Social media today has become an inseparable part of an average person’s daily life. From checking Facebook posts after waking up to tweeting their last thoughts before dozing off to all the Instagram and Pinterest action in between, today’s social media warrior loves sharing his life online. And it had to be only a matter of time before football, one of the most popular outdoor sports in the world, was attracted to this behemoth.

How and why it began?

Football clubs hit upon the idea of leveraging social media only a few years ago. Hitherto, the clubs had been largely disconnected from their global fanbase. Most big clubs like Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Manchester United have millions of fans across the world. These fans are spread across many geographies but are connected by their common love for football in general and for the clubs in particular. However, the only interaction that fans had with their beloved clubs (and their players) was through press events and public statements. There was an evident need for a closer connection. Social media was the perfect answer. Clubs and their players could easily create their online personas and interact directly with fans. The advent of Twitter only added fresh impetus to this change as the microblogging site provided fans the opportunity to catch their favourite players at their candid best. From the players’ perspective, a presser is usually a long drawn out affair while a 140 character tweet is something that one can quickly send out via even a smartphone. Social media also came to the rescue of clubs when they wanted to update their fans of the latest happenings at the club.

What’s in it for the club?

The decision to go onto social media is not wholly altruistic. There is a deep business reason to this. In the last decade, clubs have expanded their global fanbase massively. A large part of the clubs’ earnings are through merchandise sales. Going to new territories meant that the clubs now needed to connect to fans more closely in order to leverage this expansion for more revenue. Social media helps by making the fan feel closer to the clubs they have adopted by allowing a direct interaction that would otherwise never be possible since most of these fans would probably never attend a game of their club in their lifetime.

Case in point is the following anecdote from Arsenal’s preseason tour of Vietnam in 2013. A fan ran alongside the team bus for a few miles in Hanoi. The team took him onboard the team bus and took photos and signed the shirt of the obviously elated fan. The entire episode was captured on video and released a few days later by Arsenal on their official YouTube channel.

“The Running Man” video quickly went viral, and has to date received more than 3 million views. Here was a video published by a football club that was not a highly polished product of a media house. This was a raw video in the home video style shot on a cellphone camera and had a fan involved in it. Not only was the video closer to what the general public normally produces of their own special moments but also showed the largesse of the Arsenal players.

Manchester United finally broke their self-imposed curfew on Twitter and joined the social network on 10 July 2013. Today, a little more than a year later, the club is closing in on 3 million followers on Twitter. They tweet regularly to their fans and often even hold contests where fans stand to win exclusive rewards. One such campaign was the “Find Fred” that Manchester United ran on Facebook for its 34 million fans (at the time). The game was simple but highly playable where fans had to find Fred the official mascot in photos of a crowd of people. When a player found Fred he was requested for his contact details and then United softly marketed their One United membership. The game received almost 52,000 unique hits of which around 21,000 were successful in finding Fred and submitted their contact details. Over 90% of the total player base were not existing One United members thus generating a massive number of marketable leads for the club to sell its official membership.

What about players?

A lot of football stars take to Twitter regularly to interact with their fans. From Wayne Rooney offering to pick up teammates on the way to training to Joey Barton shooting his mouth off at everyone, and from Rio Ferdinand running an entire emagazine to Mario Balotelli’s “dancing while listening to music while reading a book while ironing a shirt” routine, fans enjoy it all. Over the last 3-4 years, the interaction between football stars and their fans has been at an unprecedented level. Gone are the politically correct, formal press statement and in are the candid 140 character tweets that humanise players. Players share their thoughts in an informal manner and often even engage in one on one exchanges with fans on these social platforms often endearing themselves more to the fans in the process. This in turn obviously translates into the player becoming a fan favourite on the pitch as well and when fans start purchasing merchandise with the player’s name on it, it also gives the concerned player more bargaining power in terms of salary and other benefits.

What can go wrong?

All seems hunky dory on the surface but a lot can go wrong very quickly on social media. Most of the club accounts on social networks are maintained by PR agencies. It is very easy for the account manager to accidentally post something from the club’s official account instead of his personal account especially on networks like Twitter that are designed to be minimalistic and hence make it easy to confuse between multiple logins. The internet is full of such gaffes made by social media managers of corporate giants across the world. Sometimes it is a minor hiccup easily papered over, while at other times it is a major gaffe requiring a major coverup job from the entity in question. Either ways, corporates run the risk of potentially damaging their reputations beyond repair. The modern football club does not differ much from these corporates. In fact, some clubs are even listed as public companies on one or more stock exchanges and most clubs of the top leagues have millions of dollars of sponsorship money riding on them. A loss of reputation of the club, therefore, has a trickle down effect on the sponsors and may drive away one or more of them if the damage becomes too far reaching.

