I am absolutely delighted to bring you the latest Sports Marketing Scotland interview with Blaine McConnell, the Digital Marketing Manager of the invincible treble winners, Celtic.
We talk through the club’s brilliant success off the pitch this season too, Blaine gives fans an insight into what goes on behind the scenes at the club and I ask all the usual questions too.
If you could just take a moment to introduce yourself?
I’m Blaine McConnell and I’m the Digital Marketing Manager at Celtic Football Club. It’s been a long road to get my breakthrough and it finally came in a role and environment I always wanted to be in. Whilst at Queen Margaret University, I secured a work placement at Setanta Sports when they covered the SPL back in 2009. It eventually turned into a paid placement working as a Graphics Operator for matchdays. At the time I took whatever job I could to break into the sports industry so I could find my feet and work up the ranks.
Most colleagues I spoke with knew people in the sports arena which helped get their start, however I decided a focus on offline marketing was the route for me to go down. I have been fortunate to have worked at global organisations in Glasgow and Qatar within financial services. I always monitored roles which became vacant within football though.
Talk us through your role at the club, and how it links in with the other departments at the club?
My position at the football club is technically a new role that was created in order to help support the digital transformation of the club. As a massive Celtic fan I guess you could say it’s a “living the dream” job, particularly in a season that’s involved appointing Brendan Rodgers, going a full 38 SPFL games unbeaten to become invincibles and winning a domestic treble.
— Celtic Football Club (@celticfc) May 27, 2017
Being part of the creative concept for the Christmas video, the 2017/18 kit launch and season ticket campaign has been fantastic too. Being a supporter definitely helps.
My role at the club consists of liaising with many departments including Celtic TV, Celtic View, marketing, sponsorship and social media to name a few. The great thing about my role is the diversity. I sit between the traditional marketing team and the social media team to help with content curation strategies for engagement and revenue purposes.
It’s important on a daily basis that all areas of the brand are appropriately represented and the key to that is regular communication. My role is very “hands on” in collaborating with members of the marketing team in the creation, production and execution of digital brand campaigns.
Getting input from a couple of fans, it looked to them as though the club did go through a bit of a transformation last summer, with the marketing efforts seeming much more polished. Was that in fact the case?
Football in general is undergoing a transformation. In a digital age, football clubs are trying to find their feet and their tone of voice on social media. The great thing about the club is everyone works together for the same cause. We will conduct research, analyse the data then come up with several concepts to create, develop and implement. Of course successful football helps, however there has been a theme behind our season ticket strategy. Tomorrow Belongs to US, Glasgow Belongs to US and The Treble Belongs to US are all references to the journey the club is on, so it’s important the marketing efforts reflect this. There have been contingency plans for all eventualities.
This has been your first season working in football, after coming from a banking background. How’s the season been and how does football and Celtic compare to the corporate workplace?
I couldn’t have dreamt about joining the club at a better time to tell you the truth. It has been incredible. The club anticipated a big season and it’s probably been bigger than anyone ever imagined.
Like every company, digital media is still in its infancy and trying to establish its relationship with followers has been a really easy switch. My impression is that you get more responsibility working in sports which is great for developing any skills whether it’s journalism, production or marketing.
Why do you think that is the case?
Headcount and more customers to cater for. The demands of football, with the fast paced environment, means no days are the same. That’s what you want, diversity in your day-to-day. Of course financial services can give you that too but football guarantees this. Budgets are notoriously more restricted in football than financial services so they can employ more staff whereas in football everyone mucks in for the good of the cause.
With the team going the domestic season unbeaten, and a highly passionate fanbase on and offline, just how easy has your job been so far?
More difficult than you would think. The more success the more demands basically. You still face the challenge of match tickets during the winter months, developing apps, producing creative content on Facebook and Twitter when you have played the same team at least four times.
Ultimately, another challenge which all clubs face is the rise of blogger websites. They can naturally be very flexible in what they can say to attract more followers however we can’t just say anything to increase our following. We organise a weekly and monthly plan to help us engage very closely to our fans. As a Celtic fan, the move to digital brings fans closer than they have ever been so it’s important they are getting a great experience. That is a challenge on its own. You can’t repeat concepts or bore your audience.
The capabilities of social channels mean that all Celtic supporters are catered for at least once a week so although they may follow other sites to get Celtic content…Celtic Football Club’s official channels will always be the most reliable and credible platform.
Football fans love homegrown talents that support the team too. Is having Kieran Tierney involved in any events like kit launches a no-brainer?
