Thoughts from the Financial Times Business of Football Summit, day one

My thoughts from today's panel on fan engagement on day one of the Financial Times Business of Football Summit.

Thoughts from the Financial Times Business of Football Summit, day one
The three panelists on today's talk: David Ingham, Michael Sutherland, and Murad Ahmed

This year's Business of Football Summit, hosted by the Financial Times, takes place over two years both online and in-person. Day one was held solely online, before day two takes place at London's Biltmore Mayfair as well as being streamed.

From a fan engagement and digital marketing perspective, today's most interesting panel was titled 'New Technologies and the Transformation of the Fan Engagement'. It was chaired by the FT's Technology News Editor Murad Ahmed, and featured Michael Sutherland, Chief Transformation Office at Real Madrid, and David Ingham, Head of Media, Entertainment and Sport at Cognizant.

While there weren't any particular groundbreaking revelations from the 40 minute discussion, it was interesting to see the approaches that Sutherland and Ingham had towards what 'fan engagement' actually is.

After an introductory discussion around "zero party data" (data a customer knowingly and pro-actively shares) and how Real Madrid are keen to use it to "deliver a better experience to [fans]", Ingham jumped in to give his thoughts on how clubs treat them.

He started by stating that he doesn't think football "has fully adopted a direct to consumer strategy" and truly understands their fans in the ways other industries do. The specific example he gave was around segmenting audiences by geographic location - the differences between marketing to someone in Thailand compared to Leicester - and how clubs run the risk of alienating both of them by adopting a mass marketing approach.

Clubs should be asking themselves, in Ingham's words, "why did the fan come to the club?". He claims there's a very easy use case for a lot of the data, but clubs and leagues are still getting it wrong.

And he's right. One of the earliest lessons in marketing is that appealing to everyone appeals to no-one.

"They're missing a trick, and potentially alienating everybody with that."

There's a great recent piece published in that discusses this in more depth. This is my favourite quote:

Have we forgotten that marketing is, by its very nature, meant to discriminate? Its whole purpose is to tailor goods and services to the needs and preferences of a particular group of people – it is supposed to pick sides for commercial gain.

One of the ways clubs have looked to segment their audiences is by launching separate native-language channels for fans in different regions. A lot of German clubs have English-language accounts, for example, and Premier League clubs have capitalised on the individual profiles of players in certain countries.

Tottenham Hotspur, for example, have nearly 50,000 followers on their Korean Twitter account, launched to build on Son Heung-min's profile in the country. The club has a South Korean Supporters Club, and sold out last year's pre-season tour in minutes according to Forbes. Nurture a fanbase, understand why they're following and what they want, and it'll lead to increased revenue.

Ingham says that you won't gain any relevancy with a fan if you don't understand why they're following you - whether it's the club, an incentive, or a specific player.

You can listen to David Ingham's response to the question below.

David Ingham, Financial Times Business of Football Summit

Audio taken from the Financial Times Business of Football Summit, reproduced with permission.

The role of social media in fan engagement

Ahmed introduced social media next, starting off by saying it "feels like sometimes potentially too much" content is published by clubs. He wanted to know how fans giving all this engagement to social media channels was beneficial to a club like Real Madrid.

Sutherland's response focused on the reach of the club's channels - 446m followers on Instagram, second place on TikTok - and that they've had a very dedicated strategy to social media in the last couple of years. One of these appears to be adopting native approaches to channels - minimising cross-posting, tailoring content to play to that platform's strengths - to maximise this growth. The end result of the growth is to be "an important business driver for our sponsorship business", and to "help our partners get reach".

There's a lot of interest in Madrid's social channels and the "digital activations" the club can help businesses with, according to Sutherland. Increasing reach and driving the partnerships business seem to be the two main aims of their activity.

He acknowledges that social platforms keep a distance between fans and the club because it's still a third-party platform. Therefore they see social as "top of the funnel", and existing to drive activity to fans and followers to the club's own platforms.

From a sponsorship perspective - Cognizant have several Formula 1 and football sponsorships - Ingham says "they're looking at how to monetise, and for me it's down to showing me the ROI on the sponsorship, not the reach". That's an interesting difference of opinion in terms of what each side is after - clubs aiming for reach, sponsors wanting ROI.

Ingham says that there's still an "old school mentality" among clubs who still treat having the most followers as the most important metric. He thinks teams should focus on the quality of these, including understanding them better, before approaching sponsors.

This is a point that I've experienced myself over the years. There are a lot of talented marketers in football, however there's been a disproportionate amount of focus on the organic match day side of things over the years; nobody's trending on Sportbible because they've segmented an email campaign effectively and driven an increase in revenue. Understanding your consumers is a basic part of how businesses do marketing, and how brands grow. Football clubs seem, in my opinion, a few years behind other sectors in this regard.

Ingham makes the point that understanding the value of the consumer "requires a rewiring of people, of marketers, of data strategists". It'll be a bold and brave club that starts making these changes in the near future.

How do you stop fans feeling like they're the product?

One of the most interesting questions that came in for the panel was around how to not make fans feel like they're being exploited. Given the entire discussion had been around how to use find commercial uses for data, it was definitely worth exploring.

"Fans can't feel like they're the product. If you keep pushing them offers or merchandise or the team's logo on some new thing ... you're going to lose them"

The quote above is from Ingham. Once again he goes back to data: fans love football, they want to feel close to it, they want to be involved in it, so if you can understand why they came to the sport and what interests them, "they'll eat it up".

There's not really a definitive answer there... but one of the ways I always suggest is spending time responding to and engaging with fans. Build communities - like Man United's Discord channel - that you can use to facilitate meaningful engagement.

Up next...

The first half-day of the conference was certainly an interesting start.

I'll be dipping in and out of the day two stream, but will be catching up afterwards on a few of the talks in particular:

  • A keynote interview with Javier Tebas, President of La Liga.
  • A panel with CEOs of Brighton, Helsinki, Benfica, and Brentford, discussing how to run a football club to ensure long-term growth.
  • A panel looking at the commercialisation of women's football in future, following the successes of Euro 2022.

Thanks to the team at the Financial Times for inviting me along to cover the event.