Will and Ash discuss the growth of Aston Villa, a ‘digitalised’ era of sport and what this means for the industry’s future

Will Street is the Digital Marketing Executive for Premier League Football Club, Aston Villa FC. Will’s path to the football industry has been a game of ‘connect the dots’, considering his illustrious background working in technology which speaks for his educational history as well. In this week’s exclusive interview, Will shares what his work at Villa looks like, how data is shaping the future of digital marketing in sport alongside what the future holds for social media.

Q1) Will, thanks for joining me for this exciting interview. Let’s start this off by yourself sharing when your sports industry journey started.

A: Thanks for having me on. Funnily enough, I haven’t been in the sports industry for too long. I’m coming up to about two years at Aston Villa in August, so I still consider myself to be learning and growing with the industry day by day. After graduating in 2016, I worked in the marketing team of a very niche technology development company in the automotive industry. Before that, I did a more technical-based degree. Despite this not being sport, it had many ties to marketing.

My dissertation was on consumer behaviour towards digital ads, as well as doing some freelance web and marketing services on the side, just to build up that marketing skill set for myself.

I’ve always been a massive sports and Villa fan since I was a young child, therefore, right now is ‘dream job’ territory being – about as close as I can get to the pitch!

I remember chatting to my friends and saying that marketing in sport is where I want to be, and I’m still surprised at how quickly that has happened. I remembered to check checking all the local sports entities and club careers pages every month to find opportunities. For the digital marketing exec role at Villa, I went through many interview and presentation rounds and am still so grateful for the chance considering my lack of experience at the time. Despite this, I believe my passion and drive presented itself well. The club took a bit of a gamble on me, and I’ve made it pay off so to speak.

Q2) Your journey into the sport has been a matter of ‘connect the dots’. How has this helped you diversify your sports career portfolio compared to traditionally having a complete history in sport?

A: Coming from a niche background and studying my technical based degree has given me quite a unique perspective on how to go about marketing. And also, it’s given me a bit of knowledge your traditional sports marketer may not have, such as coming from small business and having worked on a lot of one to one projects. You learn to really appreciate the finer details and nurture those individual relationships and very much of the mindset of treating everything in a way that makes that one personalised fan experience really positive. Whereas now, I have millions of passionate Villa fans to target! Despite this, I still like to take the approach of maximising that individual experience for every single one of them across the globe

The club has been continuing to take big steps forward in applying data we own for our fanbase. There’s a lot of segmentation that goes on behind the scenes to help us get to that individual treatment basis for fans. I feel that it stems from me looking for those finer details and making sure every fan has a great experience whenever they touch anything related to Villa.

Being a Villa fan, sometimes I feel like I am the target market which is a huge advantage. So if we’re launching a campaign for 20 to 30-year-old males, it easy for me to think, ‘what would I like to see?’. This approach is a massive positive for me as the raw passion is something you wouldn’t find in another job.

Q3) What does your role as Aston Villa’s Digital Marketing Executive involve? Also, how does your responsibility contribute to the bigger picture of the club?

A: It’s just so different every day. The best way to summarise would be I look after all the digital channels, excluding social media which is covered by our dedicated content team. That would include sending out emails and push notifications, managing parts of the fan-facing websites, all of our technical agency suppliers, digital calendars, building campaigns and using those channels as vehicles to activate and engage our fans.

In the marketing team, we work with all the other departments such as ticketing, retail, hospitality and partnerships. We will plan and execute campaigns to help all those teams from start to finish. We kind of act as an in-house agency; departments will come to us and say we need help promoting tickets/ boxes, or we need some data on how we can sell ourselves to a partner. I will help them do that. All of these campaigns range from small things such as promoting stadium tours every month to much bigger projects like pushing on to a season ticket launch.

Longer-term, moving away from day-to-day stuff, I work on developing the club’s digital engagement strategy to keep up with the industry and stay ahead of that curve. The club is focused on leveraging relationships in Birmingham off the pitch and through our community arm, the Aston Villa Foundation.

Then another big thing is The Premier League and hopefully remaining there. As a club, we’re always looking to grow our international presence, such as building our Lions Clubs networks and getting strongholds around the world. Being in the Premier League is a massive part of achieving this.

Q4) As a digital marketer, the industry is continuously changing. How do you ensure Aston Villa’s digital content stands out against other competitors in sport?

A: Every individual sports entity has its own very unique look and feel, and that’s something we lean on at Villa. We have such an iconic history and pride ourselves on being innovators. So tieing these two things together creates quite a beautiful synergy and allows us to relate to fans across the board.

Sports organisations week by week are delving into different sectors and having a lot of success, such as PSG and the Jordan brand. Researching external industry’s is something we’re working on behind-the-scenes at Villa, picking up on culture and the media to become more than just a sports brand. Football clubs are not only football clubs anymore; they’re global entertainment businesses meaning you can expand to work with retail brands, gaming companies and all sorts.

Our Villa TV platform, which launched late last year allows us to own all of our content fully, which is evolving into more of a media hub. Every football club now is almost a media company at the same time. There needs to be a value exchange for us of course, which is our fans signing up to our platforms and giving us their data. Therefore, we can base our marketing on that data relating to our fans interests, behaviour and how they engage with our platforms.

To summarise, we branch out into multiple industry’s and leverage them in a way to further please our fans and attract new ones.

Q5) To support you with understanding the latest market trends in ‘digital’, are there any platforms or podcasts you utilise?

