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Manchester United’s Marketing Strategy: Are Manchester United really bigger than any celebrity and on a par with religion?

In Social Media & Online PR, The Digital Marketing Blog by DaveLeave a Comment

You may have seen that recently, Manchester United’s sporting director Richard Arnold said that their social media engagement is “bigger than any celebrity and on a par with religion”. This got me thinking, to many people (myself included), football IS a religion. And while Arnold didn’t go ‘full-Lennon’ and declare United to be bigger than religion, it’s undeniable that they are one of the biggest football teams in the world and are surely one of Britain’s greatest exports, both individually and as part of the Premier League.

So in this blog post I want to examine whether there’s any truth in Arnold’s claims, how United do their marketing and finally, if we can learn anything from it.

Man United’s Social Media Marketing

Firstly, I want to take a look at the figures. It’s hard for us to judge their interaction against other people as we simply don’t have the data or the time to accurately find it… I guess we’ll have to believe them when they say they’ve had over 1 billion interactions on Facebook.

Weirdly, they don’t seem to have official YouTube or Snapchat accounts – they do however have MUTV which has subscribers from all over the world. In a wider context, Forbes estimate that they’re the 3rd most valuable football team in the world behind Real Madrid and Barcelona in first and second, respectively. If we , United come in 5th, with baseball’s NY Yankees and NFL’s Dallas Cowboys coming in ahead of them.

Comparing Manchester United’s followers to the other big football teams

Here are their social profiles in comparison with some of football’s other big names:

*note: some teams have multiple accounts in different languages, where possible I’ve chosen the English language – in the case of Real and Bayern in particular, their native language twitter accounts were significantly larger.

From just looking at those number of followers, it’s clear that Manchester United are not bigger than the two big Spanish teams. In fact, FC Barcelona outperform Manchester United (and all other teams) across all platforms (just like on the pitch then).

A quick look at the interaction and engagement on a number of individual posts across the social media profiles of the first three also shows that it’s far from clear cut. It’s also difficult to measure as they all post at different times. From a general view however, I would say that on Facebook & Twitter, United just edge it. Take a look for yourself:

On Instagram however, FC Barcelona are the clear winners.

Social engagement however, doesn’t just come down to the amount of likes, interactions, re-tweets & shares directly from a business’s social accounts. I therefore decided to have a look at the amount of social engagement that Barcelona, Real Madrid & Manchester United received from posts on their own websites using one of our favourite tools, Buzzsumo. I checked the engagement levels of the top 5 posts from each site over the last week and as it turns out, Manchester United fall short by quite some way:

Here you can see the top 5 posts on the Manchester United website over the last week and the social engagement. As you can see, the top post has 4k total shares across Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest & Google+:

Compare that to the top 5 posts on the Barcelona FC website and you can see that their top post has received 60.7k shares, a whopping 1417.5% more than Manchester United.

But what about Real Madrid? Their top post from the last week has 133.1k shares, blowing both Manchester United and Barcelona out of the water. In total, when you include all five posts from each site, Manchester United have 7,107 shares, which doesn’t even make up the level of engagement from one post by Barcelona or Real Madrid.

Next, let’s take celebrities into account (who Richard Arnold said they’re bigger than all of remember). Firstly, I’ve decided to have a look at the amount of followers some of the best known celebrities have on Twitter and Facebook in comparison to Manchester United based on the theory that the more followers that you have, the more engagement you’d likely have from them.

Again, from looking at the figures below, we can see that the pure numbers really don’t add up, with Manchester United having the lowest social following of all those that we looked at on Twitter whilst there are 3 others in the list below with more followers on Facebook :

*Clearly this is to prove a point, I’m sure Man Utd have a lot more followers than a lot of celebrities and entities – but it’s clear it’s not all of them.

Next, I decided to have a look at some of the posts from celebrities like Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift on Facebook, both of whom have more followers than Manchester United. Note, I’ve tried to use posts shared at around the same time to keep things fair but clearly it’s not an absolute science.

First let’s look at Justin Bieber’s post from 15hrs ago (at the time of writing). It has 113k reactions and 2,246 shares so far.

Next, we have Taylor Swift’s last post from 18hrs ago. This has 46k reactions and 558 shares:

Next we have a post from Manchester United from 16hrs ago, with 50k reactions and 201 shares. Not too dissimilar to Taylor Swift but out of the three, Justin Bieber clearly wins. Is Manchester United’s social engagement bigger than any celebrity? On this showing, probably not.

