Fan Insights, the publishers of the Fan Engagement Index, has launched the Fan Engagement Network, Fan Engagement Hub and the Fan Engagement Pod.
Go to Fan Insights to find out more!
Fan Engagement Index launched
Top four divisions scored on relationship with their fans
The first Fan Engagement Index for English football has been launched, scoring each of the clubs in the top four-divisions on the relationship with their fans. It places each club in a league table comprising three areas: Dialogue, Governance and Transparency.
At a time when eyes have turned to a number of clubs in financial distress, it also explains just how crucial it is to be far more connected with their most important stakeholder – the fans.
The first Index sees League Two Exeter City win the title overall. Other clubs in the top-ten include Norwich City, Portsmouth and Reading – whilst Fulham, Brentford, Leicester City and Derby County are hovering just outside.
“What the Index has shown is that a club’s ownership or its size doesn’t need to dictate whether it can be good at Fan Engagement. The table shows all sorts of different clubs doing well”, said Kevin Rye, Owner of Fan Insights, who compiled and published the Index.
The Index also aims to demonstrate some of the good practice in the game being done by clubs, centering around ‘The Anatomy of an Engaged Football Club’.
“What we’ve also shown is that despite there being a lot of work to do for clubs to really excel in Fan Engagement, there are also quite a few positives. I’m pleased to be able to also give credit to several Premier League clubs, Tottenham Hotspur, Crystal Palace and Brighton & Hove Albion, for some of the leadership they are demonstrating from the top in this field.”
The Index will be published annually, acting as a spur for improvement and greater sharing of expertise, knowledge and best practice across the game. It also aims to shake up how Fan Engagement is understood and practiced.
You can download a full copy (including a full table) via faninsights.co.uk
I pondered for a while before I decided to write this article, largely because I didn’t want to give ‘Own AFC’ the oxygen of publicity.
But as we’ve learned throughout history, there’s always someone trying to repackage an idea as new and radically different, when we all recognise it as the same, tired concept, with a lick of paint that soon flakes away to reveal the truth beneath.
I know not why the people behind it have come up with it, or whether they’re getting the numbers they want. What I do know is, regardless of how much they might plead that it’s not, this is just a rebranded, repackaged, souped up, new tech version of My Football Club, and if it ever takes off, it’s going to meet the same end. I was there – or close by – before it started, when it started, when it began to tank, and when it finally spluttered and died.
Why will it meet the same end? Because trying to make big decisions concerning a football club are by definition difficult. But to make them when you are one of tens, hundreds or thousands, even more so. So trying to make little, day-to-day decisions, like managing staff, not to mention picking the team, is by extension going to be even more so – if not impossible.
And that’s before The FA start asking questions about ‘sporting integrity.’ How are they going to prove that those exerting such influence over the playing side aren’t betting on the game? When I worked for Supporters Direct, I wasn’t allowed to because of my job – and I didn’t really go near the players.
Then there are those pesky fans. How are they going to feel about such a remote model, where someone’s sat on a train to work, making decisions about their left-back ‘for a bit of a laff’? Or even taking it seriously?
There’s this myth that experiences of poor ownership means that what fans want is some kind of idealised, decentralised, hyper-democratised ownership model, when the truth is they don’t because many – most – are content to allow these sorts of decisions about their club to be contracted out, as long as the people are professional and competent. If that’s hundreds or thousands of members, by definition, unless you’re measuring competence as part of the entry criteria (I doubt it), then you’re going to get plenty of incompetence, and mores the point, disengaged members.
None of this of course means that the democratic ownership model prescribed by my alma mata, the now essentially defunct Supporters Direct, is dead. It isn’t, and it works very well. Where it works well – as with any ownership model – is where there is competence, good governance, effective decision making processes, and a degree of transparency.
Half-baked, copycat ideas of harnessing new technology to engineer some kind of benign, ultra-democratic paradise is a nonsense, and it’s a corruption of a perfectly good and effective form of ownership that has been proven to work well. What next? Club AI, where robots pick the team according to an algorithm? Watch this space.
