‘Purpose’ and Fan Engagement

We’ve seen some mistaken and some downright poor Fan Engagement from clubs since Coronavirus really hit, and the actual game of football had to take more of a back seat. It’s not time for a name and shame, so we’ll use this as a springboard to share our thoughts with you about ‘Purpose’.

We want to show you how this simple word should become a the important one in defining what a football club is, and why this is particularly important for clubs in how they carry out the relationship with their primary stakeholders – fans.

Purpose is king
The term ‘Purpose’ in business has been championed by people like the economist Will Hutton, his Big Innovation Centre think tank and its early Purposeful Company project – something Fan Insight’s founder Kevin Rye had some involvement in early on.

The Purposeful Company project makes the point that ‘[Purpose] means acknowledging the responsibilities business has within society and a recognition that the entire investment chain has a role in enabling a longer-term perspective to be taken with key stakeholders treated fairly in decision making.’

Although ‘Brand’ a term which tries to cover how a business communicates its fundamentals, it has become overstretched. It covers anything from the visual image of a company or organisation, to the way it speaks to its stakeholders, customers, or the decisions it makes about investment or procurement.

On top of that we have the world of ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ (CSR). CSR is a term that has become tarnished, with its use too often to clean up or ‘manage’ a company’s poor or corrupted image, and not integral enough to the company or organisation. People ‘do’ CSR, and the risk is it is fragmented, siloed from the main body of the company, instead of being interwoven into everything the company does. Oil & gas giant BP is one of the most notorious companies in this respect for its ‘Greenwashing’.

As BP showed, CSR can too often show up its fundamental lack of Purpose, or even diverting attention from the bad things that a company – or its owners – is doing.

And for clubs?
Where football clubs are concerned, Purpose matters possibly even more, given how clubs are already unique in business terms, as not just sporting institutions, but cultural and community ones, involving a vast array of stakeholders – with fans at the centre, whose reason for association is usually more than just sport. The same often applies to its other stakeholders and their reasons for involvement – whether local, national or international.

Purpose is necessary to make the right decisions for the business and its stakeholders (in this case, fans). If a club isn’t clear on Purpose then there’s a risk it doesn’t have clarity on why fans support the club, and that directly affects how they treat them. We all know examples of where clubs make the wrong decisions in matters ranging from ticket pricing to big issues of identity (e.g.: changing the club’s badge or crest). We have all seen the exclusion by the management or ownership of a club of an important supporters’ group, or closing down of a fans forum or parliament – excluding views that dissent from or challenge the club’s. In terms of tactics or output, clubs might make the mistake of going straight to data, apps, or fan parks, when it’s good and effective dialogue, openness or listening that is needed first (see Jim Macnamara’s work in this area.) You might even notice that the language a club uses to speak to its fans flits awkwardly between the language of ‘relationships’ and ‘stakeholders’, and that of ‘customers’ & ‘sales’.

Purpose needs to sit at the heart of what you are as a football club, how you engage with your fans. Purpose should be the lodestar. It should define how you create the structures at the back, and at the front-end, ensure that you have the right practical delivery of your Fan Engagement.

Now, more than ever, when there are no fixtures, clubs from top to bottom are seeing their Purpose beyond just that of playing every week. As far as Fan Engagement goes, we’re seeing those who understand their Purpose behave in a way that demonstrates that, and amongst those who don’t, perhaps rediscover how much fans really matter. This quote to BBC Sport from Crystal Palace player Andros Townsend concerning how the season might or might not be finished is on the button:

“These guys, they support us on a Saturday through thick and thin. The general public effectively pay our wages with their season tickets and their subscriptions to the TV services so, at times like this, we have to give back…football is nothing without fans’.”

Every club means more than just a fixture once or twice a week. Clubs who are struggling to various degrees through this Coronavirus crisis will have to make difficult financial and organisational decisions as a result. In some cases they already are or have. Having Purpose at the centre and being clear in the role your fans play, is not just a fluffy extra. It will help you to build trust and help you to make the right decisions, and communicate the difficult ones.

In the good times too, Purpose has to be a fundamental. We’re not saying revenue raising or marcomms isn’t important. Far from it. We’re saying that the right marcomms and revenue raising comes because your Purpose is clear.

Take some time
We think that every club would benefit from dedicating some time to think about what their Purpose is, because it clearly isn’t just what happens during 90 minutes on the pitch for nine-or-ten months a year.

It’s vital that those with the responsibility for the big questions at clubs have the time, space and resources to think about them, and how they affect the relationships with their fans: their Fan Engagement. Maybe now is that time.

Key Insights

  1. Clear the clutter of Brand and CSR out, and think about your Purpose: Why you do what you do, not what you do and how you do it. We also recommend that you watch this Ted Talk by Simon Sinek, which talks about the ‘Why’ – the Purpose – as the most important part of what you do as a business, not ‘What’ or ‘How’.
  2. Think about what this Purpose means to fans, and why they support you. No-one should fool themselves that most fans follow a club for the glamour or success. That means something important.
  3. Take the time you’ve got (we know it won’t be much, but try and squeeze a few minutes in!), and think about this. Ask your colleagues, make some calls to others in the industry.

We’re working on an exciting new service that is going to really help how clubs & those in them think about & deliver their Fan Engagement. Keep an eye on this space.

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