It’s a fair question. And the truth of the matter is that football hasn’t been good at allowing the kind of culture to develop that Tom refers to in his tweet (above), and quite a lot of fans don’t like the awkward initiatives, or being treated like they’re a customer. Yes, they buy things, but that’s just a small part of it.
So why is that, and what’s the solution?
Football tends to place its focus on things like attracting new fans, often families, whilst not really doing a great deal proactively, to satisfy the long-term, loyal supporter (and don’t forget, this is what new fans invariably become in time). This is further complicated in England by the fact that since the 1980s, fans have been categorised as a public order problem, meaning that laws exist specifically to deal with them and their ‘behaviour’ (in Scotland, the ban on drinking at football could be viewed similarly). This all plays into the idea that fans, as a group, are a bit of a problem child. Being literally part of a crowd on a matchday makes them even less easy to understand and isolate, and all of this together helps make them appear very difficult to tackle.
So how do you overcome all of this and make Fan Engagement something that actually works? Something ‘authentic’?
Three top-tips for authentic Fan Engagement:
- Listen: Ensure you have a regular listening presence at matches
- Understand: Do all you can to understand fans and what they want and expect
- Relate: Have a formal mechanism for relating to fans such councils, fans forums or directors
One of the simplest ways is ‘presence’, particularly on the part of your senior officers, and particularly but not only, your Chief Executive. As Norwich CEO, Neal Doncaster used to take up the same position outside Carrow Road every home match, ready to speak with fans whatever the weather. He would do this even if there were demos against the manager, or they’d been doing well on the pitch. Wimbledon’s Erik Samuelson walks the car park, Brighton’s Paul Barber walks the concourses. This is about showing you’re there, and you’re listening. It’s not about a reassuring ‘message from the top’ in the programme, or a ‘come on you xxxxxx’ on the website when it’s all a bit tricky on the pitch. It’s not even about #QuestionsToTheCEO on social channels. It’s quite simply putting a human face on an institution, and it’s an institution that very often, fans tend to view as being so vast and having such importance, that they don’t associate it with individuals who have to make decisions, or with whom they can speak – and who will listen.
The second way you do it is by understanding what fans do on a matchday. There’s no point putting on pre-match entertainment on the pitch if as at a lot of clubs, fans don’t enter the ground until minutes before kick-off. Fans aren’t attending an experience. They’re going to watch a match. Regular live bands on the concourses? Fans want to talk, mingle, catch-up. Maybe stick to doing it outside the ground occasionally at the start or end of the season.
The final way is to incorporate the role of fans formally into the life of your club, in whatever way works. Councils, forums, fan directors (or a combination of all three), whatever, there’s something there that will work for every club and its culture. But every successful club in this area incorporates this aspect in some way. It helps to be able to distil what fans are saying, and if it works well, provides a valuable strategic counsel to the CEO, Chair or owner(s).
Taking these steps won’t mean you avoid problems, but you will have a structure that means you can manage most things, cut down the misunderstandings and failed gimmicks, and get the balance right.
But what’s the most important part? Most of all, what really matters is the physical presence and the listening, because it removes barriers and walls, and puts a human face to a message.
You can get more tips and advice from the Little Book of Fan Insights. Download it via this link