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The field behind the screen: Social capital and the social media communications of a football club brand

Salford FC on TwitterI registered for a PhD at Salford University in October 2014 and on Tuesday 06 February 2018, I had my final PhD Viva. This involves two external examiners reading the full thesis and then asking me lots of questions on it. Pleased to say that I successfully defended it. I have some alterations to make, but in the meantime, I wanted to share the abstract of my thesis on social media and Social capital so far. Thank you to everyone that made a small or large contribution to it!

Social media and football

Digital and social media have proved to have a significant and disruptive effect on football clubs and fans around the world. This research was undertaken in order to better understand the relationship between social capital, fans, football clubs and the social media networks they inhabit. This study aimed to discover how social media is used within a UK football club and the role of social capital. Social media is a key part of digital marketing and the thesis addresses this from both an academic and practical perspective. It is formulated through a combination of extensive empirical data collection through netnography fused with the relevant literature. The study uses the digital marketing buyer persona spring with social capital theory in order to better understand social media channels, content and data relating to football clubs and their fans.

Social capital and netnography

This interpretive study used social capital as a theoretical framework and lens on the data with authors such as Putnam and Lin being key. Salford City Football Club (SCFC) was used as a vehicle for this study. During the period of study, SCFC entered an important time of growth and online fame. Social media was playing a critical role in their evolution from an unknown non-league football club to becoming known around the world.

The study used a blended methods approach as part of a netnography. Netnography is a well established framework for conducting online ethnography. The research adopted the standards and guidelines for netnography as established by Robert Kozinets. The qualitative methods of interview, participant observation and social network analysis (SNA) were utilised for the primary data collection. Two years of extensive online participant observation were blended with insights from SNA visualisations and 32 semi-structured interviews were conducted with 25 participants. Social media managers and fans locally and globally from SCFC and beyond were interviewed. The findings from this blend are presented, compared and contrasted against a review of the relevant literature in order to address the research questions to make a contribution to theory.

Research findings

The thesis showed that football clubs and their fans are using social media as a key part of their brand communications. Emotive digital content can help to engage fans worldwide. The careful management of fans and players on social media is also important to evolve the brand of clubs. It was found that football clubs should identify, segment and engage their fans wherever they are, including weakly connected social media lurkers. Clubs should consider the development and cultivation of social capital through social media interaction, content and encouraging fan led content and groups. The study found that social capital could be developed and grown online, which concurred with the findings of authors such as Lin and Bauernschuster et al. Football clubs should interact with fans and engage with weakly connected lurker fans through appropriate social media channels and content. If these groups are not engaged online, social media communications of clubs risk being drowned out because of the social media algorithms, which are designed to deliver relevant content to users. The findings were further tested by utilising primary and secondary data from other clubs to make them more generalisable. Diagrams and models were created in order to synthesise and disseminate the findings.

Contribution

Model showing internet users, fans and social capital

Model showing Internet users, football fans and social capital types

Social capital

This research contributes to the understanding of the ways in which football clubs and fans interact and build social capital through social media channels and content. Studies on the relationship between social media, sports and social capital were lacking in the literature and this study fills this gap. Social capital was found to be a key enabler for football clubs to engage fans through social media.

The study contributes to social capital theory in finding that social capital could be increased online and used as a positive enabler for brand enhancement. The thesis also evaluates social capital including key authors and critics. A key contribution was the creation of a pyramid model highlighting the synergy between three types of social capital, with three types of fan and the three types of Internet user.

Map showing a global distribution of SCFC Twitter followers generated using Followerwonk.

Global map showing a global distribution of SCFC Twitter followers generated using Followerwonk.

The value of lurkers

Football clubs are wrestling with questions around the use and maximisation of social media communications and this study provides both practical and managerial contributions in this important area. This research provides implications for other organisations with social media fans, and highlights the key role of lurker fans as real people who have great value to football clubs.

The findings were further tested with professional football social media managers and therefore have wider, important implications for practise. Lurkers can be engaged directly by football clubs, increasing their connection to a club and also enhancing the sponsorship and partnerships of a football club.

Blended methods

A graphic about SNA and netnography produced using Gephi with overlaid Tweets

A graphic produced using Gephi with overlaid Tweets

This study created new insights into online behaviour within UK football communities using a blended qualitative methods approach. The study blended online participant observation, interviews and social network analysis (SNA) as part of a netnography, which provides a methodological contribution.

The study outlines the blend of these methods in some detail and presents the primary data gathered. The methodology enabled an in depth analysis of football clubs and fans. The same methodology can be used or adapted by academics or practitioners to understand more about sports clubs and other organisations with substantial social media followers.

If you have any thoughts on this, or would like to read more, feel free to get in touch or share this article.

Alex Fenton

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