Manchester United’s handling of the resignation of Sir Alex Ferguson could have been a fairly simple communications task. But the club maximised the opportunity to make a statement about its brand values, to give profile to its commercial partners and manage expectations of stakeholders from fans to shareholders.
The club has traditionally rejected social media. Some attributed that to Sir Alex Ferguson’s reluctance to let his players be distracted / exposed by social tools. But for a time the commercial department was also reported to be concerned that diverting audiences from manutd.com would reduce advertising revenue from the club’s official website.
However, this week’s announcement was given the full social media treatment. And the handling contains some important lessons for marketers:
1. Surprise can be as effective as suspense at generating buzz
Film releases are all about suspense. There’s the news that a film will be made, who will be in it. Then there’s the release date, the footage from the making of the film, the interviews with the cast, the release of the trailer and then, eventually the premiere and the opening weekend. The suspense is built over weeks, months and even years.
But as David Bowie demonstrated, in the right circumstances surprise can be as effective at generating interest. If there’s something, or probably someone, who has significant cache, their fanbase can react to the news, bringing it to the attention of the wider, passive audience. The surprise element can grab sudden attention in a way that the slow-burn of suspense may never do.
2. Make the actions obvious for your audience
Manchester United fans, and most British football fans were always going to react to the news. By placing #thankyouSirAlex on the banner of the website, the club marshalled its fanbase around a clear proposition. Oh, and they incorporated their largest commercial partner into the picture.
3. Social first, website always
Lots of brands make announcements on social media channels first. Some don’t even use standalone websites. But there’s some content that just doesn’t work on social channels. Long-form quotes, press releases – nuanced messaging isn’t for Facebook status updates. Without a website, there’s no space to make this work. And a website isn’t just for imparting news or even selling advertising but can develop passing interest into deeper engagement – merchandise sales, subscriptions, ticket purchases.
4. Don’t forget internal comms
Wayne Rooney removed ‘Manchester United player‘ from his Twitter bio on the day of the announcement of Ferguson leaving. It probably didn’t damage the Man United brand unduly given Mr Rooney’s previous behaviour towards the club. But it took some of the gloss off the day and distracted the press office. Ensuring key stakeholders are managed, and preferably lined up in support, is critical for making the most of big news.
5. Explain why not just what
Jose Mourinho was the obvious assumption for those speculating about Ferguson’s successor. Until David Gill, chief executive, set out the criteria for the new manager on MUTV. From that point on, most informed commentators expected the job to go to David Moyes. Explaining what they wanted – and didn’t want – in a new manager was critical to framing expectations amongst fans and the commentariat. Had the appointment of Moyes been a surprise, it may have been less well-received.
So 48 hours of excellent execution at Manchester United. How the team supports David Moyes’ early days in the job will be critical for determining whether or not he will be accepted by the club and its global community.