“You’re the best in the world.” “You’re my hero.” “I love you.” “Marry me please.” “I wanna have your babies.” These are all quite common lines to be fired from football fans in the direction of their sporting heroes, but each of these phrases has also been directed at someone else at AS Roma. Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi have heard similar cries of affection, but so too has the manager of the AS Roma English Twitter account, someone who has never kicked a ball in earnest for the Italian club.
Welcome to AS Roma admin, the Lionel Messi of football Twitter. This world is an often vicious and tribal place, yet a dose of fun and lets-not-take-life-too-seriously-ness has been injected by the Roma digital team and, in particular, by their English Twitter account. Their tongue-in-cheek tweets have changed the landscape of football Twitter, so much so that several others – clubs from Germany to the US – have tried to embrace a similar style. Some would call it straight up copying, yet nobody does it as well as Roma, who continue to lead the way in most metrics imaginable and in genuine humour.
At the end of 2018, the account posted a thread of highlight tweets from the year and followers would have immediately recalled the posts when reading titles like “the German club behaviour one” or “the IKEA one” or “the Mark Wahlberg one”. From the self-depreciation over the failure of the club to finalise the deal for Malcom when his transfer had already been announced – and indeed their follow-up wishing him good luck in Russia after a failed season in Barcelona led to a move to Zenit – and the mocking of the incessant spurting out of photoshopped images of new transfers, to the sharing of the pure joy of pulling off a Champions League comeback against Barcelona, the rollercoaster ride of being a Roma fan has never been more truthfully and entertainingly documented.
While the change in approach can be traced back to 2017, it really all began with the 2015 acquisition of Liverpool’s head of international digital development, Paul Rogers.
Mohamed Salah and Alisson Becker may have brought a European crown to Anfield after going the other way, but Rogers has made Roma the European champions of social media after his own transfer. For the Englishman, his main goal was to remove the language barrier that prevented international fans from keeping up to date with Roma. This was achieved by a rebuilding of the website and apps and an increase in quality and quantity of content on the English platforms. Once the benchmark had been established, it was time to get creative and the reporting of the club’s transfer activity in the 2017 summer window changed the game completely.
Speaking to These Football Times, Rogers recalls that summer of Twitter love: “We’d always been quite traditional in how we announced incoming transfers on social media, but I think the first elaborate revealing we did was when Lorenzo Pellegrini signed,” he explained. “We’d recently launched our FIFA eSports team and we decided to have the player play himself in the game. It was nicely filmed and the feedback from both fans and the media was great.”
The ball was all of a sudden in other clubs’ court and they responded by trying to create their own clever announcement videos. By the time the ball was back over the net in Roma’s half, i Giallorossi responded with a mic-drop shot that stunned everyone. They’d helped start the slick player reveal craze, but they weren’t going to carry on with it.
Cengiz Ünder was only 20 at the time he joined the Serie A side from Başakşehir, but he went viral after his announcement video was dropped. Keen to move away from the other mundane tweets of that transfer window, the digital team decided to create a bad parody of the kind of fan-created goals and skills videos that appear on YouTube when a player is linked with another club.
“At AS Roma, we don’t like to follow what others do in terms of content, so for our next announcement we wanted to do something completely different,” Rogers says of that Cengiz video. “We made it as embarrassingly bad as humanly possible – mimicking the terrible graphics and music these fan videos use – and then we just put it out there. Everyone who saw it knew exactly the type of video we were making fun of. I don’t think we were trying to be weird, but we thought it was funny and the reaction on social media was great.”
The following summer, the club shot the video reveal completely dead with the signing of Iván Marcano, killing their creation by posting 60 seconds of a black screen with nothing more than some hip-hop music playing in the background and a caption detailing the details of the transfer. They’d even announced the signing through a fake burner account, completely stepping away from the slick and increasingly humourless Hollywood-esque video reveal culture.
It was the Cengiz video, though, that was the gamechanger for the mentality of the whole account. “We knew that if we injected some humour into our video announcements then they’d entertain our followers and, after that video, we really started to push the boat out and have some fun,” Rogers recalled. “People in the media called our approach ‘weird’ and ‘quirky’, but in reality, we were just having fun.”
They were also seeing their follower numbers skyrocket, growing from five million to 15 million social media followers over the past three years. It’s not really about the number of followers, though, for Roma. It’s about engagement and this is the metric the eight-person digital editorial team that is based in Rome and Boston care about the most. It’s all about the fans – and that’s not just a buzzword.
They even went to Reddit to find out what the supporters really wanted. The club are keen to work with fans and to empower their creativity when they make a particularly funny meme or put together a very detailed video. If the overall goal is to promote the Roma brand, then that doesn’t necessarily need to always come from the account with the blue tick.
But what’s the ultimate point of it all? How does it actually affect wins and losses on the pitch? Can it even do that? “If there are commercial benefits to the approach further down the line then great, but it can never be the reason for doing what we do,” Rogers stressed. “Our number one aim on social media is to engage with our fans and followers and make them feel closer to the club. We’re not going to get a lifelong Arsenal or Real Madrid fan to change the club they support, but if through what we do on social and digital media they choose to adopt Roma as their second club then that can be valuable. If later down the line, those fans feel compelled to come to a match, engage with a sponsor, share their data or buy something from the club, that’s a bonus.”
There is evidence, though, that there can be commercial benefits to an engaged follower base. “Our partners love what we do on social media and, for some of them, our digital strategy and capabilities were certainly a big factor in them choosing to work with Roma,” Rogers revealed. For example, when it came to negotiating a potential shirt sponsorship deal with Qatar Airways, the digital team was in the room from the very first meetings. And the airline now graces the famous red shirt.
