Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff pioneered the term groundswell in their 2008 book release. Li and Bernoff define the groundswell as ‘A social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions like corporations. (2008: 9)’ In other words, the groundswell is one of the foundations of what is today known as social media.
I agree with Li and Bernoff’s statement that “The Internet is not some sandbox that can be walled off anymore–it is fully integrated into all elements of business and society. (2008: 7)” It was true in 2008 and gained even more relevance with the development and spreading of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc. In the context of football, social media – or the groundswell – is where football brands can connect directly and without intermediaries with their target audience and get their arguably undivided attention. Based on various observations, Li and Bernoff identified five primary objectives that companies successfully pursue in the groundswell (2008: 68-69):
1) Listening. In order for a brand to join any conversation, it is crucial to first listen about what is said and what the conversation is about. A football brand cannot simply jump in and start blabbering about football and the world. The first step is by following opinion leaders, fans, sponsors, players, etc. Additionally, in order to address online conversation partners with the right voice and attitude, it is advisable to learn about who they are, what they do, what they care about, and what their wants and needs are.
‘Listening’ prompts a football club to start using or manage a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) database properly and effectively. The Sports Business Institute Barcelona states in its Fan Engagement through New Media module, that a modern CRM system in the context of football encompasses a) gathering general information about a club’s customers, b) finding out what the interests of a club’s fans are on a local and global level, and eventually c) analyzing consumer behavior (SBI Barcelona, 2014). This objective relies on heavy research on the part of the club.
2) Talking. This objective can take marketing one step further by engaging the audience in a stimulating participatory conversation. However, often companies misunderstand ‘talking’ with one-way communication, by using banner ads, search ads or other outbound communication. Li and Bernoff said it very well, “Businesses don’t interact. People do. (2008: 70)” It is essential that whoever leads the conversation for the brand (on Twitter or other social media sites) has a good feel for what potential conversation partners expect from the brand. Especially in football, passion and other emotions can easily take the upper hand during heated discussions, which means it is very advisable to have a very professional and seasoned communicator representing the brand online – this is actually true for any communication channel.
When participating in online conversations, knowing your conversation partners helps shaping arguments, choosing the right tone of voice, and understand how far a potential retweet or share can reach. All of this is usually easily accessible just by looking at the about page of the conversation partner(s).
3) Energizing. “Find your most enthusiastic customers, and use the groundswell to supercharge the power of their word of mouth. (Li & Bernoff, 2008: 68)” For football brands, this can easily be done in different was. Using SocialBakers.com, Klout.com, or simply using analytic tools provided by social media platforms often give great insights into who are a brand’s most loyal and enthusiastic brand ambassadors and opinion leaders. Finding them is not the key issue anymore in 2014, energizing them is the key component. This can happen by making them feel closer to the brand with certain benefits such as providing free tickets, jerseys, a direct connection to the club, etc.
Former Coca-Cola president Steven J. Heyer stated during a speech in 2003 that ‘The strength of a connection [between a brand and its consumers] is measured in terms of its emotional impact. The experience should not be contained within a single media platform, but should extend across as many media as possible. (Jenkins, 2006: 69)” From this we can derive that a football club needs to know which social media platforms it wants (and is able to) maintain. The most obvious choices for brands to reach the western world as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. However, for entering countries like China other local platforms might be the only way. Therefore, different brand ambassadors and enthusiasts need to be approached.
4) Supporting. Providing groundswell/social media platforms, where fans and other stakeholders of a football brand can meet and organize themselves online is common courtesy. On Facebook that means having a Facebook page that accepts comments and is constantly managed. On Twitter that is, making sure that the target audience knows what hashtags to use to enter the conversation. On Linkedin or Network90 that would be, having a group for the club/brand where conversations can easily be followed. The goal here is to enable all stakeholders to support each other without having to rely on the football club or organization.
5) Embracing. According to Li and Bernoff (2008: 69), it is relevant to integrate customers into the way a business works, including using their help t ode sign products. Henry Jenkins (2006: 63) pointed out that “Marketers seek to shape brand reputations, not through an individual transaction but through the sum total of interactions with the customer–an ongoing process that increasingly occurs across a range of different media “touch points.” They don’t simply want to get a consumer to make a single purchase, but rather to build a long-term relationship with a brand. … [B]uilding a committed “brand community” may be the surest means of expanding consumer loyalty.”
I agree with Mr Jenkins’ point. In addition, an important point to consider is that in the context of football the brand is already the protagonist of the conversation amongst its stakeholders, which makes it disputably easy to bring the brand community – aka fans/supporters – together to form a strong local to global alliance.
The essence of the above-mentioned objectives lies in a genuine interest to participate in the multichannel conversation happening on the World Wide Web about your football brand. This includes being willing and able to: a) listen before talking; b) giving something to your stakeholders in return for general information for your CRM database (which is needed to address the right people, through the right channel, in the right context); and c) open the doors to the brand to them and make them feel a considerable part of the brand without exception. In a nutshell: listen, give, open up to your community.