Of course a great player like KT who is a boyhood Celtic fan is a natural inclusion. However, like every fan, they have their favourites. It could be Scott Sinclair, Captain Scott Brown, Stuart Armstrong, Erik Sviatchenko, Callum McGregor, Leigh Griffiths, Moussa Dembélé or Vice-Captain, Mikael Lustig. The popularity of the players is really strong regardless who would be a part of a marketing strategy. Also, the Celtic Women were represented at the kit launch event. Working closely with New Balance was great. As the 2017/17 kit commemoratives the 50th anniversary of the Lisbon Lions it was crucial to have them attend such as legends like Bertie Auld, Bobby Lennox and John Clark.
It just so happens this team is as good as any team I’ve seen in recent memory and having the Lisbon Lions link in the 50th anniversary is just magical. My Papa went to that historic match 50 years ago at the Estádio Nacional for £35 and I know he would have been thrilled with things like the magnificent Hydro event and watching the 2016/17 team. So thinking along those lines, young Celtic fans or older Celtic fans will appreciate our marketing efforts. It accommodates for a variety of different audiences.
Naturally, Celtic are active across all the main social media channels. Are there different strategies in place for each individual channel? Can you give us an insight into them?
Currently we are over 2 million on our social footprint. I see that increasing rather than diminishing. Every fan is different so that has to reflect in the digital media strategy. Fans either prefer Facebook, Twitter or Instagram depending on their appetite for social. For instance, fans looking for information on players or tickets tend to go on Facebook or Twitter. Facebook (like most clubs) is the biggest audience, particularly Facebook Live.
Twitter is a channel which has to be concise and precise with its messaging and appropriately has to land at the right time. Instagram is all visual so the correct image has to reflect the mood of the club. Snapchat is used for every match giving our millennial audience a behind-the-scenes look at the preparations ahead of a big match.
The club have been great in terms of the amount of freeview content via our social platforms. Anyone who doesn’t have a Celtic TV subscription feels apart of the Celtic family and perhaps will entice them to subscribe to Celtic TV.
Is there a process in place that monitors and analyses the performance of your digital platforms?
Yes, we currently use a facility which monitors match attendances, what our reach has been on a particularly video and how we can then use this information into a structured and successful marketing campaign message. You can learn a lot from your audience and we listen to them regularly so we can get into their way of thinking.
If you don’t listen you can’t communicate. Take the Tomorrow Belongs To Us marketing campaign which touches on our pride in our past and faith in our future. This was carefully used to coincide with our fans optimism.
How has the response been from the fans to the 2017/18 season ticket campaign? Do you closely monitor the general online sentiment too?
The response has been incredible. We had a feeling that whatever our choice may have been it would have been a winner. We really wanted to encapsulate this season in all its glory. Launching the season ticket video on Facebook Live reached an audience of over 1.2 million. Personally, it’s my favourite out of the videos we’ve done this season. In terms of ROI, we expected them to do well but we wanted to give the fans something back and generate excitement for next season. Now going into season 2017/18 as Invincible Treble winners this optimism will continue until the season begins….Tomorrow Belongs to US. What I really like is the first-team have used our images on their own social platforms so it’s good to see them on board with what we are trying to achieve as a club.
The club make great use of the space surrounding Celtic Park, with the players’ entrance to the stadium on matchday now an event in itself, plus the recent 2017/18 home kit launch. How important is it for you to engage with the fans regularly through events like that?
It’s massively important. Also, the Family Fun day at George Square attracted over 7,000 people before the Celtic v Borussia Monchengladbach match in the Champions’ League Group stage and Celebrate ’67 at the SSE Hydro arguably was the biggest event the club has done. This sold out in 30 minutes featuring acts like Rod Stewart, Susan Boyle, Bay City Rollers along with legendary managers such as Sir Alex Ferguson, Martin O’Neill, Kenny Dalglish and many, many more.
For our Young Hoops club members and the BT Sport Family Stand at the stadium we have brought in amazing events like a Santa’s Grotto at Christmas and having staff from the Glasgow Science Centre at the stadium to accommodate our younger audience.
Those fans are the future season ticket holders so becoming a Celtic fan at an early age means in later life there’s only one team to watch. The Celtic Way in particular has an amazing setting and an incredible attraction so the space is always used effectively.
The great thing about coming to Celtic Park is the actual experience for everyone. Anytime I walk up the Celtic Way even if it isn’t on a matchday, it just fills me with an unbelievable sense of pride. Looking around the stands takes you down memory lane with pictures of our greatest successes.
The club has organised numerous events around the 50th anniversary of the Lisbon Lions triumph, like the aforementioned Celebrate ’67 at the Hydro. How important is it for Celtic to draw on emotive past events to influence current campaigns and activities?
