When Kostas Manolas scored an 82nd-minute goal to complete an incredible AS Roma comeback against Barcelona last season, it was not just the crowd inside the Stadio Olimpio that erupted: so did the world of Twitter.
It had seemed unfathomable that Lionel Messi and Co. would throw away a 4-1 home win from the first leg of their UEFA Champions League quarter-final, yet that near-post header turned the tie on its head—and social media users across the globe scrambled for their laptops and phones.
Fans, journalists and media outlets tried to capture the significance of the goal, but it was Roma again who won the moment. The club's Twitter admin had their own Manolas moment and showed why the page has become a must-follow, as they appeared to lose the plot.
It was an instinctive reaction that could not have been more of a success, as explained by Roma's head of digital and social media, Paul Rogers.
"It was biggest tweet we've ever had," he told Bleacher Report. "The crazy banging-the-keyboard style full-time post wasn't particularly clever, but it perfectly captured the emotion of that moment. It was liked 320,000 times and retweeted 180,000 times—on an account with 1.6 million followers. That's ridiculous engagement.
"To put that into context, the full-time tweets by the other three clubs who qualified for the semi-finals that week managed 52,000 likes and 25,000 retweets between them from accounts that totalled 42 million followers.
"And on that same night, our English account tweeted a 'If you don't love me at my…' meme that did over 150,000 likes and 75,000 retweets. It's fair to say our digital team celebrated with a few beers that night."
In a world where elite footballers and their clubs are increasingly more difficult to engage with, Roma have led the way in changing their relationship with an audience. By adopting an English-speaking account, many teams have looked to capture the interest of other fans who may not previously have had reason to relate to their team. But Roma have built a bridge with banter and intelligence that changes the digital landscape.
"Roma's Twitter probably stands out because it's not dull and one-dimensional like a lot of clubs' official accounts," explains Rogers. "If you ask a lot of football fans why they choose to follow Roma's English account, they'll probably say because it's entertaining, it's unpredictable, it's inclusive and it grabs your attention.
"Sometimes it can make followers laugh or smile, other times it can make them think, it can make them proud, it can confuse them, challenge them and hopefully it will bring them into contact with people they may not otherwise communicate with.
"We use humour a lot, but wrapped up in that humour is actually an honesty and a frankness that you rarely see in club football and I think that resonates with fans on Twitter."
A recent joke about Halloween costumes also made followers think about climate change. It attracted 65,000 likes and was the third most popular tweet by any football club in Europe.
The most liked tweet? That was also by Roma—this time a joke about international football that generated 88,000 likes.
"Through Roma Admin, the content manager, we've created a character that has managed to bring people together in a fun way," says Rogers. "It's not just Roma fans who engage with the account and each other, it's fans of Arsenal, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, Milan, Celtic, Chelsea and so many other clubs, big and small, around the world.
"We've really embraced our followers and made it acceptable to be a fan of the Twitter account, even if you're not yet a fan of the team. Many of my friends and family from home support Liverpool, Arsenal, Celtic or Manchester City and they'll always support those teams. But I know they follow Roma on Twitter because it makes them laugh, and a lot of them have now started taking more of an interest in Roma on the pitch too. I'm cool with that.
"If I read a comment from a Juventus fan or a Manchester United fan saying, 'I don't support Roma but I just love this account', I think that's great."
Many clubs employ an agency to run their accounts while others treat it as something that merely exists alongside their website to promote news and features. Roma's success is no coincidence because the thought process runs so much deeper.
"I try to look at what's happening in the world rather than what's happening in the football world," Rogers says. "Football doesn't exist in a vacuum even if it thinks it does. The world has changed dramatically in the last few years and people like Donald Trump, Kanye West, Liam Gallagher and Wendy's have all ripped up the rule book of how celebrities and brands use social media and interact with the public.
"In the case of the first three, there's simply no filter and what people get, good or bad, is unquestionably straight from the person tweeting. No one is reading a tweet by any of those first three—capped up, typos, swearing, not even making sense a lot of time—and thinking it's been written by a slick social media agency.
