Summer and sport are a perfect combination and this year we’ve been treated to a standout season with events for every taste. From the Women’s Football World Cup to the Ashes series, a thrilling Tour de France and new champions at Wimbledon – no matter your sport, there’s been a competition to delight audiences.

Where there’s sport, there are fans – and now those fans are no longer confined to the terraces or stadia: they have the world of social media to carry on conversations. Whether it’s to follow the lives of their favourite athletes, keep up to date on team activities or create connections with fellow supporters, fandoms love social media. 

So, brands looking to connect with fandoms need to maximise their social media game to reap the rewards. No one needs convincing of the merits of social media advertising these days. Projected to reach $207bn worldwide in 2023, it is a vital part of most media plans. But significant untapped potential remains, and brands need to adopt a specific mindset to make the most of these platforms when engaging with fans. Not least, they need an open-minded and fleet of foot approach to spot the opportunities and trends and be brave enough to go with the fan flow.

What’s interesting about the best fandom social media work is that it is often initiated by the fans themselves, with the brands then needing to be bold – joining in and adding to the momentum. We’ve seen this recently (with a non-sporting example) as the Grimace Shake became the latest trend to go viral on social media. The #GrimaceShake has reached more than 2.4bn views with the first meme of the gruesome consequences of drinking the shake started by a TikToker. McDonald’s responded with humour and has been able to sit back and enjoy the boost of interest for this limited-edition milkshake.

There was a fair degree of serendipity in the success of our Tiny Football Car and Tiny Buzz work for Volkswagen during the UEFA EUROs 2020 and then the subsequent Women’s EURO 2022. Volkswagen was a sponsor for the EUROs and its tiny car was invented to deliver the football onto the pitch during COVID, in order to avoid too many people touching the ball. The unpredictable part of this activity was that people loved the tiny car and it gained a surge of support of its own, trending on Twitter (now known as X) after its initial appearance at the opening game. It had gained its own fan base and Tribal jumped on it.

Responding rapidly to this trend we made a standalone Twitter channel, aptly named “@TinyFootballCar” – it was a fast reaction to a fan-driven opportunity and Volkswagen bought into it. While most aspects of Volkswagen’s EUROs sponsorship work were long in the planning and strategically focused work, this fan-inspired social media activity was entirely reactive and spontaneous.

It also allowed us to create a personality for Tiny Football Car which then gave us a freedom that wasn’t possible in an official Volkswagen capacity. We could have conversations with fans in the first person and engage and react to fans’ posts from his personal perspective. When he came out for the semi-finals, Tiny Football Car was decked out in rainbow colours which built a new LGBTQ+ community for him.

TikTok provided the perfect opportunity to engage with fans by jumping on their patterns and behaviours, using trending audios and stitches during the tournament to align with fan thinking. The key was to act fast – as soon as an opportunity arose to make the most of a new trend or have some fun, a new video would be created immediately. TikTok moves quickly, so we needed to match this pace.

We’ve seen personas work well with other brands’ fandoms on social media such as Duolingo’s owl icon, which has evolved into a meme trend turning Duo into a complex character and mascot.

The use of the Tiny Football Car persona was updated for the Women’s EUROs a year later to reflect Volkswagen’s launch of its ID. Buzz electric van. Tiny Buzz was given a female persona to align with the Women’s Tournament and this time we had the benefit of time to prepare. The biggest advantage was that it meant a bank of content could be created in advance to work across Twitter and TikTok. Running an effective social media campaign aimed at fandoms around sporting events requires considerable resource – both in terms of creating content applicable for different platforms and requiring live community management throughout.

Over the 26-day tournament we jumped on every opportunity possible for Tiny Buzz, leading to 72 pieces of original content published on owned channels and 455 tweets published as replies or interactions with fans or other brand accounts. @TinyFootballCar and Tiny Buzz are now the proud owners of 23,000 followers on Twitter and 535,000 followers on TikTok, surpassing the Volkswagen brands own following on that platform. These accounts have continued to provide an additional touchpoint for the brand with engaged communities and future customers alike, something we wouldn’t have achieved had we not spotted the opportunity, acted fast and given the fans what they wanted.

While you can create content in advance knowing there are certain inevitabilities – for instance, for the EUROs there would be match moments such as red cards, extra time, penalties, rain at some point – you still need a live content team ready to post appropriately and respond to fans’ reactions. While you don’t know which team is going to win, you can create assets in advance – with time for full client approval – ready for either result.

The quality of this content really makes a difference. The All England Lawn Tennis Club clearly had an excellent team of content creators for the Wimbledon tournament as it was putting out a video of stitched together highlights of the final within five minutes of Carlos Alcaraz winning.

Social media work – far more than any other aspect of advertising – is full of grey areas, which is why brands need to be brave and embrace fast decision-making. If a brand wants to tap into social media fandoms – as applicable around pop stars as sporting events – they must do what people want and love. If a brand tries to manipulate a situation or force activity it rarely works. However, if something starts trending – go for it.

As anyone in social media will tell you, the bane of their lives is when they are given a brief asking for something to go viral. There is no magic formula and you cannot predict what will take off. What you can do is keep your finger on the pulse, spot trends and respond. Feed the fandoms and adapt the content – and be ready to work tirelessly and put in some long hours.