This rehashing of My Football Club is so blatant and awful a prospect, that it needs to be dispensed with quietly and without dignity. It needs to be buried in an unmarked grave, and never spoken of again.
The last couple of days I’ve been looking at and talking about, campaigns, particularly with some of those who as Liverpool fans organised the amazingly successful #walkouton77 in early 2016. It’s also a fascinating time, as we see the #PeoplesVote campaign emerge from right at the back of the pack, to now being one of the possible outcomes of the chaos surrounding Brexit.
I myself was involved in the pro-European movement in the months following the Brexit vote, stewarding on the first ‘March for Europe’, and then subsequently, working with a number of the early activists trying to organise the grassroots pro-Europeans through local, regional and national groups. Although I stepped away some time before the Peoples Vote campaign took off, I believe that the advice I provided and work I did, helped in some way to make what followed later, possible – the importance of coordination amongst activists and organisations.
All this thinking led me to a Twitterstorm, which I’ve now decided, merits a bit of a lengthier post on here.
The problem with creating and running campaigns from my experience, is keeping people focused on the goal, but not to the point where it becomes the only thing you focus on. Yes, you want change, but that’s not your sole measure – there’s so much work along the way to do.
One of the most important things you need to do is to build the case amongst your supporters (current & potential) for when the issue does become something you can actually act on. That means a lot of meeting people, talking with them, persuading them. Sometimes it’s about getting people to a position where even if they don’t agree with the ultimate aim of your campaign, they sympathise with what you’re seeking to do; kind of reducing the resistance to what you do and say.
Campaigns that fail, miss out on this element, and don’t build strength in their grassroots/key groups like Liverpool fans did, and like the People’s Vote has been doing. In fact to some degree, aside from the investigations and prosecutions the various authors of Vote Leave and associated campaigns are now facing, they did do this with theirs as well: it’s part of the reason they won the vote in 2016. What essentially happens as a result is that the noise begins to rise from ordinary people talking about this issue, and reaches those in a more elevated position: eg: MPs, political/media commentators – or club owners, for example.
Quite a of people when it comes to a successful campaign, will only ever really see something like the actual #walkouton77 itself, or the major achievement of the campaign – lower ticket prices. They won’t know what’s gone on behind the campaign to make it tick. Indeed, when it came to the #walkouton77 some supporters, naively in my view, started talking immediately about a series of national walkouts across the game, as though dominoes would fall.
This fatally misunderstands just how much work has to go into making a campaign work beyond your own organisation – to broaden the appeal. Indeed, many of the campaigns external to Supporters Direct that I saw or was approached to assist, failed – particularly ones about the running of football itself – because of this. Too many thought ‘website, petition, get SD’s ‘blessing’ or backing, launch, job done.’ They didn’t do the basics. Campaigns like #PeoplesVote – or indeed #walkouton77 – don’t just appear from the ether. They take painstaking work.
Another key element isn’t just leadership. You need people with good strategic brains, but also who, crucially, understand how a strategy translates into action. Without action, a strategy is just an academic exercise. A lofty aim with a set of disconnected tactics. A strategy isn’t just a collection of tactics though – doing things, and neither does doing things amount to a strategy. There has to be a direct connection between your aims and objectives, and what you do. The two need to ‘talk’ to each other.
I’ve tried to distil this down into five tips that make a good campaign:
I’m not saying that if you follow all of this you’ll have a successful campaign. What I am saying is that without all of these, you probably won’t have a successful campaign.
Wimbledon Manager Neal Ardley has been struggling of late. Six defeats on the bounce, and it’s etched on his face. The pressure must be immense. I know from conversations I’ve had in the past that he’s the kind of manager who takes a lot on his shoulders, and can be quite tough on himself. He’s an emotional man, that much is clear. But behind all that, and that slight frame of his, is a strength of character that can do remarkable things. But maybe, sometimes, he needs help.
