clubs. In the social media age this approach to fans and fan engagement has a whiff of old media image management about it. There are however several pitfalls.

West Ham chairman David Gold @DavidGoldWHU uses his account to interact with fans and others (43.3% replies) on the changing fortunes of his club and his business interests. While we can applaud Mr Gold’s engagement with his followers, engagement on its own needs to be backed up with quality of the information communicated. This could be why the club owner attracts a comparatively small following of 28,000 for such a well established club.

In Scotland the chief executive of the SFA Stewart Regan @StewartRegan has attempted to reach a degree of interactivity with his again relatively small number of followers (around 5,000) with a slightly higher level of interactivity than Mr Gold (52% replies) highly commendable in the circumstances of a failing league structure. The difficulty of the chief executive’s position is often cited in his own tweets with the interactivity of the account often undermined by warnings to anyone who ‘challenges my integrity.’ Pomposity and interactivity don’t sit well together.

However, it’s in Scotland that some of the most interesting social media developments on Twitter have taken place. Celtic manager Neil Lennon @OfficialNeil began tweeting in January 2011 and reached a commendable level of replies (74.4%), often personal greetings and good luck messages in reply to fans at a time when he and his family were facing real personal danger. Yet at the end of September a sudden change occurred in this popular account. October passed without any tweets being posted until a new message was posted formally asking fans to like his Facebook page, posting a further 15 times in November in a businesslike tone unlike the tone of the previous months. In November the replies dropped to precisely 0%.

A further analysis of the @OfficialNeil account on www.tweetstats.com reveals a move from the tweets being posted via a personal iPad to the likely media office based Twitter for Mac. These figures highlight what is apparent to even the casual follower. That the only UK football manager who was using social media to interact in a very personal way with his fans was now being ‘ghosted’ by a media agency employing a rather restrictive media strategy that doesn’t allow for even minimal fan engagement. The particular circumstances surrounding Scottish football may offer some mitigating circumstances in the adoption of such an apparently retrograde policy.

Yet the agency looking after Neil Lennon’s account doesn’t have far to look to find a good example of how a football club’s Twitter presence can communicate well with followers. With a level of replies at a highly impressive 79.4% Celtic’s Director of Digital Media, Tony Hamilton @polishturnstile, shows how social media can be used to engage, interact and inform on a daily basis.

What are your own thoughts on this? How far should PR agencies ‘ghost’ the twitter profiles of well known sports personalities?

Eugene @the_eriugena

I would like to thank Vincent Hamill for his help in supplying much of the research data used in this article.

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