Football is changing and so has the way we consume content, at a rapid pace. In this increasingly digital world we live in, marketers are constantly kept on their toes when it comes to driving the right kind of engagement with their audiences in real time. And the same applies to those who run the social media efforts in a sports organizations.

A similar challenge exists in the case of social media, where sports fans are more willing and progressively look towards engaging with their favorite clubs in real time.

Twenty four times Spanish La Liga champions FC Barcelona with approximately 148 million followers (across all social channels) and consisting of two of the top four global social influencers in the likes of Lionel Messi and Neymar, were recently ranked as one of the top sports team on social media with a media value worth $25.3 million, according to a recent study by Forbes.

FC Barcelona, like many others, have realized the importance of engaging with its audience and its significance when it comes to commercial ventures that it takes on, initiating new channels to interact with their fans which can eventually be measured as a value proposition to existing and potential sponsors. At the same time, reaching their followers in real time with personalized messages will eventually lead to increased club affinity and a growing allegiance.

The platform can have a positive effect on clubs on various fronts. Daniel Robertson, the Digital Content and Social Media Manager at FC Dallas, the Major League Soccer based Western Conference leaders currently, explains how social media helped the club stand out in a crowded marketplace.

“In Dallas, we have all five major professional sports leagues plus huge college athletics and high school as well so this gives us a somewhat even playing field to brand ourselves and promote ourselves to our target demographic.”

Aaron Gourley, editor of FCBusiness magazine, the business magazine for the football industry, describes how clubs have managed to interact with their fans, otherwise not possible in the past.

“Social media has allowed clubs to reach up to new audiences nationally and internationally. But it has also helped bring them closer to their core local fan base in a manner that is less formal and more engaging. There was a period where football had been accused of losing touch with the ordinary fan but social media has opened up that line of communication, with dialogue being almost on a one-to-one basis and less ‘broadcast’ in its nature. ”

Social media has and continuous to play an important role in how individuals interact with each other. The various accounts owned by a team provides them with an opportunity to expand on their personality. On twitter for example, fans tend to follow athletes in multitudes to discover more on the human attributes of the players that they watch on TV or at the stadium. From a team’s perspective, though the tweets are unlikely to embody the personalities of the upper management and owners, many clubs do provide followers with a fun-loving image of what that certain club stands for. Moreover, social media presence softens an otherwise faceless union of a sports organization.

Simon Chadwick, Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford Business School in University of Salford, elaborates on the importance of the platform within the wider football industry.

“At one level, social media is simply a fast, often efficient way of communicating with key target markets. However, at another level, social media is a means of building fan engagement. That is, creating relationships with fans that are broader and deeper than ever before,” adding, “clubs like Arsenal and Barcelona take social media very seriously. Indeed, the London club actively encourages its players to use social media, which we see in the large numbers of posts they often make.”

Given that the United States drives the innovation of communication technology which is later adopted all across the globe, it is not surprising to imagine MLS being at the forefront of any technological advancement made in social media. In fact, they aggressively pursue social media, by distributing great content focusing on active engagement. And a similar mentality has been embedded in the minds of those who run the respective social media accounts in the various clubs under the MLS umbrella.

Their only restrictions if any is surrounding issues with media budgets and its impact on departmental staffing does hurt the ability of clubs to carry out and widen their tactics as explained by Daniel.

“We have no restrictions and actually I would say the opposite working in MLS. We have many fewer rules about match broadcasting rights and what we can show. The only limitations for us are more budget-based having to work with smaller staffs sometimes limits what we can do, but in general I think we can pretty much do whatever we want to.”

While having a presence in social media is as conventional as getting a passport, many advanced football clubs across the globe, are moving away from the routine of randomly publishing content for a set number of hours in a day to setting aside planning criteria with thought given to objectives, goals and metrics. The key is to carefully link the organization’s social media activity to their business plans. With the ability to be in market in real-time being fundamental in today’s social environment, the work hours of the team managing the efforts goes beyond the normal hours of a job and hence without the right balance could eventually turn adverse, not only for the team but for the organization as well.

“I think you have to be realistic with your team and what you can accomplish while still maintaining a healthy life/work balance. Social media is all about creativity and enthusiasm so if you are burned out you will not create your best content so it’s important to work hard while you are on the clock but also get away from things when you are not. Planning in advance always creates better content though social media is such real-time that’s tough to do, but if you surround yourself with creative people you will always have success,” says Aaron.

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With FC Dallas leading the Western Conference in the current season, fans are excited on the forthcoming playoffs and hopefully a shot for the club at its first MLS championship. Al though the Dallas based team is not one of the highest drawing teams in the league in terms of attendance, the club are generally in the top five when it comes to engagement among MLS teams. Yet, this is only possible by creating content that keeps the fan engaged and that is what the Dallas based team is striving towards.

“I am not sure we are terribly innovative rather just sticking to the things that people want which is game highlights and cool ways to showcase our goals and skills. Having someone running GIFs on a Livestream allows us to get match highlights out almost instantaneously and not losing sight of what the fans want is important.”

Just like any other media, it is important to evaluate the efficacy of an organization’s social media efforts at various points of the consumer journey. Although, analytics across the various networks display metrics that precisely guess the quantity and quality of a consumer’s journey within those networks, with the availability of enormous amount of data, the need for an organization to truly identify goals and objectives prior to a campaign is extremely essential.

For FC Dallas, according to Daniel, “Success is measured in follower growth, tickets sold (we have tracking links) and engagement.”

As for the most interesting project that Daniel had worked on during his time with FC Dallas?

“I think my favorite was our “Vote For Tesho” campaign in 2014 where we created a whole campaign based around forward Tesho Akindele to win rookie of the year. We made videos spoofing the Napoleon Dynamite movie, created sharable social graphics for our fans and info graphs sent to the media which ended up winning Tesho the rookie of the year award.”

There is little information on how football clubs across the GCC utilize the various social media platforms and its relation to goals set by those clubs. However it is clear that Al Hilal in Saudi Arabia leads the way in terms of fan following, with 4.24 million followers on twitter alone, and subsequent engagements. But regardless of their social reach, the ability of an organization to understand the motivation of fans and how they interact with the brand is significant according to Simon.

“Social media appears to be very popular in the Middle East and it therefore offers a great deal of potential to clubs. What clubs have to understand is what motivates fans to use social media and what do they want when using it. If a club (or clubs) can understand this, then they will be well placed to establish a strong position and profile in the social media space.”

As social media managers strive towards understanding their value in terms of social media value and raising the bar on fan engagement, for Simon the successful sports organizations would be the ones that manage to configure their business around it.

“We are already seeing some consolidation in the market, with the likes of Facebook and Twitter dominating. And the services they offer are becoming increasingly similar. As such, the challenge for football clubs is to understand how they can create a differential advantage through social media that delivers value to their existing activities. Beyond this, clubs should be looking towards the next generation of social media that enables them to draw closer to key target audiences, most notably the millennial generation and those that follow-on from them.”

But as it stands, the future of social media within the football industry looks bright as it continues to evolve and organizations continue to take advantage of the resources available to them. Aaron believes with the rapid rise in the combination of technology and innovation, the opportunities available is immense.

“Social media continues to develop as does its use by clubs. Most recently, the development of things like Facebook Live has opened up numerous new broadcasting opportunities, something Manchester City Women’s team have been keen to exploit. They’ve broadcast their recent Continental Cup game using the platform and its success will see them repeat this for the next round. Social media is constantly growing and so are the opportunities to create fresh, new and exciting content that is targeted and appeals to a huge number of people across the globe.”

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