In recent years, social media platforms have been propelled into the spotlight as unequalled in their ability to allow clubs to maintain a conversation with fans, both local and global, announce news and direct followers towards the club's website.

Twitter, especially, provides a direct link to the club outside of match days. When a team is flourishing, timelines are filled to the brim with fans broadcasting their excitement in real time, triumphs are shared and celebrated, and content from official clubs is readily promoted and engaged with by satisfied supporters.

However, when teams are playing poorly, an active official club account cannot simply fall silent as an individual fan can. Content must used wisely. Furthermore, the already contentious issue of the commercialisation of football can become a point of vitriol when fans feel that they are being directly let down by the team to which they give their support, passion and, crucially, money.

In our experience, the key issues have revolved around ensuring a club’s post volume isn’t significantly reduced following poor results, because this, alongside negative fan sentiment, can hinder an account’s analytical performance when it comes to monthly reporting.

We sat down with our strategy executive Jon Dickson to discuss how clubs can successfully use of social media in the face of a less than successful team performance.

Can a club still attempt to capitalise in terms of money on social media when the club is performing badly?

JD: An engaged fan’s relationship with a club on a consumer level can potentially be fractious if a lack of progress on the pitch causes them to reassess their purchase decisions in that season to date. This can create a challenging environment for using social media to encourage fans to progress through a club’s commercial sales funnel.

For clubs, one of the most carefully tracked B2C purchase decisions is season ticket renewals. The timing and targeting of these messages is crucial, and reaching season ticket holders when fan sentiment is positive towards on-pitch performances can influence retention. Scheduling these messages during periods of poor form is sensitive and can carry risk, because it can have the opposite effect on repeat purchases.

However, periods of poor on-pitch performance can present opportunities for promotional messages, particularly to international audience segments as their buyer behaviour is less results dependent.

Does a club accounts tone of voice need to be adapted in the wake of losses, and should an apologetic approach be adopted?

JD: If possible, clubs should avoid an apologetic approach but stay mindful of the importance of empathy when planning key messages. This can be as straightforward as shortening the complexity of text to avoid upsetting fans when emotions are still running high. Another key adaptation is avoiding the inclusion of open questions in an attempt to stimulate engagement, which can often open the door for frustrated users to rant at their clubs and harness the negativity of other fans.

How should clubs avoid dwelling on losses and maintain a positive tone?

JD: Dedicating messages to lamenting in the wake of a poor performance will often accentuate the frustrations of a club’s audience. You’ll often hear football managers interviewed after games and they’ll talk about how “we must focus on the next game against x team.” Social media content from high reaching football clubs will often echo this sentiment and should focus on key figures (including the manager and players) looking forward rather than back.

How should club social media platforms react when anger from fans is directed at social media accounts?

JD: One of the best strategies a club can adopt is focusing on alternative content themes which take fan’s minds off poor domestic form. Preparing content which is non-result driven in case results don’t go to plan is definitely the best way to quell any angry responses.

Three key short-term fixes include:

  • Nostalgia: If the current first team aren’t playing like legends in the league every week, revert your output to past successes, club legends and historic wins. By dwelling on those unforgettable moments in days gone by, you’re giving fans something else to feel positive about and engage with. Aston Villa Football Club have traditionally done an excellent job of this on Facebook, but having said that, they’re a Wembley-final way from being legendary so you might see a shift in their content very soon. 
  • Fan favourites: Shortlist the key individuals within the squad who are most popular when featured in social media content and wider campaigns. Make them central to your output until negative sentiment fades. Premiership Football Clubsimplement this in expert fashion with the likes of Steven Naismith, who embodies the humbleness every modern footballer should strive for and is perfectly aligned with “the people’s club” nickname.
  • The next generation of supporters: Fan-centric content which prominently features younger supporters of your club can play to the better nature of those with negative or vitriolic intent.

Can negative passion be harnessed in the same way as positive feeling from fans?

JD: It can often be difficult to stimulate high value social interactions from negative fans because when the first team isn’t progressing on the pitch, they’re naturally more focused on their voices and opinions being heard than buying into an online season ticket offer or engaging other commercial campaigns.

The best example of negative sentiment being harnessed in a positive way is when users choose to criticise other fans for their negativity and lack of support for the team, especially during challenging periods of the season.

This often unearths interactions from users who’ll otherwise stay passive. So in a strange way, this element of self-policing will take place in the same way as on non-football related accounts. Negative sentiment can sometimes result in a rallying call for supporters to get behind the team, so the outcome isn’t always doom and gloom.

How could clubs put social media plans in place for possible success/failure of the team?

JD: In our experience, clubs we have been able to work with have an expertly pre-emptive approach to storytelling, so they know exactly how to quickly amend key messages based on the outcome of a fixture.

This combined with an astute approach to page/account performance is also key. One of the most important strategies for planning in content in advance of key fixtures is maintaining a structured, league-wide view of a club’s analytical performance versus competitors. Having access to this data provides our agency with a more KPI-driven approach to social media.