Football and social media seem made for one another. The game's online presence has exploded in recent years thanks to new platforms, a thirst for information and debate, and the clubs' recognition that having social accounts is a way of strengthening brand identity and interacting with fans. In contrast to brands from other sectors, though, how advanced is football's thinking when it comes to social media presence? Is the zeal with which clubs are taking to platforms, motivated by a love for their fans or new revenue streams, part of a thought out process or a happy-go-lucky dash into the e-ther?
The most recent example of social innovation by a football club is, of course, Southampton FC's move onto Snapchat, which was launched on December 16. Southampton already has a well-established social media presence, like most EPL teams. Their announcement, though, was greeted with some confusion among football fans and social media savants alike. Though some commentators have recently said that Snapchat is where it's at in marketing terms, it seems that the viability of Snapchat as a marketing tool is product and brand dependent, and relies heavily on the innovation and verve of whichever digital agency is behind that brand's presence on the platform.
When I queried on Twitter, in a pretty light-hearted way, why Southampton FC had taken this bold step, I got a slightly, dare I say it, snappy response from their head of social, Jim Lucas:
Jim went on to explain, once he had realised I was being playful, that the club had a variety of young, engaged players, and it seemed like an exciting way for them to interact with a fan-base of similar composition. He then went on to make an interesting assertion, almost as a throwaway:
This is an interesting assertion. Surely a public-facing and publically interactive platform, especially one run by a multi-million pound corporate entity as any EPL club is, should be run on the basis of a strategy? It is hard to envisage a premium brand like Dove or Burberry rushing into a new arena without consultation, the input of a bespoke digital agency or communications agency, and serious in-house discussion.
It may well be that these things occurred, that Mr Lucas is simply being coy, but that, in itself, is interesting. His open declaration that a major, news-making innovation in sports and social media in the UK was "just a bit of fun" with "no strategy" lying behind it was also either oddly ingenuous or a deliberate attempt to play down the significance of the move, perhaps to allow for distance if it all goes horribly wrong.
And, indeed, it could. Snapchat is still a murky area for marketing practitioners. The figures for use are hard to come by and, while some brands appear to have made a success of the platform, and digital creatives have suggested other ways this might be done, the true value of the platform is very much unclear. As with any new tool still in its infancy, it seems to me that a strategy that discusses the potential risks and exposure associated with moving into a digital field must exist before any brand does so. Questions about who uses the platform and for what need answering. There are risks to mitigate too: the very real possibility of being swamped with offensive material or, perhaps more dangerously, having offensive material sent out under the club name? Footballers aren't exactly renowned for their tact and integrity.
Of course, marketing generally, and digital in particular, are very dynamic industries, characterized by constant change, trend-spotting, and trying to stay ahead of an only partially visible curve. Digital, and social in particular, are sticking points for the industry: these are channels and platforms that evolve faster than many campaigns do. More importantly, the behaviour of users changes rapidly too. And there's a huge issue around being able to prove the value of social to brands, with different companies and agencies defining success in different ways. Football clubs are, of course, extremely well-established and long-standing brands but it is only really since the advent of Sky and the injection of capital into the game which occurred with the onset of satellite broadcasting that clubs have had to think like brands in other sectors, with so much attention paid to marketing, investment, corporate tie-ins and so on. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that in a field like digital communications, in itself so changeable, football clubs are still finding their feet.
If a social media platform is to be of use to a football club, as I have argued elsewhere, it must be about engagement and conversation: most fans already have a positive brand association with their teams and, if they are flagging in their affection, a good social strategy will not help; it's a results business and the biggest influencer is still winning games. Clubs can and should use social to drive initiatives at grass-roots level, push any CSR they have, and deliver messages in crisis situations, as well as building individual relationships with fans that those fans can enjoy. This will not necessarily increase that fan's loyalty, but it will make them feel more connected, more positive, and that can only be a good thing.
In this respect, then, maybe Southampton's move into Snapchat is a good thing too. It may well be that this sort of personal interaction is exactly what they are aiming for and nothing beyond that. If so, fine, and I wish them well. They are my team, after all. But, and here is the caveat: football clubs can and do sometimes seem like they have rushed into the social space like a child excited by swimming in the sea for the first time, unaware or wilfully ignoring the fact that there are rocks and currents and sharks. For clubs to be serious social media players, for them to harness the power of social media in a way that benefits fans as well as the club, they cannot hide behind the "a bit of fun" line for very long. For an individual user, the social space is a place for fun and games; for a brand, it is a very public part of your business, a worldwide shop-front that needs to be managed with consideration. Football seems to be trying to have its cake and eat, too.
Follow Alex Stewart on Twitter: www.twitter.com/afhstewart