Manchester United shoots and scores on the field of digital engagement

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan February 18, 2019
Manchester United has a clear goal in mind - digital engagement with its fanbase on a global scale.

When it comes to loyalty and consumer engagement - two of the Holy Grails of the digital economy - one of the sectors most advantaged is that of sport. And when it comes to football - in the UK sense of the word - few teams are more on top of their game than Manchester United.

Once home to the likes of David Beckham and Christian Ronaldo, Manchester United enjoys a global brand recognition that few other sides can boast. In recent months, that’s not always been entirely in its favor - the team recently sacked manager Jose Mourinho in a coup that cost it an estimated £19.6 million and sent the fanbase into uproar.

The noise surrounding Mourinho’s departure could be heard from around the globe and that’s in large part due to the digital network that the club has invested in for several years. The game plan is clearly articulated in the club’s strategy:

The rapid shift of media consumption towards internet, mobile and social media platforms presents us with multiple growth opportunities and new revenue streams. Our digital media platforms, such as mobile sites, applications and social media, are expected to become one of the primary methods by which we engage and transact with our followers around the world…these actions help to ensure that we have both a greater degree of control over the production, distribution and quality of our proprietary content and better insight into how to evolve our mobile & content strategy as we continue to develop and roll out carefully targeted new products and services.

In addition to developing our own digital properties, we intend to leverage third party media platforms and other social media as a means of further engaging with our followers and creating a source of traffic for our digital media assets. Our mobile & content offerings are in the early stages of development and present opportunities for future growth. We believe we have the opportunity to further leverage our extensive CRM database, which includes over 45.5 million CRM records, our more than 73.9 million Facebook connections and more than 19.3 million Instagram account followers.

Most recently the club released a mobile app which debuted 6 months ago. According to Manchester United Group Managing Director Richard Arnold, this is now the number one downloaded football app in the world, dominating the leading stores. He also points to month-on-month growth in all user metrics - downloads, monthly active users, number of visits, visit per user and time spent, and user retention.

It must be said that not all Manchester United fans are entirely sold on the emphasis being placed on digital success stories as opposed to match winning track records:

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But the digital gambit is well worth celebrating, argues Arnold, bolstering the club’s coffers:

The point worth making is that that phenomenal engagement and the phenomenal digital reach also means that the value of what some would refer to as traditional inventory, also remains very, very sought after, because it's such a powerful connecting tool with our fans. That represents an increasingly valuable commodity in an increasingly valuable, like in increasingly fragmented media landscape.

The app is providing us with the ability to have a closer relationship with our fans and provide them with a one-stop-shop for all things Manchester United, including breaking news, statistics, highlights and other exclusive content.

In addition, there are material business benefits including the cross promotion of other clubs of our other club products and services. And the growing user base also presents increasingly attractive opportunities for our commercial partners through brand integration initiatives.

And he insists that fan adoption and enthusiasm has exceeded all expectations to date:

When the app was brand new, the kind of record breaking engagement statistics we were seeing in terms of dwell time, video time, frequency of visits, we felt were reflective that the first so many million fans to come on to the app would be the most fervent. Even in our upper most expectation, the continuation of that trend as we've added more and more fans has surprised us.

This does have implications moving forward with future enhancements, he adds:

Consequently [there is an] underlying the need for us to, a, analyze deeply and b, be patient in determining at what point we're settling to what the kind of long-term trend will be in terms of those underlying metrics, because it's easy in the first few weeks to be in danger of getting carried away, but what we're finding is that it has been sustained.

There is there a lot of time and attention that went into both measurements and analysis, and testing of what works with apps and we did that around the world with different kinds of apps in different kinds of environment. So the product that we launched certainly wasn't the first in the world, but we aim to make it the best. That's been borne out and we believe that that's very important in the sustainability of the engagement level we're seeing with fans.

Correspondingly, as we look to the future, with what we will introduce into that environment, I think you will continue to see that trend of quality and excellence being really important, ensuring that you never negatively affect the user experience. I think that will be at the heart of how we look to drive the trend of this phenomenal engagement with fans we're seeing through the app.


Another digital initiative that will roll out this year is Manchester United’s participation in the English Premier League’s (EPL) first engagement with a FIFA 19 esports tournament series, in partnership with the game’s publisher Electronic Arts. The ePremier League (ePL) will involve all 20 premier league teams in a battle to choose two players to represent them, for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One respectively, Operated by UK esports solutions provider Gfinity, the finals will be broadcast on Sky Sport, as well as the Premier League’s own social media channels.

It’s a moot point as to whether those die-hard Man U fans who are sceptical about the value of an app are likely to be sold on what might be seen as a distraction from the core business of scoring goals and winning trophies, but Arnold sees a value:

All 20 Premier League clubs are participating in the three phase tournament, the purpose of which is primarily to assess the benefits of such eSports tournaments as an engagement medium, particularly the younger demographics and to potentially attract new audiences to the Premier League.

It's the first time we have participated in esports, but the interest from our fans has been strong. We finished as the club with the largest number of registrations for fans to represent their club, accounting for around 20% of total tournament entries. We've engaged with ChuBoi, a popular live streamer on Twitch as our ePremier League host and our related video content has generated several million views already.

As for expanding the global fanbase, there’s digital spend being allocated to opening up the lucrative China market in the form of a partnership with Chinese property developer, Harves to produce a series of Manchester United entertainment and experience centers throughout the country. Arnold explains:

Each venue will feature interactive and immersive experiences, using state-of-the-art technology to bring Manchester United to live for our 100 million plus fans and followers in China. Visitors will be able to experience the thrill of the match day at Old Trafford as well learn more about the history and heritage of English football's biggest and most storied club. The centers will provide fans with a place to celebrate the club they so passionately support and further deepen the special relationship the club has with China.

The first of these immersive experience centers is First of these centers are scheduled to open in Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenyang by the end of 2020, with each venue offering visitors a different experience. There will also, of course, be retail stores attached to each one offering the full range of Manchester United-branded kit and goods. There’s a lot of money at stake here, as Arnold observes:

The popularity of football is growing very quickly in China. The almost 12 times increase in broadcasting rights, meaning China will leapfrog a number of other countries to become the Premier League's most valuable international broadcast market and that's testament to that. Manchester United is the most well sported team in the country. Alongside our digital reach, with our own platforms and presence on social platforms like Sina Weibo, our partnership with Harves will enable us to build on our close relationship with fans in China, and provide a further foothold to build a bigger platform in this important region.

My take

I’m not a football fan in the first place, but even I’m aware of the sheer power of the Manchester United brand. And while I can’t get excited by managerial sackings or the rollout of a new football strip, the club’s savvy investment in digital engagement activities has been an impressive commercial move, even if its significance has escaped some of the fanbase.

One-time club manager Sir Matt Busby famously said:

At United, we strive for perfection and, if we fail, then we might just have to settle for excellence.

That seems to be a mantra that has now moved onto a digital playing field.