Social capital, brand and football: tales from the digital field

Class of 92 take over Salford City FC, Guardian ArticleThis research focuses on a new era for Salford City Football Club (SCFC). In the 2014/15 season, when SCFC were in the 8th tier of English football, they were taken over by ex-Manchester United players the Class of 92. The new era heralds an unusual case of a non-league football team having such high profile owners with reported ambitions to turn SCFC into a ‘digital football club’ (Conn, 2014).

The author has worked in the digital industry since 1997 and is a new academic. He has been teaching and researching digital business and marketing and is currently in the second year of a part time PhD. Understanding the power of the links between people and interactions online has been a long term interest of the author. The overall aim of this study is to gain a deep understanding of how digital and social media are used within a UK football club and the role of social capital using SCFC as a vehicle for this research.
The research questions pertinent to this study are:

  • How is digital media being used by SCFC and its fans for marketing?
  • How does digital media influence brand awareness of SCFC?
  • How is the relationship between fan engagement and social capital important?

Literature and contribution

After undertaking a review of the relevant literature, several gaps, opportunities for a new contribution were found. For example, Kuzma et al. (2014) pointed to the limited research on social media use in the football sector.

Many brand community studies focus on international brands, whereas this case of SCFC centres on a regional brand community at a non-league football club. McCarthy et al. (2014) identify UK football clubs are businesses with committed fans. This makes them a good subject for research into the issues and challenges of managing their brand presence online. They highlight great scope for future research on the way football fans interact online at a crucial time.

The studies of McLean and Wainwright (2009) and Boyd (2007) demonstrate a need for further research into the ability of social networks to create a better dialogue between football club owner and customer. These gaps still remain and social networks and mobile devices have become even more prevalent in this period. The intention of this study is to further explore this relationship and interplay between club and fan communications and digital marketing.

Digital media use has risen dramatically in this period with digital media marketing driving a demand for content (Lin and Yazdanifard, 2014).Holmes et al., (2012), highlighted the need for Internet ethnography by “analysing data that has been created through social media”.

Pomirleanu, et al. (2013) conducted a comprehensive literature review analysing Internet market research in a twenty-year period. Their study also includes the identification of gaps in the literature and future research opportunity. The key area identified by Pomirleanu, et al calling for future research is to evaluate the role of digital marketing (Pomirleanu, et al., 2013).

The literature review uncovered a number of frameworks for football fan types (Tapp, 2004; Kantar, 2012; Fillis and Mackay, 2013) social capital types (Woolcock, 2001) and Internet user types (Ferneley et al., 2009) that will be used in this study.

Social capital type Internet user types SCFC Fan Type
Bonding Creators Core
Bridging Contributors Current
Linking Lurkers Follower

Table 1 – Frameworks comparing social capital, Internet user types and fan types in this case


For this study, a deeper understanding of the effects of digital marketing and people’s perceptions via qualitative data will be analysed to effectively meet the aims of the study and answer the research questions.

An interpretive philosophy is adopted and will enable the meaning of the complex situations in this study to be better explained and understood, providing new insight (Black and Iain, 2006; Oates, 2006). A classic study in this area is by Klein and Myers (1999), who noted the power of interpretive studies to understand complex human meaning and produce deeper insights in Information Systems research.

In keeping with interpretivist study, qualitative information will be used to analyse the complexity of human behaviour and make meaning of it (Boellstorff et al., 2012). There is a two way digital narrative between fans and clubs and a unique opportunity to study this area (McCarthy et al., 2014). The combination of the literature review and data collection will be used to build theory. Eisenhardt and Graebner (2007) outlined the opportunities and challenges of this approach. They noted the value of rich data and the power of persuasiveness of the single case (Siggelkow, 2007). Eisenhardt and Graebner demonstrated how cases are used as the basis, from which to develop theory inductively, which is a sound research strategy.

Data collection & analysis

A single football club was been selected for this study as the best way to provide rich insight (Siggelkow, 2007). This provides the opportunity to dig deeper into a particular case as opposed to obtaining smaller data sets from multiple cases. The research questions for this study lend themselves to social network analysis (SNA), netnography and interviews and some initial data has been collected using these methods in order to shape the study.

SNA of this case will not only give a deeper understanding of the connections and flow of information, but also provides a complimentary method to the collection of data through netnography and interview. Used in conjunction with each other, these methods can be used effectively to understand complex human actions (Boellstorff, 2012 P.38). SNA will be utilised in a qualitative sense (Guldbrandsson et al., 2012) in order to identify key actors in this study, informing the other methods.

Boellstorff et al, (2012) argued that the group being observed must be followed to wherever they are, be that in a virtual world, forum, social media or in the physical world. Robert Kozinets is a key author in this area (1997, 2010a, 2010b, 2010c). Kozinets was the first published author to use the term netnography as Internet-related field work (Kozinets, 1997). 

Social capital

Social capital theory is crucial to this study and its research questions as a theoretical framework. The methods described have a strong connection to social capital (Lin, 1999; Widdop et al., 2014). SNA is a means to understanding the influence that actors have on each other and understanding the “structure and “form” of social relations” (Jarman et al., 2014).

Bringing to bear industry and academic knowledge is a key component of this study and the understanding of the complexity and meaning of the situation. The research approach is interpretive and the theoretical lens for the study is that of social capital. There are several angles within this framework including power and class (Bourdieu, 1986). More relevant to this study is the work of Putnam (1995) and Nan Lin around social capital and trust and “cyber networks” (Lin, 1999).

Woolcock (2001) outlined three types of social capital:

  • bonding – links between similar people
  • bridging – more distant ties and loose connections
  • linking – the wider network who are from dissimilar circumstances

Putnam, Lin and Woolcock are particularly important to this study, its research questions and testing these theories in this context.

Research Findings

Some data collection using the methods above has already been conducted in order to shape the study in the second year of this part-time PhD. Understanding the role of trust and social capital theory from these online ‘tales of the field’ is key to producing a “sharp, exciting, convincing and ultimately useful ethnographic work” (Van Maanen, 2006).

Three types of social capital have been found, namely; bonding, bridging, and linking. These connect with the three fan types discovered so far from the data in this case which are: core, current and follower. These categories have resonance with the categories of the 1% rule of Internet culture, where the majority (circa 90% of users) are less active ‘lurkers’ and with a smaller number of contributors and an even smaller number of creators (Ferneley et al., 2009). The model below highlights the conceptual model that will be further tested as this study unfolds.

Model showing internet users, fans and social capital

Figure 1 – Conceptual model showing relative proportions of fans, comparison with Internet user types (Ferneley et al., 2009) and social capital types (Woolcock, 2001)

This study is still in its infancy, but I would love to hear from Salford fans, digital experts or others interested in this study, feel free to drop me a line.



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Alex Fenton

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