TFN’s Piers Barber takes a look at Manchester United’s experiments with social media…
For many, the moment that Juan Mata’s transfer to Manchester United became a believable reality was when the club’s new No.8 logged in to Twitter to alter his profile’s biography. “Official Twitter account of @ManUtd’s player” read @JuanMata8 by Saturday afternoon, an alteration which occurred almost in real time as the player was in the process of agreeing terms at Old Trafford.
By the end of the weekend, his profile had been fully optimised to affirm his identity as a fully fledged Old Trafford player. Whilst his new followers – the likes of Tom Cleverley and Alexander Büttner – may not bring the highest levels of entertainment to Juan’s new-look timeline, it is significant that Mata, and those representing him, placed significant importance on maintaining an efficient level of engagement via the social media channel.
The importance Mata placed on hastily evolving his Twitter profile says much about the role that footballers and football clubs are increasingly starting to play within the world of social media. It’s an area of football marketing which only seems set to grow and grow.
After all, Mata’s profile now contains links to not just the club’s official English account, but also its official Spanish language outlet @ManUtd_ES. United also have official accounts directed at their Malaysian, Indonesian, Japan, and Arabic audiences.
Yet wind the clock back half a year and the club’s clout on the micro-blogging site possessed a far different complexion: indeed, United were the last Premier League club to embrace the potential benefits of Twitter. “We were late into social media and were worried a lot about how to approach it as a football club,” United’s Head of Marketing Jonathan Rigby said in 2011. “There will be no official Twitter site until we have satisfied a role for Twitter.”
Whilst it is highly surprising that a brand as sophisticated and far-reaching as Manchester United were by their own admission so late onto Twitter, their desire to ensure that their plan was executed effectively – involving extensive market research into the benefits of a largely unknown concept – was
clearly a sensible decision.
After all, successfully embracing social media, especially Twitter, has proved a tricky and challenging project for football’s leading marketing men. A straightforward difficulty comes from the fact such institutions have no immediately clear product to sell through the channel. Although club Twitter accounts possess a guaranteed, fiercely loyal following even before they have been created – therefore making them the envy of the vast majority of other brands – their money-making potential is not immediately obvious to those concerned by a club’s finances.
Furthermore, a poorly executed social campaign can have enormously negative effects on a club’s reputation and fanbase. “Our big concern is that if we get it wrong that fanbase will stop growing,” Rigby admitted. Inaccurate tweets can provoke viral criticisms of a brand or institution, whilst a premature release of sensitive information can have damaging effects on a club’s standing within various financial markets.
The three year delay between the opening of United’s giant Facebook account and their Twitter profile is explainable in other ways, too. It’s likely that substantial research was required in order to identify the most effective ways of incorporating the interest of the club’s many international commercial partners into their social media strategy. A delay may also have been forthcoming because of Sir Alex Ferguson’s deep suspicion of any sort of media intrusion, especially via the medium of social channels, into the affairs of his club. After all, @ManUtd’s first ever tweet was a welcome to new manager David Moyes: “New era, same spirit. The season starts here. Let’s do this.”
Yet the decision to finally make the plunge onto Twitter will have been principally motivated by one very potent realisation: a well-run profile represents a highly influential outlet for totally free marketing. It was also rooted in the unavoidable realisation that a failure to effectively communicate with fans can have a serious impact on both the development of a club’s fanbase and the views that are promulgated across the vastly influential World Wide Web.
Previously, United’s failure to engage their potential Twitter fan base saw the rise of several unofficial fan accounts, which inevitably encouraged the acceptance of potentially damaging negative opinions. In the 24 hours after Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement at the end of last season, for example, 1.75 million tweets were posted about the event. Control over an official channel capable of influencing the development of such stories can have a substantial influence on a club’s standing.
Since its establishment last July, @ManUtd has acquired over 1.8 million followers. Its development has been aided by the existing prominence on Twitter of some of the club’s most famous players, including Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand. An #AskRio Q&A, for example, had an important impact on helping to raise the profile of the account in the first week after its establishment.
The account has on the whole been warmly received by fans, consistently ranking highly in various engagement measurement tables. It places significant emphasis on images, in the form of infographics, artwork, behind-the-scenes photography and – increasingly – reasonably imaginative Vines. There is also a focus on interesting competitions and features detailing the club’s history. It is, of course, impossible to deliver an account capable of appealing entirely to the club’s vast cross-section of fans, making a prominent emphasis on visual aids a seemingly sensible approach to take. It also places only minor importance on developing its commercial interests, instead focusing on the long-game of encouraging the development of a healthy and prosperous brand identity.
The account hit 1 million followers after 70 days in operation, a considerable but still slower growth that was expected, especially considering the ‘Manchester United’ brand’s worldwide reach and the 35 million Facebook fans the club boasted at the time. It still sits quite a distance behind the accounts of Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal; the most followed Premier League club with 3.4 million followers.
Furthermore, despite whatever planning went into the account’s development, @ManUtd has been guilty of some embarrassingly amateur mistakes since its formation. Back in October it tweeted that the 1968 European Cup final against Benfica had finished 4-2 (the actual score was 4-1), whilst it has also been guilty of posting an incorrect Wayne Rooney goal tally and both the wrong date and opponent of Duncan Edwards’ England debut. A more consequential mishap occurred in May last year, when the club’s Facebook and press office Twitter account published announcements that David Moyes would be the club’s new manager before an official announcement had been made. The posts were deleted less than a minute later, but it was already far too late: the news spread to a vast audience across the internet immediately.
2014 continues to demonstrate the essential need of football clubs to maintain engaging and imaginative social media channels. Such outlets allow fans a new insight into events unfolding involving their team – their transfers, their game preparation, their matches – hence handing the club a heightened influence over the development of their identity within the online community. Manchester United’s official Twitter account is a more revealing demonstration of the benefits and potential pitfalls of social media than most. If nothing else, it proves that clubs must ensure they are continually developing their knowledge and expertise over this increasingly prominent marketing space.