Strategic connection – the power of social media at the World Cup


This summer, football fans from all over the world focused their attention on 12 stadiums across 11 cities in Russia, cheering on their national teams. Increasingly, however, social media platforms are becoming the most effective way for supporters, especially those not able to be in the stadium, to express their emotions and connect with their favourites.

Furthermore, social media provides an opportunity for teams, players, brands and industry stakeholders to generate engagement and increase visibility. In this article, the KPMG Football Benchmark team reviews the impact of social media on the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.

The World Cup, predictably, tends to break the majority of social media records every four years. The 2014 edition in Brazil had some interesting figures worth recalling – in total, 672 million tweets referred to the 2014 World Cup and the dramatic semi-final between Brazil and Germany generated more than 200 million interactions, from 66 million users, across all social media platforms.

It was no surprise that the 2018 World Cup also sparked heavy engagement. The competition also demonstrated that for the players themselves, carefully managed social media strategies can result in an extraordinarily high number of interactions.

  1. Capitalizing on the social media audience

It was evident that among the players, those already enjoying enormous follower audiences had an advantage in the “race for interaction”. Posts from players like Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and James Rodríguez, for instance, generated high levels of traffic. On Twitter, Ronaldo’s most popular World Cup post registered around 560,000 engagements, higher than the most popular tweets of James Rodríguez of Colombia (466,000) and Brazil’s Neymar (428,000). These examples show how individual players can generate a huge amount of interactions.

  1. The reward of glory

Winning the World Cup is a major achievement both on and off the pitch. Within the winning French side, Kylian Mbappé had the best-performing posting on Twitter with an impressive 918,000 engagements, while N’Golo Kanté and Antoine Griezmann (498,000 and 486,000 engagements respectively) also recorded outstanding results. On other social networks such as Instagram, the fastest-growing platform, the engagement level was even higher. The reactions to posts by Mbappé (4.8 million) and Griezmann (4 million) directly after the World Cup Final, are a clear indication of that.

  1. Memorable moments and creativity

Players with smaller follower audiences entered the competition with notable creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. This was clearly the case for Japanese defender Yuto Nagatomo and Belgian striker Michy Batshuayi, whose posts used strategies focused on the emotional and humorous side of the game to generate significant engagement. Despite not enjoying the same, huge fan base of other prominent players, their posts were only outperformed by those of Ronaldo, James and the aforementioned French players.

The KPMG Football Benchmark team also examined the social media performance of the teams and players by two additional measures. While teams and players with the biggest fan bases can easily achieve impressive increases, relative growth is the variable where less popular accounts can compete.

Four federations grew by more than one million followers overall. Eventual World Cup winners France, naturally, had the strongest momentum, beating Brazil in this category, followed by Mexico and England. Les Bleus secured more than one million new followers on Instagram alone, with a growth rate of 34% during the World Cup, while their English Twitter account doubled its followers with an impressive 118% growth rate during the competition. At first sight, it is eye-catching but not surprising that less-celebrated teams dominated relative growth, with countries like Russia, Croatia and Sweden increasing their follower base by 63%, 43% and 30% respectively.  

Among the players, besides winning the Best Young Player Award, Mbappé also gained the highest number of new followers on all platforms. From the 6.7 million new fans, 5.6 million can be attributed to Instagram. Despite this considerable rise, Mbappé’s follower base cannot yet be compared to the biggest stars on social media like Ronaldo (332 million total followers), Neymar (201 million) and Messi (187 million).

In terms of relative growth, figures among players also reveal interesting trends. The best example of a creative self-branding strategy came from Rúrik Gíslason, the 30-year-old Icelandic midfielder, who started the World Cup campaign with just under 32,000 Instagram followers and after playing only 117 minutes in the tournament, was registering 1.4 million. The reason behind such growth might be related to Gíslason’s photogenic appearance, highlighted by an ad-hoc hashtag that went viral in South America and made him popular throughout the tournament.

Leveraging social media was not confined to teams and players as other stakeholders and personalities tried to boost their visibility and popularity through the tournament. FIFA, for example, launched a successful #FIFAStadiumDJ hashtag (a voting contest for songs), becoming the governing body’s most retweeted posting ever, despite not being directly related to football. Furthermore, French President Emmanuel Macron and his Croatian counterpart Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic also gained attention with the former adding more than 146,000 likes and 42,000 retweets with his post‘‘.@equipedefrance : MERCI ’’.

The emergence of the social media phenomenon shows that players not only have a sizeable sporting value individually, but they also have remarkable marketing value. The case study of Cristiano Ronaldo’s recent move, as featured in our most recent report can showcase how, a single transfer can have multiple effects away from the playing field for an acquiring club, largely due to the magnitude of the player profile. Combining player popularity, rapidly growing platforms, brand endorsements and influencer marketing can make some players into corporates in their own right.

The KPMG Football Benchmark team can help clubs and other stakeholders to analyse and improve their social media performance and strategy. Through our experience, global network and analytics tools, we can identify gaps and provide possible solutions to the football industry.