How Man City used a 'Big Brother' mentality to reach a million YouTube subscribers

Man City's YouTube channel has just hit one million subscribers, making this season's Premier League trailblazers the first English club to reach the milestone.

City are, in fact, as far ahead on Google’s video platform as they currently are in the Premier League. Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool each have around 700,000 followers, while Tottenham are a long way behind on 200,000.

Local rivals Manchester United, meanwhile, do not have an official YouTube presence, but fan channel FullTimeDevils is at almost 400,000. Most of the rest of the league, meanwhile, have followings under 100,000.

According to Michael Russell, head of CityTV and social media at the club, a lot of the success of the channel’s content is thanks to a way of thinking he learned while working on reality TV behemoth Big Brother at production company Endemol.

When the City channel started, he says, the approach they took was conventional: slick and tightly edited. But Russell found that in the process of editing, "we were taking out all the good stuff", meaning the kind of content that Big Brother thrives on: people doing nothing that seems very interesting, on the surface.

When the subjects of your videos are major global celebrities, of course, there’s quite a lot of interest in seeing them do things that otherwise might seem mundane.

"We changed our strategy completely and decided to bring a bit of a reality look and feel to what we’re doing," Russell says. "We made a decision very quickly, that all the stuff that would hit the cutting room floor, should be kept. This was all the stuff I was dreaming of seeing myself."

One example of this approach is Tunnel Cam, a video shot in the players’ tunnel at every domestic home game and that typically runs for 12 to 15 minutes.

"The first time we ever did that I stood in the tunnel and filmed everything we did there," Russell says. "I thought some of the stuff that happens in here is just gold and people should see this.

"It’s just seeing them as themselves as much as anything else. They’re heroes to many, but they’re fairly normal lads. What they talk about isn’t that different to what you or I talk about."

Liverpool fans should note that the below example may cause traumatic memories to resurface.

With international stars like Sergio Agüero, Gabriel Jesus and Vincent Kompany in the team, City is, like all top clubs, speaking to a very international audience – but at 123 years old under the current name, the club is also extremely bedded in its local area and in the culture of Manchester.

Keeping all parts of this following happy isn’t necessarily the challenge it might seem, Russell says. "The reality is I generally don’t believe there’s a great deal of difference between what a football fan wants in Bangkok and Beswick [the area where City’s stadium is located].

"I’ve met people all over the place who are everything from casual fans to hardcore fans. Their demand is always authenticity."

The interplay between the different types of fan and viewer actually drives a lot of interest, he added. Earlier this week, they recruited a diehard fan – the sort who will travel to almost all away games – to create an "away-day vlog" of their trip to Naples for City’s Champions’ League fixture against Napoli.

"We give them a GH7 camera and ask them to just to capture trip from the moment they go away. We then edit it and publish it. We were able to get feedback from fans all over the world, and they loved that content."

The crazy money pouring into football in recent years has caused no end of soul-searching among fans that value the community role played by clubs – but Russell has a very positive take on the current transformation.

"There’s no question the relationship [between clubs and fans] is changing, but from my point of view it’s never been stronger or more transparent."

While social media obviously allows a realtime, two-way exchange between the content producers and consumers, he has also run live sessions allowing fans to have dinner with his team and put questions to them.

"Our boss also wants us to personally have a social media following," Russell notes.

His own Twitter bio isn’t exactly on-message: it reveals that not only is he actually a Tottenham Hotspur supporter, but also a Jeremy Corbyn fan (despite the Labour leader’s love of north London rivals Arsenal). "That level of honesty is encouraged," he says.