The Online Rule

Soon this blog will be no more. Don’t worry I’ve not given up, I’m just focusing my attention elsewhere.

For a long time I’ve wanted to revamp this site, move it away from and make more of a go of it however events have conspired to make updating this blog on a regular basis rather difficult. As a result it made no sense to me to pay for hosting, a domain name etc. when I could do everything I wanted and needed to do right here for nothing.

Last week, after a conversation with a good friend of mine who also has an interest in #digisport, we decided to bite the bullet and set something up together. is the result.

The Online Rule will focus on the same topics I’ve covered here but there’ll be more content more often. It might even be of a higher standard too. After all they do say two heads are better than one.

The site is live now and content is being added as I type, so make sure you check it out. Oh, and if you want to contribute don’t be shy. We’re on the hunt for people who can write, have an interest in comms and/or sport and can lighten the load a bit.


Head to head – Is content creation creating competition between clubs and the press?

After recent events at Newcastle United, Nottingham Forest and Port Vale you could be forgiven for thinking football clubs have lost the plot.

For a long time clubs and their local newspapers have been locked in a mutually beneficial if not always entirely comfortable relationship. The very definition of you scratch my back, I scratch yours.

However nowadays orders are being handed down from the boardroom to ban journalists for perceived indiscretions, no matter how minor, on an alarmingly regular basis. It’s easy to ascribe these decisions to touchy owners but could there be something beyond that which is straining the relationship between the two parties?

Nottingham Forest City Ground

Forest have limited the access that the media have to the club this season

While reports of the death of local media have been exaggerated it’s no secret that the landscape is changing. Budgets are being cut and newsrooms are shrinking. Compare that with football, where every new TV deal pumps yet more money into the game. The big sides have never been richer and they’re branching out. They’re creating content.

The club website is no longer just a portal for the latest injury news and match reports. Money is being invested in media teams. The ease at which video and audio can be produced has resulted in clubs launching their own online TV channels, streaming live commentary and producing their own apps to bring fans closer to the game.

Clubs are no longer reliant on traditional media channels to connect with supporters. Clubs can not only tell stakeholders what is going on but they can exert more control over their messages by cutting out the middle man.

Reacting to criticism about Nottingham Forest’s decision to limit the amount of access the local press has to the club, Media and Communications Manager Ben White said: “We have a media team of our own who are fully focused on keeping fans updated.” In other words, we don’t need the local press because we’re quite capable of telling the fans what’s happening ourselves.

I ask again, are these bans simply about punishing unruly hacks or are they about something more? Are they about competition?

If clubs turn content creators where does that leave the press?

The moment that clubs begin to produce their own content they come into conflict with the local press. They’re competing for readers and, more importantly, revenue. Traditional media outlets can draw supporters away from visiting official channels, thus depriving clubs of the opportunity to monetise these followers with cannily placed adverts for match tickets or the latest replica shirt. It’s no surprise that some owners feel charging journalists for access is the way forward.

In reality this battle is nothing new. Teams have long had designs on breaking into traditional media. The matchday programme is ever-present outside stadiums across the country, many clubs have attempted to produce their own magazines with varying degrees of success and some even have their own satellite TV channels  that cater for the most ardent fans.

None of these types of media are as pervasive, affordable or accessible as the internet and at no point in the past have regional media outlets been so vulnerable.

This is an opportunity that clubs will have to seize upon but as they turn content creators where does that leave the local football hack they’ve shown so much contempt for?

Banning journalists – what does it achieve?

This past weekend has brought news of football journalists finding themselves barred from doing their job.


For doing their job.

On Sunday after Newcastle’s defeat to Sunderland journalists from three local newspapers were stopped from asking questions of manager Alan Pardew.

The ban came about after coverage of a protest march in the Journal, the Chronicle and the Sunday Sun.

Coverage of Time 4 Change resulted in three local papers getting banned

This is nothing new. Sir Alex Ferguson dished out a number of bans to journalists and blanked the BBC for seven years, however more and more clubs are now seeking to strong-arm the press into censoring their own coverage.

The proliferation of this particular type of press control suggests that clubs must be reaping the rewards for hammering journalists whenever they step out of line, but is that really the case?

Newcastle United have previously banned the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph for their reporting. Neither newspaper has suffered or changed tact. The club and those in charge are still criticised when bad decisions are made.