That’s what makes the response last night from AFC Wimbledon to the problems the first team is facing on the pitch so noticeable. It’s ruffled some feathers, and it’s fair to say, some don’t agree. Some say “It’s time for a change”, or that old favourite, “He’s taken us as far as he can”. And they may have a point. Perhaps like politicians, all managerial careers end in failure. But I urge you to read the statement, because it says something important about the position of a manager in a football club and how you should treat them – not just this one, and also about the way in which businesses that have such a complex web of relationships with fans, other stakeholders, and employees, need to make their key decisions. It’s these decisions after all, that help to set the business culture, and that culture is what defines the the business: the virtuous circle.
Just about managing
Football has a bit of problem with managers. There’s a reverence surrounding them that can at times be unhealthy. An expectation that they’re miracle workers, and alongside that, the implication is that they can undertake superhuman feats. That results in managers being hired to work a miracle, when hard graft is what’s needed. When it comes to managers the club, publicly at least, will often only say anything substantive about them when they’re appointed, win a match, progress in a trophy, and then when they’re on the brink – and we all know what happens when the dreaded ‘vote of confidence comes’: one game later and they’re toast. Of course I’m indulging in cliches and shortcuts to make a point, but I think we all recognise a term like ‘hire and fire culture’ and its relationship to football.
There’s a reverence about [managers] that can at times be unhealthy. An expectation that they’re miracle workers….the implication is that they can undertake superhuman feats
Football as a whole can be a tad hypocritical: we’ll gladly buddy up with emotional support or mental health charities that encourage people – often men in particular – to open up, be human. We’ve got the very welcome sight of players like Billy Kee at Accrington Stanley, talking about his fight with depression, about wanting to kill himself, or Martin Ling’s battles with depression, but we still place such intolerable pressure on managers (and players) that we are at risk of dehumanising them in search of results. The whole point of campaigns like that of Mind’s current partnership with the EFL is to engender a change of culture amongst all of us, not just those who don’t play football.
The sack race
I think we have to ask the question: how would we treat any other employee? Someone in your own company who’s going through a tough time? Someone you work with who’s not getting the same results he or she did previously? First of all we don’t walk in and ask them to clear their desks – or at least most of us wouldn’t. In fact, in many cases, employment law means you can’t simply do that without good cause, and that law applies equally to all of us. No. You find out what the problems are, try to address them, support the employee through the process, and hopefully you’ve got a better employee at the end of it. If you haven’t, and things don’t change, then it’s perfectly sensible to usher said employee to the exit.
[We have to] ask the question: how would we treat any other employee?
But I’ll thank you not assume that I want managers to stay in post when they’re so obviously unsuited, or have genuinely and demonstrably come to a natural parting of the ways. That’s not the reason that Wimbledon’s actions are so welcome. Professional football is an elite sport. It can be unforgiving, you need to be strong, and weaknesses on the pitch are punished ruthlessly. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t want to watch it, and it wouldn’t be the game we all love so much. But that doesn’t mean brutalising people, and operating a culture that punishes weaknesses off the pitch, and refuses to provide support to someone when they need it, particularly when doing so could help them come out the other side a better manager.
Counterintuition is sometimes the right business decision
The sort of decision Wimbledon have made is counterintuitive, because goes against the tendencies, the culture and the expectations in the game. But counterintuition isn’t important in and of itself. Sometimes it’s important because it’s actually the right thing to do, and because what might be expected – in this case, firing the manager – is on balance, the wrong thing to do. Sometimes it’s the right business decision.
It’s always worth citing former manager of FC United of Manchester, Karl Marginson, for the counterintuitive approach that I’m talking about. There were plenty of occasions where he could have been removed, where that was the expectation. And I’m sure at times intense discussions were had about whether it was the right or the wrong thing. But behind it all, the board and senior management at the club took the view that part of their role was support and develop the manager, and they did so proactively – to their benefit. Eventually Marginson did leave, evidence that every manager has a shelf-life, but that’s not the point.
What do you know that they don’t?
