How European Football Clubs Are Capturing Chinese Fans – Schalke shows how it is done

Schalke has around 9 million social media followers worldwide—almost half of them, i.e. 4 million fans, come from China. "China has been playing a very important role for several years. Enthusiasm for football—or soccer in the U.S.—has been growing steadily in the country, and we see enormous potential for the Schalke 04 brand" says Schalke’s Marketing Director Alexander Jobst.

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Many European football clubs are thinking along those lines. Just in 2017, the number of clubs that are presenting themselves on China's social media channels increased from 55 to 76. The most successful club is Manchester United with a total of 107 million Chinese followers, distributed across various social media channels.

Schalke has been active in the Chinese market since 2016 and has learned quite a lot since then: "Looking back, we should have taken on a few more media partnerships to promote our exclusive S04 content and forced the pace ourselves" says Jobst. "We are on the right track by now, but especially at the beginning of our endeavor, we had to learn how the media world works in China and with which major players, in order to succeed and build the brand."

The Bundesliga club first started on two channels (SinaWeibo, a microblogging platform and WeChat, similar to WhatsApp, but with many additional features) and has now expanded its efforts to eleven networks. While Schalke initially used content that they also played in Europe, it is now around 60 percent dedicated content produced only for the Chinese market.

Schalke is following a firm strategy: The club is to be positioned as the most down-to-earth Bundesliga club with the "Spirit of Miners", referring to its origins in the German coal-mining region. At the same time, Schalke distinguishes between "regular, informative content", such as game results and match analyses, and "emotional content". These can be posts that pick up themes from European traditions, such as a Christmas greeting from the Schalke players via video, but also topics that are currently “the fad” in China or posts from Chinese influencers. Schalke recently invited several of these key opinion leaders to Gelsenkirchen. The photos and videos of these fans or influencers were then used for the Schalke social media channels.

Says Marketing Director Jobst: "It's very exciting to see how and the speed at which Chinese fans interact on the social media channels." ‘Star cult’ plays a much bigger role among Chinese fans. It is "very much about characters and gestures, less about clear, tidy brand messages," says Jobst and gives an example: "In China, content from our players at ‘tin can tossing’ or table tennis games sometimes has a greater reach than mere training content. Player personalities have an extremely positive impact on social media channels."

Ashkan Maleki, Senior Director Digital & Content at Schalke, also emphasizes: "The biggest difference compared to Europe in terms of social media is the handling." In China, people are active 24/7, "everyone is carrying a power bank around with them". But first you have to identify, understand, apply and cater to this need. In the meantime, "we are doing pretty well, even if we are nowhere near the benchmark yet," says Maleki. The Marketing Manager is happy too: Schalke has already achieved “remarkable economic success in China”.

To accomplish this takes local commitment, and Schalke is maintaining partnerships with two football schools in China. But also a stopover at ISPO Shanghai was part of the Bundesliga member’s tour of China. It was there that Schalke showed one of its new away kits. The presentation was transmitted live via the shopping platform TMall—and 120,000 Chinese fans watched online.