A Wake Up Call to Football Marketing
This post is going to be way off course to what I usually write but still on topic given the marketing theme. So apologies to my regular readers and welcome to anyone here for the first time. This is more personal to me than the business stuff I normally cover and a subject very close to my heart. Football. Specifically, my beloved Preston North End Football Club.
A few days ago I happened upon a post on Facebook within a fans group, that was a copy of an email received from the club by a fan after he had taken the time and trouble to contact them about their current marketing. Or lack of as the case looked to him. Now for reasons of privacy I won’t publish the original email here because I have only seen a copy and do not know if there is a legal disclaimer at the bottom. However, if you wish to see if I will ask the fan to post a link within the comments below.
But, since I responded to the Facebook post because quite frankly the email annoyed me so much, you can read my response:
Afterwards, I got quite a lot of comments and messages from fans agreeing wholeheartedly with my reply and I discussed at length with the original email sender. He asked me if I would email the club to enlighten them on the points I made in my reply. Having thought about it, and re-reading the clubs email about 20 times, I decided that instead, I would write this post as a somewhat open letter to the club and Peter Ridsdale, the club Chairman, for fans to draw their own conclusions.
I apologise in advance for the length of this post and the technical jargon too.
Modern Day Marketing in Football
As you can see from my own response I was kind of bemused by the clubs current advertising methods. Granted I work in social media. It’s what pays my bills so there is an element of bias there. However with this in mind, I did a bit of research to establish some facts and figures. The club provided a list of about 10 advertising and marketing methods they used in the season ticket campaign and ongoing marketing. The biggest shock for me was that social media was the bottom of the list. Bottom! Ok, I’ll go into this in more detail in a minute, but first, let’s look at the actual numbers here.
Top of the list was the weekly adverts and wrap around things in the LEP (Lancashire Evening Post) and Rock FM Radio. Now, for the none marketing or even business people reading this let me tell you, these two forms of marketing are about as much use as a chocolate teapot. But for the purposes of transparency and clarity of my point, I did some research on the reader and listener figures.
All print publications are required to publish their circulation figures to get their ABC ratings. You can Google this, it’s all readily available.
2010 daily circulation – 23,183
2016 daily circulation – 11,632 (with a current year on year decline of 11.4%)
The population of Preston city is 140,452 but the sub-district of Central Lancashire, so all the areas surrounding the city, has a population of 335,000. This is PNE’s catchment area. Therefore a mere 3.4% of the catchment area are reading the LEP.
Further to that, I looked at demographic figures. This was a little harder to find but the last published figures I could find stated that about 30% of the readership was under 44 years old, of which 10% are under 25. But I did a quick poll of my own friends via Facebook asking if any of them bought or read the LEP on a regular basis. None, I repeat, none of them bought it. Some read it online occasionally. Some noted its poor user experience, pop-ups, ads and surveys put them off.
The under 25 market is key for future survival. It’s all well and good marketing to current season ticket holders and the pensioners (no offence) that buy the LEP still. But they won’t be around forever (again no offence). At a readership rate of 10% of under 25’s (I do think this may be an incorrect figure as I believe it’s lower), that means that just 1,163 people are reading the LEP. Take out the ones that aren’t interested in football, can’t attend, etc, you might be looking at 20% of that. So just over 200 people.
Again, another tale of dwindling numbers.
In 2000 the total number of weekly listeners was 413,000
By 2016 it was 215,000
In 2000 the total amount of listening time per week was just under 5 million hours
In 2016 it was 1.2 million
Rock FM’s market share in 2000 was 17.4%. Now it’s just 5.4%
I think you can probably see my point here. It’s common knowledge that print advertising is in rapid decline. Looking at the user numbers I’d take an educated guess that radio is going the same way. As a business owner myself that knows a thing or two about marketing, I have absolutely no idea why anyone is still throwing away money on print adverts. It makes absolutely no business sense whatsoever.
A few other things were listed that caught my eye as being not fit for purpose. The back of buses for example. Is this the same bus service that is being cut back by Preston Council? Leaflet drops! A total waste of money, just filling up recycle bins and wasting council tax money to have them recycled. Petrol pumps! As a car owner when I go to get petrol I’m more bothered about watching the dial thing to make sure I get exactly £30 in it. It might be slightly OCD, but we all do it. I am most definitely not looking at any adverts. Fixture board outside the ground. Again, I’m driving not looking at boards. Actually the only time I see them is when I’m going to the ground. Usually, for the reason of attending the game, they are advertising on the board.
The email newsletter to ‘all’ fans registered on the database. Ah now, this one I can tell you is wrong. You see, many, many years ago, before the ticket system on MyPNE, I signed up for the newsletter using my personal email address. Yep, I get my newsletter on that every week. Granted I don’t read it, but that’s for other reasons. But, my email for MyPNE is my work email address and I have never received a newsletter on that or any form of marketing communications apart from the receipts when I buy tickets online.
