Grimsby Town’s social media activity suddenly came to life last season. A Facebook account currently has over 2,500 ‘likes’ and a Twitter account is followed by more than 2,500 people. So why the sudden flourish?
Back in October 2011, the Mariners were languishing in the lower reaches of the Conference table following a disappointing and frustrating start to the season. “The fans weren’t coming to us,” admits the club’s chief executive, Ian Fleming. “The poor form on the pitch was obviously having an adverse effect on our attendances. We knew the fans were online – on message boards, Facebook, Twitter and the like – so we decided to review our social media presence to see if we could reach out to them that way.”
Public Relations (PR) is a topic often spoken about wistfully by Grimsby’s supporters. The broad definition of PR has been distorted in recent times, like a subject of Chinese whispers, to mean ‘spin’, accentuating the positive and hiding the negative. In fact, there’s nothing sinister behind PR if done properly and professionally. It pretty much boils down to relating to your “publics”, whoever they may be, by providing them with relevant information to enable them to make up their own minds on a particular topic. PR is a long, studious and strategic job that achieves very little in the short term. But, done properly, the long-term gains far outweigh time and resources invested as stakeholders come to trust a brand inplicitly.
PR requires an understanding of the target audience, clear objectives that can be measured, an integrated strategy and – most importantly – time. It pays to be patient because a reputation of honesty, integrity and trustworthiness isn’t earned overnight. While there’s clearly more work to do (it never stops, by the way), an interactive social media presence, in the case of GTFC, is one sure way of taking a big stride towards communicating more effectively with the fans and earning their trust.
“It was part of our efforts to become more personal than corporate,” adds Mr Fleming. “We wanted to abolish the perception that the club is over here and the fans are over there. Of course we wanted to bring them closer to us, but we understood that it was more about meeting in the middle.”
In order for it to work – and to avoid creating another stream of information where fans would be left feeling unfulfilled from a lack of interaction – the social media campaign had to be one that could relate to the fans. The secret to its success might just be that it’s a Grimsby Town fan at the heart of the operation.
Mr Fleming said: “The opportunity arose for someone to come in and look after the social media platforms as part of a wider commercial role. It was a case of letting them handle the online communication and drive it forward. Although it wasn’t necessary for them to be a fan, it obviously has its advantages.”
The digital-savvy Town fan, in his mid-20s, spent time at Leeds Metropolitan University studying Media and Popular Culture before taking up the role. His studies taught him the theories behind social interaction – particularly relevant when you’re trying to reach out to thousands of Town fans dotted around the world and bring them closer to the club.
“We took him on and we’ve simply let him loose on social media,” Mr Fleming adds. “Getting closer to the fans and making them feel even more involved is one of the most important things a club of our size can do.
“I would say that the level of service we offer through social media is already comparable to that of League 1 or even some Championship clubs. We’ve got big plans for our online communications. Ultimately we’re looking to achieve 10,000 Facebook ‘likes’ and have 5,000 followers on Twitter. It is early days but we’re delighted with how it’s progressing.”
Town’s new social media guru prefers to remain anonymous. “It’s not about me,” he says. “It’s the club that’s engaging with the fans. If it was about me I’d have my own account and do it that way. This is about the club, the fans and the players; bringing them all together in an online community, of which they feel a very real part.
“The football club belongs to the town – it’s the one thing all Grimsby fans have in common. It connects us all. The players and staff may have changed through the years but it’s still Grimsby Town – the same Grimsby Town that reached the FA Cup semi finals twice in the 1930s and played in the top division in the 1940s.”
One of the key ways the club will increase its number of followers is by engagement and interaction. In an age where advertising value equivalency (AVE) has been widely discredited by the PR industry as a measurement tool, the emphasis has shifted onto engagement in order to promote brand awareness and improve reputation, transparency and communication. People are no longer willing to be a part of a ‘receive-only’ audience.
“That’s why message boards kicked off, because, at the time, there was no other way for the fans to have their voices heard,” continues GTFC’s social media account manager. “Fans want to feel involved at all times, not just for the 90 minutes when the team plays. When they get home from work they want to feel involved and know what’s going on, and maybe they want to voice their opinion too. We should be facilitating that because it’s all about participation.
“We don’t want to just ‘hang’ information out there – that’s what the website is for. The website is an information resource whereas social media is interactive. We use Twitter and Facebook to signpost fans to the website when there’s news, but the accounts are also used to talk to the fans. Re-tweeting messages and prompting conversations opens debate, which is healthy because we want people to be talking about the club. If it increases our online presence then we will reach more people, and that can only be healthy for Grimsby Town Football Club.
“You only have to look at how the ‘Elding facts’ hash tag exploded last season. At its very peak, it was in the top 12 most talked about topics on Twitter. So many fans joined the conversation by using the hash tag and we were re-tweeting and replying to the tweets to stimulate the conversation. We enjoyed it as much as the fans did.”
The club currently uses its Facebook account to share old photos and present ‘cult heroes’. “We’ve found that there’s a particularly strong response when we list someone as a ‘cult hero’,” he adds. “We know that they’re controversial. Not everyone will agree – which is the whole point. We want the fans to have that debate. They can agree with each other, or disagree, or whatever. It’s fine. If fans are talking, they’re engaging. Sometimes it’s about prompting conversations and then standing back.”
Measuring and evaluating online engagement is a tricky business. For Grimsby Town, the objective is not about product sales but about interaction, sentiment and satisfaction. Measuring such intangible outcomes is tricky, and it’s a discussion the industry is still having. The club, however, isn’t short of metrics to monitor online conversations, which provide an observation platform from which they can learn what Town fans are talking about.
Grimsby Town’s future social media plans include a LinkedIn profile and possibly a GTFC app.
Mr Fleming adds: “If it’s happening then we’ll be there. Everyone at the club is working hard to improve the relationship with the fans. We see the interaction between fans and players on Twitter and it’s something we’re proud of. Not all clubs have or even allow that to happen.
“First and foremost we’re a community club and always will be. The fans are at the heart of everything we do and they should always feel a part of this club. We hope that, through social media, we can increase that level of belonging and ultimately bring more people through the turnstiles on match days.”