Of course, lots of people, from football writers to fans on the terrace, will discuss the pros and cons of a manager’s line-up or formation, and have a view on whether or not the manager has or hasn’t been, on balance, a success with the resources he has at his disposal. Those are all opinions, and it’s perfectly valid to argue your point.
However, if you are one of those people who tends towards the more ruthless end of the spectrum, or even the more moderate “I think he’s gone as far as he can”, think for a moment: what do you know that the board doesn’t? Do you have an understanding of managing a large, complex business like this? Have you undertaken line management – particularly in a high-pressure environment with such a massive public profile? Do you know what it takes to identify, appoint and support a manager or coach?
I’ve already mentioned business culture, and it’s worth making this final point, specific to Wimbledon as a club: Football clubs are complex beasts, with multiple voices all struggling to be heard. When your club is also fan/community owned, it’s an extra element that defines you and your actions. For Wimbledon fans it’s a badge worn with pride by almost every fan out there, and something that fans often demand is demonstrated outwardly in the way the club acts in any number of ways or on any number of issues. They often want things done with principles in mind, and to stand for something different. But acting with such distinction means you have to do it across the board, and it should be no different when it comes to how you make decisions on your managerial or coaching appointments. For boards, the need to sustain the culture of the business should weigh heavily on them in their deliberations on everything.
I’m always fond of reaching for the sayings of Brian Lomax at a point like this, but I don’t ever remember Brian saying much about managers. He did say “Players, managers, directors come and go, but the fans are always there”, and that much is true. Managers are there to do a job, and that must always be borne in mind. But knowing Brian, I like to think he would have had a heart when it came to managers as much as any other employee he had responsibility for (and he was a director of Northampton Town after all). I also think he would have recognised that a little bit of counterintuition is sometimes just what’s needed.
I was speaking on Tuesday this week (8th October) as part of my work with Fan Insights to a group of senior Danish Superliga Executives and officials at an event organised by the Fan Experience Company. It’s a pleasure listening to what others have been doing, finding out what works, what doesn’t, and what they find difficult. I’ve been fortunate enough over the years to be able to do this quite a lot – particularly with clubs and groups outside the UK, and I always find it fascinating to hear how they view football in England.
On Tuesday, I was asked the by now standard question: “What is it that English football does so well that we can learn from?” I thought about this for a moment, and responded “Not as much as you think….” Why? As I explained to the group as a whole a bit later on:
It’s this combination that causes English football, collectively speaking (and I’m generalising a little), to think it doesn’t have to try very hard because football will just somehow work, fans ‘will just turn up’ and money simply materialise from nowhere.
It’s not like the struggles of a game in Denmark where clubs in even the top division have to work to ‘sweat the asset’ and attract fans who might only see a club as third or fourth on their list of priorities.
In terms of learning anything new, in England it’s not uncommon to hear the phrase from senior club executives “That wouldn’t work at this club”, when that’s simply nonsense, and is based in a lack of understanding of football itself. And it’s disproved by too many examples to mention – Structured Dialogue spreading through clubs like Fulham, Nottingham Forest and Norwich City being a recent example.
There’s also been a curious idea that persists in terms of knowledge and expertise sharing, which is that by revealing too much to your fellow clubs, you’ll lose your competitive advantage. I get that when it concerns tactics, but competition is on the pitch, not off it.
It’s the precise reason that someone like the SPFL’s Neil Doncaster, who was speaking about his time at Norwich City at the same event, is viewed so exceptionally. Sharing this sort of expertise should be the norm, and others should follow where they’ve led. But it doesn’t happen nearly enough, and I’m not aware it’s particularly encouraged by the EFL for example.
As a result it means that how Norwich built their season ticket base during such a difficult time when Neil was CEO, isn’t that widely known. Likewise the goldmines that are Paul Barber, Alistair Mackintosh, Mark Catlin, Tom Gorringe, or recently Andy Holt at Accrington Stanley aren’t tapped into nearly enough. And I think that’s sad, and a terrible shame for the game.