Local newspapers have more pages to fill and as a result more to lose, however Newcastle United is not a particularly accessible football club even when you’re in their good books. Now the club have slammed the door in the face of NCJ Media they’ve given them free reign to go to town on them.

If they thought the coverage of the march was disproportionate they’re in for a shock.

So if banning journalists doesn’t work why go down the route of the playground bully.

Simple. They don’t know any better.

This is not an idea formulated by anyone in the club’s press office, or anyone with the most basic understanding of media relations for that matter. Wendy Taylor’s name may be on the bottom of the polemic fired out to the three publications in question, but I’d speculate that was the sum total of her involvement. Football clubs are autocratic institutions. Whatever the person at the top says goes.

In banning the local press Mike Ashley isn’t just showing a contempt for journalism but contempt for the club’s media team and demonstrating why once again Newcastle United are a living advert for employing someone with public relations expertise at a boardroom level.

Not that he’d listen to them.

Right Behind Gay Footballers gets fans talking

When Paddy Power’s marketing team attack any subject controversy is never too far away. The announcement that they’d teamed up with leading gay rights charity Stonewall for an anti-homophobia campaign was no different.

According to Paddy Power’s website Right Behind Gay Footballers is “designed to kickstart a fundamental change in attitude” within the game. Players from all 134 professional teams in the United Kingdom have been challenged to show their support for gay footballers by wearing specially supplied rainbow laces during this weekend’s fixtures.

Unsurprisingly much of the consternation lies in the name, with the bookmaker accused of trivialising homophobia by adopting such a crude slogan.

Paddy Power Right Behind Gay Footballers

So, have Paddy Power backed a winner or have they spectacularly misjudged the mood?

The choice of name is a deliberately provocative one but it works. It’s in line with Paddy Power’s fun, fair and friendly brand values while adding to the mischief-maker persona the organisation has worked so hard to cultivate. Rather than adopt a more tactful approach, which may turn their core audiences off, they’ve stuck to using the language they know garners a response.

And guess what? The audience has responded. Since the campaign hit the headlines on Sunday there have been over 24,000 mentions of #RBGF on Twitter, a figure you can expect to increase several times over as supporters play spot the rainbow laces this coming weekend.

As well as the backing of Stonewall, garnering the support of stars like Joey Barton and David Meyler (along with a host of other celebrities) very early on has also given a credibility to RBGF that would’ve been sorely lacking had Paddy Power launched it without any name players associated. Faces lend a legitimacy to the campaign.

The debate about the appropriateness of the slogan will continue, however I get the feeling the success of this campaign is already assured.

30 per cent of Premier League followers are fake

Is popularity the best measure of success? Maybe in some cases, but in the world of social media it’s fraught with problems.

Following on from my last blog, I decided to look at the follower numbers of Premier League clubs in a bit more detail. Is this particular vanity metric everything it seems?

Fake followers are an increasing problem. The black market for them is worth an estimated $360 million a year. Unsurprisingly websites have began to spring up to help users monitor their own dodgy fans.


Fake followers are big business

With the help of, and because I had nothing better to do with my Monday night, I set about finding out the percentage of fake followers each club has. It is worth pointing out that the clubs in question probably haven’t acquired these followers in an underhand way, but have been targeted by bots because of their popularity.

The results are as follows:

Followers Fake Inactive Active
Arsenal 2,672,000 43% 32% 25%
Aston Villa 203,000 31% 35% 34%
Cardiff City 65,000 17% 35% 48%
Chelsea 2,676,000 37% 30% 33%
Crystal Palace 57,000 18% 40% 42%
Everton 242,000 30% 38% 32%
Fulham 163,000 32% 42% 26%
Hull City 50,000 20% 40% 40%
Liverpool 1,941,000 31% 31% 38%
Manchester City 1,151,000 38% 33% 29%
Manchester Utd 872,000 30% 27% 43%
Newcastle United 284,000 32% 39% 29%
Norwich City 142,000 28% 42% 30%
Southampton 141,000 29% 39% 32%
Stoke City 135,000 30% 42% 28%
Sunderland 162,000 34% 44% 22%
Swansea City 154,000 26% 38% 36%
Tottenham 630,000 31% 37% 32%
West Bromwich Albion 96,000 27% 41% 32%
West Ham United 212,000 29% 40% 31%

It’s pretty apparent fake followers are a problem for all clubs to some degree. On average clubs have 602,400 followers, 30 per cent of which are duff.

