• Stacey Speer

The academic theories behind social media communication and engagement..

Ever wondered how social media really works? It's as simple as putting a post on Facebook right? Well, yes and no.

I was fortunate enough to study this in my Sports Media degree and I wanted to share the 'theories' behind what makes social media successful for sports clubs.

We will look at how to use and understand your social media data to take a litmus test on how your community feel about your club. The best way to communicate to active players, potential new recruits and engage with your sponsors to ensure sustainable partnerships.


Being involved with a club is more than playing on the field. A club can be everything to one person and just a game to another. Sport and social media go together like wine and cheese.

Sport is about building a team on and off the field, and social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram were purpose built to encourage communication within these communities.

Research has shown that social network sites create an inexpensive venue for fundraising efforts and organizing volunteers (Dozier et al. 2015).

Understanding what type of content works for each group and engaging with them will help you reach a deeper connection with your players and community. And the first step is identifying your audiences or publics (Grunig, 1989, 1997, 2003; Grunig & Hunt, 1984) to help you tailor your messages and create engaging content.

If we look at the typical club, any sport - you will have a premier division, female teams, fans, juniors and their families and your volunteers and administrators. These can be classified as active publics or members as they will be the ones to come together to resolve any issues faced in the club (Grunig & Hunt, 1984). Your role as the social media co-ordinator in the club is to act as an internal collaborative generator (Breakenridge, D.K. 2012) and you are responsible for breaking down any barriers members face communicating with the club administrators.

Outside of the active members in your community or your 2000 Facebook followers is an entire world of invisible audiences, potential new recruits, and fans. It's up to you to manage the messages and communications and create content that is shareable, engaging and eye catching to capture them throughout the season lifecycle.

Each of these groups use social media differently, older generations of coaches and volunteers with minimal use of social media and the internet. Young players who use social media as their main form of communication and varying different degrees in between. (Correa, T., Hinsley, A.W.and De Zuniga, H.G., 2010)

The older generation have a surprisingly high usage rate on social media, this group are either actively involved with the administration and running of the club or are previous players who like to check in on what's happening.

Content that works extremely well for this audience are the ‘Throwback Thursday/ #TBT style posts.
Looking back at the history of your club/team and giving these members a chance to remember their glory days - often turns into a thread or conversation between this group about memories or moments that matter to them. Which in turn, gives you more opportunity to find more material that resonates with them!

A "tertius gaudens" (Kent, Sommerfeldt and Staffer. 2015) effect occurs, which provides a ‘brokerage’ of communication and information whereby you benefit from the flow of information on each thread, giving you more insight into how to provide more valuable


This engagement is invaluable and provides passive onlookers or aware publics a chance to see how much you value your community. Research has been conducted that proves “digital and social media do provide publics with powerful tools to shift from latent to aware to active publics” (Dozier et al. 2015).

Your goal is to grab the attention of people who might consider playing for your club (aware or latent publics) and over time, convince them that your club is where they belong.

Looking at social media from a younger perspective can seem overwhelming to the committee member assigned to that job. At the end of the day, the more professional looking you can make your posts using graphics and video will encourage shares and build reach. Instagram is slowly taking over Facebook with the younger generation.

Bold, actionable wording like; ‘ PLAY WITH US’ and ‘TAG A MATE WHO SHOULD PLAY FOR….” will speak to the younger players and fans and encourage them to tag and share with their friends.

There are three phases a sports club goes through each season - recruitment/preseason, season start to finish and grand finals/post season .

I can’t stress enough how important it is to plan and start as early as possible when using social media for recruitment.
The reason for this is, your sport and club are competing with many other codes and clubs for the same type of player.

You want to stand out from the crowd and recruit the best talent possible, this is no different to brands using targeted social media campaigns to get you to buy something.

Testing different slogans, consistency, design and timing is crucial in the lead up to preseason to understand what is working the best and getting the most likes, shares and comments. (Breakenridge, D.K. 2012)

Don’t underestimate the reach of your social media profiles.

There is an entire invisible audience that comes into contact with your page without you even realising it. Comments, shares, reactions and tags have been proven to bolster reach 60% more than you can see. (Bernstein, M.S., Bakshy, E., Burke, M. and Karrer, B., 2013)

Evaluating your social media metrics is much easier now than it used to be. Facebook and Instagram provide an ‘Insights’ tab built into the platform. This information is invaluable to your sponsors.

As a business, they need to be able to validate their sponsorship dollars in order to keep providing you with valuable funds.

Club sponsorship is about creating a long term mutually beneficial arrangement with your partners, understanding what their goals and expectations are from you will help you understand what success looks like for them.

Are they an air conditioning company who are looking for one sale per month from your club to continue supplying you with uniforms? Or a venue that wants you to come in each week after the game?

Using your social media insights you are able to confidently tell your sponsors that their

business is in front of X number of people and build content with them to ensure the right messages are being promoted.

All this information will help you effectively communicate with all members and publics within your sports club, help sustain or gain sponsorship and increase your participation growth!


Breakenridge, D.K. 2012, Social media and public relations: Eight new practices for the PR

professional, Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, NJ.

D.M. Dozier et al., 'Demographics and Internet behaviors as predictors of active publics', 2016,

Public Relations Review, vol. 42, no. 1, pp. 82-90.

M.L. Kent, E.J. Sommerfeldt, A.J.Staffer 2016, 'Social networks, power, and public relations:

Tertius Iungens as a cocreational approach to studying relationship networks', 2016,

Public Relations Review, vol. 42, no. 1, pp. 91-100.

E.J. Sommerfeldt, M. Taylor / Public Relations Review 37. 2011, 'A social capital approach

to improving public relations’ efficacy: Diagnosing internal constraints on external

communication', 2011, Public Relations Review, vol. 37, no. 3, pp. 197-206.

Bernstein, M.S., Bakshy, E., Burke, M. & Karrer, B. 2013, 'Quantifying the Invisible Audience

in Social Networks', ACM, New York, NY, USA, pp. 21–30, viewed ?Jun 4, 2018,

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Correa, T., Hinsley, A.W. & de Zúñiga, H.G. 2010, 'Who interacts on the Web?: The

intersection of users’ personality and social media use', Computers in Human Behavior,

vol. 26, no. 2, pp. 247-53.

Grunig, L.A., Grunig, J.E. & Dozier, J.M. 2002, Excellent public relations and effective

organisations: A study of communication management, Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah,


Dozier, D, Grunig J. & Grunig, L. 1995, Manager's guide to excellence in public relations and

communication management, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, N.J.

Grunig, J. & Hunt, T. 1984, Managing public relations, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, NY


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