Live from Web Summit 2014: Just how big is Manchester United on digital platforms?

Manchester United may be struggling on the field of play following the garlanded Sir Alex Ferguson era, but that certainly doesn’t mean the giant franchise has lost its lustre among football fans around the globe. Man U Group Managing Director Richard Arnold captivated a packed Sports Stage at Dublin’s Web Summit Tuesday with an insight into the staggering scale of the football club’s digital presence around the world.

Just how big is this thing? “There are more members of FIFA than the United Nations,” he said in opening remarks. “Football is the world’s game — and Manchester United is the most supported club in the world. We have 659 million followers around the world. That’s like two Americas, where everyone follows Manchester United.”

As an example of how frenzied this support is, Arnold observed that “the new Pope was announced the same day as Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement — and we out-trended the Pope on twitter that day.”

The digital numbers: more than half of Manchester United fans are in Asia. 120 million fans are directly in touch with the club, 60 million of them on Facebook. “This direct digital engagement is at the core of Manchester United,” said Arnold.

He was clear that the club is not necessarily an innovator on digital platforms. It took time developing its “test bed” Facebook presence, learning lessons regarding content creation, fan engagement and monitoring mechanisms.

Once proper “discipline and control” were established on Facebook the club moved on to other English-speaking platforms like Google+ and Instagram, and then on to non-Western channels. One result is that Manchester United now has 110m fans in China alone. The club operates across 18 local languages, “which is a huge volume of work for us.

“Our web site is the biggest in the world,” he said, “engaging with 243 countries. Fans engage 264 tweets a minute about Manchester United. Every hour, there are 200 mainstream news articles generated from our posts and tweets. It’s an incredible multiplier effect, We’re an all-encompassing media content generator. Fan engagement underpins everything we do,” he said.

Arnold outlined five key strategies for brands seeking to engage with audiences around the world. First you must localise that content, in order to stay close to communities. The content must also be digestible. This means understanding the audience and not blasting them with noise. “More is not always more,” he said. “There is an optimal point of engagement based on content creation.”

Be “where the fans want to be”, ie on the digital platforms they use every day. “And don’t just talk, listen.” You don’t have to be first onto a platform, and you must monitor and measure the reaction to your content distribution.”

And finally, “make sure the content is unique. And make sure you give the fans reasons to return,” said Arnold.

Inevitably, the first question from the floor came from a concerned Manchester United fan. “Are you going to sign a decent centre-back in the January window?” he asked. Replied Arnold, “Oh, I see our time is up. Thank you very much!”

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