Interview: Tony Hamilton (Digital Director at Celtic FC)
Why one of Europe’s largest football clubs is taking social mediavery seriously.
I posted early this month that football clubs were failing to adopt social media, and often their idea of social media is broadcasting their RSS feed across their official channels. I’m a firm believer that clubs need to engage their fans more than ever online, but do so in the appropriate manner. So, I was extremely grateful this week to get an insight into how a major football club views social media and interview Tony Hamilton, the man behind Celtic FC’s social media.
On the digital Celtic fanbase
TH: Firstly, the Celtic cyber community is unique – have a look about, no one else has the organisation and massive scale that the Celtic support has. Anything the club attempted to do was never intended to be in competition. We could never compete for several reasons, but mainly because that community is pretty self-sufficient and anything we did would be to compliment what already was there, never replace it.
What is Celtic’s thinking behind the social media strategy?
TH: The plan to adopt social media was because we can relate to the value in it, in terms of having a conversation, engaging and, where appropriate, acting. For far too long some have accused the club of “not listening”. I think that’s unfair when you consider the amount of interactions that are undertaken every day throughout the club.
However, there was a genuine need to engage and communicate (talking and listening) with supporters through social media and, in particular, converse with those demographically who do not regularly use the traditional Celtic Media such as the website, Channel 67 or the Celtic View. Other than a few plugs for Channel 67 (mainly because I can’t help myself), there has never been a commercial message on Facebook. We know that in the fullness of time it will become a useful marketing tool but we also know that if we use it only as a way to push sales it will fail. That’s not its purpose and it’s not our intention to abuse it, but we must take advantage of it as being an effective way to communicate.
On the timing
TH: The move into the social media sector is one, believe it or not, that I had always intended. It never really came about as quick as I would have liked, primarily because there was always a deadline for something else and the production of The Official History, for example, rolled over and that knocked on a few other projects. Also, we are not rich with the resources needed to do this like some English clubs have done and when we got to launch Facebook we were aware of the commitment and what we would need to do.
The club’s Facebook growth since it started
TH: I think the growth is pleasing but we need to be realistic. It’s not surprising to us that starting at zero and climbing to c50,000 after six weeks is going to skew the statistics. Having said that I am happy that we are on track, though, by comparison to others around us, we have a long way to go.
What’s been the biggest challenge so far?
TH: The biggest challenge, even with this 50,000, is ensuring that everyone who has an opinion can be heard. The challenge in that has been that the language that is ‘every day’ in some social media circles but would be inappropriate for an official Celtic page. Other football clubs have chosen to let anything go but we haven’t. My view is that we would never tolerate foul or abusive language anywhere else at the club so we shouldn’t subject our supporters, who may be offended, to it on any given social media channel.
Having said that, people can pretty much say what they like (without swearing!). We don’t remove posts because we don’t like what has been said – we remove them because they are offensive. If, however, there’s a criticism levelled at us then that’s fine – if it’s not a personal/abusive attack on anyone (inside or outside the club) then people can have their say. If we deviate from that ‘rule’ then there’s no point in continuing. No one likes being criticised but if it is a legitimate point of view then it stays.
How has the club found using the Facebook platform?
TH: Setting up wasn’t particularly difficult and we’ve already re-designed once and there is more to come. I like the look of the Arsenal one, which your blog highlighted, and the plan further down the line would be to have individual player pages hosted by the main, official page. We’re a bit away from that, though. Facebook’s own profanity filtering software (a few years too late) has eased that pain since mid February when it works and the real challenge has been helping people who have chosen to ask for help via Facebook, as opposed to, for example, the FAQs section on CelticFC.net. The volume of that at 50,000 is reasonably intense. I lie awake wondering what it will be like when we overtake Manchester United!
What has been the most rewarding aspect of using social media?
TH: The most rewarding aspect, on a personal level, has to be not having to answer this question: ‘when are we getting an official Facebook page?’ The big reward, in all seriousness, is that our supporters and the social media demographic in particular, are very happy that we have taken this step. It is important that we adopt this policy to engage, not because ‘everyone else is doing it’, but because it is the right thing for us. It would be wrong for any organisation to claim to know its customers but it would be equally wrong not to try and know their needs.
While we will continue to develop and grow the official site we will also expand our conversations through channels such as Facebook and Twitter. For too long we’ve been pushing news and other messages and only getting feedback second hand, through other, unofficial media. I like engaging/debating/arguing/starting fights in empty houses and I love talking about Celtic so this isn’t a hardship for me.
What can we expect from the Celtic iPhone app?
TH: The iPhone app is being tested. My plan is that it will carry news, some audio content and some Channel 67 content with certain territories varying from others depending on rights. We are quite excited about the first one but I’m a bit nervous too, having read so many poor reviews of other clubs’ offerings. That’s why it’s taking so long. It needs to be right.
The official club Twitter account
TH: I have an unofficial Twitter page at the moment – @polishturnstile – and the plan is that when we have everything in place we will have an official Celtic page, which will also contain mine and one or two others. Before we move to that, though, we need to be sure we have the resources and the plan to ensure it prospers. We are working on that at the moment.
Any chance of a ‘fan map’?
TH: I hadn’t seen the Manchester City map before. Since I saw it I’ve ‘asked for one’. I’m hopeful I’ll get one soon.
What support have you had from within/outside the club?
TH: The club, from the top down, are very supportive and are very keen to see that this is delivered properly and effectively. I’ll continue to take advice from my social media mentor, Dr Jim Hamill, who helped me through my MBA at the University of Strathclyde and who knows more than most about social media. And he’s a big Celtic fan too, which makes my life a bit easier.
I really appreciate Tony taking the time to answer some of my questions regarding how the club is progressing, it would’ve been much easier to ignore my request. It’s clear from the interview (and the social media channels they have set up) that Celtic certainly understand how and why social media should be used, and I think that should be applauded. The fact that Tony was willing to discuss the strategy and happy for me to publish it on my blog, does go to show that Celtic are backing up their ethos of using social media to truly engage and communicate their fan base. This isn’t a case of a club talking about engagement but not actually acting. Tony made it very clear, even before my questions, that the club believed social media should be primarily about communicating with the fans, not selling to them.
As Tony suggests, the club has come under fire from its supporters with accusations that they don’t listen. I myself wondered for several months why the club had not yet got involved with social media. But, the club has magnificently delivered in recent weeks and as a fan, it’s been well worth the wait. It’s refreshing to see a football club act and talk so openly about their digital aspirations as well as have an excellent understanding how social media should be used. Hopefully more football clubs can adopt the same open-house strategy and avoid the usual content/merchandise broadcast.
What are your thoughts? Should football clubs be more open about their digital strategies? Leave a comment.