Content lessons for the team that did not win a League game all season... but did not sack their manager
At the end of the football season, Brechin City hit the news, seemingly for the wrong reasons. They were the first Scottish club to go a full League season without a win in 126 years. Whatsmore, they did not change their manager.
This struck me as an interesting challenge for the club's content team but, as Club Secretary Grant Hood explains, continuity, communication and consistency are at the heart of Brechin City's ethos.
First of all, tell us what the season has been like? Do the numbers tell the whole story?
Much of the media chat is around simply failing to win a game all season but, it should be stated that we are a part-time team who found ourselves in a league of predominantly full-time opponents after an unlikely play-off promotion in our manager Darren Dods’ second season. His first season had seen us adrift at the bottom until a couple of games from the finish, as a run of eight wins in our final 10 games saw us enjoy our own version of the ‘Great Escape’.
The advantage of full-time over part-time became increasingly prominent as the season wore on, especially when postponed games were scheduled for midweek. This is something which is much more impactful than simply small budget v large budget (think Burton Albion in The EFL Championship). Although we fell away in the final quarter, for the majority of the season were never that far off, with us losing no less than 15 games by only one goal. As a community club representing a small town with a population of just over 6,000, our hardcore of loyal fans remains fairly static, but our home attendances have been boosted significantly by travelling fans from the likes of St Mirren who secured promotion to the Scottish Premiership as champions, and near neighbours Dundee United who we hadn’t faced in over 30 years. Both of these clubs could house the entire population of Brechin in their stadium, with plenty of seats spare!
How have you handled the season on social media? We have seen clubs in similar situations clam up or adopt ‘gallows humour’. What did you do?
Prior to the season, and in the knowledge we had to step up our game off the park too, we made the strategic decision to pull together a Club Media Team for the first time. As a Members Club (ie, our Season Ticket holders are effectively shareholders) off the field we are run entirely by volunteers, and this new group took responsibility for our Matchday Magazine and online content. Our social media tone remained constant during the season, adopting a club stance which remained supportive and positive. We felt that, for those who wanted to be negative, there were plenty of external forums for that, and in turn felt no remorse in seeing fit to edit out the odd abusive comment.
What about the supporters on social media, what have they been saying about the season and specifically sticking with Darren Dods?
Interaction with fans of bigger clubs has been one of the most noticeable aspects of our social media this season. We have been thrilled by numerous comments about how visiting our stadium, unfamiliar to many, has been well received – both in terms of the welcome enjoyed as well as the old-fashioned uniqueness of the various viewing positions. Another dynamic we’ve learned this season is that, in the main, those with negative comments about the manager or playing style, do so either through social media or perhaps even more likely hiding behind the anonymity of usernames on external forums. In contrast, those who have a positive or encouraging message tend to contact the Club directly via e-mail in what is presumably an attempt to avoid a debate in a public domain. The silent majority certainly exists.
Tell us about your content/social media operation. Who is running it? What content have they been creating this season in light of the results?
The media group is a terrific blend of youth, skills and experience and has been a huge success – something we’re looking to replicate in other areas of The Club. With the Chairman and Secretary both having direct oversight and contributing content, our Club Reporter and Club Photographer also work hard to develop new content and identify new ways to engage. The other member of our group is a graphic designer who, amongst other things, produces short animated video content in advance of each game. This is something which has been very well received by visiting fans in particular, with Glebe Park being such an infrequent away venue for many. He also created a video promotion for our Goal of the Season online vote, and lifted the spirits in October by releasing a quite unique and scary squad image.
You’re the Secretary, have the club discussed a different communications/content policy this season?
We are learning all the time around communications and the inception of our Media Group brings with it younger fresher views. We have purposely stepped away from the in-match updates as we reckoned it was clogging up content, and wasn’t likely to be the primary source of score updates for fans on a Saturday afternoon anyway. Over the season we’ve used social for a ‘Free Pint at the Last Game’ promo, and an online survey to see if fans want to stick with squad numbers or revert to 1-to-11 (as is customary in the league we’re returning to). That’s in addition to the announcement of a late postponement of a big game against Dundee United – and even use it to publicise pleas for fans to help lay down and remove our pitch cover protection system in the winter.
What about the publicity in the last few weeks after the season was completed? Who has been contact and have you created a small positive from a big negative?
The publicity towards the end of the season has been intense demonstrating that, in contrast to our dramatic Play-Off promotion last season, a negative story seems to carry greater weight. It’s only when we review the season as a whole, we’ll recall that we took nearly 1200 fans to Glasgow in January as we faced Celtic for the first time in over 30 years – and we enjoyed our time in the spotlight there too. The media interactions are generally led by the manager and the Chairman. Interviews have taken place recently with local and national written and broadcast media, as well as with overseas journalists in locations such as Germany, Brazil and Qatar. It’s noticeable that the opening approach can vary from “Why haven’t you won a game?” through to “Why haven’t you sacked your Manager?”
Is there even a way to monetise this? For example, we have seen referees being sponsored by Specsavers. Would you be open to go that route?
No, not really. As a local club, we tend to have to rely on local sponsors who will be around long after any national spotlight has diminished. Famously though, as the only Club in Europe to have a boundary hedge, we’re always on the look out for a hedge sponsor. Perhaps it needs a willing hedge-fund company, or a grounds care business?
Finally, what advice would you give other clubs who go through an extremely disappointing season.
If your manager and coaches retain the backing of your players, and between them they continue to display the right spirit and work ethic, then back your people!
* POSTSCRIPT: It is interesting how clubs react to 'cold call' emails such as mine. This season, I have contacted a handful of English Football League clubs about podcast interviews. None have even replied. Nothing. Not even a polite "no". In contrast, Grant Hood was back in days and could not have been more helpful. All this with a story that, on the face of it, is about on-pitch failure. It is an interesting contrast.
* Pictures courtesy of BCFC. Copyright: Derek Watt