Last year Real Madrid was named the fastest growing sports brand in the world, generating an incredible 1.6 billion video views. But Madrid also celebrated an off-field victory by taking the digital El Clasico Facebook crown after beating Barcelona to become the first football club in the world to reach 100 million likes on Facebook.
The combination of a well-crafted digital strategy, the passion of Real Madrid fans, and the support of Real Madrid players, legends, and celebrities, helped them storm past Barcelona in the final moments to become the first sports club to reach this milestone on Facebook.
The story began when Real Madrid teamed up with leading sports digital strategy and tech venture firm Rebel Ventures to win the digital title. The campaign was one of the most dramatic and widely viewed in social media history, generating over 580M media impressions across the globe.
This has been a show of force by the whole Real Madrid family – I don’t think we have ever seen this type of support for anyone on the platform. To see Rafa Nadel, David Beckham, Cristiano and many others rally their fans to aid you on this historic march to 100M likes has been insane to witness. – Robert Rodriguez – Head of Global Football Partnerships Facebook Sports
I invited Craig Howe, Rebel Ventures CEO and Rafael de los Santos – Global head of digital at Real Madrid onto the show to find out more.
Responsible at Real Madrid of Digital Strategy. Rafael is in charge of defining and implementing the digital strategy across all the areas and business within the club. Managing the different digital channels; owned channels such as the web and the app, second party channels where the club manages a certain amount of licenses for digital games and services or virtual goods
Also focused on growing the online sales. Last, the third party channels, where the social media partners, such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram among others are included. He is also responsible for the digital transformation process where the creation of a digital Platform and video platforms have been crucial for future revenue.
Rebel Ventures CEO, Craig Howe, built his career on two core principles: Shaping a unified vision through leadership and insight, and identifying and evangelizing digital strategy and marketing innovation.
Craig originally launched the business as a consultancy in 2012 to advise US sports leagues, global sports franchises, and early-stage technology companies on how to harness and maximize their digital potential.
Rebel Ventures has since grown to become a global leader in the intersection of sports + digital technology, working with iconic franchises such as San Francisco 49ers, Chicago Bulls, Boston Red Sox, Real Madrid, and Liverpool FC to optimize digital strategy and revenue generation.
Neil: So a big warm welcome to the show guys. Can you tell the listeners a little about yourselves and what you do?
Rafael de los Santos: Right. I’ll start. I’m Rafael de los Santos. I’m the person responsible for the detail department now. I have been working for Real Madrid for the past five years. Before that, I used to work for a media company called Prisa and also for Microsoft and my first job was Aramedeos.
Craig Howes: Hey there, this is Craig Howes. I’m the CEO and founder of Rebel Ventures. We are a sports digital strategy consulting firm that works with teams from all around the world to help them transform digital from a cost center to a revenue center. I think at this point we’ve worked with roughly 35 different organizations. Real Madrid obviously is our primary client.
We’ve worked with Liverpool in Wimbledon, in the UK, the MBA as a league, 12 NBA team, seven NFL teams and several other organizations across the globe. My background is, I spent 12 years as brand marketer working mostly in sports and entertainment, worked on things such as fast and furious and the hulk, and the video game side.
Then I built and sold a digital agency and then I was on the board of a company called snappy TV which became Twitter amplify video and I really started this company out of pure passion. I’m a huge sports fan and I don’t feel like I work every day. I just feel like I’m doing what I love, which is the way it probably should be.
Neil: (Laughs) you and me both my friend. No, I think your story is a fantastic lesson on how to do the digital transformation right. I think so many people could learn from following exactly what you’ve done, but before we look into those phenomenal results you have achieved together, I have to ask where it all began and why did one of the biggest clubs in the world join forces with Rebel Ventures.
Rafael: There was probably a little bit after I joined the club and everything was organized in a different way, so we were trying to put everything in a way that makes sense and everything under the same umbrella. One of the things that we needed to kind of bring together was that all the oldest social channels that we had at that time, so I remember the first time I met with Greg was in a conference that we attended in London. There we had a long conversation about the things that I was thinking of doing and the things that he had in mind that we should be doing and everything seems to be pretty much aligned.
So for the first time we had a long conversation, then we got together again back in New York, where we had a meeting and Craig flew over from L.A to New York and we had the terms to meet with our CEO and also with our deputy manager Begonia. We exchanged some of the ideas that we had and then the next thing is that we, for the next season, we started to work together as a team. So this is a little bit of a side story about how we made and how we begin working together.
Neil: Back in March, another memorable match was being played between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona but this game did not take place on a football pitch. Thanks to the well crafted strategy, the passion of Real Madrid fans and the support of the Real Madrid players, legends and celebrities, you stormed past Barca in the moments to become the first sporting club to reach 100 million fans on Facebook and that campaign was one of the most dramatic and widely viewed in social media history and it generated over 580 million social media impressions across the globe.