All of these methods of advertising are firmly stuck in the 90’s when maybe they worked. But times have changed. Marketing has changed. The way we all communicate has changed.
So let’s look at the bottom of the list………
This obviously is my area. It’s my thing. I’ve not been a blogger for 9 years now for nothing. I don’t get hired by some of the countries top sports stars for nothing. I don’t travel to far off places to stand on stages giving speeches about this stuff for nothing. I’d like to think I kind of know what I’m doing here.
So let’s look at the numbers there.
Facebook – 103,120 fans
Twitter – 67,300 followers
YouTube – 5,682 subscribers
The YouTube numbers are a bit pants and should be higher in my opinion, but given the content, I’m not really surprised. We’ll come back to that later. Facebook is pretty good as is Twitter. The engagement rates aren’t great, but again, neither is the content so it’s no surprise.
Let’s look at Facebook a little closer, specifically advertising. The cost per click on Facebook is by far one of the most cost-effective advertising methods available anywhere today. Why? Because you are targeting your exact audience you want. 103,120 people have clicked a button on Facebook to say they are PNE fans. Now fair enough, some might not be local, some might not even be fans, but I’d hazard a guess that the majority are people within the catchment area and the ideal demographics. Future season ticket holders.
Why isn’t this at the top of the list of marketing methods?
Know Your Audience
Us marketing folks talk all the time about content being king when it comes to online marketing. From the tweets you put out to the videos you create for YouTube, everything is about the quality and the quantity of content you put out. Your content needs to be engaging for your viewers. You, the person behind the social media account needs to be engaged with your audience. It needs to be fun, entertaining, informative but also listen to what that audience have to say. Learn from your audience and tailor the content towards them. That is how marketing works. Straight up advertising does not work anymore. Nobody wants to be sold to. They want to be engaged with, listened to.
This is what annoyed me so much about the email from the club. Not only were they not listening to the audience, namely the emailer in question at this point, but they were dismissive. It came across like, “We know what we’re doing and you don’t” kind of attitude. Clearly, my research shows that they don’t know what they are doing otherwise they wouldn’t be throwing money away on adverts in the LEP! And claiming the switching from Bee Radio to Rock FM was some sort of marketing success!
I’m not saying that the older generation audience should be ignored and that season ticket holders shouldn’t be marketed to. But, the fact remains that young people are not being engaged or enticed in by the club. The club is not marketing to the modern-day millennial. In 20 year’s time, where will that leave us? With an ageing fan base and local teens watching Man United glory days videos on YouTube. And even worse attendance figures than we have now.
Has the club not realised there’s an enormous University slap bang in the centre of town? Full of people. Actual people. In Preston.
Know Your Football History
Preston is a club very much steeped in and proud of its history. Older fans (my age and older) will remember the re-election days. Fans being asked to turn up to paint the ground. The plastic pitch (I still have a load of it in the garage). John Thomas. Frank Worthington. Ronnie Hildersley and the free-scoring Gary Brazil. John McGrath with his many irons in the fire. And Les Chapman was 53 miles west of venus. Brian Mooney. John Beck and that bloody awful day at Wembley in 94. The smell of the South Paddock toilets. Away fans on the Town End. Archie Gemmill, granted he was before my time but we had a goldfish named after him once. David Beckham.
Football and the club you support becomes a part of your life. Friendships are formed. You become part of a football family. Some of the best friends I still have are ones I met at Deepdale. I can’t even tell you when my first game was. I don’t think I even remember it. It was just something I always seemed to do as a kid and even before I went to games, PNE was always something in my life.
Even when I lived in Ireland for all those years, trips home were planned around fixtures. Everyone always knew who my team was despite me taking an interest in Shamrock Rovers over there (I do remember a young Eoin Doyle playing for them whilst Pat Scully was the manager). Away days leave you with stories that last a lifetime. And that trip to the Isle of Man. Anyone that went on that knows what I’m on about (it’s not something I could ever repeat on this blog).
If, from a marketing point of view, you cannot embrace that love, that passion that endless dedication to a football team, and by god, it’s been a labour of love following Preston for all these years. Then all you have left is something bland, boring, same old, dare I say it, vanilla.
Preston North End are not vanilla!
Content Is King
So where does my beloved club go from here? Like I said previously, content is king. But the content being put out by the club is, well um boring. It doesn’t fill me with a desire to get a ticket for Saturday. It doesn’t make me feel part of the PNE family we all belong to. Today’s social media channels are how you will reach the younger audiences. Older people and season ticket holders will still go regardless. They’ve got the lifelong bug. Yes, the club needs to work on ways of retaining them and getting them to more matches. But the marketing focus needs to move away from them and move on to millennials and younger. The YouTube generation.
