With 672 million Tweets about the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and over one billion fans reached, FIFA’s Twitter strategy certainly wasn’t an own goal. It was a veritable screamer. But there’s more to running the football governing body’s accounts than just posting up pictures of players and goals. With events going on all over the planet throughout the year, and numerous corporate initiatives to boot, FIFA’s social media strategy continues even when the players’ 90 minutes are up.
We spoke to FIFA’s Social Media Manager, Alex Stone, about what it takes to tactically mastermind an award-winning social media strategy for an event of the magnitude of the World Cup, how they plan to use Twitter in the future, and the peculiar story about their most successful social post. On top of this, we also dug into his strategy for the upcoming Women’s World Cup, which kicks off in June.
Audiense: How is the social team set up at FIFA?
Alex Stone: “We currently have 10 Facebook pages, an Instagram account, a YouTube account, and a plethora of Twitter accounts. The core Twitter accounts include five main FIFA accounts for the main languages we use, five World Cup accounts for those languages, a media account, accounts for the president and secretary general, an account for everything we do on women’s football, and one for the world cup of the FIFA computer games. Most of our accounts are in my remit, but some are run by different departments who run those specific projects.
In an average day, what does running the social media accounts for FIFA entail?
“At the moment we have tournaments in New Zealand and Canada on the immediate horizon, so there’s a lot of final preparation for that. Although I’m currently working on other upcoming tournaments in Portugal, Russia, Jordan, Japan, Chile, Papua New Guinea, and Brazil, where I may need to speak to people in those countries on any given day. With all of those time zones in play, my day currently begins at about 7am and finishes around 11:30pm. I’m the only person working centrally at FIFA in Zurich on social media, but thankfully I have someone in to help with planning the Women’s World Cup and we have a plan to get three people working full time on social media by the end of the year.
I also try and respond to some of our fans to let them know that we’re interested in hearing from them or helping them, that Twitter isn’t just a one way communication channel. We can’t get back to absolutely everyone, but doing those simple things make a big difference. It keeps us in touch with the fans and helps us understand their mindset. I think this approach needs to be the norm at sporting organisations and we’re working towards it.”
FIFA is a global brand, regularly bringing a diverse mix of countries together. How do you provide a social presence for as large an audience as possible?
“Our social media accounts mirror our editorial set-up for FIFA.com, which caters to our five core languages of English, French, German, Arabic, and Spanish. Each language has one social media manager who I liaise with daily, although we have about 35 editors on the site and roughly three quarters of them also contribute to social media.
For the World Cup section we currently cover Russian too, which also has Russian social media editorial responsibilities. Where we have a large tournament that’s run in a country not currently served by a FIFA language we would look at augmenting our social content to include them as well, such as Portuguese for the World Cup in Brazil.”
What are the overall strategic goals of FIFA being on Twitter?
“We launched on Twitter just before the 2010 World Cup. Our idea was to build an audience, tell them about what FIFA did, and connect with fans. Fast forward to 2014, and when we analysed everything after that World Cup we realised we’d reached over a billion people on our various social channels.
That was the start of our next journey, where we realised the extent of the reach we had. The next stage of our social evolution is going to be working out how to engage with those people on a more regular basis. We want them to be interested in the other events we run, in Football as a whole, and of some of the less publicised aspects of what FIFA does. Our goal is to build a consistent presence with this content rather than just dipping their toes in every four years for the World Cup.”
What parts of FIFA are you working on creating a greater awareness of using Twitter?
“If you read the papers there may be times when you see negative representations about FIFA, but the truth is that we have people working hard on positive projects all over the globe and we want to get the word out about those things too. For example, people might see in the news that we made a lot of money from a TV deal and their story stops there. On Twitter we can spread the hugely uplifting stories of the projects that we’re spending that money on to benefit the sport and local communities.”
In terms of creating your own brand narrative, how different is it now with Twitter compared to when you started working in football communications?
“When I started at the Football Association in 2000, we’d create amazing bits of content for some of our programmes and getting it out there could be a serious challenge. If I had social media at the time, the flexibility of content and the opportunity to share what I saw immediately to a large audience would obviously be incredible. We could share video footage of the England blind team doing skills that sighted players would struggle to do, while professional sighted players tried blind football for the day. The engagement, reach and awareness on a piece of content like that would be massive. At FIFA in 2015, I’m looking to use this platform in a way that I couldn’t back then and communicate the role that we are playing in using football to help better the world.
