If a kid in Spanish Harlem, New York, says their favorite soccer team is Manchester City then do not ask whether they mean United. Manchester's other association football team may not get much exposure on U.S. primetime TV, but it is known in El Barrio party thanks to a mobile app.
Getting this exposure was no mean feat. "You do not have to go far back before Manchester City was a wasteland," says Paul Doleman, CEO of iCrossing UK, one of the digital marketing agencies helping the team build its mobile app strategy. "It had not won anything for many years.
"How on earth could a club like Manchester City attract any attention in the U.S. market? It simply would not be on the radar. That attention would be going to Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, it would be going to Liverpool; it would be going to the successful, famous brands around the world."
However, Manchester City harnessed the power and popularity of social media and mobile communications to change that, and in doing so joined an elite but expanding number of soccer brands using new technology to forge deeper relationships with a growing number of fans.
Let us make one thing clear at this point: compared to most other brands, soccer teams do not have a problem in terms of forging relationships with their ‘customers'. "Once you are following a football club, you are highly unlikely to switch to its nearest rival," Doleman observes.
The challenge, particularly for less well-known teams, is to extend these relationships beyond an existing hardcore fan base and thus increase the potential for additional advertising and merchandising revenues that can fund the purchase of better players.
In Manchester City's case, part of the answer was to create an iPhone app called Cityecademy that would allow aspiring footballers worldwide to learn and share tips with the team's star players.
"We knew they had some great content, we knew they had very high production video," Doleman says. "So we helped them create the digital equivalent of an academy, which would tap into the youth marketplace in the United States."
The selling point was not that Manchester City was a well-known brand, but that it could help learners improve their own game. It worked.
By the time the team toured the United States a couple of years ago, it used it's social media know-how to get New York's bloggers worked up over a Chinatown kick-about.
The club, which this year broke a 44-year league title drought by winning the U.K. Premier League, is now looking at location-based mobile services, using foursquare to encourage fans to get to games early with content and retail offers.
Other soccer brands are engaged in equally innovative app initiatives.
Southampton Football Club, another Premier League team, is using augmented reality-based apps on Android and iOS platforms to allow fans to carry out virtual treasure hunts, capturing content in a manner reminiscent of that employed by the popular iButterfly app.
"The football clubs see it as a way of communicating more directly with their fan base," says Chris Brown of Clear New Media, which has created the popular app Football on the TV. "Especially for the clubs with global appeal, the app market reaches that global market quickly."
He adds: "It is a growth market. It is not going to reduce. More and more people are going to keep getting smart phones. Clubs see this as a way of being ready to communicate with these people. I think it is going to become more and more important."
Seen from a wider perspective, soccer clubs' use of apps is just part of a wider trend of embracing new communications technology to enhance the fan experience.
For example, Manchester City's membership card, which doubles as a season ticket, has augmented reality markers on the rear and a Quick Response Code on the front that gives the holder access to unique content.
What is clear throughout is that soccer clubs, which have for so long specialized in heart-stopping live action on the pitch, are increasingly looking also to deliver an exciting virtual fan experience anywhere in the world.
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