So no, I’m not sure – these exceptions aside of course – that English football has a great deal to teach the rest of the World. In fact, as I said to the gathered group, I think we could learn a lot from them and their willingness to seek out new ideas, and work collectively on improving the game in Denmark.
As the founder of Supporters Direct, the Inspirational Brian Lomax said, “What we unites us is greater than what divides us during 90 minutes of football”. At the time he was talking about fans, but that should apply to clubs too.
The recent vote to merge the two national supporters organisations, Supporters Direct (SD) and The Football Supporters Federation (FSF), will have been missed by most of you I suspect. I worked for SD for over 11 years – though you were never simply an ‘employee’, often more like an evangelist, stirring up the congregation, filling them with hope. So part of me is sad to see this happen.
SD brought into being ‘supporters’ trusts’ – like The Dons Trust, or that of today’s visitors, The Sky Blue Trust – that challenged the status quo, and in some cases enabled things to happen that were previously unimagined. In countless cases, SD freed fans from a sense of helplessness, and shook the game from complacency. Not the solution, but the vehicle for change.
When it was created in 2000, there were two national supporters’ bodies; the National Federation of Football Supporters Clubs (NFFSC), an ineffective grouping of largely do-as-you’re-told official supporters’ clubs, with no real compulsion to challenge the status quo of football. The other, The Football Supporters Association (FSA), had emerged from the defeat by fans of the ID Cards for football fans proposal from Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. (The two eventually merged to create The FSF.) But fans hadn’t the tools – or the backing – to provide alternatives to the way clubs were being run – in most cases, pretty poorly.
Faced with the fast escalating commercialisation of football and threats to clubs from mergers, moves, and extinction, Tony Blair’s incoming government appointed The Football Task Force, which proposed a series of radical options including a regulator for football. Unsurprisingly, all were roundly rejected by clubs/leagues and The FA. Eventually, the Task Force proposed SD – thanks to the foresight of individuals working on the Task Force like Andy Burnham (now Manchester Metropolitan Mayor) and Phil French (now at the IOC). The much missed Brian Lomax, who they met through the Task Force, set up the first supporters’ trust at Northampton Town, and his evidence inspired them hugely. In fact he became the first Managing Director of SD – and later Chair.
SD became an organising force for football fans, radically altering the role of fans in England (it also branched out to become the both now independent SD Scotland and SD Europe, with successes of their own, as well as working other sports). Whilst the billions of the Premier League seem to dwarf everything else, we forget the changes SD has made happen. Though the crises are often what people think of first, there’s been a slow-burn success too: it’s largely down to SD that we have formalised relationships between fans and The EFL, Premier League and FA, or those between fans and clubs like Fulham, Norwich City and Nottingham Forest. The strength of the likes of Spirit of Shankly at Liverpool, Spurs and Manchester United supporters’ trusts comes from the legitimacy that supporters’ trusts bring. They are able to challenge the decisions and authority of their clubs, without fear of being rejected as irrelevant – or worse. Even many of the financial and ownership regulations we now see happened because of SD’s very effective lobbying & campaigning work.
SD often acts behind the scenes, advising, helping – building up, even sometimes cajoling and pushing hard. Many of the initiatives locally, nationally and internationally came because of Brian’s simple vision: ‘What unites us as fans is greater than what divides us outside of 90 minutes’. Supporters’ trusts with SD’s support, drove the campaign to protect stadia as ‘Assets of Community Value’; through the trust’s Premier League group, worked with The FSF to start the ‘20s Plenty’ campaign. The dedication of the trust boards, members – and often forgotten, the former and current SD staff – make much of this happen.
What I’m sure would be most pleasing now for Brian, the recently dearly departed Jacqui Forster (another force of nature) – and for all those who helped to make SD the force it became – is that cooperation amongst fans is now the norm everywhere. There’s barely a campaign fought where a trust or group of fans is alone against the world. That’s one hell of a legacy to leave, whatever comes next.
