Barack Obama swept into the White House in 2008 having benefitted from the biggest social media whirlwind ever seen. Having been swayed by a digital tornado, 70 per cent of America’s under-25s flocked to the voting booths.
In that same “Yes we can” spirit, Manchester City have harnessed the power of social media to transform their image into one of football’s most tech-savvy brands – and find themselves leading a shift in how football is consumed.
Rivals Manchester United built their appeal around the world with MUTV, one of football’s first multimedia innovations. But City’s official website has evolved into a dynamic social hub and a breaking news service in its own right – allowing City to project themselves as more of an entertainment brand than a football club.
“The Man City brand is pride in football,” Russell Stopford, City’s head of digital, told alpha. “It’s about passion and our strong links to community and heritage. Our task is to use social media to take that forward.”
City are in the privileged position of being able to exploit the club’s success on the field, but key to the creation of a vibrant online community is the use of geolocation social networks such as Foursquare – an area City believe is the future of fan interaction.
“The rise in location-based social networks is an interesting development,” says the 41-year-old Stopford. “When you consider that football is a communal coming together around a game – whether that be in a stadium, a local bar or some other venue in the world – it gives us a way of allowing fans to share that experience.
“When we launched our partnership with Foursquare, it allowed people to check in at the stadium during a game and ask [City captain] Vincent Kompany questions as it was broadcast live across all of our social networks. Social media allows a multifaceted conversation between fans that never stops. We are the fastest growing club on social media and we don’t want to control that, we want to participate and engage.”
Shaikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s decision to buy the club – and its debt – in 2008 didn’t automatically herald a new era. But Carlos Tevez’s decision to swap the red side of Manchester for blue was emblematic of a gradual shift in power. Shaikh Mansour has invested root and branch in the club, recognising that all aspects require attention. Not just the Abramovich approach of throwing good money after bad in the desperate pursuit of happiness. With a more measured investment strategy, City, who have become one of the top-ten brands on Twitter in the last 12 months, have been able to embrace social media in a way other clubs are only just realising.
“We go beyond what a lot of clubs are doing and really it’s about providing our audience – including our growing fan base in the Middle East – with the very best experience online if they are unable to be at the Etihad Stadium in person,” says Stopford.
Overseas fans are crucial to City’s vision of building a truly international football club that allows fans in Miami, Montreal or Manila to have the same experience as a fan in Manchester. “We’ve seen an incredible growth in our Chinese audience, even in the last few weeks since our friendly game against Arsenal in Beijing,” says Stopford. “China is definitely an important market for our new fans. But perhaps the main catalyst for that growth has been our participation in Chinese social networks, mainly Sina Weibo [a hybrid of Facebook and Twitter], where we’ve been doing live chats with fans while on tour in Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and China.”
But the online landscape changes by the day, and City have big plans for the next six months – including a greater focus on mobile offerings and Arabic content. “People should keep an eye on what we’re doing on mobile, particularly for our English- and Arabic-speaking audiences. That should be very exciting as we’re looking to move into more areas that other clubs aren’t doing at the moment,” reveals Stopford. “It’s obvious that more and more people are consuming content on their phones and we want to deliver that content for them. We are always looking to innovate and break new ground in the way that we deliver cutting-edge content, so expect some new developments there.
“The website is only part of what we’re doing. What we’re doing with our social media strategy sets us apart. We were recently ranked 16th in a list [by Headstrong] of global social brands and we definitely believe that it’s an important pillar for the future as we try to engage more fans.”
The Tunnel Cam is perhaps City’s most successful innovation. The tunnel is usually off-limits but thanks to Tunnel Cam, it’s merely an extension of the pitch at the Etihad Stadium. Available on the City website and YouTube channel, fans can see what Gareth Bale’s reaction really was when Mario Balotelli asked him to swap shirts in the tunnel moments after the Italian’s controversial late penalty dashed Tottenham’s title hopes last season.
And that level of insight is proving a big hit online – if YouTube comments and six-figure views are anything to go by. “What happens on the pitch is incredibly important,” says Stopford. “But fans have an appetite for the different little things that add little colour and make the club what it is. So our behind-the-scenes footage, InsideCity content and Tunnel Cam show fans that it’s not just about the 90 minutes on the pitch.”
In an industry resistant to technological change, making football a curated experience may be lost on the older generation. While a match-day programme and a steak pie at the stadium used to suffice, City are leading a change in what fans expect on a match day – and their efforts have been acknowledged with various industry awards.
“Winning sports website of the year at the Sports Industry Awards was a big pat on the back to the team,” said Stopford. “There’s a deliberate effort to be the best and that’s a driving force behind the club. It’s not just about being best on the pitch, we want to give fans a premier experience.”