When social media branding is a struggle: About relationship marketing and strategy for the online success of sports clubs

Written by Melinda Lindh Nilsson

Social media - Strategy - Relationship marketing

Sport organisations have during a long period of time relied on old-school communication. This is no longer possible. With the Web 2.0 the channels for communication and marketing has changed. Eagleman (2013) explains that sport organisations must constantly adapt to technological developments, in order to have a good sport delivery. Consumers, who are enjoying the usage of social media, often form a positive response to sport organisations that are present on social media platforms. As the overall usage of social media grows, it puts a higher demand on the sport organisations to be present in these channels (Eagleman, 2013).

At the same time, many sports clubs express concern about the management of social media (McCarthy, Rowley, Ashworth, & Pioch, 2014). These volunteer based organisations often lack resources to manage their social media professional. Still, they have recognized the importance of being present online, since it can for example make fundraising easier. Several branding benefits have been seen in these kinds of organizations, when their social media presence is managed well (Liu, 2012). The social media branding issues is thus a problem. How can volunteer based sports clubs manage their social media successfully, when they do not have the resources needed?

In the following text, a solution to this difficulty is suggested, to make it easier for sports clubs to perform well on social media. Shortly, it is suggested that the clubs need to implement a social media strategy, influenced by relationship marketing. Further, it is important that they develop a shared understanding of the social media branding process. To visualize this, I use the example of the riding club Tågarpsortens Ryttarförening (Tågarps Rf).

The problem with social media in volunteer based riding clubs

Non-profit organizations, such as many sports clubs, can be categorized into two groups: mutual benefit organizations (MBOs) and public benefit organizations (PBOs). The MBOs operate for the benefit of the associates or members (Ferraro, 2000 cited in Liu, 2012). Tågarps Rf is a distinct example of a MBO, as their primary purpose is to create value for their members. It is a volunteer based riding club, connected to the Swedish Equisterian Federation, with slightly more than 100 members. They are a relatively small sized club, that struggles to find members who are willing to contribute by working voluntarily. At the same time, a lot of work is needed in the club.

Tågarps Rf have their own page on Facebook, with around 630 followers, both members and other stakeholders (Tågarpsortens Ryttarförening, 2016). Their Facebook page is used as a complement to their website. The page is at the moment managed by 10 different members, who each write their own posts about their areas of responsibility. This leads to post with different looks and language quality.

The struggle with social media is not specific to Tågarps Rf - the Swedish Equisterian Federation have pointed out digitalization as one of the main challenges for their associated clubs. Another area of tension, as seen in Tågarps Rf, is a changed pattern of behavior, which leads to a decreasing number of members who are willing to work voluntarily. This makes the club administration harder, as more work will be divided on less people (Svenska Ridsportförbundet, 2016). Further on, riding clubs today are facing a harder competition. The number of members, contestants and sponsorship are limited, meaning that clubs need to manage their brand if they are to attract members and other stakeholders.

Today, to the best of my knowledge, there is research lacking in the area of MBO’s social media performance and management. With this text, I aim increase concerned people’s understanding of this field, meaning people who do not necessarily have any academical pre-knowledge about social media branding and marketing, but who still needs to perform on social media in a somewhat professional level.

The branding benefits of social media

 It is now time for us to move further down the road, to find some solutions. But firstly we need to understand the reasons and benefits of being present on social media. In marketing, the question to ask is not whether social media is right for your brand, but rather if it is right for your buyers. It is important to be where your customers are and to use the channels that they use (Duffy, 2016). As Tågarps Rf is a MBO, it is even more important for them to be where their members are. Facebook is the social media platform used by most of Tågarps Rfs member. It does thus make sense for them to be present there.

As told earlier, consumers who like social media tend to develop a more positive image of sports clubs that are present there. Sports brands often use social media to interact with consumers in an engaging and entertaining manner, often involving a more personal or human approach (Eagleman, 2013). This provides people with easy ways to ”friend” or ”follow” the club and it is a good media for relationship building (Fournier, & Avery, 2011). Further, it presents a cost effective medium that embraces interactivity and co-creations. It also delivers information and feedback to a superior speed (Filo, Lock, & Karg, 2014). Social media platforms also help clubs with making their brand visible and therefor ease their process of getting fundraising or other kinds of sponsorships (Liu, 2012). This means that Tågarps Rf have the opportunity to communicate in real time and build stronger relationships with their members as well as other stakeholders, such as potential sponsors.