If your club doesn’t have the know-how to deliver Fan Engagement, or you’ve been wasting time and money you can’t afford on consultation that doesn’t work, Fan Insights can help you. You can find us at faninsights.co.uk
Fan Engagement isn’t about tech, sales or marketing. It’s about the relationship between fans and their clubs, and Fan Insights will help football clubs deliver the best fan engagement.
Founder, Fan Insights
PS: We’re working on exciting plans for an event later in the year. Watch this space!
Jacqui Forster. What is there to say? She touched so many people’s lives, and did so much good. I knew her from 2004, when I started working on a temporary contract at Supporters Direct, within about nine months of her starting. That’s when our friendship was really forged: I knew nothing about the rules, and she educated me (sometimes in such detail my head would begin to ache). Alongside then acting MD, Dave Boyle, we kept the ship afloat long enough for Phil French and Laura Knewstub to join us. That’s when the organisation really took off, and we were blessed for that. But it’s true that when your backs are against the wall like they were in ‘04 – funding under threat, MD Brian Lomax having had to stand down because of ill health – you really learn what people are made of.
Jacqui was also hilarious – though not always intentionally. She would just make me laugh, regularly. But most of all what I’ll remember was the utter dedication – almost obsession – with fairness. Every organisation that needed her help, would get it, and she would be utterly committed to each and every one of them. I’m pretty sure that they knew that, but if any of you out there who have formed supporters’ trusts, or are on the board or are a member of one, I’m almost certain that she’s put the hours in for you. I also know she’d had some really tough times in her life aside from the cancer that so cruelly beat her on Sunday night, but she seemed to use that as fuel to keep fighting for everyone else.
I last spoke to her towards the end of January, when she sounded noticeably worse, and was talking about approaching the end of her life almost vividly – getting everything in place. At the time I was rushing through Manchester to change trains to get to Blackburn, and she’d called me up, ostensibly to tick me off for sending her flowers: as far as she was concerned, she didn’t accept gifts, but that on this occasion she’d have to accept them, as I’d sent them by courier! Typical Jac. Though I regret not calling her since, because I never got to say goodbye, I’m glad those were the final words we exchanged, because it was the sort of conversation I could imagine having with her at any other time. Most of all I heard her voice for the last time.
The essential truth of Jac was they they threw the mould away when they made her. Of course that’s true for everyone, but for some people it resonates more. There are few people so committed, so utterly determined to give people a voice, and only now am I beginning to realise that she’s gone, and how terribly I’m going to miss her.
Picture Credit: Women at the Game
Plenty of people spat out their tea this morning after reading that Everton have sent out a survey to their supporters, part of which is to rate the manager, Sam Allardyce.
Allardyce has plenty of critics, but that’s not the point. For someone like me interested in Fan Engagment, trying to understand the thinking of the fanbase of a club, I certainly wouldn’t shy away from asking difficult questions, and certainly not on the basis of a media firestorm.
What I’m frustrated about in this case is that it appears that Everton have fallen into the trap of thinking that this sort of surveying is a good idea. It’s only a good idea if what you want is a momentary snapshot of someone’s opinion about something within a very fixed 1-10 rating. Other than that, it’s basically useless. It doesn’t provide any kind of context, nor does it allow you to understand why someone thinks what they think. And that’s without thinking about the timing, and how it looks externally, with the other consideration that often gets forgotten where managers are concerned, which is that they’re employees, and they need to be treated with some degree of respect. There’s nothing wrong with discussing the manager, but there’s something rather cackhanded about what Everton are doing.
The question is, what would I do? After binning the first draft, I’d be undertaking research like this in a far more appropriate place, for example a focus group setting, in the context of a wider discussion about how important success on the pitch is in a whole raft of other issues. You don’t make a big event of it, as it’s part of a process. You can do this on an annual basis, or even a rolling, quarterly one for example. It helps to keep a handle on the conversations and views in the fanbase, and it doesn’t just single out the manager at a moment in time.
Clubs still continually make basic, avoidable errors in this area, and consultation still seems to be stuck in the dark ages. It’s time it moved on.
Here are some tips on running focus groups, following some recent work I did at AFC Wimbledon.