Another advantage would also be the access to journalists and publications, they’re all on Twitter and all looking for a good story. Trying to persuade them to come on a train ride with me to Hereford for the day to cover a story back in 2000 was a lot of work. Now you can engage them with great content on Twitter that’s already getting a reaction, this helps encourage them to pick up the story.”
How do you create a social media plan for an event as large as the World Cup?
“A big lesson from the World Cup in Brazil last year was that we planned a little too late. We still delivered, but because of the cycle of other events we sometimes found ourselves a fraction behind where we’d like to be. So already for the 2018 World Cup we are looking at getting a plan in place two years before the tournament begins, whereas for similar events in the past it’s been closer to 6-9 months in advance. Likewise, for the 2015 World Cup I’m aiming to get all my content ready about a month before it starts, rather than a couple of days before flying out. This preparation for the biggest events should mean we get a little more time freed up to deliver good results for the smaller ones that happen in between.”
With a busy calendar of events at a global organisation, how do you find space to discover new tools, ideas or best practices within your social plan?
“Our events are in different places all over the world, so there’s always opportunities to try out new technologies or ideas locally at some of those events before rolling them out on a global level. This year alone we have about 7 events that I’m working on, where we can give things a go that we might not be ready to experiment with on the scale of the World Cup.
We also use those opportunities to learn about those local audiences and seeing what has worked there that can be applied to a wider audience. For example, in 2017 we have the Under-17 World Cup in India. At the World Cup in Brazil, India were our number one country on social media by a huge margin despite having never been in the World Cup. They’re traditionally a country more interested in Cricket, but we’ve uncovered a huge amount of people who like football. So we’re looking at the people who have been promoting the local leagues and teams over there on social media, as something has clearly been working to build up that audience and give the fans something they enjoy.”
What was a key factor in FIFA reaching over a billion people during the 2014 World Cup?
“We realised that there were only about 2.5million people who had a ticket for a match in Brazil, yet there was a huge number around the world who would love to be there but couldn’t. So we wondered how we could make them feel involved, and the idea we came up with was The Global Stadium. The concept behind it being that social media was a place for people to join together, discuss the tournament, and generally be part of the World Cup conversation using the second screen. Our website was also redesigned in the run up to the tournament to be more friendly to the social and mobile user. These factors, combined with a great tournament, fostered conversations that flourished further than we could’ve reached just on our own.”
How did you use the data that you got from the billion people you reached during the tournament?
“We didn’t immediately do as much as we perhaps could’ve from a strategic point of view. Not because we didn’t want to, but because we were slightly taken by surprise at the size of the response we got. For many organisations, by 2014 they were probably very mature in terms of what they were doing with social media and how it was all being measured. However, there’s only a World Cup every four years, which is a long time in social media, so we had no precedent of what to expect. As a result, we’re only really getting round to looking at the data now. We’re trying to make sense of it all, pick out actionable information, and decide what we want to do next.
We’re trying to see what type of people visited the website off the back of the world cup, who might be interested in the upcoming Women’s World Cup, what countries are all these people from, who has followed us, how old are they, what languages are they speaking? This can all be used to help inform our communication strategy going forward to make sure we’re delivering the most effective service possible.”
In what way did the social success of the World Cup influence the FIFA brand from a commercial perspective?
“Before the World Cup, we would’ve looked at major clothing or food brands who are very experienced, creative and mature with the marketing plans. They were our benchmark that we aimed for and looked up to, but now we can say both internally and externally that we have an impressive social audience too that we didn’t really have before the World Cup. So moving forwards, we’re looking at how can we combine FIFA’s newly discovered social audience with those of potential partners. How can we create something together that benefits the fans at the stadiums, at the fan fests, or even online? In that respect, the reaction to the World Cup on Twitter and social media has potentially opened up a lot of doors for us that might not have been there before.”
How does Twitter help with FIFA’s commercial aims?
“In the future I think it’s going to have more involvement with our commercial aims. Even though our focus is currently on building awareness and engaging with fans, there’s still a role we can play in helping those fans in a commercial sense. For example, FIFA.com is currently the only legitimate place where people can buy tickets for the World Cup. So for the last World Cup we were producing videos for people explaining the process of buying a ticket, what happens if you see a ticket on the black market, and other questions people might have. We also kept people informed of when they were on sale, and what the demand was. While that doesn’t directly make us money, it helps smooth the commercial process for people who do want to spend money on our events.”
