However, it turns out my research for that article was no better than the scouting performed by Southampton when they signed Ali Dia back in 1996. While I maintain that Southampton’s website is still the best the Premier League has to offer, it’s been brought to my attention that other clubs are also doing some excellent digital work.
Much has been written about Manchester City’s digital strategy, which includes a strong emphasis on social media, experiments with VR, and hackathons focusing on digital fan engagement.
And while it’s easy to suggest that City’s digital success is inevitable due to the club’s vast resources, one need only glance at their local rival’s site to see that having lots of cash doesn’t guarantee that some of it will be invested in digital platforms.
But it’s wrong to focus only on what’s happening at the top of the league. Robbie Blackburn, client partner at digital agency Aqueduct, said that although Man City are known for being digital innovators, other teams are quietly developing their own digital capabilities as well.
“It’s been a big play for City to be seen as leaders in digital. They recently launched their own robot partner, which suggests that some of it is for PR value. But a lot of other clubs are really seeing the value in innovating in digital.”
Cast your eye lower down the league table, down to the very bottom in fact. Sunderland AFC who, at the time of writing, are in last place, have had a strong focus on digital for many years. This approach is fairly unique for a club with a history of yo-yoing between the Premier League and Championship.
Most clubs in the Football League (i.e. the Championship down to League Two) outsource their websites to Football League Interactive (FLI). This is a centralised web platform offered for free to Football League clubs that want to outsource their website in return for giving up the right to any ad revenue. While it’s a useful service for lower league clubs looking to reduce their overheads, the UX of FLI sites is poor and customisation options are limited.
Sunderland have never used FLI and during the 2012/13 season launched what was then the first responsive Premier League site built in HTML5. Working with Aqueduct, Sunderland unveiled another new site at the beginning of the current 2016/17 season, with the aim of offering fans a more app-like experience.
Sunderland’s content feed
Visually the site has a similar layout to Southampton’s, with a content feed that’s frequently updated, as well as a dedicated match day experience. While the range of content and site navigation isn’t quite on par with Southampton’s, plans are afoot to further develop the site in the near future.
Despite being a relatively small club compared to some of its Premier League peers, Sunderland is ahead of most teams in terms of its digital capabilities thanks to years of investment by the club’s owners. According to Stuart Vose, Sunderland AFC’s head of digital: “There’s no hard and fast way of getting digital right. What works for one club might not work for another.
“The senior management of this club are very ambitious for digital, they realise that it should be at the centre of any modern business, and particularly a sports club where it connects with so many fans around the world plus partners and sponsors.”
A common theme among Premier League teams is the desire to use digital both to engage with existing and new fans, and also to open up new sponsorship opportunities.
Stuart currently has seven people within his digital team who broadly cover content and digital marketing for the club and the Stadium of Light’s event facilities. One recent example of the club’s in-house capabilities is this #keepthefaith video, which aims to rally support as the club battles relegation.
Historically Sunderland’s digital team has acted almost as a service function for other departments, responding to requests and helping with specific projects, but plans are now underway to embed the digital team across the entire club.
According to Stuart: “We want digital to sit across everything and be able to proactively offer digital products and services into other departments to help drive them forward rather than just reacting to things. Not just ‘can we have a tweet’, but how can we innovate and offer products and services to them.”
It’s these new products and services – such as new content hubs or digital platforms – that can provide value to both fans and sponsors alike. As Stuart puts it: “Digital is a virtuous circle. The more you invest in it, the better our digital platforms become, which hopefully helps to attract better sponsors, which gives us more money to invest, and so on. It all builds up.”
Sunderland is currently working to create a single sign-on for the club’s digital platforms (ticketing, merchandising, content, etc), which will allow for better management of user data and enable personalisation of content using Sitecore. A previous project saw the club work with Sports Alliance to pull together its data from various sources (ticketing, merchandise, hospitality), which doubled the size of the club’s user database.
Digital in the Championship
And it’s not just in the Premier League where clubs are striving to improve their digital platforms. Wolverhampton Wanderers, currently 19th in the Championship, are also in the middle of a website revamp that aims to create a far better user experience for fans.
After 17 years of outsourcing its site to FLI, Wolves has decided to bring control of its website back in-house at the end of this season. Head of marketing, Laura Gabbidon, explained that the club is working to create the kind of digital experience that fans want and expect.
Laura said: “We’re not looking at our website like a traditional business would, like a brochure, we want it to be an interactive digital experience, a media centre for fans, the first port of call for all things Wolves.
“From our perspective that will hopefully improve the on-site engagement but also our relationship with the fans, or their relationship with the club. It’ll provide us commercial support by collecting behavioural and contact data, and also give us more opportunity to commercialize through sponsors.”
Wolves have already had some success with increasing revenues thanks to improvements with digital platforms. After redesigning the ticketing part of the website earlier this year, online sales of home tickets increased by 10%.
The overall site redesign, which is being worked on with Aqueduct and aims to go live in June, is the first stage of a bigger digital transformation project. Laura said that football “isn’t anywhere near up to speed” with digital compared to other industries, and that clubs now have no choice but to play catch up.
Wolves haven’t got a clear transformation roadmap in place, and are instead waiting for the website to be complete before deciding what to tackle next. ”We want to build the website, get it as good as it can be, and then identify any gaps where we’re not delivering. We don’t want to rush into doing everything at once then end up duplicating things or wasting our efforts,” said Laura.
If the site achieves it goals, it will enable the club to make better use of social media and video content, which in turn has required new hires with the right digital content skills. The digital transformation journey is a familiar one, regardless of which league a club plays in.
Luring fans away from fan forums
Will an official club site ever be able to attract fans away from the likes of the BBC, Twitter and Sky? Southampton FC’s research into user behaviour showed that football fans tend to constantly graze on short-form content during the week, skipping between different social networks and publisher sites.
Laura admits that it’s a big challenge to insert an official club site into this mix, but hopes that a combination of an improved UX and unique, high quality content will be enough to win fans over. “A lot of our fans like to engage with us using Twitter on match days, and at the same time they’re probably going off to get live scores and updates from other games from the BBC,” she explained.
“We don’t want to take away any of those experiences, so we’ll look to integrate all of it, offering the same type of experience that you get on Twitter but on the website, as well as giving people similar content that they’d get from the BBC and elsewhere. So you’ll get it all in one place.”
More broadly, there has been a concerted effort by the Premier League and top clubs to play catch up with other sports publishers.
With a flashy new website and the launch of a new app, the Premier League itself is aiming to compete with the likes of Opta Sports and the BBC by providing official access to stats, video content and fantasy football leagues.
The Premier League’s new website
Another noteworthy development is the launch of a new social network called ‘Dugout’ that enables fans to access exclusive content by following their favourite teams and players. 10 Premier League teams have signed up to the platform, alongside the likes of Juventus, PSG, Barcelona and SC Corinthians Paulista.
While it will be difficult to lure fans away from their existing content grazing routine, these new official channels might succeed if they are able to provide unique content and a genuine forum for debate and conversation among fans.
Ultimately the user experience will also play a large part. If official club sites, the league’s new app, or Dugout can offer fans a quick, usable, mobile platform then there’s no reason they won’t be able to insert themselves into that mix.
And with site traffic comes those new opportunities for lucrative sponsorship deals. As Stuart Vose puts it, investment in digital is a virtuous circle.
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