Inter fans’ minds: Robert Faulkner on the digital revamp of an Italian soccer powerhouse

Ahead of his appearance at SportsPro The Brand Conference, Inter Milan’s chief communications officer Robert Faulkner explains how the Serie A giants are reinventing themselves off the pitch in order to connect with their international fanbase.

Inter fans’ minds: Robert Faulkner on the digital revamp of an Italian soccer powerhouse

When Robert Faulkner joined Italian soccer giants Inter in 2015 as their new chief communications officer, the club was at a crossroads.

Still in the infancy of Indonesian businessman Erick Thohir’s new ownership, the 18-time domestic champions hadn’t won Serie A since former manager José Mourinho led them to a historic treble during the 2009/10 season, while there was a nagging sense within the club that they were in danger of being left behind by their big-name rivals across Europe.

Off the pitch, meanwhile, there was growing recognition that Inter’s media output was in need of a makeover. The club’s social numbers were more or less static, while they were also keen to explore new ways of better serving their international fanbase. With much of that responsibility falling under Faulkner’s remit, he admits that his target from a media perspective very much mirrored the club’s goal of forcing Nerazzurri back into the minds of fans around the world.

“We had always thought of ourselves as a top ten club in terms of followers, where we should be and eventually in terms of revenue, but we had dropped down over the years since winning the Uefa Champions League in 2010,” explains Faulkner (right). “Other clubs had been growing and we’d more or less stayed still.

“So part of the Thohir project that then became Suning when they bought the majority in June 2016 was restoring Inter to its rightful place in European football, and part of my remit was to do the same on the media side.”

That process began with a revamp of Inter’s website, which Faulkner jokes hadn’t really evolved up until that point since becoming the first to be launched by an Italian soccer side, while the club also promptly opened up new social media accounts in different languages spanning a number of continents.

Perhaps most significantly, though, was the decision to launch Inter Media House, a “one-stop-shop for content” which was designed to give fans access to a ‘unique, immersive insight into all things Inter’. On the back of that move, Faulkner says he promptly brought in a director of media content before embarking on somewhat of an educational pilgrimage, visiting the likes of German champions Bayern Munich and Uefa Champions League title-holders Real Madrid to develop an understanding of how other major soccer clubs were running their own media operations.

It wasn’t about throwing away the history of the past but trying to understand what was unique about what we had in our position.

Bayern’s set-up was predominantly IT-based, while Real Madrid’s was a hybrid between content and a more commercial aspect. Inter opted to focus on what they already had easy access to, taking the opportunity to rebrand their in-house Inter Channel to become Inter TV with what Faulkner describes as “a different look and feel”. 

“We went and tried to find out what was right for us as a club,” begins Faulkner, who is speaking at SportsPro The Brand Conference later this month. “We very quickly decided that because we had a TV channel, we crucially had the rights to content such as highlights and goals, and because the channel is based at the training ground, we had access to our core product, which is the players.

“We used the rebrand to change the presenters, get in some younger people and some new talent. We also changed the scheduling of the programmes, with the whole point of that being we could make Inter TV our centre of production to start producing content for the Inter Media House that we could not only use on the TV channel, but then on social media, as well as creating more interactive short-form video content with our players.”

Inter have started to create more content in different languages in an attempt to better engage with their international fanbase

Bringing change to a club such as Inter isn’t always the most straightforward of tasks, especially given the traditions which come with being one of the most decorated sides in Italian soccer – and the only one never to be relegated from the top flight. Faulkner, however, is quick to emphasise that the club’s digital revolution hasn’t been about forgetting what has gone before, but finding new ways to tell that story to more people around the globe.

“It wasn’t about throwing away the history of the past,” he says, “but trying to understand what was unique about what we had in our position, which was clearly the international aspect. We decided it was important to get things going to have this paradigm shift and start producing different content, new content, to start engaging, growing our followers and make noise in that area.