A quick look on Facebook posts from some of the other celebs shows that United do perform better than some of the above but again, it was clear that Arnold’s bold statement wasn’t exactly correct.

With his United connections, I couldn’t resist checking the levels of engagement on Cristiano Ronaldo’s Facebook page:

Sir Alex Ferguson famously once said that “no person is bigger than Manchester United”. Well, it turns out that Cristiano Ronaldo is.

Look at the latest posts (again, at time of writing) from both Manchester United and Cristiano Ronaldo and you can see a difference in levels of engagement. It’s important to note that these figures will likely have risen by the time you read this. Manchester United’s latest post had been live for 3hrs and had 30k reactions, 279 comments and 470 shares:

Despite being posted over 2hrs later and only being live for 39 mins, Cristiano’s latest post has over triple the amount of reactions at 98k as well as 1.1k comments. The only figure that hadn’t yet reached the level of United’s post was shares but it’s likely in the next two hours or so that it will:

When you continue down both pages on Facebook you’ll see this trend continue. Clearly, Cristiano Ronaldo is getting more engagement than Manchester United on Facebook. Again, it seems that Richard Arnold’s claims don’t quite add up. Where this leaves the world’s major religions is up for debate but I’m going out on a limb and saying that Richard Arnold was wrong.

What Can We Learn from Manchester United’s Social Media Marketing?

Despite Richard Arnold’s claims, there is no doubt that Manchester United do get a large amount of social engagement. But, the question is, despite the astronomical followings that the worlds’ major sports teams have, how we apply what they do to our own campaigns? The majority of us won’t have anywhere near the budgets that the major sports teams have but there are some things we can learn. Now, clearly becoming England’s most successful football team goes a long way to build and encourage engagement but for those of you who don’t know football, for the last 3 years or so Manchester United have not been performing anywhere even close to their level of the past 25 years. The double edged sword of sports marketing means on one hand that you already have an incredibly loyal and bought-in fan base to utilise; but your marketing is also inextricably linked to your sporting success. With a global product like the Premier League, many newer fans may be much more likely to switch to a rival club. To ensure that doesn’t happen you run campaigns like this…


Another quick bit of background, Paul Pogba is a French player that Manchester United had in their youth academy. Despite being very highly rated they decided to sell him to Juventus of Turin, Italy in 2012 for somewhere in the region of £800k, not even small change in the football world. Well it turns out that the young Frenchman did have talent after all, quite a lot of it as it happens. The summer of 2016 rolls around and after weeks of media speculation, Paul Pogba moves to Manchester United and their bank balance is suddenly in the region of £90m lighter. What do you do when you break the world transfer record for a player? Your social media team goes into overdrive and #POGBACK is born (and you also quietly gloss over the fact you’re on the wrong end of a 13,650% price increase)

That tweet above is United’s most successful ever in terms of reach and engagement, and everything about it was planned. But it wasn’t the first in the campaign. That honour belongs to this one:

Again for those that don’t know, this was to announce that Pogba had been given permission to have a medical with United. In the world of football transfers this means that the deal is all but done and the buying club has their doctors look over the player to make sure they’re not buying a crock. It’s quite rare for transfers to fall through at this stage but it’s worth pointing out that nothing was yet concrete. The marketing department was already in full swing by this point though. Pogba had been in Manchester having his photos taken for all the marketing collateral to be used on the site, in videos and on social media. Everything was building up to this point. The traditional media is of course vital to all sporting organisations but social is now arguably at the front. That tweet was published at 3pm UK time and for very good reason. People in Asia (a core market for Manchester United and the Premier League in general) would still be awake; people in Europe would be mid-way through their day and people in the Americas (N. America in particular is a major emerging market) would just be waking up. Simply put, it showcased their content in front of the widest possible audience and it paid off. So while the overwhelming majority of us can’t rely on our clients breaking world transfer records to form the basis of our social campaigns, we can adopt the same approach. Most of this is Social Media 101 but it’s amazing how many brands and business still don’t follow these rules.

