Remaining on the ball in the content-led era

Racepoint Global

Written by Luke Roberts, Client Manager, London office 

Content marketing is not just about throwing stats, imagery and video out there to see what sticks. It’s about building a relationship with consumers, understanding the digital profile of the fan and offering authentic, engaging content. Football clubs, for instance, have so much more to offer fans than just the 90-minute game. In fact, off the pitch can be even more engaging!

Like every relationship, this takes time, but if rights-holders are on the ball with their communications strategy, they can become media brands of their own, making fans an integral part of content production. The essential rule here, is this: the fan needs to be at the centre of every communication.

There can be no meaningful fan communication, however, without analysis. The accessibility of high-quality data is essential for rights-holders to understand what content to create, to who, and how it is distributed. With the cost of data technology reducing, rights-holders of all sizes are now able to adopt such a behavioural-led approach. By assessing what content consumers engage most with, along with associated sentiment and advocacy levels, rights-holders can fine-tune and deliver personalised digital content to audiences that has never previously been possible through traditional broadcast or print.

Whilst the Premier League broadcast rights deals generate significant revenue for English football’s top flight, clubs are exploring more direct-to-consumer channels. The increasing distribution of content via official club social media accounts is a way in which clubs are starting the conversation in the digital communities where fans already are. This summer’s theme was for clubs to reveal new signings via social media in all kinds of inventive ways. In fact, the more whacky the reveal was, the more engagement it received (I’m particularly thinking about Chelsea’s signing of Rüdiger here!)

Social media has certainly enabled new opportunities for small clubs to connect with their fans, but digital channels are still dominated by the top clubs. Although Manchester United account for a startling 50% of all social media interactions across the 20 Premier League clubs, they are now weighing the benefits of gaining a huge level of fan engagement against the fact they do not own the data captured from fan interaction since it is held by third party platforms, like Facebook. The launch earlier this year of Manchester United’s MUTV App aims to change this. The Netflix-like subscription service initially seemed to be a news management tool, potentially bypassing traditional news outlets, but it is now clear that the App is a central feature of the club’s over-the-top (OTT) online media strategy which focuses on the controlling of audience data through owned digital channels.

Given that 75% of Manchester United fans in the key US market are under the age of 34 and work from the ‘smartphone outwards’, the MUTV App acknowledges that digital is the core of all fan communications. Much of the marketing around their summer tour to the US showed that the App was a more than mere digital acknowledgement, but instead represented a more rounded commercial revenue stream that centred on driving fan awareness, downloads to watch pre-season games live and, ultimately, subscriptions. The task that the club’s marketers now face is ensuring the fans are taken on an engaging content-led journey from third-party hosted social channels to the club’s owned platforms, by controlling data and fine-tuning content that creates close bonds with global fans.

Top rights-holders, however, need to strike the right balance between driving audiences to completely owned platforms and distributing content in ways that preserve their sponsorship value. In August, Real Madrid won the digital version of ‘El Classico’, reaching 100 million Facebook fans. There is no sign of slowing down either as they have been the first football club to embrace Facebook’s new ‘Watch’ video platform. Collaborating with GoPro, Real have taken ‘behind the scenes’ content to a new level by launching ‘Hala Madrid.’ Episode 1, ‘Training Day’, transports fans into the heart of the club, enabling them to watch the players go through the drills and to see how much hard work the staff put into the club. Episode 2, ‘The City and its Soul’, epitomises the close relationship between club and fan, taking them on a tour that highlights the connection between the club and the city’s inhabitants, how they are all part of a big family. Crucially, this video platform offers fans content that matches the immediacy of their favourite environment and propels the club’s upward social media follower trajectory.

Whilst smaller rights-holders may not reach the dizzy heights of 100 million social media followers, their digital strategy is crucial to, firstly, create an audience, and secondly, engage with them. Table Tennis England, who struggle to get air-time on traditional broadcast channels, agreed a media deal with TheSportbible to show matches. As TheSportbible’s Facebook page has more than 9 million followers, Table Tennis England’s digital media strategy helped generate an impressive 2.1m total views for a match against Greece. By taking the sport to the social media ecosystem of Millennial and Gen-Z consmuers, Table Tennis England created an audience by circumventing the traditional sports rights market. Similar to Manchester United, the challenge is now for the national governing body to ensure their digital strategy takes the consumer on a journey to their owned channels where more engaging, relevant content is hosted.

The digital era has undoubtedly upped consumer expectations and smartphones are where they expect to be met. It is crucial then, for rights-holders of all sizes to keep close to consumer trends and adopt a digital-first strategy where the fan is at the centre of all communications. It may be challenging to get the right balance between social media reach and revenue-driven, data-controlled owned platforms, but the priority should be to continually learn and understand fan preferences. Creative, fresh and personalised content will allow the rights-holder to remain on the ball in the content-led era.