What social media lessons did you take from the 2014 Men’s World Cup that you’re looking to take forward to the 2015 Women’s World Cup?
“The biggest takeaway that we’re taking forward from Brazil last year is for our social content stick to a simple concept based around some key pillars, the four Fs:
We tried this at the last World Cup, and the main thing we felt we needed to work on was not getting swept up in everything that was going on with the football. It’s the main part of our organisation, but it can be easy to go overboard on that content and forget about the other areas. The BBC, Sky, and others will cover everything to do with football, so we need to make sure we’re covering the things that are unique to us which they might not give much attention to.”
What steps are you taking to ensure that you do achieve that mix of content on social during the 2015 World Cup?
“We’re planning on breaking down content for each stage of the competition in advance. It can be easy to try and push out all of our content and messages out all of the time, but to make sure we make the biggest impact with we’re thinking strategically about what to post and when. For example, the last days of the group stages can have two matches on at the same time, with loads of stuff happening. So posting something about a specific initiative during that time is likely to get lost amongst all of the action. We realised in 2014 that you don’t have to fill every moment, and by being a little more picky with when you share your content you’ll get the best results.”
In what ways do you think FIFA can improve the experience for the fans attending matches in the future using Twitter?
“We’ve been looking at things that have been working at other clubs, and trying to gauge what gives the fan the best possible experience. We can’t ever take them for granted because without them it’s an empty stadium! Getting feedback from the fans about what they want in the stadiums for our events is something we’re keen to look at, as there’s always a debate around how to get the best atmosphere.
Following that, we can look at how we can deliver information to fans on simple things like where the toilet queues are the shortest, or where fans can get specific food products from. Then there are preferences like what music people want to hear in the stadium, and how loud would they like it to be. We don’t currently have something in place for those things, but involving fans to get the best experience is something we’re having serious discussions about.”
What kind of analytics to you look to get with your Twitter activity?
“We currently try to aggregate all of the data that comes in across our social channels and pick apart our peaks and troughs on a weekly basis. In this overview we try to see if there’s a pattern that emerges between these key points. It could be the type of content we’re sharing, the type of audience we’re reaching or the location of the audience. Then we’ll try and discuss any potential segmentations we might wish to do off the back of those discoveries.
For example, at the moment we will target some posts by language but perhaps in the future we’d get better results if we did it by country instead. It sounds basic, if there’s content the Spanish language and it’s not relevant to people in Costa Rica, Mexico, or Central America, it could affect our engagement rate by targeting those users with it.
We’re also looking to get more reports during the Women’s World Cup and review afterwards in the same way that we had during Brazil. This time though, we’ve got a better idea in advance of what we want to find out. So that if we do get a report, we’re getting something with four or five different areas that we can tie together rather than 20 that we can’t make any conclusions from.”
What Have You Found To Be The Main Benefit Of Twitter?
“For me, it’s the real time event side of things. On FIFA.com we’ve had live blogs in the past, but for us to give a sense of what we’re doing in real time is still very powerful. A few months ago we had a conference about women’s football and women’s leadership, which we streamed online. Halfway through the day, we decided to extend the discussion out to Twitter and could bring all of those views into the live discussion in a way that we’d never been able to do before.
Everyone involved agreed it was an excellent idea, whereas six months ago there would’ve been people who were very uncertain about involving Twitter in such a way. That connection is something we’d love to do more of in the future, letting the man or woman on the street know that FIFA are open to hearing their opinions on where they want the game to go.”
What was the individual best post of the 2014 World Cup from FIFA?
“Our most engaging post of the entire World Cup, which we had done months of preparation for, was actually an accident. We had a backup team at home to cover social while the team out in Brazil were sleeping. My colleague who was covering our French content wanted to put out a quick post to France a couple of hours after the final had finished to say congratulations to Germany, and link back to the match report on the site. He only posted the word ‘BRAVO’ with a great photo, and he accidentally sent it out to the whole world on our main World Cup account. The simplicity of it resonated with fans around the world, and it reached over 29.9 million people. All from a mistake!
Want to hear more insights and opinions from digital marketing and social media professionals at some of the world's top brands and organisations? Check out the other social media interviews in our Spotlight Series, including NASA, Paddy Power, United Nations, Pizza Express, and many more.