Trends & Features

Hold the online

So you think Facebook and Twitter are just for posting messages and idle gossip? Apparently not – the sports business world is turning to these mediums for further inspiration. John Bensalhia talks to leading industry experts to get their take on the benefits of creating an online presence

Thirty years ago the business world was a very different place. Mention a mobile phone or website to your Average Joe and it’s a fair bet it’s the sort of thing they might have seen on Tomorrow’s World.

Today though it seems the business world can’t get by without technology, and in particular online networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, not to mention email. To the untrained eye, Facebook and Twitter are only used to communicate a person’s deepest thoughts. Twitter is normally used by celebrities to post their news and thoughts in bite-sized morsels, while Facebook usually sees untold millions communicating jaw-dropping news – usually along the lines of what they had for tea that night.

But despite the mundane gibberish, Facebook and Twitter can serve their purposes very well in the business kingdom, and especially in the sports world., for example, is the brainchild of health and fitness entrepreneur Julie Hanson and young Scottish entrepreneur Andrew Mitchell. It is a free-to-join community that combines social networking, message boards and user-created clubs to, in’s words: “Transform how we organise and play our sport.” It also says that: “Sport is the perfect niche for a social networking web platform. There are few subjects people are more passionate about.”

Andrew Mitchell explains the concept and the reasoning behind the initiative: “We’ve created myclublink because our extensive market research suggests that existing social networks provide disjointed solutions that do not handle specific needs for sporting participants such as finding others that share their interests, organising games and activities, communicating with their clubs or finding new clubs, and communicating effectively with governing bodies and organisations.

“We believe that existing sport offerings provide almost none of the interactivity and engagement expected in today’s social media environment. myclublink brings together those who have a common interest in a particular sport and groups them together in one single platform.”

In business terms, the possibilities are endless. The myclublink platform is perfect for sports clubs, governing bodies, organisations and unions that may not have the resources or desire to build and maintain their own online communities. As Mitchell says, the social network is an ideal outlet for both individuals and businesses to communicate with others.

He explains: “Sport is something that 11million people are actively participating in, and are therefore passionate about it. For them, there are fixtures to organise, news to communicate, social activity to arrange, photos to upload, etc, and myclublink gives them the tools to do all of that in a very easy to use format.”

So what are the main advantages of online facilities such as the internet, Facebook, Twitter and email for independent sports businesses? Chris Barling, CEO of ecommerce supplier Actinic (whose customers include sports retailers) says that there is a definite commercial opportunity to be had.

“The internet in general, and Facebook and Twitter in particular, are on a relentless rise, with more people spending more time on them than ever,” says Barling. “At the same time, the costs of doing business on the web can be quite low. The rise of online businesses means that existing trade is migrating there – if you’re not selling there you’re missing out.”

Barling says that the key to using online tools is to prepare carefully. “The digital/online world presents the same challenges as any new business area,” he says. “The key thing is to learn before you leap. You cannot only take advice from friends and fellow business people, as there is also an immense store of information on the web, which can be found by searching through Google for topics like ‘ecommerce’ and ‘selling online’. If you don’t prepare carefully, it’s certainly possible to waste a lot of money with little success.”

Networking sites do at least provide a good source for word-of-mouth business. The more people that hear of you and your reputation, the greater your chance of boosting profits. So what better way of promoting this than online?

Michael Tomlins, managing director of InfoMedia Services, a company that specialises in mobile services, says that an online facility: “Provides a platform for your biggest supporters to promote and recommend your brand, products and services to their friends. This word-of-mouth marketing is incredibly powerful with far higher conversion rates and, of course, a much lower cost. This is especially true for mobile services as a significant and increasing segment of the market that access email and social networking services do so via their mobile.”

The sports business is all about people. But sometimes this can be a double-edged sword, especially in an industry that fires up so much passion. “The biggest potential drawback is that customers can set up campaigns against your company or product,” says Tomlins. “A recent high profile example was the campaign against Nestle.

“Sports fans tend to be passionate and it is important to realise that this passion is a double-edged sword. The best way to deal with this is acknowledge that customers will be able to obtain significant reach with negative remarks, which may or may not be factually correct.

“Companies need to proactively monitor social networks and respond in a positive way within the medium. The worst way is to bury your head in the sand – ignoring negative publicity will only lead to it snowballing.”

Tomlins adds that the two key words for successful management of online facilities are outsourcing and communication. “Get a specialist to run it,” he comments. “Whilst it is incredibly powerful, digital communications is not core business to sports. The most important thing is that the business and communications partner include online and mobile elements in all communication. So make sure that everyone buys into the idea upfront and get the best partner you can find.”

Jamie Watson, joint managing director of design and marketing agency Pixel8, is a keen advocate of Facebook in particular, especially since it provides the opportunity for interacting with customers.