A: There isn’t a dedicated platform I use for this side of the market research. I’m signed up to loads of club emails from organisations all round the world to help me keep track of what they’re doing. However, I-Sport Connectis a beneficial one. They do weekly webinars which have been invaluable, so I recommend them. Another useful one is called BlinkFire. Blink Fire Analytics monitor partner-engagement data, for example, for our front-of-shirt sponsor, they will scan through media outlets across the globe and analyse the partner media value against it. They also assess what trends have worked out very well for brand value, plus, they have a podcast to top it off!

Q6) Throughout COVID19, how has this impacted the output on your digital channels? Also, what has worked well throughout the club’s adaptation to this pandemic?

A: Fans are crying out for anything, including myself as I was desperate to see any sport-related content. In terms of engagement, it has gone up over the last few months. We’ve relaunched our Prize Where It Lies campaign which one of many takes on turning fan engagement digital on match days. We have fans sending in celebration videos of themselves, which we’re putting on the big screens and on the LEDs throughout the game. We’ve had thousands of entries into our social mosaic on Twitter, which is also making an appearance of Villa Park.

Another big moment was Clubs and Leaguesdelving into the Football esports space.. Seeing The ePremier League Invitational have John McGinn and Keinan Davis take part was huge for Villa. It entered our top five most-watched videos on Villa TV, which is a testament to the interest we have in our fan base and eSports. The esports venture didn’t only engage with our core audience, but it also made an impression with the younger esports audience that were not Villa Fans. They might have just enjoyed watching a big name player like John McGinn playing FIFA because he’s such a personality.

The ePremier League Invitiational Round 2 was a significant event for us, with Keinan Davis marching through all the stages towards the final. It was as close as fans could get to watching him on the pitch. They’re watching someone represent Villa against another Premier League team.

COVID19 has helped us to manage time for our Esports strategy; therefore, watch this space.

Q7) In an industry that is evolving by the second, how can you see the digital marketing/sports industry changing? With this change, what will it mean for career opportunities in sport?

A: I’ve touched on the importance of data and technology, and how that informs our decisions. The information that you can collect now is terrific. And leveraging that data is definitely becoming the new norm. Just an example, we’ve talked about using beacons in the stadium to geolocate fans by their phone. Knowing that they turn up for every game bang on kick-off, we could then send this fan a communication encouraging them to arrive 90 minutes earlier to a game to receive a promotional offer and therefore get them spending more time at Villa Park. Using that granular data and leveraging that in the CRM is only going to become more common for us.

In terms of career opportunities in the sports marketing field, I think the crossover between marketing and data will become more seamless in some cases, and marketers will have to have a good grasp on interrogating data. In contrast, data engineers and analysts will need quite a good understanding of marketing; I wouldn’t be surprised to see job opportunities popping up where half your week is interrogating data and understanding it and then the other half of your time is building out segments and customer journeys with that data.

Q8) Do you believe the dominance of social media will change? Will any of the ‘current competitors’ completely drop-out and more interestingly, could there be a new entrant on the up-rise?

A: Around 80% of upper-tier English football clubs are experiencing a decline on Facebook which shows how the social landscape is changing . However, on Instagram and especially Tik-Tok, engagement is skyrocketing In the next 12 months, Tik Tok could well take the lead in the social media game in terms of engagegemt and activity

I was a fan of Vine, the 6-second video concept was very appealing, and Villa was on the platform until it went under. Therefore, I hope the same fate doesn’t await Tik Tok but it’s looking ever more unlikely with their phenomenal growth and strategy

In my opinion, Facebook is dropping off as it hasn’t had much success with video and live streaming. However, they’ve released a gaming platform called ‘Facebook Gaming’ which appears promising and utiliising their massive user base could get organisations back on the up. Although seeing the rapid growth with streaming giant Twitchand the rise of Tik Tok, it’s going to be challenging for Facebook to maintain their position at the top. 

Q9) Reflecting throughout this chat, what advice can you summarise for those who want to pursue a career towards digital marketing in sport?

A: I was incredibly fortunate enough to have my first opportunity in sports. And now I’m lucky enough to be on the other side of the hiring process. I guess the one thing we’re looking for is just someone with a real and genuine passion who can add something innovative and different. I mentioned in the previous question industry’s and technology is moving at such a fast pace. New things are coming to you all the time. Therefore, anyone that has something unorthodox to present in the football industry will serve them well.

Of course, you need a fundamental knowledge base. But as sports organisations continue to grow into those media companies and fashion and gaming spaces, I would not be put off by a lack of experience in traditional sports sectors due to how broad the market is now. If you’re coming to the table with a burning passion and something new, I think you’ve got an excellent chance of getting something.

What a brilliant chat with Will. His journey from a tech-based background shows there is no ‘correct’ path to enter the sports industry and your sports career is what you make of it. Also, what did you make about his predictions of what the future holds for technology and digital marketing? Agree or beg to differ? 

Did this interview inspire you? If so, make sure you subscribe, like and comment for more content to enlighten your sports industry knowledge!

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Published by Ash

I'm a First-Class Graduate in Sports Business Management who has worked across Local Government, Sport and the Third Sector. Throughout my career, I've developed a thriving passion to promote sport being used as a tool to bring positivity to the world we live in. This ethos has inspired me to create a website which champions this value through comprehensive online content for you to gain value from. Join me on this journey of discovering what sport can do to enhance society.

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