Now those stats are just insane, but can you tell me a little more about the campaign and how you begin to approach something like that?
Rafael: This was something that, if we look back when we won our 11th Champions League against Atletico Madrid in Milan. I had a conversation with Craig and with Alejandro, which is our, the guy that we have at Real Madrid that is looking after their social media and I put in the table the possibility that we have to reach that magical number in first place and we knew that Barca was taking a little bit of advantage that was the case for a long, long time. They’ve been ahead of us in Facebook and on other networks and we knew that we had a tent if we also have a good year, like the one that we had and we also take advantage of winning this 11th champion’s league. So we get together.
We began working on the strategy, to be honest with you, we were thinking that based on the games, based on the trophies that we were winning, based on our players, we were going to reach this number sometime at the end of this summer, but the reality is that we saw throughout the year that everything was going crazy and everything was increasing very, very, very rapidly and we find ourselves in a moment that it was a crazy week where we have to speed everything up and it was an amazing experience.
All I can tell you is that every time I think about that time, big smiles appear on my face because it was such a great moment and it’s such a great experience. Everything worked out just perfectly. The connection that we have with the first theme, with the players, with the celebrities, with all the activities that took place, the way we took advantage over the people that we know and the people that we have in our platform and the different things that we did in order to run the campaigns, the way we worked with Facebook and also with the agency that we were working at that time.
It was just amazing and everything worked out fine because we were able to surpass and takeover Barcelona and then reach the 100 million as the very first brand in the world to hit that number.
Craig: I would just say the one thing I would add to what Rafael just said is that, you know, we had enough time and something like this doesn’t like Rafael said, that it doesn’t happen in one week. Although the last 48 hours of this campaign was insane and I don’t think any of us slept more than three hours over that 48 hour period. We had a lot of time to pull together a comprehensive plan and what I think really worked for us over the long term to make this happen was a geo targeted organic strategy for content and growth. 97% of Real Madrid fan base on Facebook is outside of Spain.
So we really took advantage of celebrating big player and team moments and also acknowledging regional holidays because we have lots of fans in countries like India and North Africa, Brazil and oddly enough, you know, Christiano Ronaldo’s birthday, we did a lot of Geo targeted activities around that. We gained almost 500,000 fans on Facebook and 48 hours just by celebrating his birthday through some organic content.
So it was definitely something that we were adjusting on a daily basis that happened over a period of many months. So it wasn’t an overnight success.
Neil: That never is an overnight success. People only see the end result. I also read a great quote from you guys, I think what you said, “Ronaldo has more followers on twitter than country’s have inhabitants” which is so true but I mean, did the support of Real Madrid players, legends, celebrities and influences such as Rafael Nadal, Beckham, Ronaldo, all played a big part in the campaign too?
Rafael: Of course they did and I think that the success of God very moment, which was there 48 hours, 72 hours that Craig was talking and mentioning before, was the fact that we were able to go from one celebrity to another to another and it was everything very, very smooth and very, very quick. So, we’re getting the most out of every single pose that we were doing through these celebrities. Benny said, when you realize the power of Real Madrid and how big the brand is and how big the support for the brand is on the big celebrities.
I remember myself talking to Christiano’s agent, but we also were talking to some other people at the club that were calling to Rafal Nadal, we were calling to Fernando Alonso. We were called into, I don’t want to leave any of the names out, but we’re reaching out to so many people that they were so famous and this together with the faith that we had during all those 72 hours that we could potentially beat Barca at very end, kept us going and going and trying and reaching people and reaching out people and then it was a combination of little things when we were doing the campaigns.
Such as for instance, Barca did a campaign about bringing people to the game that they had against the Juve and we were doing the very same campaign but instead of doing it through a tickets for bringing people to the game, we were doing it using a signed jersey, which we know it makes a difference for the people that doesn’t live close to Madrid and close to the stadium and that gave us so many new followers. That was just impressive.
So all that combined and the way that we were doing things and the way that we were having on the team working on scene who was posting what and then telling this to the agencies so we can boost that post and reach more people was just amazing and of course, as I was mentioning before, the level of exposure and the people that we can reach out and talk and ask to get them a half post for us and for the people to follow Real Madrid was just amazing. Kaka, Beckham, Rafal Nadal, Alonso and Enrique Iglesias, it was just amazing.
Craig: One of the things that amazed me as sort of the outsider that’s a part of this team, was how the entire club came together around this campaign when they found out that it was going on and that goes not only from the players but to the CEO of the club, Jose Alejendro Sanchez who was actively involved in enlisting involvement from players and celebrities nonstop over a 72 hour period. He was in the whatsapp group, you know, sometimes at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning doing everything he could, calling people in America in other time zones to get them involved.