You can’t advertise or market anymore and just expect the younger generations to find you. It just doesn’t work like that. You have to show up where they are. Be it YouTube or Snapchat or via a Facebook advert. A boring old highlights video on YouTube once a week just isn’t going to cut it. People want, actually expect, now to be seeing more behind the scenes stuff, player engagement (more on that in a minute). They want to know more of the day to day stuff. More entertaining content. The competition for digital eyeballs is huge but when a kid sat in their bedroom just talking to a camera can get more views than a football club that’s been around for over 130 years, you have to ask yourself, who is getting their marketing wrong?
Whatever the content, whether it’s old footage of Sir Tom or a how to master the Greg Cunningham finely groomed facial hair look, (that is a joke by the way before Greg gets his YouTube game on) if the fans find it interesting and engaging they will like it. They will share it. They will talk about it. And they will feel part of that football family again. They will long all week for when Saturday comes around. And those that aren’t local have a focal point to stay up to date and be more eager to plan their visits.
Over the process of the past few days and looking at all of this I have also looked and talked to many people about how much they feel the players engage with them online. The players are where the marketing should start. One of the things I talk to businesses all the time about is employee advocacy. Your employees should be your businesses biggest fans. How can you expect your customers (fans in this case) to support the business (PNE) when the staff (players) are disengaged, not interested? Can’t even put what team they play for in their social media bios. Never respond to tweets. Not so much as the odd like. Never post anything pre-match rallying the support. Put themselves on a pedestal.
I absolutely understand that to players they are just here to do a job. I’m sorry mate but your job is to do your damn best for this football club and if that means just liking the odd bloody tweet I send you or saying thank you when a fan leaves a nice comment on your Instagram photo, then I don’t think that is too much to ask when I’m technically paying your wages. I will, however, exclude John Welsh from this who always engages. Perhaps it’s just me. Or he’s bothered to read my bio and knows what I do or who I work with. Regardless. Thank you anyway. And I like your content and feel like I know your kids. Well done.
Players come and go. There’s plenty I’ve forgotten. Some, however, stay in your memory and occasionally you might cross their paths again. I got to see Brian Mooney play one last time over in Dublin before he hung up his boots. I was delighted. There are other players that leave but you always have a sneaky suspicion they will be back again someday (Gareth Ainsworth). Then there are the ones you will on to do well. I’ve seen Kevin Kilbane play for Ireland and Sean St Ledger play for Orlando. I didn’t want them to fail after leaving north end. I wanted them to do well. They are Preston and so am I.
Surely, dear players, you would like to be remembered fondly? And besides, your agent is doing you a disservice if they aren’t telling you to build up your personal brand and social following because you’ll need it come retirement. That’s another story for another day. But trust me when I say that in 10 years time you are going to need that audience. It’s what we do over at Socially Famous PR. That’s the company I own, just for the record. And that is also a shameless plug, because if you don’t want to engage yourself on social media or even operate your own accounts, then outsource it to professionals that do it all day every day for people just like you. Call me!
Well, I’ve ranted on for long enough now. I hope you can see that some changes are needed. These aren’t costly or dramatic changes. I also don’t think that cheaper ticket prices are the overall answer. Yes, the club is a business. It has staff to pay and be able to afford to switch the lights on. The occasional offer wouldn’t go a miss but it’s not a long-term fix.
When I lived over in Ireland and some of my friends there were season ticket holders for Celtic. They made the trip over every home game. Can you imagine the cost of doing that? But they found the money. None of them had amazing jobs that afforded them that luxury and the cost of living in Dublin was sky high. But they did it. Because they felt part of something. The supporters club was like one big family. The trips they had were epic. Memories that last forever.
Mr Ridsdale, you aren’t just running a football club. This football club is the centre of something that is a huge part of thousands of people lives. As the man in charge, the choices you make about how the fans are treated affects the lifelong memories those people will have. Please don’t take my sunshine away.
My Offer To You
I put this to you Mr Ridsdale. I will come and talk to you about your marketing and what you can be doing with your social media instead of wasting money on adverts in the LEP. I won’t even charge you the initial consultation fee. I will even conduct a training session with the playing staff about being more engaging on social media and things they can do as individuals to improve their personal brand. Be thankful, I never work for free. But that is how much I believe this club can change and make things better for everyone.
Be bold. Be brave. Don’t let this club become boring and vanilla. Make it something that kids want to be involved in. Doing training sessions in schools is only going to attract a tiny number. I wasn’t a sporty kid in school. I would have avoided the training session. But 35 years on and I’m still here. Granted I don’t have a season ticket anymore but life and work get in the way sometimes. But actually now I come to think of it, why has nobody contacted me to entice me back over to the dark side of having a season ticket? See what I mean. Who are you marketing to?
I don’t want my beloved North End to end up like Blackpool or Blackburn Rovers with the fans turning against the club because they feel ignored. That’s not what football is about. Take my offer up. I’ll even bring the biscuits.
If you too are a North End fan and agree with what I’ve said then please like and share this post. Let’s make sure it’s seen and acted upon by the right people.
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