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Social media best practices for emerging football markets: A fictitious «Celtic FC goes Japan» exercise

Celtic FC jerseyMany companies and organizations have been critical towards social media and thought – or maybe hoped – it would only be a fad. Because of that, many of them are still struggling with the implementation of a social media strategy. In football, we can observe clubs such as Manchester City, PSG or FC Barcelona taking advantage of social media channels to reach their supporters around the globe and engage them with interesting and relevant content on different channels ranging from Facebook to Twitter to YouTube to Instagram to Pinterest, etc.

Lesson 2 of the Football Communication & Social Media course at Sports Business Institute Barcelona looks at the power and influence of social media in emerging markets and suggests to give strong consideration to five points. We will apply this model to Celtic FC in a fictitious exercise.

1. Identification of target market(s) and definition of a communication & commercial strategy

The course material explains that it is imperative to prepare a proper plan that outlines objectives and analyzes the desired strategy to achieve these objectives. The first step in this regard is to define market segments and then decide which one to go for. Mullins, Walker, Jr. and Boyd, Jr. explain in their Edinburgh Business School Marketing textbook that “there are three important objectives entailed in the market segmentation process”:

  • Identify a homogeneous segment that differs from other segments. For a football club like Celtic FC that should be, Celtic fans and/or Scottish Premier League aficionados in the geographic market they want to enter, i.e. Japan.
  • Specify criteria that define the segment. This step narrows the target audience. For example, Celtic FC might define their target market as being comprised of members of Celtic FC fan clubs in Japan. In addition, or if that audience is too small, fans of Shunsuke Nakamura, a Japanese professional footballer, who played for Celtic 2005 to 2009.
  • Determine segment size and potential. This might be a tricky undertaking, unless the target market includes official fan club members with a carefully maintained database. Otherwise, online tools such as socialbakers.com, klout.com etc. can be applied to get a feel of the size and potential of the segment.

According to Mullins et al., marketers divide segmentation descriptors into three major categories: demographic descriptors (which reflect who the target customers are), geographic descriptors (where they are), and behavioural descriptors of various kinds (how they behave with regard to their use and/or purchases). Since football is a very emotional matter for fans, I suggest adding a fourth category (which Mullins et al. include in their behavioral descriptors): psychographic descriptors (lifestyle and personality). Let’s get concrete with the example we started above:

  • Geographic: Japan.
  • Demographic: Everyone interested in Celtic FC who can communicate in Japanese. (We assume that the content will be published in Japanese.) No age, gender or socio-economic restrictions.
  • Behavioral: It is advisable to find out what information is relevant (‘benefits sought’) for the target audience and create content according to those needs. An additional important metric is the ‘rate of usage’, or how active is our target audience on the social media platform(s) we want to use for communication purposes.
  • Psychographic: In order to know what ‘tone of voice’ we need to apply with our fans, we need to know about their personality (are they more ‘cool’ or rather ‘sophisticated’), lifestyle (do they gather with people in groups offline; are they party-people; what is their spending behavior, etc.), attitudes (what do they value and what do they not value).

Having identified who our target audience is, we can now move on to select the channels for out two-way communication.

2. Selection of adequate social media channels

First, we need to define what social media channels are. For our purposes, the definition given by Boyd and Ellison (2007) seems the most appropriate:

“We define social network sites as web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system. The nature and nomenclature of these connections may vary from site to site.”

As soon as the worldwide-web entered its social era, many social media channels, that catered to different needs and target audiences, were created and still keep popping up establishing new trends and features. That means that marketers today need to have a deep understanding of what their target segment wants and, even more important in this case, where their audiences mingle online. In our example of Celtic FC, a social media manger would have to ask herself the question: Which social media channels does our target segment use today and which ones will they most likely use tomorrow?

Screen Shot 2014-05-04 at 2.31.10 PMAccording to the official Celtic FC website, they can be found on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. In addition, they have a Powershot Challenge free game app and the official CelticLIVE match day app, both for smartphones. This is already a great start, considering that they have more than 1m Facebook fans, 211k followers on Twitter and a view count of 5.1m on their YouTube channel. (Numbers retrieved on 4 May 2014)

Nonetheless, the SBI course states, “Depending on the market selected there may be specific social media channels that need to be considered.” Even though Twitter, Facebook and YouTube might be considered established networks in Japan, it is advisable to look into other social networks as well.

Akky Akimoto looked at the 2013’s Japanese social-media scene for The Japan Times and found out that the relatively young mobile chat/call service Line increased its growth speed and secured top spot as Japan’s largest social-network with 50 million registered users in Japan alone and 300 million users worldwide. The article explains that “Line’s communications are mainly made privately between existing friends, replacing email and phone calls, so its activities are less noticeable when compared to Facebook and Twitter, where people share things more publically”. Embracing LINE could be an interesting move for Celtic FC. Real Madrid and FC Barcelona both partnered with Line in autumn 2013.

An additional point mentioned by the SBI course is that “By engaging with more customers and more markets around the world, football clubs have the objective of monetizing them in the long-term”. Here, it is advisable to make use of Pinterest to promote Celtic FC’s merchandising. Clubs such as Manchester City and AS Roma promote their apparel on dedicated Pinterest spaces, since its pin-boards are perfect to promote any kind of photo stream. Especially fashion, jerseys, team- and streetware, etc. can have great impact. Furthermore, Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten is an investor in Pinterest and has great interest in boosting its presence in the Japanese market.

