AUSTRALIANS are the most avid social media users in the world. Ben O’Neill examines how Australian football should be looking to capitalise on its burgeoning growth and interactivity, to assist the games longevity and prosperity.
At the Australian Football Awards in early October, Football Federation Australia chairman and Westfield property tycoon, Frank Lowy, reminded those present of just how far the beautiful game had come in the land down under over the past five years.
With his list extending – but certainly not limited – to the creation of the A-League as a fully professional national competition, qualification for successive World Cups, and entry to the Asian Football Confederation, few could argue with the billionaire that the game has indeed taken quantum strides forward in the past decade.
Yet while Lowy’s heartwarming yarn included the comment that “the A-League is here to stay in its own right”, cynics among the national football fraternity may still opt to question the competition's short, medium and long term viability amid the hugely congested, hotly contested Australian sporting landscape.
And with reason – like Lowy, they too can offer compelling evidence to support their claims.
From the indecision concerning the expansion of the competition in regards to a second Sydney-based side, weak crowds in major markets and the inability of many franchises to attract sizeable corporate sponsorship, there are a multitude of creases that still need to be ironed out before the game can truly reach the level of reverence in Australia, to which it is held in virtually every other nation on earth.
It is with some curiosity then that FFA, individual A-League clubs, and even individual players, aren’t pouring more time and resources into exploiting and harnessing the power of mediums which are inherently inexpensive, and of which the Australian public is completely, utterly, obsessed with – social mediums including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and blogs.
Author of Socialnomics: How social media transforms the way we live and do business, Erik Qualman, says “Australians are the most prolific social media users in the world, beating the USA and UK on a per capita basis”.
According to Qualman, the average Facebook user – of which Australia is home to over six million – spends 55 minutes on the site per day, which equates to 1.2 days of potential connection and communication time each month. “This is twice the time that the average Melbournian listens to the radio,” he says.
In addition, Twitter grew by 1,067 per cent ‘Down Under’ in 2009, while the average Australian is a member of 2.7 different social networking sites – well above the current global trend.
Neither the statistics, nor the potential power of the plethora of platforms available is lost on the crew from FourFourTwo Australia.
Over the past two years, the Sydney-based team has expanded their footprint in the Australian football community to Twitter, a scaled-down version of their website available on mobile phones, and the creation of a substantial online blogging community hosted on their market leading football news website au.fourfourtwo.com. Each of these elements is intended to supplement their monthly magazine, offering football aficionados a variety of formats from which to consistently consume the world’s favourite pastime.
“Word of mouth is said to be the most effective advertising of all and social networking is word of mouth on a grand scale,” the magazine's Online Editor, Kevin Airs, says. “The beauty of social networking is its ability to allow local football to creep onto the radar of those who might have no idea of the sport in this country, simply by having a shared interest with someone else. It brings new people into the conversation”.
FourFourTwo’s Publisher, Andy Jackson, is frank when asked in what way social media can aid the growth of football in Australia. “Massively,” he states. “For cash strapped A-League clubs social media represents a huge opportunity for brand building and marketing with little associated costs other than time and expertise.”
But while Airs and Jackson share a positivity surrounding the benefits social media can afford the round ball game in Australia’s battle of the codes, the pair harbour legitimate concerns about the way FFA and many of the A-League clubs treat fans and utilise their various social media accounts.
“Fans get taken for granted in Australia, and then get blamed for not turning up,” Airs says. “There is just no genuine attempt to embrace, involve and interact with fans, just lip service and often contempt.
“The clubs have a tendency to use Twitter and Facebook as a method of making announcements to their fans rather than communicating and interacting [with them]. It’s rare to see them addressing individual fans, answering questions, building a community.”
“They’re dipping a toe in the water without truly understanding what they doing,” Jackson adds.
Indeed, while Airs says he knows FFA executives and club powers “take an interest” in the many blogs appearing weekly on their site, and most feedback has been positive, at least two bloggers have had their efforts belittled by the clubs of whom their passion knows no bounds.
For one of these contributors, 16-year-old Max Cornell whose musings concern second year franchise Gold Coast United, this came when he contacted the club merely asking for any assistance they could provide.
“When I first started my Gold Coast United blog, I emailed the marketing and public relations manager at United and informed him of what I was doing and [that] I would appreciate any help he could offer,” Cornell recalls. “He basically shot blogging down and stated that bloggers don’t have the ethics of ‘real’ journalists.”
Inherently, instead of embracing and connecting with Cornell – who Jackson indicates has a potential audience of over 100,000 unique FourFourTwo users at his fingers tips each month – Gold Coast United opted to ignore the advances of an advocate who was ready and willing to beat the drum on the club's behalf. (However, Gold Coast United today denied disrespecting bloggers as claimed by Max).
From the perspective of any astute social media scholar, such a move would be deemed not only ignorant, but utterly foolish.
“Sending press releases to loyal fans who chart the clubs’ fortunes costs absolutely nothing in this day and age,” Airs says. “Feeding them the odd scrap of information that only hardcore fans would appreciate would pay huge dividends.”