There was, it was really amazing to see the entire club come together knowing that we had labeled this, the digital classico way before we even knewwhat the final result would be and I think that’s kind of the spirit of Real Madrid is, you know, keep on fighting until the very end and that was what was so fun about being a part of this campaign.
Neil: It’s funny that I was just about to say that it really to save it, you haven’t got a team of individuals and influences there, you’ve got this Dream Team where you all work together and you’ve all pulled your resources together and move forward together and that’s the beautiful thing and but also did you also directly enlist the help of Facebook too? I mean, what part did they play in this fantastic campaign? And did you already have a relationship with them or is that something you had to build from the beginning?
Rafael: No, no, no, no. Actually we’ve been talking with Facebook from the very beginning and I can tell you that, you can see how Real Madrid as a club has been growing on the digital channels, but you can also see from the very beginning how Facebook has been growing as a company in the sports and what is the attention that they paid to sports like soccer in this case. We’ve been talking with Facebook.
I remember talking with Facebook from, from the very beginning when I first joined the club. We had an account for a long, long time in Facebook as you can imagine and we have seen how the organization has been growing and we’ve been changing the people that we’ve been talking to and every time we talk to a new person is a person that is more dedicated to the kind of activity that we do.
So at the beginning we spoke with the Facebook people, then we spoke with the Facebook people that was looking after sports and now we’re talking to the Facebook people that is looking after soccer and to be honest with you in all of this, I like to pinpoint Robert Rodriguez as a key pillar of the success that we have because of all the good advice that he gave us, because of all the good best practices that he shared with us. I can tell you that every single one of the things that he told us had a really good impact on, on this quote unquote race that we had.
So this is something that, as you were mentioning at the beginning, isn’t something that doesn’t happen from one day to another. This is the result of a long lasting relationship that we’ve been having with Facebook in the past five years.
Neil: So when you have players such as Ronaldo with more followers than the inhabitants of entire nations, is there any form of like social media policy at Real Madrid to ensure that some footballers don’t over share controversial opinions or wild antics off the pitch? Is that any such thing as a bad publicity?
Rafael: When you said in Spanish expression in English with maybe it doesn’t make any sense, but I will try. It’s like put in fences in the jar is very, very difficult. This is in the country, you know, he’s putting in fences in the country. It’s very, very difficult because you know, that the player, sometimes they do the things they want to use their social networks, they want to build their brand, they want to say what they want, they want to show what they do and sometimes it’s very difficult
for us to try to manage that. In some cases, I will tell you it’s impossible because their social media space is huge. Like the case of Ronaldo. In some other cases, they ask how they can do certain things and we try to give them advice and this is something that we see that every year. We are gaining some of the credibility that we have insight and more and more the players are coming to us to request some of the content that they compose. They are coming to us to request to show some of the practices, some of the best practices with them and more and more we are a part of the strategy that they follow.
For us, one of the things that we want to do for next year is to make sure that we have different levels within the team. So we take our younger players to be in a certain level of exposure within the followers that they have and we get them into the levels that we believe are the right levels for a person or a player that belongs to Real Madrid or place for Real Madrid and this is something that every year we’re becoming more efficient on doing and we are kind of like trying to do a little bit more about the things that we can add and contribute to the players.
Neil: Now, one other question that I’ve got to ask, especially as you’re Real Madrid man and I think what the answer’s going to be but did beating Barcelona to 100 million fans around the world make that victory even sweeter?
Rafael: Yes. I mean, I could say I could go for, you know, just be the political answer, but for us, you know, it’s the biggest, we’ve been playing in the states now and we had this game in Miami and the game was being broadcast as the biggest rivalry in the world and I truly think is the biggest one in the world of sports.
So I can tell you that beating Barca and the way we did it, which is pretty much in our heritage to fight until the very, very end and I know that every second counts and something magic can happen in the very last second and doing it the very same way we do sometimes in the field was double pressure for us.
Craig: I could say Neil, that, I mean we’ve had the fortune of working with teams all over the world and a leagues all over the world. There’s nothing like Real Madrid and Barcelona. It’s the biggest rivalry in the world. My favorite moment Rafael reference to their Classico last week in Miami, there was a quote from Gareth Bale that said there’s no such thing as it a friendly between Madrid and Barcelona and I think that you couldn’t be more accurate. I think that extends to digital as well. Obviously, you know, we have no bad blood with the digital team at Barcelona, but we want to beat them every single way possible at all times.
Neil: Actually, I did see that game in Miami as well. It’s phenomenal at the football skills on display there. It was almost, I was like an exhibition of skills. It’s just I’m a Darby County Fan. I don’t play like that, let me tell you.
