Manchester United: a Global Brand on Social Media
Any Manchester United fan will tell you that being at Old Trafford is a dream come true - or to some, the whole Theatre of Dreams come true. Personally, I've been lucky enough a couple of times, and just stepping through the gate is an awesome experience! The excitement, the feeling of being part of something bigger than ourselves, the love for the Manchester United team - it’s all unique and united.
I tried to take as many photos as I could before the kick-off, since photography is not permitted during the match if your camera looks "professional". It’s a hobby of mine, and they were for personal, not commercial use. I hope you enjoy them.
Given that I already have a photoblog, you’re probably wondering why I am posting photos here? Well, here it’s not just a photo! It’s an homage to the Manchester United team and its presence as a global brand on social media. So, it fits better.
Manchester United on Social Media
Kick Off: Facebook
As expected, it all started with Facebook - the largest social network. On 12 July 2010, Manchester United's Official Page on Facebook kicked off Manchester United's official presence on social media with a simple welcome message:
The welcome message was followed by many photos and news links. In addition to the daily news, images and competition, the history of the club began to appear on Facebook Timeline. This helped fans, like me, study and learn the history of the club in an easy way.
In other industries, such as entertainment, one of the greatest challenges marketers face is to find a way to create passion and engagement. However, with sports it is totally a different story. The excitement is already there, and the challenge is to manage all those passionate fans and their comments and feedbacks.
In case of Manchester United, like many other sport teams, Facebook is a promotional and content distribution platform, rather than a platform to interact with the audience - due to the huge scale. Therefore, like many other broadcasting tools, it's one-way. However, this one-way channel provided Manchester United with lists of fans' email addresses through the competitions and giveaways. Furthermore, huge amounts of data became available for social CRM purposes.
Facebook was the first phase of social media presence for Manchester United, which took about 3 years. During this time, they got to know their audience and established the right tone. Also, the content improved from only links to the news articles on the website to more images, behind the scenes, exclusive interviews and match day events. In addition to content type and the tone, the update frequency also became more regular and about 10 times a day.
Manchester United took their time with Facebook and grew a huge engaging online fan-base that publish about 5m Manchester United related social media posts every month according to Richard Arnold, Group Managing Director. After Facebook, it was time for phase two: the expanding to new platforms.
Half-time: Bring on Twitter
After about 3 years of collecting data from Facebook fan page and learning from it, it was finally time to explore and expand into other platforms. Manchester United was the last Premier League club to join twitter on 10 July 2013 and here's @ManUtd's first tweet.
Although the club’s press office previously had its own account for club news, this was the first official presence of Manchester United on Twitter, acknowledging the era after Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement and under David Moyes - "the Chosen One". The fans' reaction to @ManUtd's appearing on Twitter was huge, and it reached 1M followers milestone in only 71 days, according to David Sternberg - Head of Media at Manchester United (here).
@ManUtd takes an interesting and creative approach to content creation, specially imagery. The artworks and infographics in addition to the news as well as the historic tweets make Manchester United's Twitter feed very diverse and interesting for the fans.
In addition to regularly posting high quality content, @ManUtd has benefited from its players' high number of followers on Twitter. The #AskRio Q&A with Rio Ferdinand (@rioferdy5) is an example of that.
Although, the Manchester United's Twitter account is not replying to it's followers as of now (same as Facebook) , it's started retweeting and mentioning the players' official accounts as well as the opponents recently.
After 60 Minutes: Fresh Legs
One month after the launch of Manchester United's Twitter feed, the expansion continued with the launch of Instagram and Google Plus feeds on 8 August 2013, and this is a summary of Manchester United's strategy on Google+ published as the their first post.
