Glory Glory Man Utd: Can they beat Facebook at its own game?

Manchester United have struck a deal with Sapient Nitro to become their global digital agency and as part of that deal, word has it they’re going to create a social media platform that will allow the club to engage directly with their global online fan base of nearly 660 million.

Ignoring the numbers, because I think they are nonsense, the concept is very interesting and very forward thinking.

Businesses gain plenty of benefits from engaging with their fans via the world’s most prominent social media platforms, but for me, once you surpass a certain fan/follower threshold in certain industries; you have to start thinking a bit more selfishly.

How can your business start harness that passion and turn it into something of more value?

Facebook gives you some interesting base data on your fan base, but it doesn’t really give you much else in the way of statistics. It also doesn’t make it easy to do much with those highly engaged fans. Twitter is a fantastic place to converse on a one to one basis, especially in the world of sport, but again, you never really own the data, you don’t really know much about the people you’re engaging with and because the platform is someone else’s, so is the really interesting data and so is the flexibility.

Someone else owns your conversation. Someone else is profiting from your fans. Someone else could potentially switch you off at any time (I know, I know, that last point was very dramatic).

If you’re a brand like Manchester United, you have the ability to move your fans wherever you want. If you can move the bulk of your fans behind a wall into a bespoke Manchester United community, you’re on to a winner.

Your ability to track data is greatly increased, there are no strict rules on competitions and you can incentivise an already enthused community to keep on coming back. Hey, you could even integrate the established social media platforms into your community! The possibilities are endless, the ROI far more measurable and far easier to influence than it would be in the major standard social channels.
Manchester United owning the conversation is the key here, what they do once they’re in control is when we’ll see exactly how social they’re planning to be. A move many will watch with anticipation, a move I’m sure many of the big boys will look to follow if it’s a success.


  • Imran

    UNITED always lead , others follow that lead.

  • Sean Walshr

    Yes, because absolutely love being spammed with advertising and sales message. This is in the complete opposite direction of their more socially savvy (and footballing) rivals Manchester City.

    Yes Man U can do more and have ownership but this only shows that Man U only care about cash, and not really engaging their fans. Such a waste of a huge brand in the social space.

    PS. I’m already flustered by the sheer number of social platforms out there already, I don’t want to have to fragment this even further! Isn’t the whole point of social media (and social media marketing) that you can get access to facets to a persons other areas of their life so it’s all in one easy place? I’d be more excited if they said they were going to partner with pre-existing fan forums… at least that would be going somewhere.

  • John

    Sean, the reason fan forums thrive is because there are certain place you should talk football and there are certain places you talk about other things. I think there is a growing trend for interest groups and living your online life in silo’s like you do in real life.

    Manchester United will be creating a social hub where they can talk Manchester United outside of Facebook, outside full view of their friends and possibly outside the view of their work colleagues!

    Whatever they do will never take the hardcore fans from fan sites, but it’ll definintly service international supporters. They can create exclusive content, understand their fanbase better and truly engage in a personal way on their terms.

    I think it’s a great move.

  • Andrew Chrysostom

    While it’s an interesting idea – the key stumbling block will be the audience itself. Within the football world, the most vocal of fans on online platforms are rarely the most reasonable…or eloquent .

    Abuse, prejudice and schadenfreude are all prevalent in football – which a club itself can never be seen to actively endorse, or commission.

    The brand image of United needs to be protected, meaning that any user generated content will have to be vetted, or put through a post editorial process. Surely this would automatically be the killer to any genuine success that this platform would enjoy, that would take it beyond just being a standard fan forum.

    Take for example the recent race-row allegations. Chelsea fans had begun to hurl abuse toward the target (Anton Ferdinand) on Twitter – Twitter can get away with having a ‘report’ button, and can use the excuse of not being able to censor based on editorial integrity. I struggle to believe that United would allow this excuse to stand.

    Also, movements such as ‘Green and Gold’ aimed at dismantling the ownership of the Glazers – surely a corporation’s social network wouldn’t allow it do be it’s own downfall? Yet the discussion is perfectly legal, and couldn’t be removed on any grounds other than selective censorship.

  • Sean Walsh

    Hi John,

    Fair point but I don’t think they are truly creating a social hub though. This just smacks to me of them creating a platform they can create a spammy sales orientated environment without really any new social features as a unique selling point. Sure it has content, but I’m not sure that’s enough to warrant making people feel like they have to join a brand new network.

    Personally, I rarely use brand created networks – whether thats a work intranet. It’s just too much effort to get set up and learn, and really that outweighs the content (which generally dries up because users log off and the brand stops producing decent stuff).

    I think things like LinkedIn groups and Facebook groups already fulfill that “outside of their work colleagues” service imo.

    You say that this platform allows them to create exclusive content – but they can do this already, its just they can’t be bothered to at the minute. Social networks succeed because they put the user first, those that go into it immediately trying to monetize or make it more commercially focussed always fail.

    I guess I feel that they have their priorities wrong – just my opinion though.

  • John

    John, you’re assuming United will use the new platform to create spammy sales messages. I don’t think they’re naive enough to do this.

    What I think they’ll do is house an environment for fan discussion. I don’t think Facebook is the platform for that, it’s too public, you can’t really open multiple threads and user created content isn’t generally openly encouraged.

    If United house the conversation, they can reward their users for engagement, understand their fans better and hopefully give them a better experience than you get on the slightly limited Facebook brand page experience.

    It doesn’t have to be a totally new sign in process either. You could login via Twitter and Facebook. It’ll be a social extention to what they’re doing on their main site.

    Brands that fail with communities usually don’t have the social brand awareness to start with. For United, masters of social without doing much, I don’t see this as a problem.

    Andrew, some great points there. I doubt they’ll be targetting the hardcore like Green & Gold. I’d imagine it’ll be for foreign fans much more interested in pure brand love! I might be wrong of course. United are managing the Facebook Page ok. I can’t imagine it being too different from a moderation perspective.

  • Laura Springall

    Really liked this.

  • Nicko

    It’s not a bad idea from Manchester United but is simply another move to engage a global audience of ‘tourist fans’ rather than provide something authentic and engaging for current English fans. The real race for clubs now is to expand their global reach and maximise revenue from this with the financial far play rules looming. This is great for Asian fans and also other fans who are so far away from the origins of football & real action that something authentic would be safe, engaging and help make them feel part of the action. It will be interesting to see if this is subscription based or a free service…but then again, even giving your personal data = money and Manchester United will have no problem selling ad space if they can boast traffic figures of xxxmillion

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