Celebration GIFs and elaborate transfer announcements: Roma, Bristol City and clubs’ increasingly innovative use of social media

In the early hours of 23 August 1994, in a remote boathouse on the Scottish island of Jura, the KLF burned a million pounds. Bill Drummond  and Jimmy Cauty, the members of the art duo, shovelled bundles of £50 notes into a smouldering bonfire and seared themselves into the popular consciousness.

For weeks, before the acid house anarchists revealed themselves as the stunt’s authors, mystified locals found charred currency washed up on the shore. Why did they do it?

A poster promoting a film of the act asked the same question: “Was it madness? Was it art? Was it a political statement? Was it bollocks?”

Twenty-four years later – just as the K Foundation ended their self-imposed silence on that especially expensive central heating – an Italian football club sent out a tweet.

#GrazieDamien appeared on Roma’s English Twitter account below a picture of Damien Delaney, the Irish defender who was leaving Crystal Palace after six years. Again, the question was simply: why?

Theories abounded. Delaney’s great-grandfather scored a league-winner for Roma against Juventus in the 1930s. It was a show of gratitude for Delaney’s role in derailing Liverpool’s title challenge in a 3-3 draw at Selhurst Park in 2014. The Irishman had saved the young son of a Roma director who nearly drowned in the pool of a London hotel. Delaney himself couldn’t enlighten anyone.

“Possibly the lad running it is a Palace fan, I genuinely don’t know,” he said when asked about it a few weeks later.

He isn’t. Paul Rogers grew up a Liverpool supporter and, while not a fan of the KLF’s ’90s dance monsters, he does appreciate the philosophy behind their eccentricities.

“I was never into their music but I’ve read some books on the KLF and their influences are interesting,” says Rogers, Roma’s head of Digital and Social Media.

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“They were into Discordianism and this idea that their ‘religion’ stresses the value of randomness, chaos and disagreement. They have this theory that just because something is untrue and absurd, it doesn’t make it without meaning.

“Recently we had a 60-second player announcement video that was just a black screen. Again, what seemed totally bizarre actually had a bit of a meaning. To us, how fans and followers perceive meaning from a piece of content like that is just as much a part of the content as the original piece we release.”

Roma’s Twitter output is frequently surreal. A video to announce the signing of Patrik Schick last August featured a singing lion, Katy Perry and an angry goat playing chess.

The one unveiling Ante Coric this summer involved a speed rewind of human history, with Barack Obama, Steve Jobs, Ian Brown, Tupac Shakur, Sonic the Hedgehog, Mona Lisa and Stonehenge all whizzing past before a meteor strike wipes out the dinosaurs.

The posts are also roaringly successful. The English language account spent June photo-shopping the Queen into a Nigeria-Roma mash-up, curating a ’90s indie playlist complete with an image of Jarvis Cocker in yellow and red tie, and making up virtual postcards from striker Edin Dzeko.

They were rewarded with an engagement rate of 290%, with 726,000 interactions from 250,000 followers. The next best registered by a European club was Fenerbahce. The Turkish side registered 28% – less than a tenth of Roma’s figure – in the same metric.

“Our social media approach is fan-first and friendly, rather than corporate and boring,” says Rogers. “In the past, football fans were somewhat taken for granted by clubs. I think they were tolerated rather than celebrated, but with so many distractions and leisure options available to fans now, clubs have to act very differently or you could end up losing those fans – maybe not to another club but certainly to other interests.”

It’s no longer enough to sit on a timeline, foghorning football and relying on the blind faith of supporters. Social media accounts need to be proactive. One of Roma’s most successful tweets was the thump-the-keyboard gibberish that perfectly captured the madness of their Champions League comeback against Barcelona in April.

It felt subversively, thrillingly human compared to the cut-and-paste boilerplate industry standard. And, as chairman James Pallotta was backflipping into fountains in celebration, it perfectly captured the glee felt around the city of Rome and beyond.

They can take their lumps as well. When Bordeaux winger Malcom performed a screeching U-turn and opted to move to Barcelona instead of Roma this summer, the Giallorossi wryly muted any mention of the Brazilian on social media, ‘leaked’ the soundtrack to his never-seen signing video on a sub-tweeted Soundcloud account, and scrubbed his name out off the Barca teamsheet. Their self-depreciation probably earned them more social media love than the actual signing would have.

It was just one instance of the club getting off the stage and into the mosh pit, with their output frequently springing directly from online culture and trends, rather than on-field events

When NBA side Philadelphia 76ers sacked president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo for apparently setting up anonymous Twitter accounts which leaked sensitive team information, Roma created an account with the same name, handle and profile picture to ‘leak’ the signing of Ivan Marcano before any official club channels.

“We knew most people wouldn’t get it, but we thought it was amusing and we buzzed off the few fans – Italians mostly, who immediately understood what we’d done,” explains Rogers.

“I always say the same thing: football is supposed to be fun; it’s supposed to be about entertainment. Good content is good content and fans are so social media savvy, they choose to share the best content because they know it will entertain their friends – regardless of who they support.

“This summer we’re certainly seeing something that looks pretty close to Roma’s content approach being adopted by quite a few clubs in Italy, England and Spain.”

Bristol City were a good 12 months ahead of the curve. Last summer, after rattling off the standard pre-season team pictures, then-head of communications Adam Baker convinced each player to record a short goal celebration GIF.

