Gaël Fickou
France Rugby is a powerhouse when it comes to social media.

Take last year's Rugby World Cup. This was without doubt a major social media event, with more than 9.5 million messages published in the seven weeks of the competition (32% more than in Japan in 2019). When it came to the number of social posts on match days, France came third – behind finalists South Africa and New Zealand – despite going out in the quarter-finals.

Five years to create a powerful media force

At the forefront of engagement, the French Rugby Federation (FFR) has been able to forge an intimate bond with its audience over recent years. In fact, it's only in 2017 that a notable shift in digital strategy can be seen.

At that time, the federation was somewhat restrained in terms of both digital infrastructure – the flagship site was unresponsive, the regional sites were obsolete, the federal database was non-existent – and communications, with no YouTube channel or proactive media strategy.

A major communications overhaul was then launched around the French teams, and FFR quickly caught up. "We compared ourselves at the start to see where we were starting from," says Laurent Latour, France Rugby's Communications and Digital Director.

"But very quickly we stopped trying to constantly compare ourselves to other nations. It doesn't matter to us. We concentrate on ourselves. We think we know what we need to do to speak to our own fans. We're constantly writing our strategies and our content. We're constantly trying to reinvent ourselves to speak to our audience, which is specific and unique."

Inside the French teams

France Rugby's strategy in this area can be summed up in three words: transparency, proximity and authenticity. "The challenge is to unite our fans behind our French teams and to share with them what our French teams are experiencing," continues Laurent Latour.

"We have a very important inside stake, a stake in authenticity. We're communicating transparently. We're really going to show people who we are, who the players are, who the staff are. And the stories tell themselves. We're not trying to invent, disguise or ‘storytell’."

Latour says they are actively working on the transparency element of their strategy. “We work with the players themselves, who decide what we share - and they are often willing to open the doors - and we also work with the staff."

The working method, based on collaboration and teamwork, is innovative to say the least. In addition to the dozen or so employees in the communications department (half of whom are dedicated to social media and visual content), the staff and players all have their say on what should be highlighted and shared.

"We talk about it every week during the meetings with the French teams," explains Latour.

"We have 'Living Environment' workshops with a dedicated practice called 'Image and Talk'. And every week we work with the players on this, with the aim of being transparent and authentic with our fans so that we can communicate in a way that reflects who we are."

This led to the first award-winning series, "Destins mêlés", about the journey of the French national team (335 million views across 35 videos), which has been extended to other teams: "Ames sœurs" about the French women's team and "Horizon Bleu" about the U20s.

A platform-specific code

As well as explaining the sometimes technical and subtle rules, FFR has focused its relationship with its fans on a human and emotion level, investing in all the platforms available - TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn, etc. - and scrupulously applying the codes of each in order to be heard by as many people as possible.

This is the case, for example, on Twitch, where the most eagerly-awaited press conferences are broadcast.

"It's a media that's still very much focused on gaming, people under 25, and interaction. Going there means talking to people who are passionate about e-sports and sport, creating innovative content and reaching out to new audiences," says Latour.

"Each platform has its own codes and its own demographic. You don't talk to everyone in the same way, and everyone has different interests. We adapt to the codes and the audiences.”

Exposure at the heart of the federation's economic strategy

This close bond created between the teams and the fans, based on the values of rugby, has enabled the sport to thrive in a highly competitive environment in the French market.

"The exposure and influence of our French teams is at the heart of the federation's business model," says Latour.

"We get this exposure thanks to the audience for the matches [in the stadiums and on TV], as well as on social media. A partner will then find it interesting to sponsor a French team or the federation.

"If we don't, we have fewer fans, fewer partners, fewer financial resources. Ticketing, sponsorship and TV rights are all higher when you manage to attract as many people as possible and get the best ratings because they are correlated with the advertising space you sell. In the end, it's a virtuous circle for the business model. There's a passion factor and an economic factor".

An innovative and effective strategy

Recently, FFR's communications department was awarded the gold medal in the Grand Prix for Digital Strategies on Social Media in recognition of the work accomplished in 2023.

It's a source of satisfaction, but not the end of the story, as the task must be constantly renewed. As the Rugby World Cup ends, new Six Nations Championships begin, and with them a new way of telling the story of what's to come.

"We want to reinvent ourselves. We're working on ideas because our aim is to surprise. We want to keep what we're doing well, but we always want to challenge ourselves and avoid complacency," insists Latour.

"We're proud of what we do, but we're also aware of all the areas for improvement. With each campaign, we try to identify what we can do better to raise the bar each time."