Q&A: Manchester City’s approach to digital marketing

We recently published a post praising Manchester City’s smart use of email, and we’ve followed this up by talking to the team behind the club’s digital marketing strategy. 

The team tweets as @mcfcgeeks, and is responsible for design and development of mobile and web platforms, as well as its social media presence. 

I interviewed Project Manager Jamie Nicholson and Social Media Executive Chris Nield…

First of all, how is the digital team structured, and how does it fit into the wider commercial organisation?

JN: The digital team work with all areas of the club as you can imagine but sit within the ‘Marketing, Media & Fan Development’ department.

That means we collaborate closely with teams that lead our fan engagement initiatives and marketing (both consumer and corporate) communications. We’re not operating in silos and I’d say there is a collective ‘digital-mindedness’ across this group.

The team itself is a mix of product and project managers, content producers, social media experts, video producers and photographers all reporting to a Head of Digital and a Head of Content.

Our UX, design and development execution is currently outsourced but the plan is to expand our team this autumn to fulfil some internal digital product development. Continuous delivery across our core products is a key objective for the team over the next year.

Do you have the freedom to experiment with digital marketing? How does the relationship with the senior management work? 

JN: I like to think that our senior management expects us to explore new initiatives and innovation. We have a reputation for impactful digital output so we are always exploring new ways to distribute our content.

We need to justify our projects commercially and football clubs have the same concerns as any business when thinking about digital experimentation.

What are the biggest challenges of managing social media for a football club? I imagine you have to deal with a small group of morons from opposing supporters? 

CN: Ha ha! Football, like any sport, invokes serious passion from its devotees – it’s what makes the game what it is. Social media provides a platform that allows this passion to be amplified, both in a positive and negative way.

For me the biggest challenge is ensuring that City’s social media platforms remain at the forefront in the field and that we are constantly providing our fans with the best possible behind-the-scenes content from their club, as well as having an authentic tone of voice.

How important is digital marketing for Manchester City?  Is this ‘digital transformation‘ something that has occurred since the takeover a few years ago? If so, can you explain how the club has adopted digital and the importance placed upon it? 

JN: I think the club considers digital to be more than simply another marketing and communication tool and has done for a few years now. Our supporters want to be informed, helped, entertained and involved – and digital is often the most effective way to do this, in terms of both cost and impact. 

Given the central role technology now plays in our lives, and in particular mobile devices, the motivation is always to make a big impression in the digital space with any initiative the club runs.

#citystories is a good example – we wanted to create an easy-to-digest history of the club and decided to deliver this through an online space which gives the fans a platform to populate their memories and stories of supporting City.

Essentially it’s a crowdsourced history of the club.

Are you looking to expand abroad, particularly in the far east on platforms like Ren Ren and Sina Weibo? What challenges do these platforms present? 

CN: We’ve recently expanded our digital offering to include 10 new language websites so we’ve also launched corresponding language Twitter accounts to give our fans who don’t speak English an opportunity to engage with the club.

As we expand further, we will be launching more local social media channels to complement our offering. We already have Sina Weibo and Tencent channels which are proving extremely popular. 

How can the club continue to engage its core fan base while also expanding the brand internationally?

JN: It’s a challenge for sure but one where we feel we are getting the right balance. When we launched the new language websites it would have been quite easy for the ardent, Manchester-based supporter to react with a ‘so what?’.

But actually the response was very positive from all fans. It’s no secret that City wants to be a top European club for years to come and this means we are of course looking to increase our fan base – both locally and globally.

Digital is obviously the ideal vehicle to drive this enterprise as it enables the club to communicate its vision and brand across the world quicker than any other medium.

Above all, the focus is on providing our supporters with the most engaging and informative content delivered through the most appropriate channel. Without giving too much away, the team here are currently working on a suite of new mobile, social and digital products and services which will enhance the fan’s experience, no matter whether they follow the team from Ardwick or Australia! 

Do you provide social media guidelines to players and staff? 

CN: We have guidelines but mostly we’re on hand to just offer support for players and staff and we can assist with removing fake accounts and getting verification.

Thankfully, our players understand the potential pitfalls and perils of social media and use it in a responsible way.

What are the most effective social channels for engagement / advocacy? How do they differ?

CN: All social media channels are effective in their own particular way, dependant on what you are trying to achieve. Clearly Facebook is huge, in terms of engagement and numbers, but there’s a lot of white noise on there so it’s possibly not the best place for advocacy.

Twitter is driven by conversation – it’s at its heart – so garnering fan opinion on a particular campaign or issue is easier to achieve on there. I find that Google+ has a more learned and techy audience so it’s a good space to try out new innovations and concepts before launching them into the mainstream.

JN: @mcfcgeeks is an interesting one as we’re not sure any other football club has this approach – it’s a channel that allows us to have a two-way conversation with our more tech-savvy supporters via a blog and Twitter.

We keep them informed about our digital developments, sometimes with a techy slant, and they tell us what they think can be improved or isn’t working.

We recently ran a closed beta with a group of ‘MCFC geeks’ and this proved really successfully in getting early user testing feedback.

How do football fans use mobile? Is it for information or do they buy merchandise and tickets through mobile as well? If so, what proportion of ticket sales take place on mobile? 

JN: We have a wide cross-section of people that are passionate about City but within our supporters there are certainly different ‘digital personas’.

Mobile usage is an feature that runs through all these groups – generally all of our fans want to be the first to hear the latest club/team news and new technology, especially across mobile, has made it easier than ever for us to provide an ever-evolving content schedule.

Our new matchday centre is a great example – built in HTML5, it’s responsive and works cross platform (desktop, mobile and tablet) giving the fans engaging live match content faster and slicker than elsewhere. 

Improved integration between our shop, ticketing, mobile channels and overall digital ecosystem is something we are continually striving to improve. It’s a continual process of test, learn and enhance.

In my experience, football clubs have such dreadful ticket buying sites (my club NUFC is perhaps the worst). How do you approach this?

JN: We put time into ensuring that the user journey and information around ticketing sales is optimised on our site.

We have recently developed a new fixtures section of the website which provides a much more intuitive handover to the ticket transaction pages and we are constantly looking at ways to improve the overall experience.

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Q&A: Manchester City’s approach to digital marketing

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