After far too long, the Sports Marketing Scotland interviews return and it’s one I’ve been trying to tie down for a long time. Joe Rice is Dundee United’s Head of Communications and is a lifelong Arab too. Read on to discover how he juggles being a fan and club employee, get an insight into the clubs digital strategy and the usual questions on how he thinks Scottish football can better market itself.
Could you take a moment to introduce yourself?
My name is Joe Rice and I am Head of Communications for Dundee United. I have been at the club for around 11 years as an employee in the media department and before that, I worked as a volunteer match reporter. I have been around Tannadice since about 2001.
How did you initially get into working on the business side of football?
I was working as a self-employed book-keeper after leaving university with an accounting honours degree and I was already doing match reports as a volunteer. I had a passion, going back to school days, for design and creativity and enjoyed creating graphics using Adobe Photoshop. At the same time, I was also running a fans forum and had been a committee member of the Federation DUSC and started helping out with club graphics. When Derek Robertson, who sadly passed away in March 2016, came up with the idea of ArabZONE he thought I would be a good fit to work alongside Mark McCreery producing content. It was a change of career but an opportunity to work for my team. That is how it all began.
Tell us about your role at Dundee United, what does your remit cover?
Primarily, I am the head of the media/marketing department. The department consists of myself, Communications and Marketing Manager Riki Grauer, Video Technician Mark McCreery and Kirsty O’Hare who produces the development team footage. I am responsible for the club’s Media and Marketing content.
It is very much a hands-on role – it is a football club after all and we are all massively under-resourced! To detail some of the duties covered, I would include copywriting, marketing, graphic design, ArabZONE content production including commentary and interviewing, public relations, event management, press relations, website administration and our social media content. Some of these things I am solely responsible for and others I am only a part of the process.
Some bigger clubs in the country and down south have individuals, sometimes more than one, responsible for each of those different areas you mentioned that you have less than a handful for. I’m sure you’d love to have a riches of resource available, but how do you juggle and prioritise what’s best for the club?
It isn’t easy but it is more to do with what is best for our fans. I have a three-point strategy regarding digital comms that you can see below and as long as the media department are ticking those boxes, it is then about having a feel for what our fans want to see from us online. At times it is detrimental and I would say that our response times on social media could be better but I have to allocate a few times during the day to focus on social media. Another area we receive flack for is coverage of our development team. We have highlights from every game on ArabZONE but do not cover updates on social media. It is a resource issue and there are more important things to prioritise.
Can you give us an insight into the over-arching digital strategy at the club?
The digital strategy that I try to implement is to create engagement with supporters, ensure factually correct, accurate information is available for United fans and maximise revenue through successful marketing.
Digital is just one area of engagement but it is a high touch point. There are so many sources of information out there now and it is not always these sources priority to care about accuracy, so it is vital that official Dundee United source gives honest, accurate information. It is not necessarily about being first, it is about being authentic and trust-worthy promptly.
On maximising revenue, this is the area of measurement that justifies everything we do in our marketing to the board of directors. The link between commercial and media departments at the club has grown so close in recent years thanks to digital requirements that the two now interlock in many ways. Our new website has been a revelation with regards online sales – most notably in our hospitality sales. It shows that if you make it easy for people to buy online, particularly with a mobile phone, they will do so.
Next on the agenda hopefully is our online ticketing system which we need to improve at some point.
It’s great to hear that the new website has helped with sales, making it easier to go through the purchasing cycle on site. Would you say that was the most important thing you wanted to get right on the new website?
The most important thing was that it was user friendly and mobile compliant and mtc, who designed it, did great job in ensuring this. Their ‘bread and butter’ is merchant websites so I didn’t have any fears about the process but I am delighted with how user friendly it is for customers. Obviously, to justify the outlay on a new website, the numbers have to click so from that perspective it was important enough.
Dundee United are one of a few clubs active across most forms of social media and comms, email being one that seems as though it’s underrated by a lot of clubs in Scotland. Tell us how you measure the performance of Tangerine Times, and why it’s one of the clubs chosen method of comms to fans?
