Soccer, Europe

Bavaria and beyond: Why Bayern Munich’s digital approach has got everyone talking

FC Bayern Munich have won six consecutive Bundesliga titles since 2012/13, but in the same time have been making significant strides off the pitch. Benjamin Stoll, the club’s head of digital strategy, platforms and innovation, explains how German soccer’s dominant force have transformed their digital infrastructure to serve fans both locally and around the globe.

by Sam Carp
Bavaria and beyond: Why Bayern Munich’s digital approach has got everyone talking

A brief walk through FC Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena is a bit like being taken on a journey through time. The walls of the Bundesliga giants’ 75,000-seater home are adorned with iconic moments from throughout the team’s history, from the club’s first German title triumph in 1932, to goalkeeper Oliver Kahn’s famous corner flag celebration in Hamburg in 2001 and Arjen Robben’s Uefa Champions League-winning goal at London’s Wembley Stadium in 2013.   

This might sound like standard décor for the home of one of European soccer’s most successful clubs, but these are no ordinary murals. Indeed, an augmented reality (AR) function on Bayern’s official app enables fans at the stadium to bring these images to life by pointing their smartphone in the direction of the venue’s walls, subsequently activating a video clip of the historic moment to play on their device.

The concept of AR might seem like a new and intimidating realm to some, and is one yet to be broached by many clubs, but it is just one of various ways Bayern are embracing digital to engage their fans. For Benjamin Stoll (right), Bayern’s head of digital strategy, platforms and innovation, who has been spearheading that transformation, everything the club has experimented with and introduced up until now has been done with a clear purpose.

“I think if we were doing innovation for the sake of innovation that would be completely wrong,” he explains, speaking to SportsPro shortly after his appearance at The Brand Conference in September. “We’re constantly thinking about innovative measures to provide new values, and that’s something where we always implement feedback from our fans, where we challenge ideas internally, and try to understand how the implementation of new fan experience initiatives could make a difference.

“If we’re just implementing technology for the sake of implementing technology then it wouldn’t make much sense.”

Champions of Germany for the last six years, it would be fair to say that Bayern are familiar with leading the way and breaking new ground. Yet despite that unparalleled success on the pitch, the club has never disillusioned their fanbase by hiking ticket prices to prohibitive levels - today, season tickets at the Allianz Arena are available for as little as €140, which works out at around €8 per game.

Never a club to stray too far from their Bavarian roots, either, Bayern have long tapped into their cultural heritage through more traditional means, sending players kitted out in lederhosen to the annual Oktoberfest beer festival to interact with fans and drink from steins alongside them. Put simply, Bayern’s ability to connect with their fanbase is one that resonates far and wide, embodying German soccer’s fan-first approach which has become the envy of other supporters across Europe.

Now, Bayern are taking that fan-friendly identity into the digital world. A big part of the club’s efforts has involved hosting regular HackDays which bring together supporters, students and experts to crowdsource ideas and learn about new technologies that could help to create better fan experiences and innovations. Stoll believes these “really big” events have “great power…to create a new culture where we can showcase the benefits of digital and technology”, while also creating “a better brand image and the perception of Bayern Munich as an innovative football club.”

I think if we were doing innovation for the sake of innovation that would be completely wrong.

However, engaging with fans domestically is one thing; being able to connect with them globally is another. At a time when soccer clubs are looking for ways to one up each other on social media in the search for followers, likes and eyeballs, Bayern are often pointed to as flag-bearers for innovation. In a recent interview with SportsPro, for example, Inter Milan’s chief communications officer Robert Faulkner admitted that the Serie A club’s media team took a trip to Munich to seek lessons from their German counterparts as they sought to revamp their own digital approach. 

As Stoll explains, Bayern’s strategy off the pitch is “to get ready for the digital future”. But doing that on a global scale means having to be “very agile and flexible” in order to feed the appetite of a diverse fanbase with different tastes and tendencies.

“There is not a one-size-fits-all approach because we are living in a very globalised and digitalised world right now, and everything we do is to be relevant in a cultural and contextual sense,” says Stoll (right). “Getting the tonality right, getting the right content out there at the right time towards the right people on the right channels is a big challenge. 

“We are living in a tech world where companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple spend billions on research and development. We as a traditional football club are living in the same world as those big companies and see their huge influence with regards to fan and customer expectations.

Bayern's ability to connect with their supporters has come to embody German soccer's fan-friendly approach

“So on the one hand we need to be very sensitive with our identity as a football club and never forget where we come from, but we also need to respect and operate to meet the expectations of modern football fans that are influenced by technology every day.”

As well as maintaining an open dialogue with their fans, Stoll reveals that Bayern are “constantly learning from other clubs” both inside and outside of soccer. He points to National Basketball Association (NBA) champions the Golden State Warriors and the San Francisco 49ers of the National Football League (NFL) as two US-based franchises that Bayern have taken inspiration from. He also highlights Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain as teams from the soccer industry that have impressed him. 

Stoll is quick to emphasise, however, that it wouldn’t work to “just copy and paste their solutions”. Instead, the most important thing is to find out “what’s inspiring for us and how we can learn from it and apply it to our own Bavarian way.”

He adds: “I think every brand and every football club is special. You always need to find your own way to get out your message to reach fans and create a relationship. It’s considering what you have, what values there are, and for us it’s being a traditional football club with a really strong heritage and history. So it’s about telling those stories, but also telling the stories of our current players and our current club, and engaging people within the right context.”

