The Emirates FA Cup is one of the oldest cup competitions in the world. For fans of the top flight teams, the tournament starts at the beginning of January when they play their first games. For lower division teams, however, qualifying starts in August – sometimes before professional clubs have kicked their first ball of the season.

Engagement with the competition becomes more straight forward once the professionals get involved. Teams like Manchester United and Arsenal bring with them a global following, and every game can easily generate an audience of millions.

The issue for the FA team, then, is raising awareness of all the games throughout the season – not just the bigger, or televised, ones. This responsibility obviously falls to the FA’s marketing team.

Lucy Roberts-Hartley and the team – Charlie Weir, Jim Lucas, Sam Colley, and Chris Darnell – work to ensure that both Emirates and the FA Cup get as much as exposure as possible. The Online Rule spoke to Charlie to find out more about this year’s campaign.

What’s going on? And what do they hope to achieve?

The Emirates FA Cup campaign has several main aims:

  • To increase competition awareness from qualifying rounds with the Instagram account’s target audience (16 -24).
  • To increase the social media following for the Emirates FA Cup.
  • To engage club audiences and the wider football community.
  • To showcase partner placement strategically through credible and authentic storytelling.

The team are trying to achieve these by using a combination of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram – with the latter’s new Stories feature playing a vital part.

The takeover

The FA are taking the bold step of allowing players from different teams control of the competition’s official Instagram channel throughout the qualifying rounds. Using the platform’s new Stories feature, they’re asking them to chart their preparation for each game and document what a typical game day is like.

“We felt we could share a credible story through the eyes of ‘real’ players at non-league/semi-professional level all the way through to Premiership. We are hoping to illustrate all 13 rounds and really tell the story of the competition through the players’ eyes. Our campaign is based around ‘adventure’, and the story allows fans to join a player’s adventure.”

The idea for the campaign came from watching how brands and football clubs have been using takeovers as part of their day-to-day content, as well as learning from sites such as TheLadBible and Copa 90 who attract the same audience that the FA are aiming for.

Given that Instagram Stories are, more or less, a direct take on Snapchat’s most established feature, it’s surprising to see such a big activation on the platform. There aren’t too many football clubs who have started producing Stories yet as their focus has been firmly on Snapchat. The team’s logic is disarmingly simple: the Emirates FA Cup doesn’t have an official Snapchat account.

One week before the extra-preliminary round – the very first round of this year’s competition – Instagram announced Stories. Seeing as there was already an established Instagram account with an engaged audience, it seemed obvious that this would be the ideal platform for the takeovers.

The plan for the rest of the tournament is simple: “The players at each round of the competition take control to give a first person account of their matchday. This will continue for all 13 rounds, and will culminate in the story continuing all the way to the Emirates FA Cup final at Wembley.”

#WembleyToWembley

Non-league Wembley FC were chosen as the side to kick off the takeovers. On 6 August the account was handed over to one of the club’s players to document his day leading up to the game.

Ownership of the account has been handed over a few times since: Wembley lost to Harefield United, who took over when they won the tie. Kempston Rovers then took charge after beating Harefield, before losing the next round to Burgess Hill Town, who will pick it up for their next cup match.

So far everything seems to be going well. While Weir says it’s difficult to analyse what’s working well on Instagram as they can only track views, he does state that, logically, “there is a drop-off during the duration of the story”, so the most engaged posts are always earlier on.

Purely from a storytelling point of view, the takeovers have definitely been a success. It’s quite eye-opening to see the day-to-day lives of the players involved in the earlier rounds. Watching them go about their day jobs while knowing they’re playing in the country’s biggest cup competition in the evening gives it a level of authenticity a constructed and polished marketing campaign wouldn’t be able to achieve.

As the tournament progresses the Emirates FA Cup team acknowledge that the access fans have enjoyed to players so far might be harder to come by. Weir explains: “Ideally we would still like to feature a full takeover from Third Round proper onwards, but as the competition progresses the access will likely decrease as player image rights and partners/sponsor commitments come into contest.” Premier League clubs can be notoriously protective over the images they portray, and given the wealth of commercial partnerships in the top flight getting some of the big name players to open themselves up in this way won’t be an easy sell.

There is still hope, however. The team are optimistic that they’ll be able to continue to get players to take over the account. If all else fails, “it will just be game footage and focusing on one player with our media access all areas passes. So no footage of players eating their breakfasts or singing along to FIVE in their cars on the way to games!”

Expanding the campaign

It’s not just on Instagram that the Emirates FA Cup team are aiming to break new ground: for the first time in its history the second round qualifying draw took place live on Twitter. Given that there were 160 clubs involved, this makes it the biggest draw of its kind to take place on the platform.

A full chain of the tweets from the draw is below:

The event generated over 1.1m impressions, saw 38,000 engagements, and 2,110 retweets and likes – a definite success for something that isn’t usually conducted in public.

Levelling the Playing Surface

Thanks to the exposure from the Instagram Story, some non-league clubs will be experiencing a level of attention they haven’t previously been used to. The FA teamed up with Playing Surface – an online social and print asset creation portal – to offer all 232 clubs access to a marketing toolkit to help make their output that little bit more professional.

“This account allows clubs to create and tailor their own promotional assets for each fixture. These assets are all locked down to feature Emirates FA Cup branding and the #EmiratesFACup hashtag. All of the clubs have access to a suite of 12 graphics including a fixture poster, starting line-up, goal announcements, man of the match, half-time scores, full-time results, and for any quotes they want to use.”

The Playing Surface accounts led to 117 of the clubs creating over 620 Emirates-branded graphics to share across social channels. This contributed to a total reach of over 1 million followers on Twitter: a level of attention the clubs wouldn’t have generated without the FA team’s help.

The result was tweets containing images like Blyth Spartans’ below:

It’s certainly impressive, and a level of quality that only a few lower league clubs have been able to produce in recent years. By commissioning accounts for all of the clubs to use throughout their cup runs the FA team are helping them realise that growth off the pitch can be just as useful and important as growth on it.

The Emirates FA Cup runs throughout the current football season. You can follow the competition’s progress on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to see how the adventure continues throughout the season.