We have dipped our toe in most forms of comms tools and usually very early on in the life of the tool – primarily because I am a curious and inquisitive person who likes to learn (play with) new ideas and concepts! You soon learn which ones fit and work and those that don’t.
Email is a core communication tool and it amazes me some clubs do not see the value in it. It gives you the opportunity to deliver information in a format most demographics are comfortable using nowadays. Email is everywhere, its affordable as a tool and you can control your contacts.
We stopped doing our weekly e-news for a while – due to resource stress – but it became apparent that was a mistake and it returned in 2016.
We use MailChimp to deliver our e-newsletter and our open and click rates sit comfortably above market industry averages. It is put together every week between my colleague Riki Grauer and myself, and after more than ten years of doing it we know what works in an e-newsletter and what doesn’t.
You’ve mentioned it a few times already, just how important a product is Arabzone for the club, both commercially and in fan relations?
ArabZONE is very important for the club. Firstly, it brings our fans content that makes them feel closer to Dundee United. The video content is normally created by Mark McCreery and myself, and we’re both life-long United fans. That helps produce content that United fans want to see I believe, however I am always open to ideas and suggestions from fans on what they would like to see on ArabZONE.
Regarding content, as well as the usual pre and post-match interviews and goals clips, we produce 25-minute highlights complete with commentary of each first-team game – there aren’t many out there who do similar I do not think. I have to mention Scott Simpson and Dave Hill at this point because these guys are volunteers who travel all over the country to provide the comms most weeks.
The WATCH LIVE service which offers overseas fans the option to watch every home game from Tannadice for a fee of £8 is excellent for fan relations as it brings United supporters into Tannadice no matter where in the world they are. Some of the messages we get from these supporters brings home how valuable a service it is.
Commercially, ArabZONE covers the media department salaries, so that is a big plus obviously. In the early years, Mark and I used to produce annual DVD’s which helped supplement the subscriptions but nowadays it is the WATCH LIVE feature alongside the monthly subscription membership subs – our members are fantastically loyal to the product!
Being in the Championship has meant that footage of matches is usually available on YouTube via other several clubs media but I do not mind saying that what we offer our members is excellent value – and it has stayed £4.99 per month since it started over ten years ago. If any United fans out there haven’t tried ArabZONE, try it!
What approach do you take at the club to involve the fans and ensure their voices are heard?
For a few years, fan engagement was primarily my responsibility but now I am in am more an advisory role I guess. Colin Stewart is our associate director responsible for fan engagement and Moira Hughes is our Supporters Liaison Officer. We have a Supporters Liaison Group which is made up of United fans from the various fans groups and, importantly, independent United fans and they meet several times a season and act as a conduit for information and suggestions of match day improvements between the fans and the club and vice-versa.
My personal belief in fan engagement is very simple. Try to find ways of making the match day experience as good as it can be for fans regardless of the result. We have tried many things over the years, some successful and some not so successful and while finance and policy may sometimes be a barrier I think it is important that you strive to create the best possible match day experience for fans.
The organisations and clubs out there with the very best fan engagement buy into it right through the club from the boardroom to the pitch.
How does what you do on the comms side marry up with the community side to ensure that young football fans and players in Dundee grow up supporting United as opposed to your rivals on the other side of the street?
It was a natural fit for me to become a trustee with Dundee United Community Trust when they took over the club’s community programme. It means that DUCT have someone within the club that can help them with the marketing and promotion and it also means that the club can give exposure to all the community interaction DUCT are involved in.
DUCT is a young entity that is still finding its feet to a degree but I am currently putting together a communications strategy document for the fantastic team that is in place to use going forward to ensure the message is on brand and promotes both the community trust and the club in the best manner. Our community programme has to be the best it can be and it is important wing of the club in ensuring future generations of United fans. I am confident you will see significant improvements in DUCT’s core football coaching project in the next year.
What role do you see the club’s social media and comms have in competing for fans hard-earned money today?
