Social Media Marketing

Rant: Newcastle United FC's comical Twitter own-goals

Social media is the pervasive presence that engulfs us all, a cloud of bees buzzing their messages, and, naturally enough, businesses want in on this. Organisations seek positive brand associations and new ways to engage with customers, prospects and others. Participating in the Twittersphere, the FacebookOfLife and LinkedInAndNowYouCanNeverLeave is regarded as an opportunity to reach people, persuade them you are good eggs and offer them things they might want. But social networks come with risks too and if you leave all common sense behind and have a tin ear for how people are talking about you, all you will succeed in doing is inflicting damage on yourself.

Take Newcastle United Football Club. This is a club that has won, oh let me count them, – yes, that’s right – zero major trophies since the 1960s, no domestic prizes since the 1950s and has not been champions of England since the 1920s. And yet this remains a huge club, attracting over 50,000 fans to almost every home game, despite frequently flirting (and sometimes going the whole hog) with relegation. The club is famed for the passion of its supporters more than for its occasional football excellence under Kevin Keegan and the late Sir Bobby Robson.

Newcastle is unusual in England in that it has a large catchment area in the north-east of England. Aside from Sunderland to its south and, at a stretch this, Middlesbrough a little further south, there are really no clubs of comparable stature anywhere nearby. These things help foster the almost feverish attachment to the football club, built up over more than 120 years.

A recent survey made Newcastle’s brand the 22nd biggest in world football: quite remarkable given that incredible barren run, during which many massively less popular English clubs, including minnows such as Oxford United and Wimbledon, have won silverware.

If you have a brand like this you don’t have to be Steve Jobs to know that you nurture it as a prized asset, giving supporters every reason to buy match tickets and merchandise. If Lionel Messi was yours you wouldn’t make him play in a greatcoat and wellington boots and yet this appears to be Newcastle United’s marketing strategy: give yourself the least possible chance of success.

The background to this is challenging enough. Owner Mike Ashley made his fortune in selling low-cost sportswear at the retail chain Sports Direct. He has pursued a similarly cut-price approach to football, buying players cheap and selling them for a bit more. The ambition appears to be to stay in the phenomenally lucrative Premier League; weakened teams represent ‘The Magpies’ in the knock-out cup competitions, despite this being the one sensible chance of the club winning anything.

So far, so bad, but Newcastle’s management appear to go out of their way to antagonise fans, temporarily changing the stadium name from St. James’ Park to the Sports Direct Arena and taking its shirt sponsorship logo from Wonga, the payday money-lender – a controversial enough name in an area with some of the highest unemployment rates in the UK.

It doesn’t help that Ashley rarely speaks in public or that the club’s promises to invest in players are often left unfulfilled, nor that dissenting voices, such as journalists questioning the club’s strategy, are cast into the wilderness.

But the tin hat placed on this queer strategy comes with the club’s cack-handed use of social media. The official Twitter feed is a particularly spectacular invitation for disenchanted fans to vent their feelings. I would ask you to pay special attention to any mention of Mike Ashley (“Get out of our club”), hapless ex-coach John Carver, “special offers” on tickets, publishing an apologetic open letter by the club captain (“You don’t [REDACTED] get it. We’re tired of hearing sorry.”), or the unveiling of a new kit on the eve of a relegation-deciding fixture (“Looks [REDACTED], thoughtless marketing, pathetic football club. Make no mistake no one cares”). Beware: the language is profane and highly consistent, the sort of thing an angry bear with English-speaking skills might come out with after a starvation diet and repeated poking with a red-hot iron.

When you’re getting beaten heavily in football it’s sensible to shore up the defence and live to fight another day, keeping dignity intact in so far as is possible. With its Twittish tactics, Newcastle United’s marketing wizards have chosen to go another way: playing without defenders or goalkeeper and providing the rest of the country, as is so often the case with this club, with lots of material to laugh at.


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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