By Mark Mesiti Last Monday evening 23rd September I attended a SMW talk held at Pitch Communications – An agency dealing in sports...

Social Media and the sports fan @Social Media Week #smwfeverpitch


By Mark Mesiti

Last Monday evening 23rd September I attended a SMW talk held at Pitch Communications – An agency dealing in sports and sponsorship marketing. The theme of the talk was social media and the sports fan and was delivered in the form of a panel discussion with a few note worthy guests including Richard Clarke – Managing Editor, Arsenal Media Group, Craig Hepburn – Global Director, Digital & Social Media at Nokia, John Cross – Sports Writer, The Daily Mirror, Mark Bullock – Commercial Manager, Supporters Direct and last but certainly not least; Perri Shakes-Drayton – Olympic Athlete. I found the discussion quite interesting as the majority of my client portfolio are in the sports industry or online gambling. I was hoping to get some insights regarding how sports fans use social to converse about their favourite teams or players and how businesses can better understand the power than the "socially savvy" fan has on directing marketing strategy and execution. 

To briefly recap on the themes of the evening, it was discussed that social media, in particular Twitter, can truly bring fans closer to their chosen sport and really amplify the sporting experience by providing a really valuable platform for both fans and sporting teams alike, to converse and engage around all elements of the game and the players, with particular attention regarding the use of hashtags to leverage conversation opportunities. When it was thrown to the panel to comment on whether or not sporting clubs could impact or shape the sentiment or conversation from fans in relation to their team of choice, the response was surprising yet equally valid. "Clubs can try to influence fans with social but ultimately teams are only as good as their last result". Therefore implying that social provides the mouthpiece for fans to discuss, however presents limited ability for businesses to shape.

The discussion then led on to discuss how the sports industry is actually using social platforms in comparison to other categories and it was agreed that the industry was still in its infancy in terms of knowing how to channel the full potential of social to build deep and meaningful engagement with fans. Currently it is clear that the sports industry is using the space as a "real time" updates and news feed but it has the potential to be so much more than that! To paraphrase a brilliant quote from Craig Hepburn that really summed up for me the challenge that the industry faces: "In sport you're always on or you're off. How do you stay real time whilst still building genuine deeper engagement with your community. The challenge is to extend engagement past a tweet or an update". But it was highlighted by the panel that a key area of opportunity for the industry as it matures within the social landscape was how brands, teams and clubs could find ways to leverage and use the feedback and fan sentiment from social to deliver new valuable products which ultimate drive more revenue and loyalty. 

A couple of other really interesting points that were also raised by Mark Bullock, who seemed to really be representing the fan stronghold in the discussion; were that "social should act only to compliment the physical engagements surrounding sport but not replace them" meaning that some of the key reasons behind why sporting fans continue to loyally devote themselves, is because of the "money can't buy" moments of greatness and atmosphere that you can only physically experience or share when actually attending an event. To replace those with social avenues would only be disappointing and constitute a barrier to fan engagement. An example used was the fact that face to face meet the players & signings are now being replaced with online Q&A sessions, which while in principle serve to be more real time and intimate, actually drive further distance between the fan and their sporting idols. He also spoke about how some sporting teams have used social to really drive loyalty and positivity amongst their community of fans by telling the story of a woman who was on the way to attending a game of her favourite team when she realised that she has lost her tickets. Tweeting an SOS for help, a player from her favourite team picked up the tweet and organised two tickets for her and her son to be waiting for them at the gate when they arrived. This is an example of how social allowed the team to really building positive word of mouth and loyalty. That woman will forever be a fan after that day!

Then the discussion went on to detail the key principles behind community management and content development. Two topics that Craig Hepburn – Global Director, Digital & Social Media at Nokia had a lot to contribute. He said "The critical part of social media and managing communities is being genuine". Audiences and consumers of today are far more savvy and can see right through the commercial "fluff" that a lot of brands are generating within social channels. I completely agree with this point as I believe too many brands speak with their own needs in mind, but forget the primary reason that social channels exist – to be social and to allow people to converse with other likeminded people on matters that are important to them and their community, not for brands to push sales and brand messaging onto fans. Therefore an in depth view / insight into the audiences lifestyle and key motivators are crucial to developing relevant and engaging content that adds to the consumers experience. When we speak to clients about content development one word always comes up RELEVANCE. A brilliant point by Craig also summed this up for me; "Be honest and genuine with your audience and work with followers to understand and develop content that they want to consume. If you take this approach and you make a mistake, instead of slating you, your community will defend you. Mark Bullock summed it up nicely when he said: "What's the use of exclusive content if the fans don't want it?". Involving fans in shaping the content that they will ultimately consume will only cement a movement towards a joint venture between the fan and the club.    

Whilst all of the above was really interesting, the part for me that was most interesting was when Perri Shakes-Drayton – Olympic athlete spoke about how athletes use social channels to help their careers "More followers and interest in me and my achievements as an athlete and personality leads to more sponsors and ultimately more success". I really found her points of view interesting as she was clearly not well versed or prepared with rehearsed points of view on the subject like some of the other guests, surprisingly this really seemed to work for her in responding honestly and genuinely about the implications of social media on her life, her career and on athletes and sport alike. I found that her raw insight and personal experience really shone over above the usual "marketing speak" and made social "real"! She also said that it was difficult to balance how much of Peri the athlete you show versus Peri the person, and how much is too much? She also discussed how she really wanted to use social channels to "de-glam" what athletes do, and show that they're all just people at the end of the day. Social being a way to shine a light on the "real" life of an athlete. There was also discussion around how social could possibly be used to really give insight into what it takes to be an athlete and the hardships and sacrifices that were made to get to a point of success. An interesting idea considering how social can assist the next generation of sporting heroes become truly exceptional without making some of the same mistakes that those before them made. 

All in all, a really interesting panel discussion which I thoroughly enjoyed, although I must say attending an event and having to take notes, listen and take in the discussion as well as furiously live tweeting for all our adoring Gravity fans, did prove to be a little stressful at times. Guess its something you nail with more experience, as it seemed like so many others in the room were doing just that with stella ease by way of comparison.  

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