A recent study on Twitter activity surrounding the 2014/15 Premier League found that the social media popularity of top football clubs bears little resemblance to their real-life success. 

Rather than simply counting the number of followers for each club, Shine Communications looked at levels of sentiment and support, calculating the engagement levels of the fans rather than a club’s perceived popularity based on follower numbers. 

Let’s take a look at the results and see how Burnley FC surprisingly managed to triumph over the other more high profile teams.

The results

The table below highlights the results. On the left you can see the engagement levels of fans based on how many times they mentioned the club. On the right you can see the percentage of mentions that were positive. 

The results

The actual Premier League 2014/15 table (for comparison):

Success doesn’t breed happiness

Despite their team only managing eighth place in the Premier League, Swansea City fans were the happiest of the lot.

Burnley fans were even more optimistic, coming out second happiest even though their team was relegated. 

Arsenal fans on the other hand seem somewhat harder to please (probably treading on thin ice here). Even though Arsenal came a relatively impressive third in the Premier League, their fans only ranked joint 15th for happiness levels.

Difference in sentiment

Even a casual glance at Twitter mentions for each team during the season highlights a glaring difference in sentiment. Here are some examples from Swansea City fans (the happiest according to this research). 

Here is an example from the Manchester United side, whose fans were some of the unhappiest despite their team coming fourth (yes, I’m aware of how many times they’ve won it before, but come on guys… be more Swansea). 

This one is my personal favourite (and, tellingly, was retweeted by Manchester United fan account @MUFC_live247). I’m no football expert, but hadn’t Ferguson long retired by this point? Is he blaming Ferguson for retiring?

This split in sentiment suggests that expectation has a huge impact on overall satisfaction. It is unlikely that Swansea City fans would have expected their team to win, for instance. 

On the other hand, if Arsenal fans thought they had a chance at coming out on top then third place probably felt like losing (particularly as they haven’t won the Premier League since 2003/4). 

I can’t quite work out what Burnley fans have got to be so pleased about, but let’s not rain on their happy little parade.

Size isn’t everything

When it comes to the size of their Twitter following, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United are clear winners (Chelsea’s 5.72m easily dwarfs Burnley’s 117k).

Chelsea Twitter page
Burnley Twitter page

But if those followers aren’t actually engaging with their teams then where is the value beyond showboating?

Look at it this way: would you rather play in a massive stadium with only a tiny percentage of seats filled, or a smaller venue packed to the ceiling with screaming fans?

The results of this study suggest the smaller clubs are the ones with the most passionate and engaged following, whereas the bigger teams tend to have a high proportion of fans who don’t mention the club on Twitter at all.

Greater loyalty to smaller clubs?

One factor in all of this could be a greater sense of loyalty to the smaller clubs. If you are new to football or only dip into it now and then, you are probably more likely to support one of the mainstream teams with all their celebrity players and media coverage. 

Football fans

Burnley, however, is the smallest town ever to have hosted a Premier League club, and only made it to that level in recent years. 

It is therefore likely that many of their Twitter followers are either local to Burnley or have supported the club through the lower leagues. They’ve seen the club struggle and succeed over the years and will feel a deeper connection as a result.

Does tweet frequency play a part?

I noticed something else too, while browsing through all these football Twitter feeds and looking like a right slacker to everyone else in the office: the average frequency of tweets from Burnley’s (most passionate fans) account is far higher than Chelsea’s (joint least passionate fans).

  • Burnley = 1,019 Tweets per month since December 2011
  • Chelsea = 647 Tweets per month since March 2009

Now let’s take the club with the second most passionate Twitter fans, Everton, and the joint least passionate, Stoke City.

  • Everton = 662 tweets per month since August 2008
  • Stoke City = 204 tweets per month since June 2009

Not really a scientific experiment at all, but worth thinking about. It’s possible there is some link between the level of interaction clubs have with their fans on Twitter and how passionate those fans are in return. 

Why does this matter?

I can hear some of you asking “if they won the Premier League then why should Chelsea care how engaged their Twitter followers are?”

Fair point. Clearly the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal don’t need to worry too much about their Twitter fans, as they’re established and wealthy enough to win trophies without them. 

For the smaller clubs however, and the individuals who play for them, such a passionate following on Twitter could be hugely motivating, just as having an amazing crowd at games can help them win against the odds. Surely that’s something worth cultivating.