“A Facebook site is an addition to your website that allows you to engage with your customers in a much more personal way,” he comments. “It’s a great way to showcase the human side of your business. You can quickly respond to customer comments and suggestions, provide helpful advice and tips about using your products and services, share other customers’ experiences, offer discounts and above all deliver excellent customer service that’s seen by hundreds or thousands of your followers.”

For those not in the know, Facebook offers various facilities such as a chance for outsiders to say whether they like your business. This in turn provides an outlet for customers. “When you can get happy customers to ‘Like’ your Facebook page, your Facebook content will appear in
their news feed, allowing them to catch up with your content,” says Watson. “The fried chicken chain Nando’s is a company that uses Facebook very well to talk to its customers.”
While Watson does advocate the use of Facebook and Twitter, he adds that consulting an external specialist would be a good idea, because proper management of these two sites can be quite time-consuming.

“You won’t see results from them if you just dabble, and they are not techniques that usually create an instant increase in sales,” he says. “If you are determined to explore how they can benefit your business, it might be worth a conversation with a social media marketing company. More often than you would think, it takes someone from outside of your business to be able to see the full picture of how you can make social media work for your company.”

Adam Boyden, president of Conduit, a leading provider of website syndication solutions, says that no self-respecting sports business should ignore the many benefits that online services provide.

“With awareness of online services now sky high amongst both businesses and consumers, more and more people are searching, comparing and buying online than ever before. Quite simply, any sports business looking to make sales cannot afford to ignore the web.

“Ecommerce can extend sales geography, lower overheads, and provide a useful route to managing customer relations and expectations.”

Boyden agrees that Facebook and Twitter can also turn first-time customers into long-term ones who will return time and again.

“Community-based web applications such as Facebook or Twitter can be a useful way to share exclusive content with a brand’s fans, which can prove a great tool for converting first-time customers into long-term advocates of a brand,” he says.

“Offering special discounts or product tips on a regular basis via these channels will encourage customers to download information from a site and consider purchasing products, and that applies whether they prefer to purchase online or offline. By allowing their customers to participate in an ongoing conversation, brands can significantly boost customer retention levels.”

The trick for businesses though is to keep up with the technology Joneses. They need to keep on top of changes in websites and online tools in order to retain their online customer base. “Small businesses must adapt to the pace of technological change and be flexible online,” asserts Boyden. “Faster broadband connections – combined with far more sophisticated websites – have made the customer experience far more engaging. The earlier generations of websites were just HTML and simple images. With today’s high speed broadband, sites are not shy about using flash, multimedia, videos, ajax and many rich media technologies to give readers a superior browsing experience.

“If online retailers don’t adjust to consumer expectations, they won’t be around long. Pages need to load fast, so they should include less information, smaller images and targeted information – preferably based on user preferences that can be obtained via personal information obtained during a previous visit, if applicable.”

Boyden adds that smaller businesses need to be highly efficient in the way they create and promote their online content. “To get the most bang for their buck, content should be limited to highly relevant topics and needs to be spread across all available channels,” he says. “It is worth looking at ways to harness the management of online presence into one platform to maximise the effectiveness of online outreach.

“The advantage of this approach is that businesses need not convince visitors to consistently return to their website. Brands simply have to find a way to motivate customers to install one application, which will then keep them updated automatically from their browser with all of their favourite brand’s activity. Even if smaller businesses are restrained by limited time and budgets, we have found they can be extremely innovative in the way they use online marketing technologies. With new tools emerging all the time, perhaps the rapidly rising impact of online influence will soon mean that small sports businesses will soon be able to go toe to toe with the largest brands online.”

Of course, the aim of creating a substantial online presence is to increase sales. As Neil Scoble, managing director of online media group Hi-media, explains, using the right mix of digital advertising techniques will put sports businesses in a strong position to increase brand recognition and drive sales online.

“Fans increasingly use a variety of platforms to access the content that keeps them updated on their favourite teams, and this offers a greater opportunity to use targeted advertising across a number of channels, be it via video, mobile or premium websites.”

Scoble also agrees that a third party needs to work in tandem with business owners in order to achieve the right results. “Businesses need to work with ad networks that provide full visibility of where their digital advertising investment is being placed. They also need to fully brief all partners on the brand’s key messages, as well as what type of consumer they are looking to target. This enables the ad network to place advertising on the most relevant sites, to use the most up-to-date marketing material and to ensure that the campaign helps the company meet its business objectives.”

The main message is to move with the times. Because so many people are using computers and online facilities nowadays, businesses need to take advantage of this. More people tend to use online shopping sites such as Amazon, and regard this method of shopping as a far more preferable one to battling the crowds on the high street.

The right management and a good grasp of the latest technology will considerably advance the cause, but sports businesses should enjoy a great deal more success by taking advantage of going online.

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