So when clubs purchased big stars, many will also point to replica shirt sales and how it will boost brand awareness around the world. Do you think that the power of online influence is also a big plus point for clubs now when they’re buying a new player?
Rafael: Well, to be honest with you, I think that at the end of the day what we play is what we buy his players and what we want is players that are good and they can play well and they can win battles for the Real Madrid. That is a reality. It is true that at the end of the day when you look on the players, you really don’t want them to do so, but you look at what is the exposure that we have, what is the brand that they have and obviously on the brand, which is something that is very important for Real Madrid, for the marketing side of things. Obviously the biggest, the social media audience that they have is, the better brand they have. So this is something that as I was saying before, it’s something that we look into it and we also take a look at the possibility that we have to help that player to become a big one, when they join Real Madrid. We see players coming to Real Madrid and all of a sudden they become the biggest players in social media.
I’ll give you an example. If we take our second keeper he has more followers than all the keepers from La Liga together. So this is how important this is for Real Madrid.
Neil: Now as I’m UK based, I’ve got to ask, this is probably more for Craig. Are you noticing any premier league club starting to take digital seriously because I think you hinted at Liverpool are working with you at the moment. Is that right?
Craig: Yeah, we’ve definitely done some work with Liverpool for a long time, but I would say that at this point, every club is taking digital seriously and I think with the new premier league broadcast deal, this is one area where all the clubs are really investing and you know, the thing that’s interesting to me, I mean, I don’t think there’s any two clubs in the world that are doing digital the same way. They all have different leadership. They all have different staffing. They have different priorities, a different approach and it’s really interesting for us to see how every team has a unique strategy based on their perceived strengths and weaknesses.
So I don’t necessarily think that there’s any one club that’s doing digital better than that many others. I think it’s just a mad scramble to figure out what the best digital strategy is for that club and I know that we know Rafael obviously been spending many years trying to refine it, you know, and all the clubs in the premier league or are doing the same thing right now. Even Brighton club like Brighton that just got called up. I’m sure that they are trying to figure out what is the difference between, you know, digital now that we’re in the. We’re in the premier league as opposed to the second division.
Neil: So finally I’ve got to ask, now that you’ve achieved your goal of a 100 million fans and 580 million well earned social media impressions across the globe. Where’d you go from here? I mean, what is next? How could you follow up an emphatic victory like that?
Rafael: What is next? I guess the easy one is to say, well the next is a 200 million but to be honest with you, one of the things that we see is that a big shift on the audience that is following the club has a cure in the past five years I would say. So now the majority of the people that is following the club, they do and they do it and they connect with the clap through, through social media.
So what we’re trying to do is, is just to build the experience in a way that we are closer to our funds, that we put our funds right in the middle of everything and that we regenerate and we have the ability to engage with them as much as possible. Nowadays, I can tell you that that engagement is a big war and it’s also one of our key targets that we have and this is what we’ve been trying to do. Every time we do something, we are looking at the possibilities that we have to engage with these people.
The reason why we want to engage with these people is because we know that this is the way of becoming even bigger and more relevant and the more relevant we are, the more money we make, the more money we make, the better players we buy, the better players and we buy, the more we win, which is basically everything that we want to do in there. That’s our ultimate goal. So this is something that is a very good question. So obviously we have some idea, some of them are very various strategic. We’re thinking about doing things that we will see how it works. We’re really looking into enhancing the kind of content that we produce and all these things together we just wanted to become a bigger and bigger.
Craig: I would add one thing to that and that’s that every time I walk into the Real Madrid office, you know, there’s, there’s a real emphasis on excellence and performance and I feel like every time you walk in there, you know that Rafael or Begonia is going to come up to you and say, what’s next? How are we doing here? How are we improving, how are we getting better? I don’t think it really matters how many titles you when or how you beat Barca to the Facebook 100. It’s about always what’s next and what’s more and how do we push ourselves to be better and I think it’s been a really rewarding environment for us to be in as a support for Real Madrid.
Neil: Well a huge thanks for coming on the show today. Like I said earlier, my football club is a club called Darby County, which you’ve probably never even heard of Craig but Rafael, Darby County did beat Real Madrid full one back in 1975. It’s probably the last chance will ever beat you as well, but this video is always shared over Facebook. This is the time that Darby County beat Real Madrid 4-1, but what they don’t show you is the second leg where you came back and beat us 5-1 and kicked us out.
So it didn’t even have a happy ending, but I really do thank you for coming onto that. It’s a great story and you really are leading the way in the digital transformation for sporting clubs and indeed other industries as well. I think it could learn a lot from what you’re doing, so thanks to both of you.