But it is not enough to be present on social media. A page needs to be managed in a good way. In the football industry, for example, it has been found that social media, when effectively managed, can drive the generation of both commercial value and brand equity (McCarthy et al. 2014). If that fails, if the page is badly managed, it can instead have negative impacts on the clubs brand.

Relationship marketing - a way to improve the online success

One of the big challenges with social media is the easiness for consumers to question brand image, identity and values (Christodoulides, 2009). McCarthy et al. (2014) showed that many football clubs were concerned about this, how it could impact their brand identity and image. Tågarps Rf do not generate the same amount of user-generated material, but still, they also show concerns about their control of the conversation online. On their Facebook page, members sometimes share posts that can have a negative impact on the club. They lack a strategy of how to deal with it.

Branding online is today about facilitate these conversations and the co-creation of meaning is important. The hierarchical, one-sided communication model used in mass media does not suit the dynamic nature of the Web 2.0 (Christodoulides, 2009). Eagleman (2013) saw that several national non-profit organizations used social media as a strategic communication tool, to strengthen the relationships with fans and to promote the sport. This takes us to the relationship marketing method, that ”refers to all marketing activities, directed towards establishing, developing, and maintaining successful relational exchanges” (Morgan, & Hunt, 1994, p.22,). Because of commitment, involvement, shared values and trust, things connected to sports fans behavior, this is a method that are applicable in the context of the sport industry (McCarthy et al. 2014).

Grönroos (2004) argued that interaction is key for relationship marketing and that a strategy, planned communication process is needed. If they are integrated, it can add value to the customers and strengthen the relationships. Further, this approach will drive forward the sense of community in clubs, to create a stronger sense of co-ownership of the club among its members. It also provides the club real time consumer insights via interactions. This is useful for future relationship marketing activities, as the club then will have more knowledge (McCarthy et al. 2014).

A relationship marketing approach provides a more focused view of the social media, which in turn can furnish non-profit organizations with a clearer idea of how to manage their social media branding. It is important that the brand let go of some of the control in the co-created communication (Christodoulides, 2009). The club needs to decide how to handle different situations, to get a coherent social media performance and thus a higher online success (McCarthy et al. 2014).

Tågarps Rfs does not have this approach, which becomes clear when looking at their Facebook page. They mainly use it to share information, without any deeper underlying thought of how or why. It is the same when they interact; the relationships do not appear to be in focus. What instead seems to navigate the actions is a mentality of "this might hurt us so we need to do something quick”.

If Tågarps Rf were to start with relationship marketing, as I believe they should, it would help them with their social media branding. Their page would get a more distinct purpose and the people responsible could elaborate more similar ideas about the social media branding. The relationship focus is further suitable, as Tågarps Rf is a MBO. Their members are their reason to exist and good relationships with them is essential.

The importance of a social media strategy and a shared understanding

A planned communication process can support the development of relationships (Grönroos, 2004). However, most clubs have been slow to develop a social media strategy, even though it would be beneficial for the branding process. How to deal with the control of conversation should be one part of this strategy (McCarthy et al. 2014).

Noteworthy, it is not possible to tell exactly how this is to be done. In order to actually facilitate the user-generated material, Singh and Sonnenburgs (2012) developed an idea about improvisation theatre. They view produced material online as stories being told, and argue that it is a social phenomenon, because a narrator and listener are involved. Online, with the opportunity of co-creations, it becomes more complicated: a listener can at the same time also be a narrator. To manage the brand is therefor to manage the stories told, which is a process of improvisation. To handle the tension is to handle the relationships. In social media branding, the brand needs to understand both their own and the consumers roles in the play for meaningful brand performances.

As addressed earlier, Tågarps Rf is not in the position where they can put one person in charge for their social media, due to the lack of time. At the moment, this makes it more difficult for them to facilitate the co-creation, as they have different views on how to interact. As strategies and tactics are a way maintain quality (Liu, 2011), the development of a social media strategy would result in even more branding benefits for the club. Within this strategy, some guidelines should be provided on for example how to interact. As it is a process of improvisation (Singh, & Sonnenburgs, 2012), it is impossible to create a how to-guide, but with the relationship marketing focus explain, the people involved would be provided with the basic understanding of the social media branding process. This would increase a coherent view and thus a higher brand performance and online success.

Social media branding do not have to be a struggle

With the right approach, social media branding do not have to be a struggle. If a sports club develop a strategy and focus on relationship marketing, especially since their members are so important, the people who manage the social media gets a clearer, more coherent idea of how to interact. This in turn can increase the online success.




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