Man United’s Social Network: Whatever next?!

An eclectic and eccentric view of football, business and management by media entrepreneur Chris Ingram.

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Shortly before Christmas, Manchester United announced that they were starting their own social network. Yes, under their own auspices, not on the back of Facebook!

“Typical bloody arrogance!” was the response of several people I spoke to. But that’s unsurprising in the world of sport where everything is in black and white: you either hate it or love it! But this is worth more analysis. Putting the hat back on that I used to wear as a Media Planner and with the help of my colleague at Sports Revolution, Josh Robinson, I asked myself 5 key questions:

1. Do they have a sufficiently large audience to justify the effort?

The answer is `Yes’. They claim over 300 million fans and from my travels I can well believe it. After all, this is a club that, when they go to Asia, 45,000 turn up to watch them train! And just as important, this is not a disparate group, it is an audience united by one distinct passion.

2. Do they have sufficient content?

To someone not interested in football, it’s difficult to believe they have but in the nutty, rabid world of football, fans feed on any bit of information – or gossip – and are happy to speculate endlessly about it. In principle, they definitely do have sufficient content.

[The average Facebook user spends around 55 minutes a day on Facebook, dipping in and out of many different interests. It will be fascinating to see the numbers on Man United’s network. Will the time spent be less, because there is less variety, or more because it’s driven by such a passion?] By going big in social media, Man United are committing themselves to going big with content but this is not just about volume.

Which brings me on to the next, very much linked question.

3. Is it `must have’ content? Will visitors be engaged? Will they hang around? Will the Club (and Sponsors) have the chance to sell them stuff?

Yes, indeed! So, thinking about opportunities to connect, let’s take you through the actions of a fan remembering that I’m of the generation that’s between paper and digital, not wholly digital.

So, before you say it, I am a typical Man United supporter, who doesn’t even go to the games! (“Ah, you’re a Man United fan eh? Live inside the M25 do you?!” etc etc.) But this time, that’s the point; 76,000 in a stadium is impressive but the audience outside is over 3,000 times bigger. And that’s the audience they’re going to be selling.

I read anything about the team in advance of the game, during the game and after it. In advance of the game – in my newspaper; on their website; and yes, on Football FanCast. I have a text service which, at 24p a pop, sends me texts on my mobile on injuries, suspensions; contract negotiations beforehand and then on the day, the team; goals scored as they go in; half time and full time summary. Or I might be seeing the match live on Sky, then definitely on Match of the Day; then I will read the Sunday and Monday reports. Yes, they’re all telling me the same thing but from a slightly different angle.

So, the pattern I described above, which is nowhere near as frenetic and `digitised’ as younger fans, amounts to over TWENTY different connections in a week, every week!

In the case of Woking FC, my `first team’, I go to the games of course, so the pattern is different but the reality is that smaller clubs can’t afford the marketing machine that a top Premiership club has (or should have). They don’t enjoy anywhere near the same economies of scale and they’re not remotely as interesting to advertisers.

If the content is “must have” will enough of it be unique to Man United? After all, there are literally hundreds of sites covering English Football. Creativity is going to be key – not a word one normally applies to those running even the smartest football clubs.

4. But does Man United have the experience?

If they are not going to be on Facebook they have to do a lot more themselves. They will certainly make mistakes but a lot of this will be about integrating many of the things they were already doing. For example, they have run MUTV for many years.

However, the key about a social network is that, if you act as an owner and try to control it, you will kill it. This is all about People Power – enabling and empowering people. The era of brand managers as control freaks is just about over. You can nudge and suggest to your audience but they’ll switch off if you try instructing them.

The vast number of breakaway unofficial club sites run by fans demonstrates how clubs like to exercise control and indeed, `censor’ copy. This is completely alien to the whole concept of social networks where the key is sharing content, regardless of where it has been sourced. That is a real art.

That is the real question: culturally, can Manchester United do that? We – and they- are about to find out.

5. Finally, what precedents are there?

As far as I know, there are none. Who could do it? In football, only the true global brands – Real Madrid and Barcelona and possibly, one or two others, which I’ll let you debate. But interestingly, outside sport, which brands could realistically set up their own social network, driven by an unending, insatiable appetite for news, info, speculation etc for their products? I can only think of Apple. There are many great global brands but surely none of them has those qualities?

It would certainly be possible for a brand to `own’ a complete category or interest group so that one became for example, THE destination for `design’ or `DIY’. But it would take many years to achieve.

What this all does is to remind us of the phenomenal power of football brands; a power that `normal brands’ can only dream of.

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Chris Ingram is as passionate about football as he is about business. Owner of Woking Football Club, and a majority shareholder in the fast growing sports media business Sports Revolution, Chris is one of the UK’s most successful entrepreneurs.

Recently celebrating 50 years in the media industry and still actively involved with Woking, Chris is ideally placed to comment on the business side of football.

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READ more of Chris Ingram’s work at our Football Business Section

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