The Marketing Interview: Russell Stopford, Manchester City

Marketing, August 15, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Marketing Interview: Russell Stopford, Manchester City


The Premier League champions' head of digital has focused on Twitter as the primary vehicle for capitalising on its success on the pitch, writes John Reynolds.

Manchester City's Sergio Aguero can't stop talking about it. Teammate Mario Balotelli - ever the contrarian - is indifferent to it. On the other side of town, Manchester United seems to be doing its best to ignore it.

The 'it' is Twitter, which this past season has cemented its position as the social network of choice for leading footballers. Millions follow their tweets, which are then amplified by a traditional media that revels in this unprecedented access to players' views and lives Football clubs are also joining the party, with the aim of enhancing their brands and making more commercial gains from their legions of fans worldwide.

Leading the charge is Manchester City, the club that in May ended a 44-year wait to become Premier League champions. The effort is masterminded by Russell Stopford, the club's head of digital - a serial tech entrepreneur and a qualified molecular physicist with a love of marketing.

Digital domination

Stopford, who joined the club at the end of last year, plots Manchester City's digital domination from an office near the club's Etihad Stadium. The room resembles one belonging to a mad professor, full of whiteboards scrawled with details of digital innovations. From this lair, the humble printed matchday programme - once the main communication mechanism of a football club - is viewed as an anachronism.

The starting point for City's myriad digital initiatives, says Stopford, is that they operate on a quid pro quo basis with supporters. He points to the crowdsourcing of fans' ideas for the club's iPhone app as an example.

'Manchester City is now a digital-first brand,' says Stopford. 'Social media fits with the brand values of the club: transparency and giving the fans something unique.'

This is an attitude echoed across the sports marketing industry. Sean Walsh, who runs the sports digital media blog Digital-Football.com, says: 'City's strategy of entertaining rather than marketing has been the crucial difference between the champions and every other Premier League club on social media. By understanding the passionate psyche of a football fan, they bridge the gap between fan and superstar.'

Twitter sales director Bruce Daisley bestows similar praise. In his role as a judge of the 'Social Brands 100' league (Marketing, 30 May), he was impressed by the club's output, citing its activity around '#Champions' as 'one of the best examples I've seen' of a promoted trend. Manchester City was 16th in the chart, making it the highest-ranked football club.

The club's use of Twitter stands in stark contrast to its rival Manchester United, which has a feed, but has yet to post a tweet. Over the past year, Manchester City has used the micro-blogging platform to host live chats with star players such as Nigel de Jong and invited fans to suggest a team talk to club captain Vincent Kompany via Twitter - an innovation that has, according to Stopford, been copied by other clubs.

The fan who posted the most inspirational tweet - as chosen by Kompany - received the skipper's matchday shirt, armband and a poster of their speech signed by him.

Stopford also highlights that former captain Patrick Vieira - who became a Manchester City ambassador after he retired from the game last year - can often be found tweeting his 'not bland' views on the club's official feed during matches. The club also runs moderated 'big-screen tweets' by fans on match days at the Etihad using '#blueview'.

Relaxed approach

Managing the players' own social-media accounts is not part of Stopford's brief; however, he is relaxed about this. He reveals that Argentinian superstar Aguero has embraced all things digital. The striker tweets to his 1.7m followers in both English and Spanish.

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