Timing is key

With the above example, #POGBACK is an example of an extremely well executed, multi-channel marketing campaign and a lot of that is down to timing as well as building up anticipation. But how does #POGBACK translate into something you can use? Well, the same approach could work for a product launch. Often, when a company releases a new product, details or images are “leaked” beforehand giving the audience a sneak preview of the product. The same happened with the #POGBACK campaign. Grime artist (and Manchester United fan) Stormzy & Adidas “leaked” a video of him performing wearing a Manchester United shirt with Pogba dancing in the background. At the end of the video we see Pogba wearing the same shirt with his name on the back, therefore leaving viewers to assume that he’s already signed for Manchester United and likely jumping to their preferred social media profile and shouting about it. The video was subsequently deleted, adding to the hype, but not before eager fans had screenshotted and shared the video. The video had done it’s job. It had created the necessary buzz and excitement, as if there needed to be any! If you have a new product due to launch, can you “leak” information about it beforehand? Do you have the budget to create a video or perhaps some images alluding to the fact that a new product is coming? Perhaps you could take the Apple approach and drip feed information about your new product slowly over a period of time? Either concept can be a great way to get people to create content about your company or product and start the conversation online. Among the excitement built by leaks or drip fed information comes content created in blogs and forums with people questioning what is happening and what features the new product will have etc. This concept, done through your social channels when leading up to a product launch can help to build excitement and anticipation among your audience and hopefully in turn, more sales. I’m amazed when we see brands who still don’t know their social media audiences. At the very least, any social media manager should know what days and what times their audience is most active. There are a number of social media monitoring tools that will be able to do this.

5 tools to help you with social analytics

We should be delving deeper though, we should know not only what sort of content our audiences like, but when they like it. It may be the case that long form content like blog posts etc. performs better in the early evenings as people commute home from work. Does video content work best when people are on their lunchbreaks?

Know what your audience wants (and then mix it up to see if it works).

You may know which content performs best and you should absolutely keep things ticking over and provide your audience with what they want. This will keep your audience engaged; you’ll keep getting the traffic and engagement and everything will be hunky dory. BUT, you should also never be afraid to experiment. We’re advocates of allowing some experimental budget for your social campaigns. You can keep your regular content coming and at the same time try new things. You’ll soon work out what else works and what doesn’t. In many ways (depending on your clients/who’s social media accounts that you manage) even if you find that in your experimenting, you go too far and end up with a dreaded #socialmediafail, it might just be the exposure that your brand/product needed! *Note this isn’t something we’d advise for everyone! Essentially, the only way that you’ll stumble upon something you never expected is to try something new.

Resources to help with social media experiments

  1. Go buy the book “Oversubscribed” by Daniel Priestly.

Though this book doesn’t specifically cover social media, Daniel has an interesting take on why businesses should dedicate a significant amount of their budget to marketing experiments.

  1. Create a Trello board dedicated to potential social experiments

Allow all members of your team to submit ideas to your Trello board. Give your staff only one requirement – all experiment ideas must have a hypothesis so that you know what you’re going to be measuring against and why.

  1. Try The Bullseye Framework described by Brian Balfour.

This is a simple framework that will help you prioritise all your ideas and potential social media experiments.

Make sure you measure it.

Social media measurement & reporting can be tricky as you need to know what matters to you and your business, only then can you truly evaluate whether your campaign has been a success or not. Many people, even now, still simply look at the figures for reach and retweets etc. and assume they’ve done a good job. You need to define beforehand what you will consider as success. In the #POGBACK campaign, clearly the goal was simply as much exposure and interaction as possible (which is made clear by this video). But what about you, if you’re trying to get people so sign up to your service, or download an app and all you get is a load of re-tweets, is that good?

2 ways to improve your social media reporting

  1. Have a clear measurement plan.

When it comes to measurement planning, consider the frameworks outlined in by Google in their Analytics Academy Series to help you stay focused on your primary goals for a campaign. Try not to waste your time curating data from multiple platforms and trying to combine all of the data in Excel. A number of the social analytics tools noted above feature in-built reporting. Consider also: Falcon, Talkwaker and Quintly. I think one of the reasons that Manchester United said they were getting engagement on a par with celebrities & major religions is that they set themselves some very clear benchmarks that they wanted to hit and were able to measure and analyse the data in such a way as to find out what they wanted to. Robust measurement will help you learn as much as you can from your campaign and also help you immeasurably (see what I did there) when it comes to reporting on campaigns to clients and/or senior management. So are Manchester United getting engagement that’s bigger than most celebrities and religion? No. Obviously not. But they’re not doing bad that’s for sure. Perhaps you want to be as big as religion, or up there with Justin Bieber and Cristiano Ronaldo? If you’re looking for help growing your social following and engagement, we’d love to hear from you. Get in touch using the form below:

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