There’s a certain altruism to what Roma’s digital team do as well. They have run a number of campaigns that benefit third parties, most recently sharing images of missing children alongside straightforward player announcement videos during the summer transfer window. The effects were profound, with a number of children found safe and returned to their loved ones.
Another initiative is the Team of the Day, through which the official Roma account showcases a smaller club from somewhere in the huge world of football that they like and that a large share of their followers then flock to.
It started during Non-League Day in the United Kingdom, when clubs outside the professional leagues are commonly highlighted and supported during an international break weekend. Roma decided to back a junior Scottish team named Saint Anthony’s, who had a social media approach that the Italian club appreciated. “With #ASRoma not playing this weekend, we’re supporting the mighty @SaintAnthonysFC from Glasgow, Scotland on #NonLeagueDay as they take on @JohnstoneBurgh1,” the tweet read, along with the hashtags #ForzaTheAnts, #ItsAnAntsThing and #MonTheAnts, embracing the junior side’s nickname.
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That tweet and the subsequent interaction was so important for the minnows that it led to them gaining thousands of new followers, overtaking some clubs in the actual Scottish Professional Football League. As much as the thousands of notifications sapped the battery life of the account’s admin, who hadn’t even been told this was going to happen, it was a huge success for both clubs and led Roma to create their Team of the Day series.
“It was nice to do something positive for another club that doesn’t get the same attention as Roma,” Rogers said. “We thought this was a perfect way to use our platform and our Twitter ‘fame’ to help another club.” Clubs from Argentina to Zimbabwe and Australia to Zambia have been profiled since. It’s one small tweet for Roma, but one giant leap forward into the Twittersphere for the teams being put in the shop window of one of Europe’s largest clubs.
It’s not just club teams that AS Roma interact with online. They have also embraced a national team, doing so with Nigeria in the build-up to and during the 2018 World Cup. This collaboration stemmed from the side’s comeback against Barcelona during the 2017/18 Champions League, when i Giallorossi overturned a 4-1 first-leg deficit by winning 3-0 at home in the return fixture to progress on away goals. Commentary clips of Kostas Manolas’ winner hit eardrums around the world in the aftermath of that game and one of the most incredible pieces of audio came from a Nigerian radio presenter named Mark Otabor, so Roma shared a video of him doing his thing and spitting his passion into his microphone.
“The tweet started to go viral, with fans in Nigeria loving the fact that Roma was taking such an interest in one of their own,” Rogers remembered. “We saw so much love from Nigerian Twitter that we just thought that since Italy wasn’t at the World Cup, why not support Nigeria? After that day, we officially adopted the Super Eagles as our national team and went all-in on supporting them. Just as we adopted the Super Eagles, fans in Nigeria started to adopt Roma as their Italian team.”
This support for the African nation certainly wasn’t a gimmick. “We were actually deadly serious in our support for Nigeria,” Rogers, who recently visited Nigeria, said. “We kept the faith, even after they lost some warm-up games and then the first game of the tournament. Those messages were really well received by many Nigerian fans and then when they beat Iceland people remembered our tweets.”
After someone close to the president of Nigeria got in touch to thank Roma for their support, Rogers’ digital team were introduced to their counterparts at the Nigerian FA and offered to take a look at their official social media accounts to see if they could make any recommendations. While there may not have been any immediate payoffs to that self- less assistance, the relationship the club now has with Nigerian football fans is something powerful and could make a difference one day way down the line.
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At the end of the day, AS Roma is a business and the digital team is a part of it. So what does the owner James Pallotta think of the approach to social media and the collaborations with the likes of the Nigerian FA or the initiatives like the Team of the Day? “It’s funny, but we’re more likely to get in trouble for putting out bland and boring content than we are for taking risks,” Rogers said when asked if there have been any issues with the higher-ups at the institution. “We’re definitely fortunate that we work for an owner and president in James Pallotta who doesn’t just encourage entertaining content but actually demands it. In fact, the stranger our transfer announcements became in 2017, the more our ownership enjoyed it.”
As with any element of business, there’s a need to move with the times. To stand still is to move backwards and Roma never want to be caught offside. They’re always evolving and looking for new ways to turn heads and to move thumbs. When it comes to transfer announcements, the funny videos have, for now, been left in the past and the focus this summer was firmly on doing good with their reach, hence the work with various missing children’s charities around the world.
That was recently followed by highlighting one individual’s racist comments that landed in the Instagram inbox of defender Juan Jesus. Posting his social media account across various platforms, Rogers supplemented the official AS Roma tweet with the following line: “Imagine everyone who knows you finding out you use Instagram to send racist messages to footballers.” It’s an approach Serie A can learn from in Italy.
But the iconic announcements linger. In the summer of 2018, the club revealed the transfer of Bryan Cristante with a spoof graphic of a deliberately bad photoshop of the midfielder wearing a Roma kit – and this actually performed three times better than the most popular announcement video of 2017.
It’s all about innovation and staying ahead of the curve. Other club owners and directors may tell their digital teams to follow the Roma methodology, but that’s folly as the winning formula is updated daily like the crucial security code in an Ocean’s Eleven movie. “Our engagement is actually very impressive, but, to be honest, our whole approach to using social media is very unique to Roma,” Rogers said.
“Whether it’s our music playlists, adopting Nigeria in the World Cup or playing around with hip-hop and pop culture, we try to use our creativity to entertain our followers. We’re not trying to use social media for corporate communications, as we have a website for that. This is supposed to be fun and entertaining. The idea is to keep evolving and never stand still. The last thing in the world we want to be is boring.”
With chess-playing goats, singing lions, Tupac references, climate change warnings and banter with IKEA, AS Roma admin has certainly not been boring these past few years, and they’ve achieved so much good along the way. It’s been the best show on football Twitter.