Bayern have hosted regular HackDays to crowdsource ideas and learn about new technologies that can improve the fan experience

A quick look at how Bayern’s digital infrastructure has evolved suggests those learning experiences are already being applied to various areas of the club. There is a clear emphasis on finding the right balance between reaching both domestic and global followers, with Bayern’s website now available in eight different languages, as well as in the Bavarian dialect. The club also recently launched a new website specifically for fans in regions with poor internet connections in an attempt to share more content with supporters in places like Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Beyond that, though, Stoll is quick to point out that communicating with fans in the digital sphere isn’t merely achieved in German, English or French, but through videos, images and other forms of creative content which elicit comments in the millions and, most importantly, are widely shared. 

“What we have discovered is that new technologies and new platforms constantly change the behaviour of fans and people out there,” Stoll explains. “We have found out that there is a new language that the younger, global audience is speaking, which is GIFs and animated moments. 

“Enabling our fans to play around with moments from our club, from our position and from our history with our players is very powerful. We enable them to be brand ambassadors and leverage the moment and reach others to create a very credible experience where our fans accelerate our brand.”

Bayern’s decision to embrace the world of GIFs and animation has seen them quickly steal a march on their peers. On the Giphy database and search engine, for example, Bayern are currently the sports team with the biggest reach on the platform having just passed one billion views, while they were also the first club in the world to partner with Tenor, another GIF service which was recently acquired by Google. 

On the one hand we need to be very sensitive with our identity as a football club and never forget where we come from, but we also need to respect and operate to meet the expectations of modern football fans that are influenced by technology every day.

The key to Bayern’s digital approach, though, hasn’t been to simply dump the same form of content across all their platforms, but to find out what resonates best with fans on each service. Once the voting function became available on Instagram Stories in 2017, for example, the club created polls which allowed their followers on the image-sharing platform to vote for which video clip they wanted to see. This not only created real-time engagement with users, but also allowed them to feel involved and as if they were directing the content themselves. 

“On Instagram we did a survey,” begins Stoll. “Our fans there want to have really close, intimate, personal content, so we want to provide our fans with a glimpse through the keyhole showing them inside the action, but also the humans behind the athletes and our brand.

“Meanwhile on YouTube, for instance, a lot of views are driven by search, so we want to provide content with regards to discovery, but also relevant formats to the younger audiences, and over here we are in a constant dialogue with our audiences to find out what works, what doesn’t work, and do a lot of experiments.”

Stoll says that Bayern's official club app remains most important for engaging fans globally

When it comes to internationalisation, Stoll adds that while social media is undoubtedly an essential tool for growth, it is the club’s traditional mobile app which is most significant, especially given the data insights it generates. 

“On a global scale, for us, our mobile app is the most important platform because we know when someone has downloaded it and if they use it constantly, which means we have a very good relationship [with the fan],” he says. 

“Everyone who comes to the stadium should be provided with unique services but coming to the stadium is just one of the situations where we meet our fans. We have a lot of fans all around the globe that are in different time zones, have different cultural heritages, and they follow our games. Taking this into account and making the app a companion that provides some unique values is something we think is strong with regards to creating better relationships with our fans, and of course pushing usage and retention.”

I think every brand and every football club is special. You always need to find your own way to get out your message to reach fans and create a relationship.

Bayern’s ongoing digital transformation isn’t something that has happened by accident. All of the club’s recent innovations have fallen under the umbrella of FC Bayern Digital 4.0, a project launched in 2016 and which is focused not only on giving the club more control and flexibility over the content they produce, but also how fans consume that content around the world.

“We knew that for everything we do, technology will be very important,” explains Stoll, “so Digital 4.0 was very important to get the ownership, control, scalability and flexibility for our ‘old’ media endeavours, and furthermore having consolidated fan records. It’s really important as it gives us new fan and user insights which are absolutely key to personalise and contextualise experience and offerings. 

“It’s also about a new mindset that we are optimising towards. In the past we were optimising towards app downloads; right now, we are optimising everything we do with our app on a monthly and daily basis, we are looking into retention patterns, into user journeys and into fan interest. It’s constantly evolving and Digital 4.0 was the basis in order to learn about our fans, but also to be able to execute upon information we have, and provide more relevant experiences, content and offers on a global scale.”

That digital evolution shows no sign of abating. In May, Bayern announced the launch of FCB Digital & Media Lab, a new multimedia subsidiary – equipped with 60 staff - that will work to hone the club’s digital expertise and offer data and media-related services to third parties. Operating as part of Digital 4.0, the new entity will essentially incorporate Bayern’s existing editorial activities across social media, website, TV and print, as well as their production, digital marketing, CRM, digital and IT, and technology divisions.

Bayern recently launched FCB Digital & Media Lab, a new multimedia subsidiary that will tap into the club's expertise

Ultimately, FCB Digital & Media Lab will enable the club to take advantage of the knowledge and in-house expertise they have developed since launching Digital 4.0 in order to improve their bottom line. 

“The benefit is to bundle the resources and the core competences to create better workloads for internal offerings, but also to create offerings for the external markets – for our sponsors and for other clubs as well,” says Stoll. “That’s something we have started and where we see a lot of demand from the market.

“We are a passion love brand; the relationship needs to come through first, and then comes the monetisation. But of course with regards to the digital media lab and everything else that we are doing, we are also constantly exploring ways of diversifying monetisation and creating new digital revenue streams.”

Despite all that they have achieved already, Stoll stresses that this is just the beginning for Bayern’s digital journey. And with such a formidable infrastructure now in place, it might not be too outlandish to suggest that the club will be exercising the same dominance over soccer’s digital game as they have over the Bundesliga in recent years. 

“One thing that’s for sure is that every day we need to get up and learn to try and understand the audiences, be very humble with regards to earning their awareness and their passions, and try to find out how technology and innovation can provide new values,” says Stoll. “It’s a constant world of learning how we can apply tech to create new value for our fans and our business.”