British football has never been more popular around the world and, with more and more clubs opting to create international social media profiles, the Barclays Premier League (BPL) is accelerating its global fanbase faster than ever before.
For clubs who do decide to engage with their fans in foreign markets, there is a lot to be gained from merchandise sales to sponsorship deals, but also a lot to consider, as international fans differ from their UK counterparts in many ways beyond the languages they speak.
Understanding the motivation and behaviours of global fans in different markets is key to how clubs engage with, and ultimately grow these international audiences.
International fan motivation
International fans are often based thousands of miles away from the home ground of the teams they support and their loyalties are not based on local allegiance or inherited devotion passed down from parents. In fact in many cases these fans never have, and many never will, get to experience watching their team play live.
In some instances, they don’t even have ready access to match broadcasts on local TV so the internet, and specifically social media, is a primary channel through which they follow and connect with their chosen club.
Multiple fanbases, multiple fan identities
For clubs, setting up social media accounts in a new market simply sending out translated versions of UK posts isn’t really an option. With international fans so far away from the action, creating a sense of community and nurturing engagement on a local level is vital for sustained success.
For many communities, defining a distinct fan identity is extremely important. Self-styled groups such as Manchester United’s Red Army Fan Club in Thailand not only create a collective name for themselves but often adopt personalised logos and communicate using community-specific hashtags and terminology to reinforce their comradery.
These fans, use social media as not just a platform for football-based conversation with other local users, but the home of distinct sub-communities they have created in their own right.
While Thai fans enjoy carving out their own distinct personality, not all international followers feel the same.
In India for example, fans prefer receiving updates from BPL clubs in English over Hindi or other regional dialects because it makes them feel closer to what’s happening and makes for a more authentic experience.
As opposed to other sports with more broad appeal in India, such as cricket, football enthusiasts tend to be educated and speak English; so at worst some fans complain of feeling patronised if a British club broadcasts updates in Hindi.
Star sports for example, one of India’s largest sports media companies, faced criticism from BPL fans over Hindi commentary of matches on its Twitter feed. The moral of the story? To avoid alienating the audience conduct thorough research into how fans from each region actually prefer to engage with the BPL on social media – never assume!
One platform does not fit all
Just as messaging can’t successfully be translated and used interchangeably from one region to another, the social platforms which people use to follow and talk about football go far beyond Facebook and Twitter.
Predictably Sina Weibo in China has a large and active football community with 15.6 million followers collectively following the top 14 European club profiles but there are many more forums, apps and social media platforms which are used by BPL football fans around the world. In Indonesia for example, Path, a sharing, messaging and photo-based social network is hugely popular amongst local fans who use it to get updates and discuss match results with friends using their accounts.
Keeping their attention
One of the unique challenges facing BPL clubs hoping to grow a dedicated international social fan base is that not all global fans will be as loyal as those from the UK.
Fans in Malaysia for example will often follow more than one team and change their allegiances depending on which clubs are popular amongst their friends and influencers or performing well in the league.
Although this isn’t the case universally it highlights the importance for clubs to produce localised and engaging content that will keep their international audiences captivated. To do this effectively, researching and understanding each unique fan audience, and creating tailored content to suit what their interests, preferences and tolerances are is the best way to keep followers engaged and invested.
Chloe McKenna is a social media strategist at Oban Digital