From the players’ perspective, the situation is a bit more complicated, especially on Twitter. Most official Facebook pages of players are managed by social media managers but Twitter accounts are usually managed personally by the players themselves. This complicates matters because the Twitter account is a personal account but the player is a public figure. The players are therefore expected to maintain a certain level of decency and decorum that upholds the reputation of the clubs they play for. An inadvertent tweet sent out in the heat of the moment or an over the top reply to a social media troll is like throwing a calf into a cage of famished lions. The media, the omniscient watchdogs and self-appointed moral police of society, is quick to pounce on such slips and publicise it for more page views. There are too many cases of Joey Barton getting into a virtual fist fight with fans on Twitter to really pick a single one as an illustration.

As representatives of their club, players also need to be careful they don’t tweet something that reflects poorly on their clubs or is in contradiction to the club’s official stance. Most football associations place restrictions on both clubs and players regarding the nature of their social media interactions and a common theme in all these restrictions is to avoid posting something that could be offensive to a section of fans, that could question authority (including match referees and other officials), that could bring disrepute to the game and/or the league or are in general of an offensive nature by language or tone. Readers would remember the incident involving Liverpool starlet Ryan Babel. Babel was one of the first football players to start communicating with fans via Twitter even himself promoting the hashtag #BabelCopter that was used as a taunt for him amidst reports that he was traveling by helicopter from Liverpool to an undisclosed club on deadline day 31 August 2010.

Howard Webb's photo tweeted by Liverpool player Ryan Babel

Howard Webb’s photo tweeted by Liverpool player Ryan Babel

In January 2011, Babel caused a minor sensation in footballing social media circles when he took to Twitter and posted a photoshopped image of match referee Howard Webb in a Manchester United shirt following Liverpool’s 1-0 defeat to United in the FA Cup. Babel later took down the image and apologised for the tweet that obviously did not befit his position as a Liverpool player. The FA, however, opened a formal enquiry against him and subsequently charged him with improper conduct and fined him A?10,000.

Another side of the social media coin is the bitter fan. The increased accessibility of football players on Twitter also leaves them open to some really acidic criticism. Like most other human beings, players react differently to criticism. Some are able to brush it off easily and move on while others go into a downward spiral. The case of Tom Cleverley clearly belongs to the latter category. Cleverley came under a lot of fire from irate fans on Twitter amidst a tumultuous season for United. Some fans even held him solely responsible for United’s spectacular capitulation from defending champions to fighting for Europa league spots. The criticism finally got the better of him and sometime in February 2014, the United player shut down his Twitter account following in the footsteps of fellow midfielder Darron Gibson who shutdown his Twitter account within two hours after being subjected to a baptism by fire by fans. Though a profile with Cleverley’s erstwhile handle @TomClevz23 has resurfaced on Twitter in March itself, it is unclear whether the profile is handled by the player or is just a user taking advantage of the confusion since the profile is not verified by Twitter (as Twitter accounts of most other professional footballers are).

What does the future hold for football and social media?

With the ubiquity of smartphones and faster internet connections in target markets, clubs are able to engage fans much more effectively delivering richer content. Not only has social media opened up the fan base to the club, it has also brought to the club hitherto untapped market demographics. For instance, there is a virtually untapped market for the spouses/boyfriends/girlfriends of the club’s followers that were hitherto disconnected with the club for obvious reasons. Since social media allows them to interact better with the clubs and their players, it is easier to engage the “fan relatives”. This engagement can also result in higher sales for club branded merchandise as gifts for their relatives who are fans of the club. This automatically opens up the merchandise market to a population almost twice that of the fan base. Expectedly there would be some shift in market dynamics but with the shirts changing every season, kit sales are at the top of such shopping lists as they make a brilliant birthday gift or anniversary surprise for the football fan and never lose their novelty year after year. Many spouses have also taken to purchasing season tickets for each other thus providing another shot in the arm for club revenues.

Apart from this, social media has provided the perfect battleground for supporters from rival clubs to show their passion for their clubs. The clubs’ official Facebook pages tend to provide venting grounds for disappointed fans as well, who in the absence of similar forums would go elsewhere. Even the negative comments and posts cause engagement as other fans pitch in with comments for or against the topic at hand. There are also a few Twitter handles themselves that tweet really insightful information about specific clubs and their players. Clubs have taken to following (and often retweeting) these handles providing increased engagement for fans on Twitter. Sometimes, discussion on Facebook and Twitter can also be surprisingly insightful providing perspectives that may have been missed by players and/or the coaching staff as they look at bigger issues.

Clubs stand to gain a lot from their social media engagements. It is bringing them closer to their fanbase on a daily basis and if used with due caution is a near perfect way to engage fans and provide them an immersive experience and help them feel a part of the extended family.

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