In the digital age, football is more than goals, wins and championships. The new currency as hot as Bitcoin are the fans, and their combined reach and engagement on social media channels. And that's a whole new ballgame.
We interviewed Heiko Schulz, Head of Digital Club Platforms with Bayer 04 Leverkusen, to learn about the social media strategy and activities of the club, the role of the star players, and how the club is leveraging social content in their digital platforms and services. With a reach of 2.6m followers on Facebook alone, Bayer 04 Leverkusen ranks among the top third of German Bundesliga clubs on social media.
About three years ago, Bayer 04 Leverkusen turbo-charged their social media activities, and you were able to increase the number of followers substantially. What changed in your strategy at that time?
Heiko Schulz: We got started on social media in 2010, first on Facebook and Twitter, later adding Instagram and Snapchat. Lately, we launched Sina Weibo and WeChat for the Asian market.
In 2015/2016 we started focusing on international activities. The plans and strategies had been in place for some time, and with the signing of Mexican player Chicharito, who already was very popular on social channels, the process gained momentum.
As a result, we were able to significantly increase our fans and follower numbers on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – real fans, of course.
Does that mean your content is tailored to your stars? Chicharito had several million followers on Twitter when he joined Bayer 04.
Heiko Schulz: As a rule, star players build excitement for a team or the club as a whole. We have certainly benefitted from Chicarito's popularity, and he and other star players such as Hakan Calanoglu with a high number of followers on social channels have helped us to grow the brand awareness of Bayer 04 worldwide. We have a number of exciting players and great personalities. Stefan Kießling, for example, is a well-known face in our top team, both nationally and internationally. Young players such as Leon Bailey or Panos Retsos also create significant opportunities for us.
With engaging storytelling around our team and the players, we attract attention and fans, and we strengthen our brand. In addition to matches, we can provide behind-the-scenes information, images and videos from practice sessions, historical data etc. – a lot of content a football lover's heart desires.
What are the key objectives of your social media activities? And how do those resonate with the content?
Heiko Schulz: Our primary goal is to further increase the reputation and popularity of Bayer 04 Leverkusen, both in Germany and internationally. To this aim, we have set up international versions of our website and our social media channels. We now serve four markets: Germany, the Spanish-speaking market, the USA, and with our global page the rest of the world. Depending on current events (e.g., international matches), we offer dedicated content for different regions. With Panos Retsos, for example, Greece has become a highly relevant country for us.
Separate versions helps us better target our content and activities to different local markets. For example, we have been on tour in the US with our mascot „Brian the Lion“, and we have held several training camps in the country. Of course, we accompanied each tour with extensive reporting on social media.
Germans have a reputation for being a bit reluctant to use social media. How is your experience with the different languages and markets?
Heiko Schulz: Regarding engagement, I really can't say there would be any difference. German, English or Spanish – our fans share the similar passion and enthusiasm for the club.
At the start of the 2017/2018 season, you introduced Flockler to your website and are now displaying content from social media channels throughout the site. What was your goal?
Heiko Schulz: With our complete website overhaul and relaunch, we wanted to make social media activities accessible to all those who do not use social media at all, or do not follow us yet. Not everybody is on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and yet we produce so much appealing content for these channels; news, video clips, teasers, and more. We aim to provide an engaging service to our fans strengthening the relationship and increasing the time spent on the site.
Secondly, we wanted to create something unique and what separates us from the competition: It is not a common practice for Bundesliga clubs to integrate social media and owned media in such a sophisticated way.
In addition to news and behind-the-scenes materials, we pull live social media updates to our site during the matches. It means that our fans can follow the match updates in real-time and share the excitement even if they would not be watching TV or using social channels.
Besides pulling in the club's social content and live match updates, you have also integrated players' social content on their profile pages. How do you support your players in social media?
Heiko Schulz: In the past, we have provided them training with the tools, and we've given them tips what type of content to share. Before the start of the season, we created social media guidelines and made them available in different languages. However, it is vital that our players' posts are authentic, and therefore our role is mainly to provide tips, best practices and support.
Our target is to make the relationship mutually beneficial for both the club and the players. Our marketing team provides additional content, such as images and videos from matches or training sessions, and of course our social updates. We encourage our players to share our content increasing the reach of the club, and we appreciate their help. On the other hand, we regularly share our players' content, too.
How do you integrate your sponsors and partners into your social media activities?
Heiko Schulz: There is a number of formats in which we present our partners, such as goal posts, lineups or activities at friendly matches. We often use content templates that have performed well in the past and are familiar to our fans.
You publish a vast amount of posts, images and videos. Could you describe your content creation process and team?
Heiko Schulz: We have a dedicated media team producing the news and behind-the-scenes material, but also live updates and comments during the matches. The team includes several content editors, a video team, and a number of photographers. You can describe it as a reasonably large-scale operation, especially on match days, when in addition to text updates, different interactive formats of content are published on social channels and then automatically displayed on our live match pages using Flockler social media aggregation tools.
Finally, we have our in-house leadership team responsible for curating all the content, selecting the pieces to be published, and ensuring we provide an enticing content mix.
What part do agencies play?
Heiko Schulz: Agencies help us with the strategy and planning; sparking new content ideas and campaigns, and occasionally helping us with the implementation.
Which digital channels do you operate besides social media?
Heiko Schulz: Our website is our main channel, together with 600 digital screens in the stadium. In addition, we run campaigns in digital channels, ticketing campaigns, push messaging on mobile apps, and more.
Heiko Schulz: Generally speaking, it is important for us as a club to continue to inspire and expand our fan base internationally. Social media is undoubtedly a valuable tool to achieve this. And, as a club, we are looking at opportunities to increase interaction and engagement with our fans even further, for example, with dedicated fan events both online and offline.
Media rights are centrally marketed by the German Football League (Deutsche Fußball-Liga), including specific regulations on what we can publish when and where. That is another reason why owned media continue to have such high importance for us. On our website, we can publish certain content earlier or exclusively. With the mix of interactive content; videos, images, facts and information, and the option to buy tickets and fan merchandise, the website will continue to play a central role in our strategy.