They started simple but grew more elaborate, more bizarre and more successful as the season wore on. Bobby Reid gleefully swung a fire extinguisher hose around. Defender Aden Flint smeared toothpaste across his face. Marlon Pack did his ironing.

The tweet of Korey Smith firing a party popper in apparent celebration of his side’s injury-time winner against Manchester United registered five million impressions around the world.

“What we did the season before was just write ‘Goal’ and who had scored it,” said Baker, who left the club this summer. “The response to the GIFs was phenomenal. You couldn’t compare the two.

“And it wasn’t just us that saw it, the players did too. They all have their own personal brand and social media outlets and realised they were getting lots of traction, and more followers.

“There are so many negatives about football coverage but this was completely the opposite with fans from all clubs seeing the players in a funny, human light. What you see a lot from fans on Twitter is banter, why wouldn’t you as a club engage in it and try and drive that kind of age group?”

For Rogers and Roma, not all their output is aimed at mass-market mega numbers. There are brand-building boutique tweets as well.

“On occasion, we’ll actually post something that we know will perform poorly – maybe because the audience for it is so niche or it won’t be understood or appreciated by many fans – but we’ll do it because it further enforces our club position or is consistent with our content strategy,” he says.

A post in May that featured a hip-hop Roma XI, including Flavor Flav and Drake, while simultaneously poking fun at former employee Ashley Cole, was one such slow-burn beauty. It showed that Rogers’ inspiration continues to come from other walks of life beyond football.

“Wendy’s are fantastic on Twitter, Sonic the Hedgehog is entertaining, Kanye West is always interesting but then, things like the weird transfer videos from last summer, those ideas are more inspired by things like internet and meme culture and Black Twitter,” he says.

And, of course, the KLF. So, what was behind the curious cult of Damien Delaney?

“At the end of every season, clubs are falling over themselves to garner likes and retweets by congratulating the most successful players who are retiring or leaving a top club after a decade or so. We’ve certainly been guilty of it.

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“But when you think about it, these players who have won everything and earned ridiculous money are the last people who need this additional Twitter adoration from other clubs. It’s like rich celebrities getting free things or never having to pay for a drink.

“What about the good, honest professionals who gave everything they possibly could for their clubs, but never won the trophies, never amassed the millions of Twitter followers or never got those big-money commercial endorsement? Where are the clubs congratulating those players?

“Also, he saved a boy’s life at a London hotel.”

 

Paul Rogers on the stories behind some of Roma’s famous tweets:

“The perfect example of just noticing a tweet on your timeline and quoting it with a throwaway, self-deprecating comment. It probably took all of 11 seconds and turned out to be one of our best performing tweets of the month. Pure chance that we saw it.”

 

“See above, except this one probably took all of three seconds. People found it funny. Pure chance that we saw it: Part 2.”

 

“I remember seeing this picture on the day of the royal wedding and I just thought it perfectly summed up how we’d be feeling on the day of the Champions League final. We put that out on the morning of the match.”

 

“Our English editor Alex did this. It proved two things: 1. Football Manager, which I’ve never seen or played, is obviously popular among our followers, and 2. Transfer announcements don’t have to be videos. In fact, as more clubs have moved towards elaborate video reveals, we’ve gone in the opposite direction and started using pictures, which are performing better. Now that’s not something we read on a social media blog.”

 

“This is the tweet we probably deliberated over more than any other – by that, I mean, we thought about it for at least an hour. Right up until the final whistle of the Lazio game [Roma’s fierce rivals lost to Inter on the final day of the 2017/18 campaign and dropped out of the Champions League qualification spots], we weren’t 100% sure about posting it. Then we came to our senses, realised that we’d done a lot of ‘classy’ tweets in the preceding days and that we were due some fun. That one was popular.”

 

“We’d just pulled off one of the most remarkable victories in the club’s European history and our Italian editor, Emanuele, was thinking, ‘What can I possibly tweet here? What sentence will convey what this means to Roma fans?’

“He turned to his colleague who was near him and shouted, ‘What do I post?’ But it was too loud and his colleague thought he was telling him to get down to the pitch. Emanuele just started to type ‘DAJE.. and then just thought, ‘Fuck it!’ and started banging the keys on his laptop. He pressed tweet and it did 180,000 retweets and 320,000 Likes. Proper journalism.”

 

“This was us bringing an end to our elaborate transfer announcement style that had done so well for us. The numbers on the tweet related to the date of the first video in that style and the last one. We’d just covered the history of the world in our last video announcement and we’d reached a point where we didn’t want to just become performing seals, releasing mad videos because everyone expected it.

“Everyone was saying, ‘I wonder what they’ll do next’, so we made a video of a black screen for 60 seconds with a hip-hop instrumental called ‘Now it’s Over’ by Chief Keef. We thought, what can be more nonsensical than a video with nothing to watch. Obviously some people tweeted that it was genius and the best and most epic announcement video ever. They were right, of course.”

 

“This was a reaction to all the money being thrown at transfer announcements with super rich clubs working with big agencies to deliver something ‘cool’ that would go viral. We had about 48 hours to come up with something, which is about 24 hours longer than normal.

“We spent the first three minutes making this, and 47 hours and 57 minutes patting ourselves on the back for being so creative. After it more than trebled the numbers for our previous biggest ever transfer announcement tweet, we patted ourselves on the back some more.”

Celebration GIFs and elaborate transfer announcements: Roma, Bristol City and clubs’ increasingly innovative use of social media
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