I firmly believe that the issue in Scottish football today is one of value and not price. I fully understand there are people, particularly families, who simply cannot afford to go to football and that’s possibly a social issue that should be addressed. I think clubs can also play a part, however there is also a lot of fans who will say £20 is too dear for football will quite happily pay £20-£30 for a food takeaway that same night or £70-£100 for a ticket for a big concert because they see a value in it that can be justified. So, for me, it is not necessary that it be overpriced it is what you get for the money you pay is leaving people dissatisfied. A fundamental issue is that we cannot ensure a victory for our team but in Scottish football, we are miles and miles behind other sports and entertainment in providing the experience that people would value. It comes in various forms and one size does not fit all but as a collective, we have to improve so much.
Social media gives a snapshot of fan feeling. You know 85% of all social posts are created by 35% of social following? It is important that this metric be remembered. Saying that, digital is our most widely used tool out of all the marketing mediums but we also use traditional methods such as radio, newspapers, posters, flyers and the like. The message across all should always be the same; Engaging, truthful, factual – allowing fans to decide if it is worth their hard-earned money.
I will say one other thing – nothing in life gives a greater range of emotions than football. I can remember feeling so guilty – and fearing the worst – turning to my wife after a weekend of celebrating the Cup win in 2010 and admitting ‘this has been the greatest weekend of my life”. Now remember I have witnessed the birth of two kids and a marriage. Her reply? “Me too!” That is the USP of football.
What purpose does national media coverage still have for a club like Dundee United?
National media coverage still has its place. When I took over as head of the department, I probably neglected the newspapers as a medium for our message – thinking it was old school – I was wrong. It is an available source of advertising, information-giving and PR and hits a demographic which social media sometimes doesn’t touch. It is a declining industry though and I would argue the quality has diminished. There is still something joyous about reading a superbly written football article.
Are there any other clubs or organisations in either Scotland or abroad that you admire for what they’re doing right now?
I love digital marketing. I follow all Scottish and English clubs carefully and it has been great to see all Scottish clubs up their game in recent years. Down south, Man City are blowing their competitors away off the field as well. Their resources are massive but their content is top notch.
Bristol City’s GIFs are receiving some deserved praise but the NFL teams have been doing it for a few years. I follow most NFL, MSL, NBA clubs’ digital activity also and as a keen admirer of the San Francisco 49ers. I love some of the stuff they produce.
Seattle Sounders have owned fan engagement in MLS for a few years but others there are also starting to produce some good stuff. Top European clubs like AC Milan and Borussia Dortmund also produce some sensational stuff.
What’s your opinion on Scottish football needing to find a USP to differentiate itself? What would yours be?
As stated earlier, the emotion and passion in football are unique. Our own brand of that is our USP. Commitment, passion, honesty and endeavour. The glorious failures, the great inventors we have produced, the ground-breaking online games communities, all the most celebrated games we have attended; they all had that rawness and unharnessed ‘Scottishness’. It is ours and we should use it more.
What do you think 2018 is going to be the year of regarding the sports business industry?
Who knows? Voice activation and technology will improve, Augmented and Virtual Reality technology may kick off properly in 2018. I think mobile content and streaming will continue to push aside ‘traditional’ content.
Here in Scottish sport, we will probably see a few clubs with more prominent resources touch on the VR, AR and voice activated phenomenon and I suspect you may find clubs focus their websites to mobile only.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone looking to make the breakthrough in the football or sports industry in Scotland?
Do what you can to get noticed by a club or organisation. Accept that you may have to put in the long yards with some voluntary work for a while and remain true to what you believe is the correct way. If you are good enough, you work hard and people respect you, the opportunity will come. Do not be afraid to make mistakes. Learn from them and keep challenging yourself.
Thanks for reading and thanks to Joe for spending the time answering my questions. If you liked what you read, please consider sharing it on Twitter, Facebook or anywhere else.
If you’ve got any suggestions of someone else working in the Scottish sports industry, please get in touch. Also, guest posts are always welcome on Sports Marketing Scotland if you’ve got an opinion to share on the business or marketing of Scottish sport. The email address to get in touch with is firstname.lastname@example.org, or just Tweet @sportsmarketsco.