THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN COMMUNICATION & ENGAGEMENT

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog about my sports consumption habits as a kid: in particular, the way I consumed news about Sunderland AFC from a small town around 12 miles from Roker Park.

I had a paper round when I was a kid. I used to deliver copies of the Evening Chronicle to homes in tough streets named after whimsical poets in East Stanley, County Durham, while avoiding being savaged by dogs (whose favourite food was faces).

I think I earned what literary tradition obliges me to describe as ‘the princely sum’ of £1.10 for a week of this. But there were fringe benefits. I could sneak a peek at the footie pages and see what the craic was with my team. Usually the answer was ‘very little’. Now, with the average person apparently spending nearly 3 hours online every day, the one thing I’m not short of is information on my team and football more generally.

The Evening Chronicle was predominantly concerned with what was happening at St James’ Park.  I hoped (usually in vain) for some small piece on events at the Coliseum of Comedy in Sunderland: maybe some Gary Owers’ male grooming advice; ‘how to wear a medallion’ (by John Hawley) or a note from John Kay on how to play with two broken legs. But, beyond a list of the evening’s sporting fixtures there was never more than a paragraph or two.

In the greater scheme of things, that paperboy was no more than an occasional ‘reader’: a fan of a local team, fanatical about football and liable to have entire weekends, if not decades, ruined by some depressingly predictable defensive cock-up involving Barry Siddall, Tim Gilbert and Mickie Henderson.

Back in 2015 I mused on how our consumption habits have changed since, but right now I want to look at this from another angle.  We live in the first age of Social Media, but the ‘open goal’ that this represents for leagues and clubs desperate to grow is being missed due to us putting all our efforts on the ‘media’ bit and missing out on ‘social’ altogether.

Official club websites have spent years hinting at this decidedly one-directional approach.  From what I see, they mostly appear to be designed for use by clubs’ core supporters (containing club history, statistics, etc.) in spite of the fact that few of those fans might ever use their club’s official website.

Those people who probably do rely on them most are likely to be new fans, occasional visitors or even away supporters. And while we’ve had a hand in encouraging clubs to include the information needed (how to get the best out of their first match day and match day schedules for the uninitiated, for example) it seems many clubs still expect potential new fans to already know critical information, perhaps through the medium of some strange sporting telepathy.

For a disabled supporter, the information provided in advance by a club is critical as (from the assessors we deploy) we know that access challenges can make any journey to the match a feat of endurance. And yet, so few clubs have easily accessible disabled fan information available on their websites.

Most fans expect independent social media sites to provide for their more intensive discussions, seeing the club’s channels as ‘official’ and therefore, somehow, less authentic and more commercial in tone.

So, efforts to personalise communications and to reflect the club’s identity (most importantly: the fans’ perception of the club’s identity) are welcome. Bayern Munich’s rapidly-created post-Besiktas image of a big ginger cat taking a selfie with the first team (thanks to Jon Burkhart for sharing that with me) is a great example of this. Naturally, this will have made many fans smile, as well as influencing external perceptions of the club and its identity.

Doncaster Rovers’ posting of 27 uninspiring seconds of 0-0 action v Fleetwood Town in 2015 (players enter the pitch, referee blows whistle, game kicks off, goalie clears, referee blows full time whistle and players leave the pitch) has so far just short of a million views on YouTube (when it would otherwise have received around 2,000) while the popularity of @crap90sfootball on Twitter emphasises that, for many fans (especially those supporting clubs with a history of underachievement), muck and nettle always outmuscles the prawn sandwich.

But all of this is still broadcasting with very little receiving going on. How many actually use social to generate feedback, encourage conversations around improvements or tap in to different groups to explore their match day experiences? You’ve noticed that there’s not been a huge response to the launch of your season ticket renewal campaign, for example. Why not ask people via Twitter? A League One club just did that and the results, while not necessarily statistically reliable, did strongly indicate that the fact that we hadn’t reached pay day yet had much to do with it.

How many club mascots have their own Twitter, Snapchat or Instagram account, for example? There is no better way to keep the conversation with the next generation going.

It’s true that an elite club might have a cast of thousands in digital marketing, but they are not our focus. We want to support leagues and clubs outside of the elite where air time is harder to achieve and limited resources must be targeted effectively.

We know that social media represents a massive opportunity, but only if clubs remember the significance of the word ‘social’. That’s what turns communication into engagement.

Mark spoke about his at @sportego #FECD2018 event in Dublin on 28 March. If you would like more help developing engagement strategies at your league or club, drop us a line at either mark@bradleyprojects.com or darren@bradleyprojects.com. Keep an eye on @fanexperienceco on Twitter for more.