In the world of sport, especially the world of professional sport, we see the polished and professional digital appearance of clubs and organisations. This is incredibly evident in the world of football. However, as you descend further down the pyramid, the same can’t always be said for some Non-League clubs. Robert Zirpolo talks us through how he helped digitise Peterborough Northern Star FC.

My name’s Robert Zirpolo and I was involved at Step 5 football club Peterborough Northern Star FC between 2015-2020. For those not familiar with the Non-League System that’s 5 leagues (steps) below the Football League; EFL’s League Two. 

I initially came on board as a Director as my dad was Chairman and my basic remit was to “have a look at things, look at the website perhaps”  The latter part being in reference to my IT background in my day job as an IT contractor. Well after engaging with some of the people already on board, the club had a website which was the basic package provided by Pitchero. There was no Facebook account but a fairly healthy Twitter account with if I recall just over a thousand followers at the time.

Non-League Peterborough Northern Star FC
Robert presenting the Man of the Match award.

 

For me even if you’re a non-professional club there’s no reason why you can’t have the media and marketing side look professional. You may not have the same resources and rely on yourself and volunteers but I love a challenge and so in 2015 I set about revitalising the clubs profile. 

The goal here was to get the name out there more locally, raise our profile again locally as well as in the wider national non-league community and see if we could attract new followers/potential new fans to come to games. A tough task as we weren’t a successful side and being realistic we weren’t going to be competing for promotion as the aim in my first season was for us to stay in the division. 

Robert at a Peterborough Northern Star game.

 

I first purchased the domain of pnsfc.co.uk setup a generic club email of contact@pnsfc.co.uk for all enquires. Even though I am in IT I cannot create web pages so I upgraded our Pitchero package, had a look at some other clubs and worked with them to create a custom design and also utilise www.pnsfc.co.uk. The Facebook page was created and from there it was a case of keeping these platforms consistent so we could engage with audiences. The common thing I saw with clubs at our level in non-league is there is a lot of emphasis on Twitter and little or zero on Facebook or their own websites (if they had one). That’s always baffled me as a simple search in regards to social media audiences you’ll find that Facebook dwarfs Twitter so why you’d neglect this I don’t know. They are different platforms so for me you can’t just blanket copy content but where possible posting consistently was key.

“the then Chairman of a fellow local club tweeted “To Football clubs everywhere. Please only tweet goals, HT & FT score ( + red cards are ok) No one is interested in anything else – seriously”.  I can only assume he isn’t (or maybe wasn’t?) a big advocate of Fan Engagement whereas I was and always will be.”

The first team is always the most important at a football club and of course will be the most promoted, most referenced but I was very much about adopting a “one club” policy so wanted our media to also promote and reference other teams; Reserves, U18 as well as all our youth teams. The club also had a ladies team but there was zero link to the club so getting them more in sync and included them was another task I completed.

 

Being at all our First Team games home and away I would always follow a format of being prominent on Twitter so our lineup would be posted pre-game and then commentary during the game, tagging in our player accounts and of course the result. It’s some good publicity for the lads involved and this would always get more followers, likes and re-tweets as we would face teams who don’t do this so fans of the opposition would follow our account. I did find one bizarre comment when I did this more and more as the then Chairman of a fellow local club tweeted “To Football clubs everywhere. Please only tweet goals, HT & FT score ( + red cards are ok) No one is interested in anything else – seriously”.  I can only assume he isn’t (or maybe wasn’t?) a big advocate of Fan Engagement whereas I was and always will be. 

A lot of clubs at non-league level allow their managers have access to Twitter which I always found odd as football being such a rollercoaster of emotions my view is best this isn’t echoed via a clubs social media platform and should if anything be on an individuals account. I have seen some very public and emotion driven rants via “club” Twitter accounts which for me doesn’t reflect well on the club itself at all. 

I’m personally also a big fan of design work and graphics and I was lucky to already have someone at the club in Tim Symonds who was superb at this. He agreed to also become our Programme Editor and due to his design and the input from me for content the club won the Programme Of The Year award in our first full season which to be honest didn’t surprise me. He would also create match posters when I had ideas which when put out on social media always got positive feedback. This was all voluntary and when Tim stepped down I managed to recruit Sam Piesse and his work was equally superb which ensured we continued with the engagements in regards to views and positive feedback on graphics which were put out.

 

I was also very keen on having a club photographer for match photos and in my time we had Chantelle McDonald and James Cox who would take an abundance of photos, narrow these down to 20-30 images per game, edit accordingly and then publish across our website and social media platforms. As well as the views online these would be used for local newspaper articles. 

I took over as club Chairman in 2018 and as much as I was still passionate and wanted to input into this side of the club I didn’t want to spread myself too thin so I managed to recruit Paolo Iantosca as our Head Of Social Media and he was responsible for ensuring the content continued and to organise and liaise with the match photographer, the programme editor as well as picking up the match day twitter tasks; pre-match, match commentary and post-match. He also setup the clubs Instagram account to tap into more followers. It was good to have someone really embrace it and credit to Paolo for that. 

I have to admit it was nice to have a “Media” WhatsApp group where we would share ideas and bounce off each other – all trying to achieve the goal of raising the clubs profile. It’s not just all about online, we ran a number of promotions during my time at the club such as “Pay What You Want” and national “Non League Day” which did achieve the goal of raised attendances as well as gaining some new supporters. 

Pay what you want non-league initiative poster

 

I did also create a club YouTube channel and managed to recruit a videographer for match highlights over a period of time but unfortunately we couldn’t retain them and we didn’t have any luck in finding a replacement before my time ended at the club. The YouTube following is massive and you only have to look at the success of HashTag United and their profile to see what demographic you can tap into and potentially get more followers and fans of your club. Funny enough I did manage to arrange a friendly with HashTag in 2019 and to see their following and the people they have on board was an eye-opener and impressive. Love to see it and to see at non-league level especially, I’ll be keeping an eye on their progress for sure and superb scenes from their recent FA Cup victory on BBC. 

From this article I’d like to think it shows my passion for off-the-pitch as well as on-the-pitch. We didn’t have any major first team success in my time as it was a period of transition and progression for the club but to be honest that didn’t deter my passion for this. I have to admit if we did have the First Team success I think we as a club would have managed to raise our profile even more but hey -ho it wasn’t meant to be.

It can be a tough slog at non-league level as it’s all predominantly voluntary but for me when you recruit people for things like the media side you should make them feel part of the club, make sure those on the pitch like management and players engage with these people so they all embrace that “one club” mentality I had created. 

For any people involved at non-league clubs I’d say embrace the marketing and social media side. Yes you may think it’s for the “youngsters” but if you think it’s just them who browse the internet, use Facebook, Twitter etc I’d implore you to not be so naive. Good media won’t win you games, won’t guarantee you more fans at games but it can only help, no? It costs nothing and instead of being dismissive and have a 0% chance why not give this side support and even have a 1% chance. I know from my time that the greater media profile really helped in securing and retaining sponsorship as year on year our commercial revenue increased – because we echoed our commercial partnerships via social as well as print media. 

For any budding social media enthusiasts, photographers, videographers, graphic designers who follow football get in touch with your local non-league club as they’d always welcome more volunteers to help on this side and it may not be the glamour of the pro game and not the biggest crowds initially but it’d be a superb experience and can only help if you wanted a look at a career in sports media.

You can connect with Robert on LinkedIn by clicking here.

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