Plymouth Argyle were strong on the pitch, at least they were for what we got to see of them… In their first match since March, Argyle forced Parkway to defend deep and, though the Greens were a bit rusty and lacked the x-factor that some of their first choice players and new signings would have provided, the gulf in class was clear.

Yet, nobody is talking about the action on the pitch, but the rather embarrassing failure off it. To catch up anybody who wasn’t watching yesterday, Argyle promised the game would “be made available for supporters to live-stream free on and the club’s official YouTube channel“.

Well, that promise lasted all of five minutes. The video quality was dreadful, somehow the audio was worse, and the stream was ended after five minutes. It returned soon after, much better but still reminiscent of the quality expected more than a decade ago. The audio was much better… for about 200 seconds, then it sounded like it was being recorded from inside a bucket.

Still, the quality was sufficient to watch the game and had it continued at that level for the remainder then there would have been many fewer complaints. Yet, for some reason the club chose to end the stream that was working – to an extent – and launch a new one after half time.

When this new one was launched it was almost in the form of a PowerPoint. Picture. Pause. Picture. Pause. Picture. Pause. The stream lasted a good 90 seconds, then that was it for the rest of the game.

Sarcastic, yes, but this tweet rather summed it up.

Many, including myself, sat patiently and waited for it to return so we could see more of Argyle for the first time in 150 days. Others gave up.

40 minutes later, the club finally admitted that the stream was not returning. At the time of writing, there has been no confirmation yet if they intend to retrospectively publish the full match in one video, which to me seems the right thing to do.

The whole affair turned out to be a bit of a goldmine for Argyle Twitterati. As was dryly pointed out time and time again, children can live stream in HD quality from their phones.

Everything about the fiasco gave off the impression of a lack of testing and experience in live-streaming. The club has since issued a strong apology, accepting that they “fell short of the high standards that we want to be associated with the football club”. The apology claimed the facilities had been tested, so we may as well take them at their word on that, though it certainly didn’t feel like it at the time.

The club also announced that they are undertaking major upgrade works to build a “brand-new broadcasting suite at the club, with new broadcast equipment, cabling, and a studio room dedicated to the management of live-streaming”.

This was a good statement as it was important for the club to try to reverse the narrative. It hasn’t succeeded but it was considerably better than ignoring the issue.

After all, in a season that could rely on live streaming of football well into the winter, possibly the whole season in the worst case scenario, this was not the start the media team would have wanted.

While fans are unable to enter the stadium for matches, either entirely or due to limited capacity, the club’s revenue will require supplementing from online streaming (fans paying to watch the games online). Bad publicity like this is a major threat to that revenue stream.

It’s one thing to get the bug for meeting your friends, the pre-match ritual, seeing the team come out, the roar of the crowd, the anticipation. It’s another to deal with the frustrations of fiddling around to get a live stream working, dodgy audio, video cutting out, watching on a laptop, maybe sorting out the HDMI cable for some people, particularly if you don’t have a good internet connection or fast computer.

It’s easy to bring along a friend to Home Park to boost attendance, you can sort out their ticket yourself. They just need to be there. But you can’t register them for iFollow. And even if you invite them over to watch, the club are still only receiving the revenue from just your subscription, not both.

There is already an idea that iFollow is unreliable, as noted in the club’s apology. The nagging impression that it’s not worth you wasting your time to watch the game because the quality will be lacking makes it easier to not bother. Distance and separation breed apathy. Apathy has a direct impact on the club’s finances, short-term and long-term.

That’s why a failure like yesterday was so damaging. It’s why the club needed to issue a swift apology rather than ignore the issue.

But the failure goes further that than. Audio-visual media is such a powerful tool for marketing that other clubs have been taking advantage of for years, yet Argyle are only just taking notice.

Take Peterborough, for example. They’ve been streaming pre-season friendlies for years, including those that take place at random away grounds, not at their own stadium, and the quality has been as expected whenever they have done it, no excuses or apologies needed.

Making friendlies available to watch online and free, particularly those outside of Plymouth which are less easy to access, has a notable marketing benefit. For yesterdays game, Argyle could have taken one of two basic approaches:

  • stream live on iFollow only to boost registrations.
  • stream live on YouTube to increase your digital fan base and boost club affinity.

The first strategy is about converting existing fans into paying subscribers to the iFollow service. It encourages these users to experience the interface and grow comfortable using the website, priming them for the season ahead when they will have to pay for the experience.

Essentially, it’s shows users how easy iFollow is to use, gets them past the sign-up hurdle, grants the club their details so they can market paid matches when the season starts, and – most importantly – gives off the impression of a seamless service that is worth investing in.

Putting a game on iFollow reduces the number of people who will watch, particularly the number of new supporters you could reach, but has a greater financial value to the club because these new users on iFollow are more likely to pay to watch live games when the season starts as well as purchase a subscription.

The second strategy is about increasing the size of the club’s fan digital base. By streaming on YouTube, anyone can watch. You could even use a small amount of money, about £100, to market the free, live game with paid-social adverts to ensure you reach a wider range of individuals who would be interested in becoming a long-term fan of the club.

You encourage them to watch this game live and free, then the next one, then the next one. Build their investment in the club until they’re thinking about buying a ticket. Then another. You won’t catch everyone, but if you generate even a dozen or two potential new supporters every year, that will comfortably pay the cost of streaming the game for free.

This strategy also works on existing fans: you show them how good the team is, who the new signings are, build anticipation. All with the intention of packing the stadium for the first game of the new season when optimism is highest. If you win that game, they’re probably coming back for the next one too. Optimism breeds optimism.

These are just the two simplest digital marketing strategies that can be built around streaming a pre-season friendly for free. The extra levels of nuance that can be build around this range much further (yes, I do work in the digital sector).

I’ve always been disappointed in Argyle missing this open goal. More accurately, like Tom Hitchcock, it’s more akin to refusing to shoot at it. But the statement from Argyle at least suggests they plan to invest more money in streaming.

On the same topic, it’s already been noticeable how the club have shifted their digital strategy in the past 12 months. There has been a significantly improved use of video on social media – props to those individuals responsible for that – but there’s so much more to come.

Yet, circling back to yesterday’s debacle, it’s important the club does not blink now. Failing to broadcast another pre-season friendly is the wrong way to go. They need to change the narrative to ensure that as many fans as possible subscribe to iFollow and pay to watch games online when the season starts next month.

The only way to do this is to demonstrate that they can stream well.

Last season, the live streaming service on iFollow did work well enough for those of us who used it to know it should work when the season starts. However, that won’t make a difference to the thousands who saw complaints about the service yesterday. Those potential customers are now left with the impression that it’s a waste of time. Why would they waste their money on a service that doesn’t work?

It would be easy to just pretend yesterday didn’t happen, but the club has already showed it doesn’t plan to go that way with its prompt apology. Now it needs to prove that the club can turn this around, rather than focusing on the potential backlash if there is a repeat performance and allowing that fear to drive their strategy.

We don’t know when the next opportunity to stream a pre-season game will be, but when it arrives they must take it and execute it.