“There are historical aspects which make it difficult. Part of the uniqueness of the club is that it really is a family when you’re inside it; it’s not somewhere that you come and go – people have a long history with the club. But along with that comes a resistance to change, and there’s a little bit of the ghosts of the past everywhere. So that’s a psychological thing that you need to overcome, but then it becomes a positive when people see how much you can move the needle by changing small things.”

One project which combined the old with the new was the club’s recent ‘He110, this is Inter’ campaign, which saw the club roll out 110 different pieces of content in the days running up to their 110th anniversary. Each story – accompanied by a special emoticon - was drawn from the club’s photo archive and Inter TV’s video footage to allow fans to discover the people, goals and moments that have defined the club’s history. 

We decided it was important to get things going to have this paradigm shift and start producing different content, new content, to start engaging, growing our followers and make noise in that area.

Beyond soccer, though, Inter’s digital revamp has also provided an opportunity for them to experiment with the subject of the content they are pushing out. Faulkner points out that while the club are producing more behind-the scenes lifestyle features with stars such as Mauro Icardi and Radja Nainggolan, they have also been keen to take advantage of their Milan home’s reputation as a hub of fashion, finance and food, with the first digital series released by Inter Media House debuting with an episode involving Michelin star chef Davide Oldani.

“Like many clubs we’re starting to branch out from just football-related content,” begins Faulkner, who counts 12 years at Uefa among his previous experience in soccer. “So when you put all that together with some of the players you’ve got potential branded content which you can sell or do in partnership with someone, and it’s generally going in that direction – people want that kind of content and want to see behind the scenes of the club more and more.”

Inter, though, are competing for eyeballs in a league which is stacked with other teams also trying to innovate. The club made headlines last season when they leaked images of first team playing shirts featuring their players’ Instagram handles instead of their surnames, but an international push is also being made by reigning Serie A champions Juventus, who last year became the first Italian side to partner with Netflix for a documentary series, while AS Roma made the news at the start of this month when they joined forces with Warner Bros, releasing a promotional video for the upcoming Venom movie starring club legend Francesco Totti.  

Faulkner, however, takes it as a positive that Italy’s top clubs are pushing each other to create content that gets them recognition beyond their domestic boundaries.   

“There’s definitely competition between all of us,” says Faulkner. “Inter, Juventus and Roma are good examples because two of the three have foreign owners, so they’re looking outside of Italy for the club as a brand. So I think those three clubs probably want to challenge each other, because they’re the ones that understand the power of a football club and what it can do beyond just winning.”

And Inter, for one, are already reaping the rewards of waking up to that power. The club’s following on Facebook alone has jumped from 6.5 million to 10.5 million, contributing to a global social following touching 14 million, including over two million on Instagram, 1.6 million on Twitter and more than 300,000 on YouTube.

There’s a balance between keeping the traditional and keeping the history of the club, but we’re now repackaging it and doing it in a way which brings us up to speed.

But while there is always a desire to produce more and better content and feed the demands of an ever-growing audience, Faulkner stresses that Inter don’t ignore their responsibility to their players: “You can’t suddenly double everything you’re doing overnight and ask for their time every day. The first thing that’s clear is that the sporting side comes first, so we always give advanced warning.

“But they also know what’s expected of them,” he adds. “We brief them every pre-season that what’s good for club is good for them and vice-versa, but you do need to have good planning for everything.”

And plan is what Inter appear to be doing. With their social numbers now enjoying a steady upward trajectory, Faulkner reveals that the club is already experimenting with augmented and virtual reality, while they are also looking at hosting a hackathon and the possibility of making their first move into the heady realm of esports.

“We want to move back into a more international environment and back into fans’ minds around the world,” he says. “There’s a balance between keeping the traditional and keeping the history of the club, but we’re now repackaging it and doing it in a way which brings us up to speed.”

Robert Faulkner will be speaking at SportsPro The Brand Conference at Lord's Cricket Ground on 26th and 27th September. To find out more, click here