Is this a big problem for clubs? Fake followers do nothing for credibility, however football teams are in a privileged position compared to other brands. The damage probably isn’t as severe for those as it is others, however it has repercussions on engagement particularly when tallied with the number of dead accounts. Take Arsenal, who can boast over 2,672,000 followers, but only 25 per cent of those are active. Only 668,000 people are getting the message.

And, of course, this exercise just further highlights the folly of putting so much stock in this sort of metric. Followers mean little if your content isn’t engaging, but they mean even less if a third of them don’t exist either.

How do you measure the quality of a club’s social media output?

Last night I stumbled into a Twitter conversation involving Sean Walsh, Steven Cole, Daniel Maurin and Tom Chaplin, the genesis of which was this blog post by Social Pundit. The topic was a familiar one – how can you accurately measure the quality of a football club’s social media output?

I say familiar because this is a question I’ve seen asked, been asked and asked myself more times than I care to remember. And I’m still struggling to find a satisfactory answer.

Measurement is the next hurdle those involved in digital communications will need to get over and because there is no standard to compare against it’s proving to be tough. However the privileged position of football clubs mean it could be even more difficult to get an idea of how they’re doing online.

celebrating football fans

The Social Pundit blog post was a stats gathering exercise, not an attempt to evaluate a club’s use of Twitter and Facebook, however there is still a lot of stock put in vanity metrics. Using the number of followers accrued as a guide for quality of output is foolish at the best of times, however football clubs are not your typical brands. Fans will always follow their team, even if the content they share isn’t particularly engaging. They’re brand evangelists.  Newcastle United command over half a million followers on Twitter and Facebook despite the fact their social media strategy is derided by supporters.

Could services that claim to measure influence, such as Klout and PeerIndex, help grade the quality of what clubs post online? Not really, at least not in my experience (says the man who produces a Social Media Premier League table based on the results provided by the aforementioned websites). All these services can do is give you a vague idea of how the land lies, but they’re unable to make a call on the quality of content. Only we, the users, can make the judgement on whether what is being shared is truly engaging.

I’ve previously tried to survey supporters and gather their views on their club’s use of social media. While this method allows you to get feedback directly from the stakeholders with which the club is attempting to engage it is still problematic. Issues with social media strategies can become magnified if things aren’t going right on the pitch (for example, I once had a respondent say their biggest gripe with their club’s social media output was lack of signings!) and conversely many supporters can become defensive if they feel their club is being harshly scrutinised.

Many clubs will have their own criteria by which they evaluate their social media use, such as ROI. Making a business case for social media is important, but are they going far enough in trying to understand what they’re are doing well and what they aren’t? Until there is some sound evaluation methodology in place you’d have to assume many clubs aren’t.

Louis Saha announces his retirement on Twitter

Is this another Twitter first? We’ve had signings, we’ve had new contracts and today we’ve seen a professional player announce his retirement after a series of tweets from the ex-Man United and Fulham striker Louis Saha.

The French striker, who was without a club after being released by Lazio, clearly thought his fans deserved to hear the news first. He forwent the usual method of informing the media and decided instead to broadcast directly to his 350,000 followers.

Top 5 close season Twitter campaigns

Missing the beautiful game? Sick of preseason? Don’t worry, the lads and lasses on Twitter have you covered.

The football may have stopped, but community managers are still working hard to ensure that fans are as engaged as they possibly can be during the off-season.

Here are five of the best:

Football fans are romantics. They’re suckers for history and love reading about past glories, which means Fulham’s 50 Moments series is a winner. The club have used a combination of their website and social media to bring the history of the club to life.

The staggered nature of the series keeps fans visiting the website regularly at a time when football news may be at a minimum, but details of preseason games are being finalised, kits launched and commercial deals announced.

Everton fan cup

Everton have challenged fans to show their love for the Toffees by sending the club photos of them flying their colours. The best 32 will then go head to head with supporters voting on the winner.

Fans are encouraged to engage on two levels – as competitors and as voters. Those fans who make it to the last 32 are expected to try and drum up support for their entry too, helping spread the message about the Fan Cup and creating a bit of friendly competition.

  • #LFCPubQuiz

Liverpool’s social media efforts have been one of the best in the league for quite some time, mixing innovative ways of engaging supporters with genuinely interesting content. The #LFCPubQuiz is no different.

As you might have guessed from the hashtag, fans are asked to answer a series of questions with the individual who gets the most right winning a prize. The real joy comes from the difficulty of the questions, which seek to reward supporters who really know their onions.

