MyFootballClub is NOT a Good Model of Customer Relationship Management

I throw up a little in my mouth every time I hear fans of football clubs described as customers, as the relationship is so much more than that, yet there can in fact be benefits for fans in working with clubs on expectations of good  “customer” service. After all, we do pump huge amounts of money into their businesses, and yet fans are often taken for granted. Getting treated like a customer is a step-up from the attitude some football clubs have had to their fans over the years, especially in England.

One key avenue for businesses to do this is through what is called Social Customer Relationship Management (CRM, and don’t worry, I had to Wikipedia that) using the technology of new media. We’ve been big proponents here of football teams using outlets like Twitter to engage fans, as it can have considerable benefits for everyone in connecting clubs to their communities at low cost.

So when I stumbled upon a blog post on CustomerThink — apparently “a global online community of business leaders striving to create profitable customer-centric enterprises” — I was interested to see football clubs at the centre of Kristian Gotsch’s “11 reasons why sports clubs should take the lead in Social CRM”.

The first example he cites, sadly, is an awful example of “Social Customer Relationship Management”: Ebbsfleet United, best known as the club that became the victim of the MyFootballClub experiment as “The world’s first web community owned club”.

Assuming that clubs and leagues integrate their social media activities with their overall CRM strategies it could not be long before sports clubs – instead of being late adopters of CRM – stand out as thought leaders.

In the past years several sports clubs and leagues have taken steps in the area of social media. These initiatives range from clubs setting up online forums or using existing network tools to connect with fans to the other extreme of for example Ebbsfleet United, where fans own the club!

Although the adoption of social media in sports is still in its early stages (as it is in most industries) a range of industry specific factors – or accelerators – within the world of sports leads me to repeat the claim about the sports industry’s potential future leadership role in relation to successful (social) CRM.

Ebbsfleet United? Yes, a clever entrepreneur did put together a business model that saw “fans” buy the club two years ago. A savvy PR push by founder, former journalist Will Brooks, got momentum going as fans signed up at MyFootballClub.co.uk to pay and be a part of the takeover of Ebbsfleet.

The worldwide community of “fans” who came together typified the belief that boundaries and locality no long matter; a fan is a fan is a customer whereever he or she is. As the CustomerThink blog goes on to say:

Clubs are going international. The good old assumption that a certain geographical area is the (potential) fan base of a club has been disrupted. This is primarily due to advances in technology – both in terms of more widespread traditional technology as well as development of new technology. At every major sport club today one of the key focus areas is thus also looking beyond its own area and even its own country to connect with fans and the race is on for who gets the biggest piece of the pie first. This dramatic shift in focus by clubs in their marketing and sales strategies will only accelerate the clubs [sic] focus on social media as well.

Ebbsfleet were supposed to be the definitive proof of this, a sports team owned by a web fanbase without geographic restriction. But they have only served to prove the limitations of online social media, and remind us that clubs are still grounded in their locality first and foremost for their primary and essential fanbase, whatever the technology available for social media.

We first commented on the “bubble bursting” for Ebbsfleet just a little more than a month after the takeover, as discord about the entire purpose of the club broke out. Then, on the first year anniversary of the takeover, we learned that a staggering 23,000 of the 32,000 members had not renewed for a second year of membership.The club’s playing budget was slashed, and poor results have followed, with Ebbsfleet in a very precarious position in the Blue Square Premier league table.

A year on again, and 4,200 of Ebbsfleet’s remaining 8,500 members are up for renewal this Friday. How many will stay on? MyFC had all the web gurus in the world running a very impressive website for their members, connecting them in numerous innovative ways from video to active forums, but it hasn’t been enough.

Instead of Ebbsfleet’s disastrous approach, we’d suggest CustomerThink looks at how Women’s Professional Soccer teams in the United States or Sheffield Wednesday in the UK have at low cost used social media to get fans who are already invested in their “products” (if we must) more involved using social media.

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