Social Media Use amongst Premier League football clubs

Is the biggest football club in the world (Manchester United) almost completely disinterested in using social media channels in order to communicate with its fanbase? Why does it appear to be almost exclusively reliant on Facebook? Are any of the other Premier League’s clubs much earlier and effective adopters of social media channels in communicating with their existing fans and attracting new ones?

I began a research project in the Autumn of last year to gather SEO and social media data around certain verticals to see if you could relate site performance directly to Social Media reach and their backlink profiles. I was curious to see if you could draw any reasonable conclusions from examining raw data in this way. Did looking purely at link and social media data tell you anything meaningful about that brand’s approach to online marketing?

The first vertical I decided to use – more than anything as a simple ‘proof of concept’ – was well-known sports brands; and the first sub-set of this data was Premier League clubs (i.e. this post!).

Facebook Use by Premier League Clubs:

Facebook was an obvious place to start as it’s clearly a useful channel which allows clubs to engage with their fanbase and it was interesting to compare not only how many likes a club received, but also the rate at which they accumulated these Facebook fans since opening their Facebook page.

Data updated: 13th April 2013

The above chart clearly tells you a few things:

i) firstly, the top four clubs (Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal) have a much bigger following than the other clubs

ii) secondly, simply because of the reach of Facebook (and notwithstanding the use of other Social Media Channels in the Far East especially), this would indeed indicate that these clubs do indeed have a global fan base.

iii) all the clubs could fill their stadia many times over with just their Facebook fanbase (Man United could fill Old Trafford over 412 times, for example). There were some notable exceptions, though, which only produced low single digit ratios: Wigan, Norwich, Sunderland, Reading, Stoke and WBA. Perhaps these clubs shouldn’t be too keen on spending money expanding their stadiums. However, Swansea and QPR – which are clubs you’d probably expect to have a very localised and loyal fanbase – might well benefit from expanding the size of their stadia as clearly they both have a significant following.

iv) Some of the smaller clubs (WBA and Stoke City) were much quicker than the big clubs (with the exception of Arsenal) in seeing the potential in Facebook and in setting up an official page. However, their fairly limited appeal only meant that Stoke has only picked up 38 likes a day, compared to 6,934 for Arsenal and 24,786 per day for Manchester United. That’s quite a gap! So Manchester United’s relative lethargy in setting up an official page was more than compensated by the rate at which they gathered fans, once the page was up and running.

Twitter Use:

Twitter was the second channel I looked at.

I’d like to also point out that Manchester United’s only official presence on Twitter is via their Press Office. However, even if their Press Office use an official Twitter account, you can see from the chart here that it’s hardly used, in comparison to the official accounts for other clubs. This gives the impression that Manchester United doesn’t seem that bothered about using this method to engage with fans.

Again, this analysis provided some interesting stats and there are some other quick conclusions you can draw:

  • Early Adopters: Manchester City (as with Youtube – see below) and Everton
  • Frantic Tweeters: Reading, Norwich and Man City
  • Following their Fans: Liverpool, Arsenal and Man City appeared to be the only clubs interested in following other Twitter accounts (which could be seen as a way of building loyalty and interest – you often see fans changing their profile to say "followed by @TheRealAC3" e.g. – Ashley Cole, in case you’re wondering!). This actually turned out to be quite a pattern amongst other sports too – most clubs didn’t follow other accounts and this might be an indication of how they use Twitter (i.e. simply to broadast to their fanbase and to monitor the streams of their squad players).
  • Again, all the big clubs have picked up fans at a significant rate since opening an official account
  • Some clubs (Sunderland, Norwich, Wigan and Reading) appeared to have a bigger following on Twitter than on Facebook (something I wasn’t expecting to see).

Data updated: 13th April 2013

Google Plus & YouTube Use

Next, I decided to do some visual analysis of their use of these Google properties. Again, a first few things became quickly apparent. Some clubs simply didn’t bother with one or both of these channels. There were some notable exceptions, though. Look at the numbers for Manchester City and Chelsea here! Manchester City, in particular, were very quick to adopt this channel and have been very very active in producing video content and attracting subscribers. If you take a quick look a their official Youtube channel, it’s not hard to see why: they’ve got lots of content uploaded regularly, there are lots of "behind the scenes" videos and a lot of these are amusing (and yes, a good deal of the popular ones involve Mario Balotelli in one way or another).

Data updated: 13th April 2013

Again, Manchester United is well behind here. They don’t even have an official account, despite a few claiming to be the club’s official channel (we rang Old Trafford to check and one of the so-called official channels was recently closed by Youtube for posting copyrighted content, something you’d hardly expect from an official channel.)

The following stacked bar chart summarises the potential reach these clubs have using Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Youtube and clearly illustrates the gaps between the clubs in using these channels.

Data correct as of: Feb 2013

All this gives the impression that Manchester United is well behind on all fronts. All these channels offer clubs the opportunity to not only share club news and about such things as signings, fixtures and results, but also to promote other direct revenue streams (merchandise, ticket sales, premium TV channels, etc). When you have a global fan base of 659 million, it is difficult to imagine why the powers that be at Old Trafford were seemingly so slow to spot the opportunities. Take the average cost of an official Manchester United shirt, for example: ~£30.00. Then take into account the estimated cost of their latest signing in the January transfer window (Wilfred Zaha): £15m. For them to recoup this transfer cost purely in terms of shirt sales, they would need to sell 500,000 shirts to their fanbase. This translates to only 0.0007%! OK, of course, this doesn’t take into account either the cost of the shirts or the relative affordability of a shirt for much of their fanbase, but you get my point: they’re missing out on a major additional source of revenue, surely?

Interestingly, though, we noticed that Manchester United was hiring a Social Media Manager at the end of last year. This appears to be their first ever Social Media appointment, so it looks like their seemingly rather nonchalant attitude to social media is beginning to change. This is not that surprising, considering the potential for clubs to monetize these channels.

Comparing Social Media and SEO data (in this case, Majestic SEO backlink data) between clubs also produced interesting visualisations, as you can see:

Data correct as of: 14th February 2013

So, Manchester City are much more active generally in using social media to engage with (and entertain) their fan base, with the exception of Facebook where Manchester United have a much bigger following. When it comes to backlink data, they’re pretty even, although United probably edges it, despite City’s lead in Trustflow.

I’m going to be working on producing more content along these lines, so if you have any ideas please get in touch. I’m currently working on a comparison of the social media uptake across the sporting world (covering nine major sports and over 600+ clubs in ten countries).

By: Matt OToole

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