What Socios & West Ham United really tells us about Fan Engagement in England

The recent, very angry response from fans of West Ham United to the Socios ‘Crypto Currency’ tie-up with the club has been an entirely understandable response to a clumsy idea from a company trying to build interest in a new technology.

Trying to encourage fans in their minor role as a customer to use a platform as a way of making money is a perfectly legitimate business idea, and in a free society it’s their right to do it, just as it’s the right of fans not to spend the money. But this isn’t just a simple business idea, badly presented by the company, and football clubs as we know, are not just simple businesses.

The whole problem with the Socios’ idea of selling tokens to fans so they can have a say in decision making in their club in an era of ‘dialogue’ and ‘Fan Engagement’ is, putting it politely, a bit misguided – especially the idea that you can have more of a say if you spend more. A fan is a fan, and those fans will spend money, quite substantial amounts, but they don’t want to feel like they’re just being taken advantage of because they’re seen as an easy touch.

Having a say in a club isn’t a marketing opportunity, and regardless of Crypto Currency’s merits as a piece of technological innovation, this is an example of the manner in which both football clubs and commercial partners struggle to understand the implications of Fan Engagement., It’s that deep association between fans and clubs that attracts them, but often they they fail to actually understand what that means beyond the most basic idea of buying and selling to them using a set of phrases and signals borrowed from the concept.

Clubs themselves, and brands/companies who want to become involved in the game through sponsorship and commercial relationships, need to be much more educated about what Fan Engagement actually means, and how it shapes and makes relationships work, and why that’s important. There is plenty of evidence, not least from the excellent work of Stakeholder Engagement expert and advocate of ‘institutional listening’, Jim Macnamara, that companies across the English speaking world in particular struggle with this, so we shouldn’t just think this is football’s problem. But football clubs are in a pretty exceptional position. They know that the relationship between themselves and primary ‘audience’ is different, and the answers are, in truth, easier to find. You just have to take the time to look for them.

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