It’s pretty safe to say that Premier League clubs are fairly well established on social media. All 20 clubs have accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and all often post several times a day to an audience that is into the tens of millions.

And it’s also clear that clubs see their purpose on these platforms as ways to engage with fans, rather than directly selling to them. This year’s State of Football Social Media report (published this month) shows that more than 75% of respondents prioritise engagement over sales, follower count, reach, and website traffic.

A look at a small sample of activity from this season, however, suggests that not all of the teams in this season’s Premier League see actually replying to fans as a part of that engagement.

All information taken from public replies on Twitter posted between 21 and 28 January 2018. *These clubs have separate customer support accounts, which weren’t included in this study.

Between 21 and 28 January, seven clubs didn’t respond to a single tweet. This includes replying to comments on their own posts, as well as original tweets. Of those seven accounts, two – Everton and Leicester City – do have dedicated support accounts on Twitter. The purpose of these is customer service, however, rather than more traditional fan engagement. These numbers also don’t include quoted tweets from fans, which some clubs use on occasion, as the focus was intended to be on one-to-one engagement rather than one-to-many.

During the period I looked at, Southampton sent the most replies (eight). In the same week, they posted over 180 tweets (this included two games, which will have boosted the numbers a bit). Two of these were sent to current players who had announced loan deals elsewhere.

It’s perhaps wrong to think of football clubs in the same way you would think of other businesses on social media, given the size of their following and the number of replies posts can generate. And maybe looking at a sample while the transfer window is open has skewed things a little bit: around half of the replies to a recent competition announcement from Man City refer to the club announcing the signing of a new player. I think everyone can agree that there’s little to be gained from getting involved in those interactions.

However, there were numerous times during the week where clubs directly asked their fans a question – whether it’s to give a score prediction, name a starting line-up, or sum up their feelings towards a recent match. In these cases, the teams are explicitly asking for engagement, yet there is rarely any acknowledgement towards the people who reply.

Zack Goldman, Co-Founder of Where Is Football and sports marketing agency Common Goal, says that clubs should stop simply chasing engagement figures and focus instead on meaningful conversation:

“So often it seems clubs will ask for opinions or solicit commentary from their community simply for the express purpose of drumming up engagement figures, rather than actually taking an active role in furthering productive discourse and enthusiasm on their channels. Taking a leading role in actually stimulating and curating discussion can go a long way toward creating an appealing platform that fans actually seek out rather than passively consume.

“More than anything, though, I think clubs have a responsibility to carry out conversation, particularly where they try to stimulate it. It’s great that some clubs have support accounts, but a lot of teams don’t and they’re missing valuable opportunities to help troubleshoot and enhance fan experience in a meaningful way.”

In one example found during the study, the team at Leicester asked a direct question to their followers. Each of the nine replies underneath is on-topic, but not one has gained any acknowledgement from the club. And they’re not alone: this is a trend echoed across the league.

Goldman believes there is “a ton of value” in creating this discourse, and states that “it should be quite obvious that the more engaged that community is, the more appealing it is to partners and the more likely you are to find success through retail, ticketing, and other commercial initiatives that have social components”. He believes that “all Premier League teams would do well to meditate on the value of personalised replies to fans, particularly when they explicitly seek out that interaction”.

It’s important to recognise, however, that no two clubs approach – or should approach – their communications strategies in the same way. One of the main reasons that this level of engagement isn’t practised by more clubs, according to Goldman, is because “it’s harder to do this kind of stuff from larger accounts with millions of followers or to even approach the strategy if you’re at a club with fewer resources or bandwidth”.

This year’s State of Football Social Media report found that 75% of marketing teams at football clubs contain up to five people. With so few resources it’s no reason clubs struggle to keep up with their interactions.

Winning the engagement game

The lack of engagement isn’t an approach which is echoed overseas, even where the Premier League is concerned. The league’s official Twitter account – @PLinUSA – is looked after by Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing. Harrison McIntire, who works on the account, says that engaging with fans “100% should be a part of your social strategy”.

“For us, it’s imperative to have one-on-one relationships with fans by doing the ‘hard yards’. It helps us get to know our fans and their interests from a micro and macro-perspective, while also deepening fan engagement levels. In addition, people tend to love getting a response from a verified account.” The team also have an open DM policy and actively respond to private queries they receive.

He describes the lack of engagement as “an opportunity”, but not the main reason that accounts grow in popularity. What it does, in Harrison’s words, is “create a tighter knit community that has higher levels of engagement on average and has more meaningful relationships with its fans”. With sports marketers seeing this as the goal of social media, it’s definitely strange that more don’t follow the overseas approach to engagement.

Goldman, who helped establish Liverpool’s social presence in America, says that the Twitter account has been successful on several levels.

“It made a group of fans feel recognised and valued in a way they never had before but, more importantly, it allowed the club to act as a virtual link between fans who were seeking to form or join their own communities, both on and offline. Being able to reach out to fans in LA or Indianapolis or New York City asking where they could find a group of other Liverpool fans to watch matches with, making those connections, and then supporting them through fan-generated social content or even real-life events was a real thrill and helped us meet a lot of our goals.”

Given the benefits of engagement from those who have been involved in these strategies in the past, it feels like it might not be long before clubs start to give it a go.