Aston Villa FC is looking to up its content game and take advantage of the commercial opportunities of establishing itself as a publisher in its own right.
To lead the charge club hired former producer for Discovery and the BBC, Will Radford, in April 2016 as head of media and content. Prior to joining, Radford spent nearly a decade at Red Bull Media House during its meteoric rise from drinks maker to a media powerhouse. His plans for Aston Villa’s output are just as ambitious.
“It’s about trying to upgrade everything,” he says. “Villa had become very stale and old school in its approach of just looking after owned channels and not talking to new audiences, where people were having conversations about football.”
Villa’s path to becoming a respected publisher is following much the same route as clubs that have gone before it. Though it runs news, features and short videos on its website, it’s been flexing its content-creating abilities on social media, aiming for an output that will “expand reach to go viral more often,” Radford says, especially around key moments in the sporting calendar like transfer deadlines but more frequently on wider issues in the news cycle.
“We've tried to pick up more of what's going on in culture and media to become more of an entertainment brand rather than just a sports brand," he adds.
Facebook, where 2.5 million fans follow it, had been at the heart of this strategy. But Radford explains that in the last six months that's tailed off as a direct result of the platform’s algorithm changes. Facebook has devalued live content - which Aston Villa was heavily investing in – unless ad spend was put behind it. “We've rejigged that and gone heavily on to YouTube and Instagram [instead],” he continues.
Instagram is where it’s seeing the most substantial growth and is also proving to be the most effective, with posts generally getting the highest levels of engagement compared to other channels. It’s now fully “embraced” IGTV, the YouTube-rivalling video tool, and is putting more exclusive content there, such as pre and post-match interviews with players as well as fan ‘vlogs’.
“The numbers are smaller, but the engagement is really strong. We’re trying to serve that with native content now. It's working really well on match days - so things that we might have previously used on Facebook Live we've switched to IGTV and are getting a good response.”
Villa’s growing in-house team are responsible for the vast majority of its content output but it does work with a third-party on more challenging projects. Until recently that was a production firm called Sunset+Vine. It then switched the contract to Unilad, which Radford said would offer “something original and unique”. It was starting to see the first edits of some filming it had done with the viral publisher before it was announced that it had gone into administration.
What the future of that partnership might hold is unclear. But Radford, who was speaking to The Drum before news that Unilad had gone into administration was revealed, was looking for a partner capable of kicking its content production up a notch.
“The logic is clearly to find content that works with both audiences, has a high level of production and a very authentic tone of voice that we need for the audience and ultimately find work that will resonate on both our Villa 'media' channel as well as theirs,” he said.
“It's really exciting for us to be having those conversations with one of the biggest social platforms, rather than all the pressure being on us to come up with new formats in-house.”
With content quality and quantity on the up, Radford has also come to the conclusion - like many traditional publishers - that it's unsustainable to have social platforms sit at the heart of a content strategy. Instead, it wants the long-overlooked Villa website to be what everything else pivots around. As such, it's tapped tech agency Great State to manage a complete overhaul over the coming months.
“The website is still one of our biggest channels in terms of monthly traffic. We see around half a million unique visitors every month. It's a significant, engaged and different audience to that of the fans on social channels,” he continues. “I want that website to become much more of a media hub, so that it showcases more of what we're doing elsewhere, with more integrations.”
The first objective for Great State is to develop a ‘single sign on’, a project that will integrate all of Villa's different channels, including social media, its live-streaming platform, the Aston Villa app and rewards programme, through one log-in function. It will make it easier for fans to move between channels, but it's also a major data play for Villa.
“AVTV used to be a paywall service. But we dropped the paywall to bring more people in and show more people what we're doing as a club and put the content out to a wider audience," Radford says. "Obviously there has to be some kind of value exchange and for us and that's data. Single sign on becomes the way to gather data from every touchpoint and bring it in into the CRM”
Villa's not just after this data to better understand its own fanbase. Similar to the increasing number of metrics that a traditional publisher needs to hand to advertisers, Radford said club sponsors are demanding better insight on who is viewing what content and for how long.
“Our app has grown substantially - we're up to 50,000 monthly active users now which is fairly heavy for a football club – and here's a core fan base in there that are on it for a couple of hours a day. We want to be able to hand off that engaged audience to our partners. The better, more seamless that becomes, and the better the audience and engagement is the more value we have to hand off to partners,” he said.
“More partners are coming to us with that expectation – it’s a serious part of the [sponsorship] deal and offering. It's not just about a bit of branding on the pitch. It's very much about engagement. They want to know open rates to emails and how many eyeballs we can drive to their content.”
It’s recently started to work with Nielsen to accurately measure and “prove the commercial value of content” across all its channels. It remains early days though, and the first time that Aston Villa has had its social media output measured in this way.
“Previously social media hasn't been part of Nielsen’s reporting suite [for us], we would only consider TV minutes and what sort of placement got the best brand and media value," he explains.
"But now, for the first time, we can see where [social] benchmarks against other channels and whether acting like a publisher and putting more on our owned media can balance out against some of those other opportunities. Is a press conference still bets served with a media partner like Sky or do we put it on YouTube? What created the most media value and how do the channels stack up? That's what we're looking at just now.”
These experiments are coming at a crucial time. Under new ownership (Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens tool a controlling stake in the Club six months ago) and with the recruitment of a new team manager nearing its conclusion, Radford says there's a optimism within its halls that change is on the horizon.
"Coming from the chairman, CEO and now the new ownership we've got the opportunity to do things a little differently. And, being outside of the big Premiership spotlight, we need to do things a little differently."