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  • Writer's pictureCharlie Beall

English Premier League Sponsorship and the Effective Use of Social Media

Originally published 1 February 2015 in The Sunday Business Post.

Millions of people getting thousands of messages, mostly on their mobile, from when they wake up in the morning to turning the light off at night… how on earth does anyone cut through all that noise and get their message heard?

Sports marketing, particularly through sponsorship, continues to be one of the most effective ways for a brand to reach an engaged global audience. Subsequently, the start of the Barclays Premier League’s 2014-15 season saw the combined shirt sponsorship income of the 20 clubs hit a record £191.35m, with the ‘big six’ clubs (Manchester United, Arsenal, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur) between them accounting for 79% of the value of the 20 deals.

Digital-only sponsorship revenue was still a small percentage of that, but is beginning to prove, just as it did in other sectors, that an engaged digital audience is what sponsors increasingly want.

While there are numerous ways sports organisations can deliver brand activations, from stadium branding and hospitality to competitions and promotions, in terms of value for money, digital campaigns win hands down, particularly when successfully integrated with social media. The reason? They offer a greater ROI, more accurate measurement and provide access to a global audience that can be segmented and targeted effectively.

A year in review

2014 saw some of the most exciting digital innovation in sports sponsorship to date. For example, Nike’s World Cup “Risk Everything” campaign which, according to data provided by Nike, saw the brand receive a total of 3,072,369 overall mentions on Twitter from June 12 to July 6; in comparison to rival adidas who "received a total of 1,617,537 overall brand mentions” over the same period. Procter & Gamble’s #ThankYouMom campaign for the Sochi Olympics, continued the theme set in 2012 for the London Games with a video series that saw the first video released receive over 600K shares to date. Meanwhile, golf’s Ryder Cup issued over one hundred thousand RFID-enabled wristbands to visitors giving them the opportunity to engage online and offline with their main sponsors BMW, Standard Life Investments and Sky Sports across the Gleneagles golf course. Just over 59,000 email accounts were linked to the wristbands, and over 44% of the people who took part were aged 45–65.

So, how do the Premier League clubs’ activities in 2014 compare?

The most visually captivating digital sponsor activation last year came from Arsenal FC with the launch of three new kits sponsored by Puma. For 90 seconds Arsène Wenger “walked” on water in an epic 20 metre high water projection on the River Thames that was streamed live globally and accompanied by a social media push. The campaign was based on the concept “Stronger Together” with a creative cohesion between the Arsenal and Puma brands that was well executed across multiple channels.

In addition to the launch video, the print and digital campaign included a series of 15-second teaser videos, and three 50 second films that were released online post-launch. Arsenal also created a social hub that featured user generated content photos of their fans wearing the kit that they had posted to Twitter or Instagram using the #StrongerTogether hashtag, or directly loaded onto Facebook.

Manchester United showed good use of social to amplify their sponsor’s message when their £47 million-per-year shirt world-record sponsorship deal with Chevrolet came into effect this year. Chevrolet kicked off their sponsorship activation in March with the “What do you #playfor?” campaign with a series of videos of the players sharing why they play football.

A kit launch in July saw the Chevrolet brand finally take over from AON as United's shirt sponsor with a video that features fans, players and club legends paying tribute to the club’s history. While generating a great deal of media coverage it has had over 745K views to date.

Standard Chartered used their sponsorship of Liverpool FC to raise awareness and funds for its global charity “Seeing Is Believing”. In addition to a number of offline and in-stadium activities, Standard Chartered hosted a “Perfect Match” competition and content series across all their Facebook pages. Former Liverpool FC player, Didi Hamann co-hosted the commentary of the official LFC twitter account, live from Anfield during the LFC vs Tottenham game, and on March 31st, first team player Daniel Agger took over the official LFC twitter for a Q&A session to answer fan questions in ‘association with Seeing Is Believing’. Video content produced during the campaign generated 833,350 views on YouTube.

Finally, Nissan’s sponsorship of Manchester City has seen some good activations over the past year with their brand headlining the “Goal of the Month” series, which is decided by a public vote on Twitter and Facebook.

But it was Manchester City’s festive advent calendar campaign that really stood out against the other BPL activities this year, as original and fun, with evidence of audience understanding and commercial needs, and a good use of player access. With well placed, but subtle, Nissan branding, the club released a video on YouTube every day as they counted down to Christmas, amplifying the content on their Twitter and Facebook profiles and reaching 341K video plays to date.

They also seized the opportunity to have some fun. Deadpan Aleksander Kolarov promised to sing a Christmas carol if fans reached a 330,000 YouTube subscriber target.

While these campaigns show creativity there is still huge opportunity to better integrate sponsors into the exciting digital content that sports creates. Besides the campaigns mentioned, digital and social media sponsorship activations by the remainder of the BPL clubs remain sorely wanting, with most simply posting a standard sponsor promotion or offer that is jarring or ill-timed and sees little response from fans. It is no surprise that fans are resistant to the commercialisation of their clubs.

Looking forward

A number of factors contribute to a successful sponsorship activation that engages fans, transcends simple brand awareness and communicates the key messages for the brand.

  • A targeted approach: The campaign should reflect an understanding of the audience, as well as a coherent tie-in between the sponsor and the club where both parties inherently reflect the core campaign themes

  • Ensuring the value exchange: If clubs are expecting fans to give of their time and energy they need to give something back, whether that is exclusive access, great prizes or simply an evocative and emotional experience

  • The integrated use of social media: These platforms cannot be used simply as a distribution or broadcast channel. Instead the unique opportunities that social offers to engage with fans, should be used in creative and original ways, especially as Facebook and Twitter algorithm changes are threatening brand’s organic reach

Digital developments and new technologies also offer clubs opportunities to deliver innovation for their sponsors:

  • Making the most of video: There is a definite prioritisation given by both Facebook and Twitter to video uploaded directly onto their platforms as opposed to shared links to video content from YouTube. In addition, with behind-the-scenes access clubs should be creating more playful, short-form content and publishing on platforms that integrate well like Vine and Instagram. These audio-visual platforms offer their own opportunities to reach new audiences, and clubs should not shy from creating unique content and sponsorship strategies for them

  • Optimising with payment systems: 2014 saw both Twitter and Facebook testing “Buy” buttons which offer one-click purchasing methods can also be used not only to drive ticket sales and merchandising, but to bring fans closer to the sponsor’s product offering

  • Regional and niche social networks: As emerging markets become more important to commercial revenue, and clubs are looking to tie themselves to local brands and engage with fans that identify with those brands, we can expect to see more regionally targeted campaigns that make use of locally popular social media channels, such as Weibo, LINE and WeChat. Also look out for clubs appearing on sports niche platforms such as Sqor Sports, SportLobster, PlayUp and Fancred to tap into their engaged audiences.

In Summary

While in the past sponsors may have been content with a simple logo placement to increase brand awareness, technological innovation and increased marketing sophistication means that the pressure is on for clubs to create original and interesting new ways to deliver brands to audiences, and also prove true value and ROI. The digital advertising industry is already questioning the standard metrics that we have come to rely on and as the industry becomes more competitive, this will become a real challenge in 2015.

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