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We launch our 2021 Q&A series by drilling down our focus on football. As a sport driven by fan engagement, we thought it intriguing to discover just how a Premier League football club has been handling these unchartered times during the pandemic. Especially the digital team, who have had to deliver even greater creative flair and imagination to showcase an even stronger presence (online) towards fans that can’t attend match days in person at the stadium.

Owain caught up with Richard Pepper, Head of Digital at Wolverhampton Wanderers FC (Wolves) to discover some of the approaches they’ve taken. There’s lots of juicy insights and takeaways throughout, including some surprising findings:

“We actually now have significantly more Spanish speaking followers than English through Facebook.”

1. Please introduce us to yourself Richard. Could you explain a little about your role and responsibilities at Wolves FC?

This is my third season working at Wolves as Head of Digital, having held a similar role for Bristol Sport for the previous five years. I focus on the digital strategy around the club’s owned digital channels – how do we create digital experiences that help us in two key areas; driving audience growth and creating commercial opportunities through digital.

2. How big is your digital team and are you all exclusively in-house?

The club has found itself growing quicker than anticipated meaning we’re playing a little bit of catch-up with the size of the team. Currently feeding into our digital platforms are myself working closely alongside our customer insights and loyalty manager. The majority of development and maintenance of our digital platforms is carried out by third party agencies although through our ownership group we are expanding our in-house capabilities and have plans in place to grow the team rapidly in the near future. English content for our channels is handled exclusively by our media team which is one of the best in the industry, with overseas content managed by a similarly talented specialist agency. 

3. Has the pandemic impacted the digital team’s workload and in what way?

We’ve been kept on our toes for sure! The limitations on face-to-face contact has meant that the whole businesses focus has shifted to digital overnight. As someone who has spent 15 years in the digital industry with the past eight in sports marketing, it’s been refreshing to see colleagues realise the power digital can offer. This has meant a lot of digital projects being begun or accelerated. Alongside this we’ve had to ensure we’re providing the best experience possible for our supporters to feel connected to the club from their homes as well as providing new inventory and assets for our partners to see real value during this period.

One such example that nicely ticked both boxes was an augmented reality (AR) integration through our mobile app. The feature allows supporters to open their device camera through the app, drop a virtual doorway on the screen, and physically walk through the doorway for a 360 degree view from pitchside through their screen. This had great engagement and gave us another asset to activate our partnerships through, with clickable branding provided throughout.

4. How challenging is it to plan your social content across an ever increasing number of platforms; most recently with the emergence of TikTok and how do you address this challenge?

As mentioned earlier, I truly believe we have one of the top content teams in the Premier League. The secret to their success is the meticulous planning they put in place and the deep understanding they have of our fanbase as well as the different audiences that inhabit each platform. They simply never seem to take a misstep with any of the content they produce which is down to both their great talent and also having several lifelong Wolves fans in the team to use as a sounding board. I’m starting to show my age but with so many social media platforms coming and going since I began my career in 2006 I understand the importance of timing when launching a channel on a new social platform and this is something our content team also get. They take their time when evaluating whether or not we as a club should use a particular platform to understand the commitment and level of resource required as well as the long term benefits.  TikTok is an interesting platform as it requires such a different tone of voice to traditional social media in order to resonate with that audience. Our team took their time to understand the platform and since launching last year have managed to create some of the most engaging content of any Premier League team on the platform.

5. How conscious do you need to be of audiences beyond our shores? With a large number of playing/management staff being Portuguese; what challenges has this presented to the digital team? 

Yes this is a key point for us. The years during which social media really developed as platforms probably coincided with the club having struggles on the pitch meaning when we returned to the Premier League three years ago we had a very modest base in terms of audience numbers. The focus therefore has been on audience growth with overseas and foreign language being identified as a key driver for any potential growth. We have a few really natural fits for this; with the squad and coaching staff featuring so many Portuguese and Portuguese speaking members that region is one we have targeted. Raul Jimenez being the superstar he is and performing so well in the Premier League also means we’ve seen an exponential growth in audience in Mexico and North America. We actually now have significantly more Spanish speaking followers than English through Facebook. This growth has been powered by working with a third party PR agency from Mexico (and Portugal) who really understand that audience and culture meaning we are producing content that really engages those supporters. 

Through our ownership group we also have ties to China and South East Asia which allows us to tell the Wolves story in that region. The challenges for us in the UK is really keeping on top of everything that’s going out and ensuring it represents Wolves in a consistent fashion whilst still resonating well with that particular audience. That and the time differences being on opposite ends of the scale mean that there can be some long days!

6. Are there any digital products or tools that you would advocate for use beyond Google Analytics that have proved useful to Wolves in understanding fan engagement and their experience through Wolves’s digital platforms?

These tools are all very specific to the results you are looking to achieve. For us some of the best have been:

7. With the increasing need for remote collaboration, have there been any tools or apps that your team have found particularly useful as a result?

Slack and Jira are both tools that I’ve used extensively with our third party developers both before and during the pandemic which work really well. Our business has also used Teams really successfully over the past 12 months – really impressed with how Microsoft has built this out.

8. How do you evaluate and track the success of your campaigns and posts?

We use the various insights available to us through the channels we post campaigns as well as GA for web and Horizm.

9. What are some of the biggest changes in the way modern football clubs approach digital today?  What developments do you see on the horizon?

I think all clubs now have a social first policy which of course has its benefits and its drawbacks. Clearly the numbers of people that clubs can reach is absolutely huge, meaning that we can get our message and content seen by people we just never would have had access to before, opening up different partner opportunities as well as ad revenues. However it’s also easy to get caught up in the immediate feedback these platforms give and make rash decisions unless you’re blessed with the calm and methodical team we have at Wolves. 

The way in which supporters are consuming content has shifted more in the past five years than it probably has in the previous 15-20 so the challenge for myself personally is to understand what role club owned platforms play in this new ecosystem. Traditionally a club website or app was the gateway for supporters to learn more about their team and access the platforms that drive commercial revenues for the business (data, ticketing and retail). Now that supporters access most of that content through social or other channels, our challenge is to provide a compelling experience which draws those supporters back in to help maintain those commercial revenues that help support all of the great things we are achieving together. 

Many thanks for the insights Richard! Stay tuned for the next part of our Q&A series.

Richard Pepper – Head of Digital at Wolves FC

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