• Andrew Collins

Engagement vs. Followers in China

The classic argument, which is more important: followers or engagement. Traditionally sports organizations only focused on their number of followers, showing off this figure to their competitors, and more recently brandishing this figure amongst sponsors and partners.

However, there has recently been a shift in importance from the number of followers to the level of engagement and quality of fans. After all, where is the value in followers that are oblivious to your content.

From a China perspective, this has definitely been the case. The earliest Western sports brands launched online in 2010, with the NBA and Liverpool FC being the pioneers of their respective sports. Huge growth quickly ensued for these early adopters, with the NBA now at around 32 million followers, 10 million more than their number of Twitter followers. One of the few anomalies to this case is Manchester United, who launched their Sina Weibo account late in 2013, but have since become the number one most followed football club online.

Now though, the key metric for online performance in China is engagement, in particular, average engagement per post. For Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter and the number one platform for broadcasting and exposure, this is calculated by adding the total number of forwards, comments  and likes.

In China, anything can be bought. The level of average engagement on Sina Weibo clearly demonstrates which sports brands have a high proportion of quality fans and are communicating with them. There is no fixed industry standard for sports organisations’ level of engagement, with the simplest way comparing to your competitors. Yet, it’s very easy to identify outliers that are successfully connecting with their fan base.

There is huge disparity for the level of engagement of sports brands online. Talent, such as Kobe Bryant and Novak Djokovic easily reach 10x the level of engagement of European football clubs. This is because a large proportion of online fans tend to support a club or sport because of their star player. Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant’s retirement announcement reached over 252,000 engagement on Weibo, higher than the level on his Twitter account (250,000).

The UFC has around 170,000 fans online in China, with social media playing a key role in spreading awareness of the sport and establishing the UFC as the number one MMA organisation. Their level of engagement would rank them as the #5 most engaged European football club (according to data taken from 23rd May – 29th May). With Xi Jinping having publicly revealed that he watches MMA, we can expect to see this figure continue to grow.

Sports brands that focus on engagement, as opposed to followers, will organically establish a long-term connection with a high quality fan base.

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