What is your football club doing to dazzle on the web?
In an imaginary Victorian boozer in a sepia-tinted corner of the globe, old blokes gather to talk about football back when it was good. It is a tempting retreat, with some fantastic flagship vehicles such as Got Not Got and 500 Reasons To Love Football using modern media to hark back to a glorious past.
To clarify, this isn’t to suggest that any individuals involved in those ventures are stuck in the past. Most of the time, I’m right there with them – appreciating what I can from football in the present while recalling a time before the game ate itself, particularly at the top level. The problem is that we’re not in an imaginary Victorian boozer – we’re on the internet. And as reprehensible as modern football can be, clubs have to use the same modern media utilised by so many football writers these days. Let’s be honest, you’re not reading this after seeing a carrier pigeon drop it on your front doorstep.
At the other end of the spectrum, as far away from Panini stickers and footballers in headbands as you can imagine, we have this kind of thing from Manchester City. It’s hard to reconcile the two but, further to that singular example of electronic communication, City are blazing a very modern trail that other clubs must surely follow.
Ryan McKnight, editor of football industry magazine FC Business, says the Manchester club’s web and social media activity is “amazing and a different world to the Football League”. So what can the members of the Football League do? None of these five case studies on the Digital Football website come from any of the 72 clubs beneath the top flight, although Manchester City make a customary appearance. And is your club as transparent as to present anything like this financial summary on Everton’s official website?
This is where names like Football League Interactive and Premium TV come in. In Issue 51 of FC Business (start at page 12), Marc Webber looks at the work currently under way to revamp the web and social media element available via Football League clubs. Before anything as advanced as Manchester City’s approach can be undertaken, the mere mention of different templates for club websites must be news to the ears of many supporters. Thankfully, seeing the same tired design across whole divisions (65 of the 72 current Football League clubs use the same template at present) will soon be a thing of the past.
Also blazing a trail at present: Tottenham Hotspur. Last week, the official Spurs website was given a lick of paint. The splashscreen is now more attractive and, the questionable visual appeal of a gigantic portrait of Harry Redknapp’s mug notwithstanding, the new front page is a design gem. Using the same dominant high-resolution image approach that has served websites as disparate as In Bed With Maradona and Lancashire County Council so well, it also focuses on the supporter’s five clear top tasks – a focus to which every football club’s website should aspire: fixtures, news, TV, tickets and shop. There’s even room for a discreet advert at the top of the page.
Let’s take a look at ten of the most attractive Football League blogs:
- Blackpool – Tangerine Dreaming
- Burnley – No Nay Never
- Coventry City – Sky Blues Blog
- Middlesbrough – Mini Boro
It could be argued that blogs contain just one task for the reader: to read what is written, with a secondary task of commenting on posts. Some may have links to online shops, but this is not a primary concern for many of the sites listed above. Football clubs must push news, interactive content and commercial ventures.
Yet the number of links above the fold on a typical templated Football League club website verges on the ridiculous – at around 36, twice as many as Manchester City’s official website. Of course, no Football League club has the same financial resources as City so it is understandable that they have pushed the boundaries – they can afford to. But again, as some of the sites listed above demonstrate, good web design can be low-cost and the key is often to keep things simple.
Some football clubs may see their supporters as a captive market in this sense. After all, official websites will always be towards the top of any favourites list for the vast majority of fans. But Manchester City’s approach indicates something different – a deliberate effort to engage with supporters which could help to extend their fanbase.
Outside the Premier League, some are being creative but there is often the sense that many clubs see social media merely as a tool by which they can hold competitions to get rid of the “official merchandise” (read: tat they couldn’t shift from the shop) lying around the office. Again, understandable. If there are one or two people running the website and feeds such as Facebook and Twitter, they have to possess a huge array of skills to cover everything Manchester City’s budget can cater for (what’s the betting that City have a “user experience architect”, for example?).
It is easy to see why Football League clubs seek to outsource websites. The contrast with their Premier League counterparts mirrors the situation at large and small businesses and public sector organisations – those with money do things in-house; those without outsource. But will it continue to make financial sense? And are Football League clubs missing a trick by surrendering the opportunity to be more creative and engaging? This is where the news that Football League Interactive are revamping their approach is to be welcomed with open arms. The ubiquitous “picture specials” on the templated Football League club websites seem the most obvious lost opportunity. Any blog or messageboard would kill for the chance to be legally creative with those kind of visuals.
As a task, news is worth separating out and treated in isolation. Traditional outlets such as official club websites and national and local newspapers are increasingly being beaten to the punch by blogs, messageboards and social media when football news breaks. This is especially true at Football League level where official site resources are often at a bare minimum, the nationals are barely interested and local papers are struggling to keep up.
Here, football clubs must play their trump card and ramp up everything that only they can control. Will, for example, the current Football League Interactive contract be revisited to see whether it is worth attempting to emulate Manchester City’s model of free audio and video content, rather than the current paid service on offer from the vast majority of Football League clubs? Although the appearance of footage of the teams lining up in the tunnels before a game on an official website may seem like a world away from the good old days, maybe this is an innovation worth exploring.
In the meantime, we wait to see where Football League Interactive go next. Time to push the boundaries?