It’s really important that this season it was recognised. Half a century ago players born within a 30 mile radius became the first British club to win a European Cup in 1967. I think it was essential to include this messaging and what’s been amazing is the club matched the historic 27th unbeaten domestic match milestone set in season 1966/67.
Chants of “In the Heat of Lisbon” at matches are testament whether you’re a younger or older Celtic fan that you are part of the journey. There’s never been a better time to be associated with Celtic as fans are excited about what the future might bring under the current regime.
This season has brought so many incredible moments so it was amazing to see how our creative closely reflected the reality of what has been achieved.
I wanted to ask about the now annual Christmas campaigns too. Is it the aim to become the John Lewis of football?
Although there have been several Christmas adverts the club has done, the last Christmas video exceeded even our own expectations. The creative was fantastic and my role was to get maximum exposure for the video from a digital marketing perspective.
The Telegraph regarded the video as their top 5 adverts last Christmas which was a fantastic triumph. When you consider John Lewis cost £1 million to make and a further £7 million for marketing endeavours I think that alone is an unbelievable success. The advert gained a marvellous response from our fans and a wider audience.
Also, we tried to keep a marketing campaign message by having Lisbon Lion Bertie Auld make a special appearance and who can forget Leigh Griffiths as the “elf on the shelf”?
We’ve touched on Celtic’s Scottish fanbase quite a bit, but what of the international market? How would you rate the chances of continuing to broaden your reach into countries further afield?
We keep our international fans up-to-date with all our developments via a number of social channels one of the great ways is Celtic TV. The coverage this season has been exceptional and offers amazing archive footage and exclusive content so no matter where your home is… Celtic is always invited. Think of how much impact Shunsuke Nakamura had. He was an icon in Japan when he signed so that market opens up opportunities when you sign players from a particular region. Of course, playing in European competitions means you tap into a wider audience and that will continue to strengthen the clubs international market.
There are huge differences between the off pitch operations across other clubs in Scotland. What advice would you give to clubs with smaller teams off the pitch to enhance their marketing efforts?
There are many things which can restrict a football club, such as fanbase and budget. That being said, this shouldn’t be an excuse not to market the club to supporters. I have been impressed with many marketing campaign messages from our Scottish clubs this season and being innovative is the key from a digital perspective. You can’t control on field performances, however you can control off field staffing. I’m fortunate to work in football but if the opportunity had arisen when I was younger, I would have happily worked at a football club without a salary. Perhaps clubs should not just simply look at experience but look at giving more people an opportunity.
Many people work at football clubs for the love of their club so why it’s not explored more regularly I’m not sure. From a club perspective, they need to be more inventive and even if they have a limited budget, they can increase revenues provided they have a clear strategy.
Are there any other clubs or organisations, at home or abroad, whose content has impressed you recently?
I really like what Liverpool and Man City do. They are on top of their digital platforms and always look to be creative as much as possible. Particularly, Liverpool’s use of Instagram is excellent with Instagram stories. Celtic and Liverpool were one of the first New Balance partners to adopt the “swipe-up” option via Instagram stories for followers wishing to pre-order the new home kit. The advantage is everyone got notified about the kit launch so it was difficult for them to miss the announcement.
What’s on your radar to do more of next season at the club?
I think when you take time to build your social audience you must make sure you maintain all the things that work well and continue to look at ways to increase your social media footprint. As digital evolves, so will Celtic Football Club. We will look to continue the digital transformation including developing apps and our official website. The club is in a great position so it’s important we closely connect with supporters digitally and make them apart of the club.
The club has dabbled in a few live streams across the season, what’s your opinion on Facebook Live and the ability to stream matches on the platform?
La Liga recently announced a deal with Facebook to live stream regular matches on the social media platform. That deal with Facebook built on La Liga’s live streaming ambitions which saw it become the first European football league to live stream a match to Facebook Live when it broadcast a fixture from the Women’s La Liga in May 2016. I think it has a long way to go because why would a club want to cannibalise its TV revenue market? Sure you get more eyeballs than normal and a bigger audience however with TV contracts, sponsorship rights, etc it’s not as simply just to stream a live match. Possibly pre-season matches are when it may be introduced by other clubs however I can’t see this for any competitive matches for a long time.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone looking to make a move into the sports industry in Scotland?
My advice would be don’t wait on an opportunity to present itself. Take the initiative. If you wait on a job advert you can wait forever so why not research their digital marketing concepts, put together some ideas and send them over to the club. If it’s good enough they will call you. Alternatively, if there is a job advertised and your called for an interview why not piece together a project and surprise them at the interview stage.
Be patient, confident and stay motivated then your break will come.