Trust and Truth are the Secrets to Fan Loyalty

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Trust and Truth are the Secrets to Fan Loyalty

Sports organisations should pay closer attention to their own communication platforms. But as part of any communications strategy, truth and honesty are crucial.

by Andy Roberts

We’ve talked recently about the huge importance of the club/federation website and app as the focus of all communications and marketing activity and not being seduced into neglecting those owned channels in favour of external platforms. 

But - even if you have rebalanced your approach and are making the most of the data you collect on your owned audience - all that hard work on strategy and content creation will be wasted if your organisation does not command the loyalty and trust of its fans or audience.

As we’ve seen recently with the owners of Bury FCand Bolton Wanderers FC, if you lose the trust of your fans, they aren’t going to believe a word they read on the club website, much less spend money through it. That’s why the bond between club and fan must be nurtured and reinforced as part of any marketing and communications strategy.

Clubs need to focus on fan loyalty

Of course, sports clubs and federations are starting from a position of strength here in that brand loyalty already exists and, unlike in pretty much any other business, it is the club’s to lose. It’s not all black and white either. You can have a situation such as that as Manchester United, where fans continue to spend hundreds of millions on season tickets, hospitality and merchandise despite over-arching hostility to the controlling Glazer family and consistent under-performance on the pitch since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson.

Similarly, the club-fan relationship can be affected by single issues, as when Hull City FC owner Assem Allam tried to change the name of the club to Hull City Tigers. Fans were overwhelmingly opposed and fought the change successfully, but the overall relationship at the time remained positive and they continued to back the owner’s ambition for the club, although that relationship has soured in the years since owing to relegation and other factors such as ticketing policy and changes to the club’s crest. 

Openness and transparency will reap financial rewards

The overriding need here is to maintain a sense of openness and transparency at an organisation, even when things are going badly. Otherwise – in the case of a club - fans will feel as if they don’t have a stake in its future and, although this may be true from a legal point of view, it threatens the basis of the emotional bond that ties the two together. If you want to see the strength of that bond, you only need to see the coverage of devastated Bury fans mourning the loss of their EFL status.

While most UK clubs can boast a fanbase that is fiercely loyal and passionate, supporters can easily be alienated by lack of communication from their club or federation. We have seen situations at Newcastle, Everton and other clubs where the owners are reticent to speak to the fans, which can cause frustration, even when things are not going badly on the pitch. 

Another cardinal sin is to issue statements or give interviews containing contradictions or claims that the fans simply do not believe. One example of this is the recent statement by Newcastle managing director Lee Charnley that Rafa Benitez had left the club owing to the lure of Chinese money, which fans knew to be at odds with Benitez’s account. 

We also saw several instances of this during the last months of Bury FC, when the owner put out several statements that later turned out to be wholly inaccurate. Untruths and falsehoods will only serve to damage the bond with fans that is so vital to the economic success of any sports club or federation. 

Fan loyalty can be stretched, but only so far

The simple message here is that your club website can be the hub of all your communications and marketing, putting you in control of fan data and messaging, but you need to focus on the club’s relationship with fans at all times. You need a defined communications strategy. Loyalty may come easy to sports clubs and federations, especially in football, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be squandered. 

So, keep in mind within that strategy, the need to be open and honest with supporters at all times. That doesn’t mean you need tell them every tiny detail, but don’t keep them in the dark about major issues affecting the club and, most importantly, don’t lie or bend the truth. 

Even if the news is bad, your fans will respect you more if you’re open with them. They will view your owned platforms as reliable sources of information and the financial rewards will follow.