"Here you'll find a steady stream of iconic imagery, behind-the-scenes access, in-depth analysis and succinct storytelling about our club's rich history." - Google.com/+ManUtd
The low ratio of duplicate content shows that Manchester United have an independent strategy for each platform. Different platforms have different types of audience, and they consume and enjoy different types of content. The key to success in social media is monitoring and engaging (where possible) with the audience. Considering the differences in users' behaviours on various platforms, no one can become successful with simply sharing duplicate content on all the channels, specially if it's a global brand with millions of fans all around the world. The two images (above and below) are an example for that. Both are the club's first post on the same day on different platforms (Google Plus above, Instagram below) and they are totally different.
Also, it seems that the club is considering the behaviour of the users on different platforms when creating content for each platform. The users on Google Plus has proved they read more (on the platform) compared to Facebook users. You can see its result on the club's Google Plus page. The content usually is complete, without a link to the website.
Another key factor leading to success in social media is to utilise the specific features of each platform. This is also another instant of having a specific strategy for each platform. Holding Google Plus Hangouts with first-team stars is an example of that specific feature being utilised. Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley (@tomclevz23) were the first players to attend a Google Plus Hangout for Manchester United on 23 August 2013, and it probably won't be the last.
Also, launching Instagram feed fits Manchester United's emphasis on imagery on social media. For a global brand with a huge fan base around the world, focus on imagery can easily help to leap the language barrier, and the club has done this well.
However, it's not the only measure Manchester United took in terms of language barrier. The club can now connect with 63 million more fans in Asia thanks to pages in Indonesian (@ManUtd_ID), Malay (@ManUtd_ MY), Japanese (@ManUtd_JP), Arabic(@ManuUtd_AR) as well as over 54 million fans across the Spanish-speaking world via a Spanish feed (@ManUtd_ES). Manchester United has also become active on the main Chinese social networks networks Sina Weibo and Renren.
In addition to the variety of the photos on Instagram, the frequency of publishing is also interesting. The club is posting an average of 6 photos per day. This frequency of publishing results in higher engagement with users on different timezones, which is very important to a globally recognised brand like Manchester United.
In addition to all these, Instagram is a special platform for Manchester United, because it's one the platforms that club is using to acknowledge the fans. Manchester United's Instagram feed contains re-posts of some of the fans' photos tagged with #mufcfanpics credited to the photographer. Of course this results in higher motivation as well as engagement, and it's proven successful. Although instances of retweeting fans' tweets with photos appear on the club's Twitter feed, due to the realtime nature of Twitter and volume of tweets, it's not as eye-catching as it is on Instagram.
The first thing we learn is that sports are a whole different category on social media, which cannot be treated like other industries, such as entertainment. For sports, the passion is not a challenge, it's a given. That's a dream for other industries.
Also, social media marketing is not an event, it doesn't end. It's a path full of risks, and these risks can be both opportunities as well as hazards (according to Richard Ayers's friend here, who is a professor of risk). Manchester United took a cautious approach toward social media learning from others' experience.
Aside from the Q&A's and Google Hangouts, Manchester United is barely engaging with users on social media platforms, which is a normal, considering the scale. However, they use all these platforms for to grow the Manchester United brand with lots of insider photos and videos and other creative and interesting content. Instead of directly trying to sell on social media, the club goes for the bigger picture: building brand.
With strategically building the brand with content marketing, audience get what they love and commercial success will follow. More engagement, more passion and eventually more subscribers to MUTV or more sale of merchandise or season tickets. This will also result in savings in marketing costs, which is another type of revenue.
Manchester United started on Facebook and then, after 3 years of research and strengthening their presence on Facebook, expanded to other main platforms. By the time Manchester United launched its Twitter feed, they had figured out the key criteria such as the right tone and right content.
If you think of Manchester United's Facebook page as the capital of Manchester United country (its whole social media presence), you can see that they took their time and helped the capital to grow first. Then, when the capital is big, powerful and populated enough, they helped the population move to the other big cities like Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram and even foreign lands like Sina Weibo or Renren to expand their empire.
This is has proved to be a successful strategy for Manchester United and I think it's one of the best practices to build a global brand on social media.