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Manchester United has only been active on Twitter and Sina Weibo for one month, and Google + for less than a week.
But with MUFC website traffic, in the last month of the 2012/2013 soccer season, at 67m page views, it's obvious there's plenty to work with here.
Along with a well-established Facebook page, MUFC has a foolproof and rather well executed strategy, best summed-up by the first G+ post.
Here you'll find a steady stream of iconic imagery, behind-the-scenes access, in-depth analysis and succinct storytelling about our club's rich history.
With Facebook adding many opportunities for MUFC to harvest email addresses from competitions and the like, and G+ a promising prospect for the same, there’s much to be cheerful about. Growing a big sports brand on social media is the equivalent of hitting a cow’s backside with a banjo.
In the words of Richard Arnold, Group Managing Director,
Connecting with our fans is a key part of the Club's strategy...Every month there are over 5m Manchester United related social media posts and the level of engagement we have with our fans via social media is amongst the highest of all top global brands.
Take a look at my review of these platforms below. It's worth noting that Manchester United have also recently launched its own Instagram account, and this fits well with the focus on imagery (which leaps the language barrier), though I haven't covered it here.
(N.B. although I'm crowbarring this in, Manchester United has always had marketing savvy, with former keeper Edwin Van der Sar now CMO at Ajax).
Both Manchester United’s Twitter and Sina Weibo accounts were created as recently as July 10th 2013. That makes the club a definite laggard as far as Twitter is concerned, although there are already plans for foreign language accounts to follow.
However, despite only a month’s activity, the account already has over 700,000 followers, which shows just how powerful the brand is.
Here’s the first MUFC tweet:
Of course, many of the club’s players have been using Twitter for years, notably Rio Ferdinand, Gary Neville and Wayne Rooney. Manchester United has mostly benefited from its players’ activity, with fewer PR gaffes than some other English Premier League clubs (see Ashley Cole as the archetypal FA-baiting soccer player).
The new @ManUtd account has been utilising the players’ fanbase with Twitter Q&A’s; an #askrio (Rio Ferdinand) in the first week helping to raise the profile of the account by virtue of Rio’s 4.5m followers.
At the moment, the account is an active broadcaster, with around 10 tweets per day (gaining 1k to 3k retweets each). However, the account isn’t replying to any of its followers.
The account is big on imagery, and takes a very creative approach to content. Within the first handful of tweets, new manager and old players were celebrated/canonised by artwork on the account.
On day, two, Vines were being added from the Far East tour. Ok, Michael Carrick pulling a wheely suitcase isn’t going to go viral, but it’s a good start. Fixture updates, links to news and live blogs, and even infographics all go into the mix.
Sina Weibo, though well-established in the Far East, is not used by many Western soccer teams. Manchester United’s presence on Sina Weibo is a good indicator of its continued focus on the Far East.
High profile player acquisitions continue (Shinji Kagawa picking up the mantle of Park Ji-Sung) and this year’s pre-season tour of the Far East and Australia included Bangkok, Brisbane, Yokohama, Osaka and Hong Kong.
The extent of commercial interests in the Far East is made clear by partners in the region, which number over 30.
As The Guardian puts it, in their recent season preview:
This [tour] has so far taken in 34 'partners' who include Yanmar, the official diesel engine partner, Mister Potato (official savoury snack), TM (official integrated telecommunications partner of Manchester United in Malaysia), and Kansai Paint (the official paint partner).
So, to Sina Weibo. First, I had to sign-up. Thanks to Google Translate in my Chrome browser, this wasn’t particularly difficult. I’d advise you to try it out. Being interested in the Chinese market, I was quite interested to see the service advocating I stick to the truth because ‘using real avatar, friends find you more easily’.
Much like Twitter, in one month, Manchester United's Sina Weibo page has accumulated almost 800,000 fans. Each post gets lots of comments and shares, hitting over 100 in a few hours.
