From Ronaldo to Mbappé: how soccer’s rising stars are discovering the value of social media

There was a time when the value of a footballer’s social media presence was primarily as a source for tabloid journalists looking for the latest celebrity gossip. However, as social networks have grown in scale and influence and marketers have become ever more sophisticated in leveraging influencers’ social followings, this value has become far more real.

Footballers and social media

With Cristiano Ronaldo alone boasting in excess of 60 million Twitter followers, soccer players have become media brands in their own right. This offers clubs, sponsors and third-party brands a channel not just to boost their profile, but also to leverage the engagement and relevance of social media to drive real ROI on social marketing campaigns. 

This value has not gone unnoticed by the players and their representatives, with negotiations around endorsements and IP deals increasingly focusing on the social reach that a player can offer. 

To try and evaluate how this increasingly important football market is developing, Publicis Media Sport and Entertainment (PMSE) and their partners at Blinkfire Analytics have created the inaugural Football Social Performance Index (SPI). This ranking analyses a range of variables such as reach, engagement, growth and frequency to establish the true pecking order in football’s social media league tables. 

Young guns challenge the incumbents

The first SPI, based on players’ social media activity over the period of the 2017 transfer window, shows that it’s not just the giants of the game that are riding the social media juggernaut. A new generation of young, socially savvy European footballers are challenging the game’s established superstars when it comes to social media profile. While Ronaldo, Neymar and Lionel Messi top the SPI, younger players such as Marco Asensio (fourth), Kylian Mbappé (fifth) and Paulo Dyabala (11th) are rising rapidly up the rankings.  

Asensio has jumped from 18th to 4th in the list due to massive growth in his social following in August after his great start to the season on the pitch. Meanwhile, Paulo Dybala rose from number 15 in the SPI to 11th due to a growing global following driven by rumours around a transfer from Juventus to Barcelona or Real Madrid.  Dybala’s performance also graphically demonstrates the international reach that these players can offer marketing partners. Six months ago, 25 per cent of Dybala’s Facebook following was to be found in Italy. This percentage has now decreased to 20 per cent with growth from fans based in the UK, Mexico, France, Egypt and Algeria, highlighting how transfer speculation can raise the profile of a player.

The Publicis Football Social Performance Index ranks players against a host of social media indicators

Meanwhile, other players have demonstrated how clever use of the football news agenda can help you jump up the rankings. Paul Pogba rose 16 places to eighth in the table by the end of the transfer window despite remaining at Manchester United. The marketing-savvy player achieved this leap through posting rich social video content of himself with other players linked to transfer speculation, including Neymar and Romelu Lukaku – who did join the Frenchman at Old Trafford.

The younger players’ stratospheric rise up the list is of course, in part, a result of their on-pitch prominence. However, it’s also an indication that the latest generation of footballers, who were brought up with social media, instinctively recognise the value that it can bring.

As this new generation increasingly takes the top of the table it could have a significant impact on some of the established names in the game. The embattled Wayne Rooney only made 18th place in the latest league table while Zlatan Ibrahimovic dropped 13 places to 20th, reflecting his injury at the end of the last season and the resultant delays to the announcement extending his contract with Manchester United. These established names of the game could potentially face dropping out of the league table altogether in the next SPI, clearly marking a changing of the guard in social media football terms.

What does this mean for clubs, sponsors and brands?

The increasing sophistication of players’ approach to social media means that clubs, sponsors and brands will have to similarly up their game if they want to capitalise on the opportunities that it presents. The new generation of social-savvy players aren’t likely to undersell their social media value with basic brand endorsements that don’t add value to their followers or their personal brand.

Whilst a large Twitter following might once have simply been seen as a channel for simple awareness or association, the SPI demonstrates that partners looking to leverage players’ social influence will need to dig much deeper if they want to create real ROI. A data-led approach will let brands and sponsors better understand the nature of the audiences in terms of demographic, of engagement and of relevance to their brand.

Modern football has developed hand-in-hand with the marketing opportunities that it creates. The rise of the social footballer and the increasing sophistication with which they operate ups the stakes once more for marketers, clubs, sponsors and players alike, creating a world of new opportunities to reach fans in previously unheard of ways.