West Ham transfer coup might show a new way of buying followers

Over the past few weeks, much has been made about football transfers and the digital numbers behind them.

Neymar’s transfer to Paris Saint-Germain will see the Parisian club cash in on stunning marketing possibilities both at home and abroad. Their sizeable Brazilian playing contingent, the fact it’s a world cup year, and their yellow away kit sponsored by Nike all make the transfer look very well thought out indeed. The Ligue 1 club have always been active on social media, too, and should have no problems converting their new star into benefits for both their international prestige and their sponsors.

West Ham United have taken a similar course with the signing of Javier Hernandez. The Hammers needed a striker, and the Mexican is one of the best currently plying their trade in Europe, so in that sense it was a no-brainer. It’s less clear, though, whether they expected the huge bump in social media numbers they’d get from the signing – or whether the sheer scale was an added bonus they discovered upon buying a striker they wanted for mostly footballing reasons. Whatever the truth, though, they’ve bought a Mexican national hero in the build-up to a World Cup, and that’s a huge opportunity.

Both transfers are interesting in a different way, though. The success of West Ham, whether they strategically targeted Hernandez for his social media following or not, provides an interesting added criteria to transfer business. It’s no secret that clubs take into account the marketability of the player they are about to sign – Manchester United’s then-world record pursuit of Paul Pogba last summer is a perfect example of a club paying a premium in the knowledge that their outlay will be returned by the player’s celebrity and worldwide admiration – but will that now become more prominent?

Hernandez’s old club, Bayer Leverkusen, hemorrhaged followers upon the striker’s departure, losing over 30k Facebook followers in the US and Mexico alone. West Ham, by contrast, gained over 150k Facebook followers in the same region. That’s on top of all the other social media platforms, too. Barcelona may not have suffered quite the same rate of damage, but their position as one of the most-followed clubs in the world was already established – they were in a stronger position to begin with.

Social media following, by itself, means increasingly little. Engagement is certainly a more important metric on which to judge a sports team’s value to sponsors and partners than pure followers. But, of course, there’s an obvious link between the two. Then there’s the fact that, given a large South American following, for example, a French football club like PSG can attempt to attract commercial partners from a part of the world they traditionally weren’t able to penetrate. The same may be true for West Ham in the coming years.

In other words, the fact that they’ve gained in followers isn’t the most important part – what’s important is they’ve gained in followers from a specific geographical area.

But does that mean all the work that Leverkusen did in order to attract a large following of Javier Hernandez fans? Or are they still able to dine out in North America on the basis that they’ve already accumulated enough social media followers in the region?

The fact is that some of those Javier Hernandez followers who clicked the like button on Leverkusen’s page have unfollowed, and presumably because of the sale. But the size of West Ham’s gain compared to Leverkusen’s loss seems to suggest that most just followed their beloved striker’s new club, and are presumably still following Leverkusen, too.

Are Leverkusen a club who have a follower base (though probably not a fan base) in region they now have little connection to? And how does that affect their ability to do business with partners in North America?

In the end, this isn’t an exact science, and will probably all come down to human behaviour, and people’s desire for convenience – possibly even laziness. Most people would surely be unlikely to seek out Leverkusen to unfollow them on Facebook or Twitter. If Leverkusen add nothing of value to the news feeds of their North American followers, then they might get unfollowed over time, of course. But in the short term at least, it seems unlikely that most Hernandez followers will actively unfollow, rather than just follow West Ham, too.

And so what does that mean for sport? When clubs decide which players they want in their team for the coming season, they’ve always thought about marketing potential both at home and abroad, but are they now thinking about just how potent that following will continue to be even after they eventually re-sell that player? And if so, is this just a new way of buying followers?

About author

Chris McMullan
Chris McMullan 831 posts

Chris is a sports journalist and editor of Digital Sport - follow him on Twitter @CJMcMullan_

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