Here’s the first post, which has already garnered 1,500 comments and nearly 4,000 shares. Funnily enough, things aren’t much different in the Far East, where the first comment comes from a fan of small club Liverpool, saying how much they hate MUFC.
Needless to say, there’s some Chinese content I can’t read, but Google translate shows me the posts to the MUFC wall are very similar to the Twitter posts. Here’s a good example ahead of the recent Charity Shield, complete with ‘a small pea’ (little pea).
With 34.5m Facebook likes, MUFC dwarfs pretty much all brands on Facebook. It’s only celebrities such as Rhianna (75m) that beat these kind of figures.
Barcelona is the top sports team in terms of likes, with around 44m. Again, MUFC posts here around 10 times a day, and doesn’t really engage with its fans, likely because there’s a problem with scale.
Perhaps because Facebook is a richer and more mature platform than Twitter, or perhaps because MUFC sees more of its audience there, it definitely engages more on Facebook.
For example, there is currently a competition running, with the chance to win a season ticket. With a form embedded in Facebook, including an opt-out for MUFC commercial partners, one can see how a large database to market to will soon be grown.
There’s another live competition run with DHL, to win a piece of Old Trafford turf, and so the account is obviously also used to meet some sponsor requirements. Proving the club’s clout on social media will be directly linked to sponsor revenue, so one can see the argument for maximising as many platforms as possible.
It’s strange that the club hasn’t yet joined Pinterest, but that may come soon.
Again, the Starting Striker feature/poll on Facebook is another great way of getting the audience to identify itself, this time by giving its opinion on the starting line-up of the team.
Finally, there’s an email newsletter and an additional 2013 Tour newsletter sign-up page, giving five or six places where MUFC can harvest email addresses.
As a nice addition, the timeline is used well by MUFC to display the history of the club, from late 19th Century to present day.
Again, there’s no explicit commerce on this page
On Google + it’s decidedly more difficult to spot the official Manchester United page (below is just a snippet). Although the account is verified, Google would be better served to make this more noticeable rather than the small greyed tick that currently resides.
Once one has found the page, this is what you find…
Here, since August 8th, Manchester United have made a great start. In their words:
Welcome to Manchester United on Google+. Here you'll find a steady stream of iconic imagery, behind-the-scenes access, in-depth analysis and succinct storytelling about our club's rich history.
Here’s one of the first posts, with a vine added.
Currently with over 40,000 followers, the account has a surprisingly high amount of interaction from fans, possibly because they are proud to be early adopters and it therefore has a slightly more personal feel.
The content is very similar to the other networks – pics and stats etc, without the competitions that Facebook offers. Although there’s the promise of competitions and news etc, so one would expect the G+ platform to begin to align with Facebook.
Yet more vines, which is a nice touch, and they certainly stand out on G+.
The link to the Manchester United website is quite prominent on the G+ page, and one expects this to eventually become a good source of traffic, either via the G+ page, or via improved visibility in SERPs and mobile SERPs, due to plus ones, rich snippets and content box positioning that G+ brings.
In general, sports seems to be what social media was made for. Manchester United can use all of these platforms, barely engaging, aside from Q&As, and sending out lots of insider photos, branded pics and vines, news and player profiles, and steadily build their brand wherever they care to.
In many ways, there’s a lesson here for marketers that have a less emotive/borderline religious product to shift. MUFC knows that all these platforms don’t necessarily have to cross-promote, and the Twitter account, for example, doesn’t have to be relentlessly selling bed linen or footballs.
Give the audience what it wants, and commercial success becomes ever more likely. In those terms, soccer clubs have been ‘content marketing’ for years.
Of course, most of Manchester United’s success in the brand sphere comes from success on the pitch, with highly marketable stars, such as David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo. As to where the next one comes from, the transfer window is still open.
Back on social media, I can’t help but think G+ has the capacity to outgrow Twitter, in terms of data capture, though it’ll be a long while before Facebook is supplanted for all things fan-based.