3. Creation of tailor-made content specific for the desired market

The imperative question here is: Which format (photo, video, text, infographics, etc.) do our fans prefer for the information we want to share with them? From my decade-long professional experience in social media, I can attest that the most genuine way to find the answer to that question is by 1) ask the target audience directly what they prefer, and 2) by continuously analyzing every single post and draw conclusions on what works best and what does not. Besides that, before starting social media activities in a new market, it is crucial to get a feel for what football fans want. Therefore, it is beneficial to observe what other clubs already did in that market.

Juventus: Marchisio Japan hangoutTake Juventus FC: The Italian Serie A club hosts online hangouts with players and their fans in Japan. A great way to engage and interact with their closest supporters in a market on the other side of the globe. Also, due to the lack of knowledge of Italian or English language, content needs to be produced in Japanese. Furthermore, characteristics/format of content has to be considered as well. People in a country like Japan are more on the move (outside of their home) than certain Western countries. That means that content consumers will be interacting or consuming content more on their mobile phones than on desktop computers. This will have effect on the length of their attention span. Videos should be rather shorter and objects in the videos should not be portrayed to small, since they might be watched on 4-inch mobile screens.

Similar thoughts apply to texts. Long blog posts might not be appropriate for commuters in packed subways in Tokyo. Maybe short and concise infographics might do the trick.

In regard to our Celtic FC example, a point I can only back from my personal experience is to include a lot of cultural background information to posts. During my exchange year as a student in Japan, I observed that many Japanese are very interested in foreign cultures. They were genuinely interested in my home country of Switzerland and my Italian roots. I can imagine if Celtic FC would team up with the city of Glasgow and include posts that are related to the club but feature the city, community or even the country of Scotland, it might raise their followers’ attention.

4. Gradual bandwidth expansion across different platforms

Adaptation from Scoble’s/Barefoot’s Social Media Starfish

Adaptation from Scoble’s/Barefoot’s Social Media Starfish

The SBI course material explains that “As new channels appear it is important to have continued growth to remain competitive to reach new market opportunities. This growth must be gradual in order to have the required resources to meet the increasing content-creation demand.” As we have mentioned before, companies in the social web space are constantly working on new platforms and trends, and social media managers need to be alert to upcoming changes. For marketing and/or social media manager at football clubs, I suggest keeping a good eye on what other clubs do online. Especially on the one’s that have an established budget for such activities and are always on the forefront of new media.

Additionally, having Scoble’s/Barefoot’s Social Media Starfish present for daily activities, can give insights for new possibilities and opportunities.

5. Activation with locals brands

Brand activation has been a big topic for football marketers. Just think of Heineken and the UEFA Champions League brand activation (watch the video, if you haven’t yet!). There are several examples of European clubs entering a relationship with local brands in emerging markets to activate the brand. In February 2014, Tottenham Hotspur and AIA Group Limited (AIA) announced a new long-term partnership that reflects shared commitment of both brands to promoting the role of sport in Asia-Pacific as a key element of healthy living. According to tottenhamhotspur.com, the long-term partnership would provide a platform for both organizations to work together to grow brand awareness in key markets across the Asia-Pacific region.

Another example came in 2013 by Swansea City, who signed the biggest deal in the club’s history: A shirt sponsorship deal with Chinese financial services firm Goldenway (sportspromedia.com). The more impressive point here is that the sponsor’s logo on Swansea’s jersey includes Goldenway’s Chinese characters, which means that the average European (who I claim has less than basic knowledge of the Chinese language), cannot read what it says. However, I think it is great in terms of branding.

Coming back to our Celtic FC example: The examples above were not meant to state that Celtic should leave their shirt sponsor, Magners, for a local Japanese brand. I actually think that a football club should stay rooted within their community in regard to their shirt sponsor. Juventus FC is a great example. Their jersey sponsor is Jeep, which is owned by Fiat, who also owns Juventus. But then, since Magners is an Irish brand, it might be okay to consider a local brand in the market the club wants to enter.

A legitimate move could be to approach a Japanese brand that has a connection to the home country of Celtic FC, a whiskey distillery. Elin McCoy reported for Bloomberg that “Japan has been quietly scooping up gold medals at world whisky competitions, and in 2012, the 25-year-old Yamazaki beat out 300 of the world’s single malts in an international blind tasting.” Ms McCoy continues, “Japanese whisky seems to have reached a tipping point. Half a dozen additional brands have entered the U.S.; an all-Japanese-whisky bar, Mizuwari, has opened in London; and prices of rare bottles have skyrocketed at recent Hong Kong auctions.” It seems obvious that Japanese whisky companies are interested in entering foreign markets as well. Therefore, a deal between one of the most popular Scottish football brands and a promising Japanese whisky brand sounds like a win-win situation.

In closing

It has never been easier for football brands to reach global audiences and engage them through social media. Fan engagement and activation can boost loyalty towards the club and open up ways to commercialize in untapped markets. Football clubs should 1) start by identifying a target market and define a communication and commercial strategy. Once objectives and segmentation descriptors are set, 2) adequate social media channels need to be selected with consideration of the socio-cultural environment. After having decided on the channels, 3) the question, ‘What tailor-made content, specific for the desired market, needs to be created?’ needs to be answered. Once the social media program is implemented, 4)  a gradual bandwidth expansion across different platforms needs to be considered. Furthermore, 5) activating local brands to create win-win situations, in regard to market penetration and fan activation, is imperative.

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