While the extent to which Cornell, or any blogger, can affect crowds and participation cannot be quantified (nor should it attempt to be), it ought to be noted Gold Coast United average the lowest crowds in the league, earning the dubious record of the competitions all time lowest attendance on Australian soil when they hosted Central Coast Mariners at Skilled Park in September 2010. Just 2,037 people witnessed the drab nil all draw which aptly demonstrated the clubs painfully obvious disconnect with their local community.
Nevertheless, despite Gold Coast United’s feeble fan base, the club can be congratulated for their use of their marquee man, former Ajax Amsterdam, FC Twente Enschede and PSV Eindhoven midfielder Jason Culina, in their communication endeavours.
For the past 12 months, Culina has been blogging for the popular The World Game football website, offering a glimpse into the life of a professional footballer. This small window into the Socceroo stars inner sanctum is a reasonable example of how clubs should be looking to utilise their players as advocates off the pitch, as much as they do on it.
It is perhaps unsurprising then that two of the clubs with the strongest social media presence – Melbourne Victory and Wellington Phoenix – are also among the most well supported and professionally run outfits in the competition.
While both Victory and Phoenix do offer somewhat of a news service through their respective Twitter accounts, they also interact with their supporters more than most, offering ‘followers’ information about exclusive opportunities and forthcoming events via the 140 character ‘tweets’ the platform permits.
What’s more, both Victory and Phoenix have made a genuine attempt to impress the star power of a couple of their players upon their fans, opening a channel of communication which was, until relatively recently, closed to the average enthusiast.
Wellington Phoenix fan, Robb Watson, says the clubs has “done especially well by getting [New Zealand international defender] Ben Sigmund on board, who has been a fantastic ambassador due to his personality of being a down-to-earth Kiwi bloke”.
Airs acknowledges both Victory and Phoenix’s efforts in promoting player communication streams as refreshing, but states “we need more of that”.
Certainly, it’s a tactic utilised in the big business arena that is American sports, and Jackson highlights it is from here that FFA and A-League clubs could look to garner some inspiration from which to model their social media outputs.
“I would always look to the US, to the NFL [National Football League], MLB [Major League Baseball] and NBA [National Basketball Association] for examples of great digital activations and brand building,” Jackson says. “For relevant football ideas, look at how clubs like Manchester United have built their brand in Asia.”
Indeed, the decision makers could certainly do worse than to source insight from Matthew Higgins, the Executive Vice President at NFL club New York Jets, who led not only the competition but world sports in the branding of iPhone and Facebook applications.
Offering sage advice for Australian football which can struggle for back page media coverage due to intense code competition, Higgins says the Jets “share little insights that news media might not find interesting enough to fill up ink in a newspaper, yet are great gold nuggets that sports fans want to get.”
After realising a year ago the franchise didn’t have a single player on Twitter, Higgins and his team cooked up an experiment, taking one player who had a charismatic personality, and who was willing to be legit and not let a public relations representative manage the account. At the time of writing, that player – Kerry Rhodes, now of the Arizona Cardinals – has some 379,277 followers on his personal Twitter account.
Higgins and his New York Jets team are also charting new ground in the search for increased diversity and reach from their social media network, with the forthcoming utilisation of geolocation tools Foursquare and Gowalla at home fixtures.
Higgins says the mediums will be used to “push out special promotions in stadium, drive a product that I know is not doing well on any given day, push out discounts, and just create more of a sense of community at the stadium”.
With Airs noting that “the integration with the A-League and club sponsors has always seemed at best poor and usually non-existent”, it is of further recommendation to Australian football powers to explore the way the New York Jets co-operate with their backers to realise mutual benefits.
Motorola are a major sponsor of the Jets, with the club running weekly ‘Motopics’ competitions in which fans can submit photos to win tickets to matches at the clubs New Meadowlands Stadium.
Simple to implement and cost effective, such an example is in addition to the many concepts drafted up from the think-tank that is the Australian football community – many of which are simply screaming to be embraced.
Melbourne Heart fan and au.fourfourtwo.com blogger, Dejan Kalinic, is one such supporter with notable ideas for A-League clubs. He says franchises should use the public announcement system at the stadium to inform attendees of their online presences, and “print it on the tickets and on the memberships”.
Canberra’s Eamonn Flanagan, who operates a football blog called Nearpost, says FFA and the A-League should recognise the crucial role bloggers and citizen journalists play in spreading the gospel of football by inviting them to a formal function or forum.
Brett Taylor, the Assistant Editor of ESPNsoccernet.com, indicates he’d like to “read information from fans about their match day experiences”, while Airs says clubs need to “build up mailing lists, have fan representation on the website at the very least, and embrace active support”.
Certainly, there’s no shortage of ideas, enthusiastic individuals and would-be advocates ready to fight for footballs long-term prosperity in Australia through social media and otherwise.
And, if an aggressive social media approach is at the heart of the world leading New York Jets’ drive for continued sports supremacy, surely it ought to be a key component in branding the A-League’s Newcastle Jets franchise to the world too.
For what it’s worth, the Newcastle Jets last updated their official twitter account on November 29, shortly after ‘Beckstravaganza’. The question is, what added positives could have been achieved by the club had they sought to further impress their presence on the social media world during their recent run up the A-League ladder?
The writer of this article practices what he preaches. You can follow him on Twitter @BennyONeill