How 433’s Winning Formation Scores Big with Fans and Brands
Juul Manders is an entrepreneur based in Amsterdam who has founded a network of related companies involved in digital technology, as well as sports, fashion and lifestyle brands. Included in that portfolio is 433, the largest social football community in the world.
Juul shared with podcast host Jim Andrews how the company grew from a soccer-focused Twitter page to 100 million followers and partnerships with top clubs, players and marketers. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.
Jim: I’m going to assume that some of our listeners are very familiar with 433 beyond the brief description I provided in the intro to this episode, but others may not be, so can you start us off with some background on you, personally and on 433 from where it started to what it is now?
Juul: I studied business administration at university in Rotterdam with a specialization in marketing and communications. After several positions in telecoms, finance and lots more, I decided with my three cofounders to start our own companies. We just celebrated the ten-year anniversary.
We came together and had great interest in new social media platforms, as well as huge love for the game of football, or soccer. We believed football coverage in the media was often way too serious. Football journalism took itself way too seriously. We also saw the fast growth of upcoming social media platforms. Facebook and Twitter of course were already there, but Instagram was still young.
We decided to jump onto the platform with the idea of creating a locker-room-type, fun experience within the football domain. Capturing the types of conversations you would have between teammates and friends who have a common interest in their love for the game in a safe space and putting a brand and a community around that. Fast forward to today and that is still one of our north stars.
Jim: What was the key to 433’s success? If we go back 10 years ago, we could find many social media accounts talking about football and wanting to be the place to turn to, so how did you become one of the big winners in that space?
Juul: We understood very well that our competition was a bit old-fashioned. They were losing their grip on the youth audience. We saw the trend that young people were having difficulty with watching a full 90-minute game and with going to a stadium. One of the reasons in the stadiums was the bad coverage that meant you couldn’t spend time on your mobile at the same time you were watching a match.
We chose really short-form content. Our golden rule the first few years was everything we do should be kept under 15 seconds length. Still today we love to test. If you have a great idea in the morning, two hours later we will have created something and posted it. If the audience doesn’t like it, then we will do something different in the afternoon. The great thing about social media is that you can see by the second the engagement that is happening—how many people are liking a piece of content, how many people are commenting on it, sharing it.
Things went fast from day one and today we have more than 65 million followers on the main accounts and a total of more than 100 million followers across all of our football accounts on Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat. And still with everything we do we look at the data of what is happening and we will change course a bit to keep the energy high and stay successful.
Jim: Let’s break down the relationship 433 has with clubs and leagues, players and brands. How do you work with each one?
Juul: Let me start with clubs and leagues. Clubs especially were among the first to embrace us as a new medium in the world of football. FC Barcelona was one of the first that opened their doors to us, saying we could use literally all of their content and footage from training grounds for all of their clubs.
Clubs and leagues have so many rights, but their fan base is aging and they have some struggles—some more than others—and difficulties getting and keeping young people on board. On the other hand, we have 90 percent of our followers who are younger than 34 and are male. So the leagues and clubs saw us as a solution provider if they joined forces with us.
We have always been open to collaborations. And that’s a nice bridge to the players. From day one, we never presented ourselves as journalists. We are a community. Some very famous players today were members of the community when they were 14-year-olds. So when our presenters go into the locker room or are next to the pitch, the players will approach them because they don’t have to be afraid of getting difficult questions like, “Why didn’t you play the full match?” or “What’s going on between you and that other player?”
We are always focusing on positive stuff, so it’s a safe and fun haven. Players recognized that really early in the existence of the company.
In the following years, we saw that brands recognized the engaging power of our community and they began partnering with us. For example, Adidas will say, “We have some Real Madrid players for you. Can you come up with something we can do with them?” We will come up with concepts such as a trivia quiz for the players or have them do some tricks—all with a funny, relaxed angle. Nothing heavy. More personal in an easy way.
Jim: In a sense you have become an extension of some clubs’ content production efforts, but also maintaining your independence, correct?
Juul: Commercially, that is true. And the moment a club like FC Barcelona shares content with us, that generates more attention for their sponsors who have identification in the footage.
Jim: From a business perspective, how do things work? Who’s paying whom? How are you making money off of all this?
Juul: The first few years we didn’t focus at all on commerce. We chose to invest our own money into it and become the biggest first, because the biggest sits at the table. We were also afraid of killing the vibe in the locker room by being too commercial and pushing advertisements. You can have a good deal for your audience, but if you try to sell it every day you will be kicked out of your own locker room if you are not careful.
Halfway in we started the conversation about branded content and we started making money. But we were still very careful not to push our luck there. That has grown, starting with one-offs to doing 12-month deals to the point where last November and December we had a full studio in Qatar for not only ourselves, but also for many of our brand partners.
We are still searching for more and better ways to optimize commerce. We are a commercial company and have to make money. But it has to be in a way that is liked and accepted by the audience. The fan should and must always win.
Jim: 433 has lots of branded content on its accounts and the app. Branded content can be a bit of a minefield for marketers, that is when done well it can really connect with fans, but done poorly, it can be a turn-off. What would you say is the key to great branded content and do you have examples from any of your 433 partners?
Juul: I have many, but one that comes to mind is something we did two years ago with Activision’s Call of Duty. It’s the best example because it captured everything we stand for. Football players spend a lot of time at home, recovering, getting ready for the next match, etc. We came up with the idea to have 20 really famous players competing with each other in real time with Call of Duty.
It was very authentic to the lifestyle of the players, which made it relevant to the audience. They saw their idols in a different environment. There was so much emotion going on.
Jim: You mentioned that 433 is often a second screen for football fans as they are watching live matches. Are there opportunities for collaboration with those first screens, whether it’s a Sky Sports, ESPN, Warner Bros. Discovery, etc.?
Juul: We have had some discussions and I believe we will have more. We are quite big —over seven billion impressions per month—but we still believe in collaborations and making a lot of cross-promotions and crossovers. This would not only create bigger audiences but also new concepts and ways to have that first- and second-screen experience.
There are so many moments within a game–such as when the referee blows the whistle for a VAR review, or a penalty kick—that provide us the opportunity to ask the audience, for example, what is the right call or where do they think the kick will go.
Jim: What’s next for 433? How do you go beyond those 100 million followers and seven billion impressions?
Juul: On the high level, it’s all about the love of the beautiful game of football. We have already launched our own platform, our app and also web, and I believe in the upcoming years we will extend our reach and attention, but also open ourselves up as a platform where others can collaborate and become more of a solution for clubs, leagues and players.
We will also focus more on the interaction between you and your friends. Talking about the game, projecting and predicting outcomes, testing each other’s knowledge in trivia and quizzes, are all ways to connect you with your team, even when you may be traveling or on your own
Jim: One thing that happened since you and I first met and said let’s do this interview, is that a certain Argentine player who has found his way to the U.S. Are you seeing an increased interest in 433 from the U.S. audience now that we have Mr. Messi here?
Juul: Is it Messi League Soccer or Major League Soccer? For years we have been a proud partner of MLS and it’s a great move that they got Messi, especially just a couple of years before the World Cup in North America.
When you see how big Messi and Christiano are, everywhere these guys move there is a lot of engagement, so yes, we see a lot of things happening there.