Interview with Micah Hall: How Portsmouth FC are leading the way in Fan Engagement

Portsmouth FC are certainly the ‘club of the moment’ when it comes to fan engagement and the integration of new technologies. The traumatised club is heading back-to-basics and taking the club back to the fans. I got in touch with Micah Hall, the clubs Engagement Manager, to find out more about their philosophy, strategy and intentions for the 2013-2014 season.

In  November last year, Micah was one of several thousand who parted with £1,000 to gain control of a stricken club, on the verge of imploding. This makes Portsmouth the largest community-owned club in Britain. This was the end of a long and sad decline of a club close to liquidation, and signalled the beginning of a new era for Portsmouth; not necessarily of success and prosperity, but of prioritising fans and integrating them in the running of the club.

In an era where fans are increasingly exploited by clubs, Portsmouth FC are leading an impressive charge in the opposite direction. As a fan of Newcastle United, I’m constantly disappointed by their poor attitude when it comes to engaging with fans. I asked Micah whether lower league clubs are working harder than their Premier League counterparts to engage with their fans on a personal basis:

“I think it’s a difference in outlook. Premier League clubs are interested in establishing a brand and trying to address a mass audience. Lower league clubs have to work harder in their space to build up more individual and personal relationships with fans and fan groups. It’s the difference between advertising in a magazine that kids read, and going to their school to talk to them. A Premier League club can’t go to all the schools but a lower league club has to. 

Our experience is an interesting one because we are a club that has 200,000 current customers and had 250,000 fans activated on Southsea Common when we brought home the FA Cup, not to mention the huge number which also lined the route. We have had 30,000 plus crowds when our stadium could hold them. In many ways we are a Premier League club with a vast catchment area, but our stadium is League One and our resources very much League Two. We have a very tight line to walk between driving a personal experience and still retaining that big club feel.”

As made evident, Portsmouth are trying to engineer a more personal relationship with their fans, whilst maintaining their fame through former glory. It’s a difficult line to walk, and one that most clubs would like to walk, but have little success. A good way of doing this is via social media, and whilst Portsmouth are putting much of their energies into improving the match-day experience for the fan, Micah acknowledged that they need to work on developing Portsmouth FC’s social media channels. On the horizon is Google+ Hangouts, as well as moving on Foursquare.

“We will embrace any tool that will help us talk to people. Not because we want to sell people things, but because it’s their football club. The old way in football was that they expected fans to finds out how to get information about their club. Then they started to realise that they needed to make it easier for people to buy things by providing information. We think we are at the forefront of a new wave of clubs who have realised that actually the Internet gives them a platform to include people, not just fans, in the conversation about the club. We operate by simple rules:

1. We talk to people as people
2. We are as transparent as it is possible to be
3. Everyone who contacts the club should be treated as an individual
4. It’s not our duty to talk to fans, it’s a privilege

It sounds simple, and many clubs will speak this mantra, but Portsmouth appear to be abiding by this. It’s great to see. Innovation is at the heart of what Portsmouth are trying to achieve. In the words of Micah Hall; “We are never short of ideas, just time.” One of these first steps with social media is the introduction of AudienceView in September. This is Portsmouth’s new ticketing system that uses an avtiki module to book tickets through Facebook and invite friends to join.

This is a great addition, and it will be interesting to follow its results in drawing bigger crowds to Fratton Park. This will also be partnered by the introduction of ‘delivery to seat’ technology, similar to Hearts FC which we previously covered. On top of this, Portsmouth’s new digital magazine ‘Heaven’s Light’ will go out to 200,000 people this week. This is a 42-page behind-the-scenes look at the lesser known aspects of club life; the Fratton Art project, the community arm, and broadcasting partners.

With this new technology, Portsmouth are looking to follow clubs like Manchester City and Liverpool by installing stadium WiFi to support their technology. A basic WiFi will be set up by Christmas, and Portsmouth have plans to enhance that in the future. This will be important in maximising the effect of the technology Portsmouth are introducing.

One of my central interests when looking at Portsmouth’s efforts was simply, how do Portsmouth afford this? Manchester City are innovating in the space of fan engagement, but they have a seemingly unlimited pot of money to spend, so how can Portsmouth compete, and deliver on the same level. Well, when I put these questions to Micah, the simple answers that became clear; resourcefulness.

We’ve got an unbelievable digital partner in Navigate Digital. John Kimbell who runs it is a dedicated fan and has helped us source partners and sponsorship with minimal or zero investment. He’s a genius. Our partners at Blippar have been amazing and their technology is just superb. We’ve concentrated on being a video rich, content rich environment but have fortunately secured some great sponsorship to drive the investment in those areas.”

Portsmouth’s story is clearly a winning factor in negotiations over investment as it captures the hearts of those involved. However, despite sensible investment being of the essence, there is no ‘dream club model’ that Micah, and Portsmouth follow:

“We try to take the best from all other clubs where we find it. However our focus is in being unique, different and leading the way. Budget does not always equal excellence. A lot can and has been achieved simply by listening to fans who are specialists in engagement.”

So far, Pompey have been rewarded by this investment. They’ve seen a high-level of response to their programme activations with Blipplar. Perhaps most interesting is the age-range of these users; “There are as many blips of people in their 60’s as teenagers, if not more.”

A further point to this is why, when finances are so tight, are Portsmouth prioritising the investment in new technology and fan engagement? Of course, it’s idyllic as a fan to see your club caring about the fans, but unfortunately business usually comes first. However, Pompey are showing clubs that seem to be reluctant to invest into new technology, that it’s not impossible, even with a small budget. They now produce a programme with more content, more technology and better quality, for less than last year. This is through impressive resourcefulness, and “tough negotiation”; very much the buzz-word around the south-coast club.

What screams-out from the words of Micah Hall, and his stories, is the passion and love for the south-coast club. It’s refreshing to see, especially given their recent history, that the fans are being brought back to the heart of the club. The motivation driving them onwards? The history of the club, and its role within the community. On a meagre budget, Portsmouth are innovating on a daily basis, benefitting both fan and club. With fans being regularly marginalised by clubs, broadcasters and the FA; squeezed for every penny in the process, it’s refreshing to consider the work of Portsmouth.

About author

Tom Kelk
Tom Kelk 25 posts

Tom Kelk is a tech/sport blogger and Account Manager at communications agency, Pitch. You can find him on Twitter (@TomKelk), LinkedIn and his blog (tomkelk.blogspot.com)

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