Simple, but effective.

  • Favourite player from previous Premier League seasons 

Crystal Palace went back in time in an effort to find a way to build even more excitement after their promotion to the top flight.

They asked their Twitter followers to pick out their favourite player from previous Premier League campaigns, selecting the most frequently mentioned and posting some classic photos to those individuals to their Twitter feed.

That’s one way to get the blood pumping for the new season.

Arsenal Hadouken

When clubs try to hijack to meme it usually looks contrived and doesn’t really work (those Harlem Shake videos, anyone?), but #ArsenalHadouken bucked that trend by encouraging fans to turn the camera on themselves.

After the club did their own photoshoot fans were told they could win a signed shirt if they did their own. The results were mixed but it gave supporters the chance to get creative and meant that there was a steady stream of interesting content floating around online at a time when most discussion among fans is limited to tedious transfer chatter.

Have I missed any other interesting time killers from football clubs this summer? Let me know.

Director of Football? Newcastle need a Director of Communications

So that’s that then. Joe Kinnear is Newcastle United’s new Director of Football and the word ‘crisis’ is yet again being chucked around to describe another episode of high farce that has unfolded on Tyneside. A fair assessment?

I’d say so. Not only is it a crisis, but it’s one completely of Newcastle United’s own making. Employing the unemployable is bad enough, and I’m sure there’ll be chapter and verse written on that subject by people far more qualified to comment than I, but the sound of silence has inflamed a delicate situation.

Nature abhors a vacuum. A statement should’ve been forthcoming the moment Joe Kinnear decided to go on national TV to talk about his new role. Instead the fans and press were left to pick over every line of the interview.

joe kinnear newcastle united

A carefully worded statement wouldn’t have solved all the club’s woes. They would’ve still been in full damage limitation mode. Kinnear isn’t the most polished interviewee the world of football has ever seen, nor does he care much for facts. His record at press conferences during his first stint at Newcastle United should’ve served as fair warning and it should’ve been made clear to him that he wasn’t to talk to the press a) until the club announced the appointment and b) he was then only to do so through official channels/with the express consent of the club. Considering Joe did neither we can only assume these instructions were not conveyed.

By late Monday evening, after Kinnear’s second baffling interview with a national media outlet it was apparent the club had lost complete control not over only the message, but the man who cannot be relied to stay on-message! There was little the club could do to placate supporters or pretend this hadn’t been anything other than an unmitigated disaster. On Tuesday lunchtime, almost 48 hours after Kinnear’s first interview, a short statement was released confirming the appointment. As far as denouements go it wasn’t a particularly satisfying one for Newcastle United’s support.

joe kinnear swearing

A press officer’s nightmare

It must be said that I do not believe any fault lies with the club’s media team for this disaster. None at all. It’s apparent they were hamstrung, I assume by the hierarchical structure in which they’re expected to work, and simply unable to say anything until they’d had word from on high. Considering the deal was apparently done on Sunday afternoon such a delay suggests to me a lack of understanding of the role of public relations from those in charge.

If clubs can learn anything from this sorry saga it’s that they desperately need PR knowledge and representation at boardroom level. At no point over the past few days has any one of the decision makers stopped to think how this would be received by the fans, how to announce this decision or even whether letting their own employee loose on the media would cause further woe. The individuals who had the expertise to at least attempt to deal with this situation, the employees who had began to build bridges with fans that have since had petrol and a lit match chucked on them, were left in the dark.

Director of Football? How about a Director of Communications?

The Social Media Premier League – final standings 2012/13

 peerindex-logo  klout-flag-square-2 TOTAL
1 Arsenal 88 94 91
2 Liverpool 86 94 90
3 Manchester City 85 95 90
4 Chelsea 84 93 88.5
5 Tottenham Hotspur 85 91 88
6 Aston Villa 81 90 85.5
7 Everton 80 91 85.5
8 Sunderland 81 89 85
9 Newcastle United 79 90 84.5
10 Norwich City 81 88 84.5
11 Swansea City 81 88 84.5
12 West Ham United 80 89 84.5
13 Fulham 78 89 83.5
14 West Bromwich Albion 76 89 82.5
15 Queens Park Rangers 75 89 82
16 Stoke City 66 89 77.5
17 Southampton 61 92 76.5
18 Reading 55 88 71.5
19 Wigan Athletic 55 88 71.5