Our Wednesday: Developing an Official Social Networking Site for Fans

our-wednesday

A few weeks ago, following our piece on Man City’s innovative online work, I was tipped off to a website in beta being built by Sheffield Wednesday’s web team that is one of a kind as an official club production in England: a social networking site that gives fans a forum, the ability to blog, upload photos and videos, make “friends” and create groups.

Unlike Manchester City’s expensive effort, this was built by a Championship club at a much smaller cost, and is an interesting experiment in how clubs can use social media to reach out to fans and build community online.

It’s called Our Wednesday, and we talked to one of the men behind it, James Hargreaves of Sheffield Wednesday.

1) Tell me about the thinking behind the launch of Our Wednesday, the club’s new online social community site. Why was it felt important to create this for fans? What can it do that the main official site doesn’t?

JH: To set up a bit of background – when internet entrepreneur Lee Strafford (founder of UK ISP PlusNet) took over as Chairman of Sheffield Wednesday just over a year ago, online messaging and functionality was identified as one of the ways to effectively communicate to and involve supporters whilst providing convenience for them as customers.

The first step in this was to create a useful online retail environment, where fans can quickly and easily buy merchandise and tickets. The club set about creating a functional portal where supporters can buy their tickets online, print at home and scan their barcode on it for entry on the turnstiles, creating real value for the club and convenience for the fan.

The next step was then to create an ‘official’ community. Online engagement had been neglected by the club’s previous management team and there was a real desire to interact with and involve fans again. Sheffield Wednesday has gone back to its roots of being a ‘community’ club – as evidenced with the gifting of the shirt sponsorship space to The Children’s Hospital in Sheffield. Online engagement is one of the keys to getting supporters re-engaged with their club.

There are plenty of unofficial forums that do a superb job of allowing discussion space for supporters and Sheffield Wednesday have an extremely active online audience through those channels. However, due to the problems surrounding the club over several years a lot of mistrust had built up between – and even within – those communities. We sought a way to counter this and create something different but ‘official’ to begin the long process of getting the majority of online community back into a trusting and productive wider online community.

OurWednesday.com was built mainly as a social networking site to create not only a bond between the club and its fans, but also strengthen bonds between the fans themselves. At the very heart of OurWednesday are positive messages – the ability to add friends, the ability to create groups and find commonality, the ability to share memories with photos and videos, the ability to have discussion – and to have your say – with other supporters and people from the club itself. It’s less about just shouting messages at people via news on an official site and more about involving the supporters in the goings on.

The main difference between OurWednesday.com and the official site is that conversation. The official site is a formal place to go for all your news and information, whereas OurWednesday.com is then about informally discussing all those things and more; thus creating an involvement, buy-in, ‘stickiness’ and adding real value to the wider community. It is our view that the internet is not only about serving information, but about creatively involving all the stakeholders.

The idea is not to replace the main official site or the other unofficial fan sites and forums, but to compliment them in an official, yet informal, manner to build up a meaningful online community.

2) What were some of the drawbacks considered about creating a site that allows fans more freedom to interact with each other on an officially sanctioned site?  How do you moderate all the photos and videos fans add, and do you keep a tight rein on what’s discussed on the forum?

JH: Of course there are a number of potential drawbacks with creating such an online community, especially when it comes to crowd-sourcing a lot of the content from the users themselves and allowing such freedom across the site. However, I am a believer of always trusting people to do the right thing in the first instance and as long as the guidelines are laid out from the start then people are generally very sensible.

I feel there could be an initial mindset that, as an officially sanctioned community, it would be a propaganda machine or that opposing views are not welcome, however we’ve all been involved in internet businesses and communities long enough to know that that simply wouldn’t work – and it’s not what Sheffield Wednesday would want from an online community either.

The content that is added or discussed on the site is entirely down to the users themselves – all that we ask, via the guidelines, is that it is not illegal and is in the spirit of a community club (i.e. no swearing or inappropriate comments). There is no ‘tight-rein’ as such; if a user is annoyed with the performance of the team on a Saturday, then they are entirely free to discuss their frustrations – after all, that is what football is all about!

Indeed, so far the moderators have only had the need to edit a few swear words that have inadvertently dropped through the net and hopefully that will be the case as much as possible on an ongoing basis.

In terms of moderation, currently I myself will monitor what content is added by users to the site along with a very small team of volunteer moderators from the fanbase. As the community grows we will recruit more of those moderators from the community itself and effectively allow the community to govern itself much more – this is an ongoing evolutionary process.

3) What kind of a budget did you have for the site?  What kind of tools did you find to build it for a reasonable cost?

JH: Without going into commercial information, I will say that the cost of developing the site to where it is has been minimal. Using a mixture of experience, open-source technologies, capable supporters from the fanbase and contacts throughout the internet industry we have managed to build a very functional site at a very reasonable cost.

4) How successful has the site been so far?  What has been the main positive and negative feedback that you’ve received about it?

JH: We are still in the early stages of our online engagement and still developing all our web properties (of which OurWednesday.com is just one piece) – and all early signs are good.

We currently have over 1,000 members of OurWednesday’s open BETA trial and that number continues to grow, with usage increasing in all areas across the site. Feedback has mainly been positive with each of our blogs (either departmental updates, or insights into happenings at the training ground) being discussed across both Sheffield Wednesday and opposition teams’ forums (opposition fans are generally impressed with how open and engaging our club is with its fans through OurWednesday.com). As an example of creative and open content that we look to provide, our most popular content to date (in terms of page views) is a blog on humorous applications received for the recent managers’ vacancy.

The only real negative feedback we have received is regarding the registration process and the information that is collected – however, supporters generally understand when we explain the reasoning behind it is to create an account at the online shop, to help make a seamless login across both sites. We’re looking at streamlining this somewhat and also introducing login for OurWednesday.com through a Facebook Connect feature in a future release.

Additionally, our Facebook page has reached over 10,000 fans – which we believe to be the highest number for a Championship club – and our Twitter profile now has over 2,000 followers, again believed to be the highest in the Championship. We believe that this, as well has having one of the most frequently updated official club sites in the Football League demonstrates our commitment to open online engagement.

5) Do any other clubs in England have a comparable official online community site?  If not, why do you think that is?

JH: Surprisingly, a number of football clubs in England do not even have a Facebook page or Twitter account, yet alone something along the lines of what we are doing. There have been one-or-two attempts by clubs at something similar through various hosted solutions, however we believe we are the first club in England to have our own dedicated social network platform for supporters.

There are a number of reasons clubs haven’t yet extended into these avenues. Resources is a big factor in an environment where a lot of clubs are cutting back, however I believe that most football clubs in the UK can be ‘old fashioned’ and are struggling to understand the online marketplace and the benefits of such engagement – we are happy to be a trendsetter in this respect!

Thanks to James for taking the time to answer — check out Our Wednesday to see how this all works in practice.

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