Playing the Overlap – Email Lessons from Premier League Football

The new Premier League football season started last weekend in the UK. For our US readers, we are talking round ball here – what you would call soccer! It is a sporting competition that is steeped in tradition, and the rivalry between many of the teams dates back to the late 1800’s. Over more than a century there has been triumph, tragedy, and passion that - at times - has spilt over into deadly violence. Legends have been forged, villains have been cast, and teams such as Manchester United and Chelsea are known and supported around the world.

Not surprisingly, the clubs’ fans mirror many of these traits. Fiercely loyal, they follow their teams through the ecstasy of promotion, the agony of relegation, enduring rain, sleet, snow, watered-down beer and tepid pies. The colour of the blood that flows through their veins is the same as the replica shirts that they wear to every match. Arsenal fans are legendary for “Once a Gunner, Always a Gunner” while Liverpool fans slip off this mortal coil humming “You’ll Never Walk Alone!”

Or do they? All of these clubs operate large-scale email programs, so I used Return Path’s Inbox Insight competitor intelligence solution to produce observations on factors such as list size, engagement rates, and – perhaps most interestingly – subscriber overlap between clubs. I used data from the “Big 6” clubs: Arsenal; Chelsea; Liverpool; Manchester United; Manchester City; and Tottenham Hotspur to produce the following top-level findings:

 List Size

Manchester United claims to have 659 Million global supporters – more than any other football club on the planet. This is reflected in the unique subscribers that these clubs broadcast to. Within Return Path’s subscriber panel, Man Utd’s email list is more than 4 times bigger than its nearest competitors (4.5 times bigger than Chelsea and 5.2 times bigger than Arsenal). Liverpool, Man City, and Spurs are all much smaller.

Campaign Activity, and Read Rates

Campaign activity over the 90-day reporting period also skewed significantly toward the clubs with the largest lists. It was also clear that this broader scale afforded the luxury of more granular segmentation approaches.

However, the old adage of “Size isn’t everything” appears to hold true in football because the best Read Rates came from clubs with smaller email reach – Liverpool, Spurs, and Man City in descending order of positive subscriber engagement.

Subscriber Overlap

The most interesting part of this exercise came from using Inbox Insight’s “Subscriber Overlap” functionality to get a feel for how loyal each club’s fans are. The inference is the greater the overlap (i.e. the percentage of supporters shared with other clubs) the more “fair-weather” those fans are. Here’s the data:

Reading this table from left to right, readers can see Man Utd shares only 4.7% of its members with other clubs. Contrast this with Spurs where almost 1 in 5 email subscribers also support another club! Reading from top to bottom, Liverpool is the club that is least likely to attract supporters from its major rivals. To borrow a chant from the Millwall terraces – “Nobody loves us, we don’t care!”

There is also a compelling relationship between the amount of overlap, and the historical success that the club has enjoyed. This next chart overlays the overlap data onto titles won since the formation of the Premier League in 1992, to plot the relationship between loyalty and success:

While titles are clearly important, consistency is also vital, and the creation of a “success index” (3 points for a title, 2 for runners-up, 1 for third) yielded near-identical results. It is clear that systematic success is a strong agent in enticing football’s “swing voters” into a change of allegiance, seduced by a promise of glory that their own team cannot deliver!

There are also strong regional influencers at play. Supporters of the 3 London clubs are twice as likely to share allegiance with a Northern club as with another London club. Presumably Chelsea fans would rather endure yet another Man Utd title rather than the indignity of The Gunners or Spurs having football’s ultimate bragging rights!

What is really notable about these observations is the validation they provide for behaviours that fans have long suspected at a more intuitive level. Using Inbox Insight in this way starts to feel a bit like Freakonomics! Regular readers will have noted that recent articles on email intelligence have started to think more actively about how subscriber engagement maps onto broader behaviours. Watch this space for more thought leadership in a similar vein, with an upcoming article on the relationship between email subscriber engagement and that ultimate unknown quantity – the British weather!