Socialising your business the Man City way, not the Tesco way

Socialising your business is something that came up following an enquiry from a student about football clubs and how they communicate using social media. Would social media improve or has it improved the way that they relate to fans (and I would add, community and other stakeholders such as local business, schools, universities and other institutions)?

I’ve done a little bit of reading about it, and about the only other people talking about the concept (on the web at least) appears to be Quadriga Consulting (never heard of them til today). They have some interesting resources on this via their website, but it’s all a bit too market-y for me, and so I wanted to just muse a bit about what the effect of socialising your business, besides the potential to shift more units, can be.

The first thing I would say is that ‘socialising your business’ should not be just some mad dash to chat on twitter, or create a vibrant facebook page where everyone gets terribly excited about your new brand of lager. Of course, if you sell lager – or books; I like books – then that’s a perfectly decent way to try to sell more. But I don’t call it ‘socialising’; I call that sales. Very good sales.

Behind it all should be a drive to try to create ‘authenticity’ in the company or organisation; that wooly concept in PR that seems to be de-rigeur at the moment. And football is a perfect place see that kind of thing in action. Or not.

Though a very different type of football club to the ones I normally work with, Manchester City has undergone a transformation in the way it operates. And it’s been a perfect laboratory for the idea of socialising the business, given what most fans had to endure under Peter Swales, Franny Lee and others.

It’s something I read about in Dave Conn’s latest tome (one of the finest journalists that we’ve produced in many, many years in this country). The new, oil rich owners from Abu Dhabi came in, spent a whole wadge of cash on signing Robinhio, and then dashed the cynics’ hopes by actually looking at the business and trying to work out what it should do; and how it should relate to its customer base and stakeholders.

And before you say it, I’m just employing short-hand; part of the point is that they had to better consider the fans as guardians of the authenticity of any football club, not just customers. Anyway, they duly did, and whoever it was, at the front-end CEO Gary Cook clearly acted like he understood something about the notion of ‘socialising the business’ because they didn’t just start employing a load of fancy social media tools and doing behind-the-scenes filming etc with a hope that it would divert the attention of people from a load of things they didn’t like.

They introduced a lot of interactivity and conversation and built online relationships with the supporters, as well as developing relationships with their other stakeholders, alongside the fan-zones, alongside bringing the ticket-office into the warm, and other substantial, tangible, authentic improvements. They seemed to actually understand that what they were going into required not just a load of cash thrown at new signings (though that plenty of that was and is in evidence), but actually in building the business into something that meant that when you told the story, people believed you.

Beyond the idea of PR as ‘spin’ and towards the idea that you have a reputation, which must be carefully managed, but which crucially, must be real; not just a brand with some values attached to it. And fans will understand this better than almost anyone; we’ve all seen the messiah on a few occassions, I’ll have you know.

Setting aside my obvious disagreement with the business model, the sort of thing that Man City has done is in my opinion the route not just for football clubs, but for companies that got stodgy over a twenty-odd year period. Something which banks have almost perfectly exemplified, but also companies like Tesco who got obsessed with big being best, and forgot that ‘Retail is detail’; that their customer actually matters more than how much data you can get from their clubcard use. It takes you back to the whole idea of what you’re there to do, and then gives you the opportunity for a bit of rebirth, a bit of a new start.

To do that at a football club is a bit different to a bank or a supermarket though; captive market and all that (a major part of the reason that I believe football clubs aren’t quicker off the mark), and though I think that most people don’t want to talk to you on twitter about how cheap your beans are, socialising your business is at heart about being authentic. It’s about opening you up; if you don’t, there’s plenty of people who’ll find out anyway, and the results might not be to your liking.

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