"We're bombarded with so much content these days, from the minute we wake up to the minute we go to sleep, that we simply don't have time for bland, meaningless, corporate marketing-agency nonsense. Content specifically designed to say nothing, offend no one and not cause any ripples does exactly that—it gets ignored. No one shares a piece of boring content."
With old-fashioned journalism not working on social platforms, clubs are now having to adapt in order to engage their fans and create content that performs well.
"I think we're starting to see some of the most followed clubs—who have traditionally been the most boring on Twitter—try to introduce some humour into their accounts, having seen it work so well for clubs like Roma, Leverkusen, Bayern Munich US, Real Betis and others," Rogers explains.
"I think it's great that they are trying to show some personality, but it's not easy. Sometimes it's either not funny and falls flat or it just looks totally out of place for their account.
"To do it right and do it well, I think you need to develop your own voice and stick with it. You can't back off as soon as one tweet doesn't work well or you get some criticism."
In English football, Bristol City have been one of the best examples of capturing the attention of a larger audience than just their own fanbase. They created unique goal GIFs for each first-team member—ranging from players high-fiving themselves or spraying beer, to brushing their teeth or cracking eggs on their faces.
"There are so many negatives about football coverage, but this was completely the opposite with fans from all clubs seeing the players in a funny, human light," the Championship club's former head of communications, Adam Baker explained in a piece by The Set Pieces. "What you see a lot from fans on Twitter is banter, why wouldn't you as a club engage in it and try and drive that kind of age group?"
It is in Germany, though, that clubs seem to have best latched on to the advantages of good digital presence. Bundesliga was early on the scene with YouTube content, and Twitter is also playing a big part in its rise.
Those who work at the league's official account see it as a chance to bring a positive and fun experience to users. They are fans themselves—and that is something they do not feel the need to hide.
The motto inside Bundesliga's social network is that if someone likes them on Facebook, or follows on Instagram or Twitter, they are far more likely to watch the Bundesliga—as they'll be seeing Bundesliga-related content on a daily basis through those feeds.
Bayer Leverkusen are one of the clubs making their presence known. In straight football terms, they live in the shadow of bigger clubs such as Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, yet on Twitter they have risen to compete with the big boys and embrace crosstalk with top accounts like AS Roma.
"A lot of our success is down to the humour and personality that we've tried to inject into the account, making sure we are staying on top of culture trends," explains Jochen Rotthaus, the club's director of marketing and communications.
"We've taken a more informal and personal approach to the account, and we don't take ourselves too seriously. I guess that makes us stand out because a lot of clubs haven't started using Twitter in this way, mostly using their accounts in order to simply deliver information.
"Our biggest hit was when Germany exited the World Cup much earlier than expected. Fox Sports Brasil had sent out a viral tweet with a lot of laughter. Later on, when Brazil were knocked out of the tournament, we quoted that viral tweet and added lyrics from 'Bitter Sweet Symphony'."
Of course, there is no guaranteed approach to producing viral content, but Besiktas created one of the best examples in the summer of 2017.
The trend began as fans hounded the Turkish club's transfer target, Diego Costa, who was becoming a free agent. They would comment on every one of his Instagram posts saying "Come to Besiktas."
So relentless were they in their mission, comments on Costa's page with those three simple words surpassed five million—overtaking a previous record set by the page of pop star Selena Gomez.
It was a moment the club's staff could not let pass, and when it was time to announce an actual transfer they brought the phrase into a world of its own. The initial play was simple: a current player (Ricardo Quaresma) calls a new signing (Pepe) telling him "Come to Besiktas." As house music plays on top of illustrated graphics, Pepe then answers the phone and replies, "I'm coming to Besiktas."
The post went viral, and Besiktas began to emerge as one of football's most popular clubs digitally.
The transfer-announcement videos have since been replicated for the signings of Alvaro Negredo, Jeremain Lens and Gary Medel, who all recorded special takes. And the global reach of the campaign has seen their popularity continue to rocket.
Research shared with Bleacher Report from February 2018 shows Besiktas' YouTube page has become the second most viewed club page in the world, behind Barcelona.
Most of the elite Champions League clubs are still treading carefully in the social media world, and as Roma's Rogers puts it: "I'm lucky that I work for an owner and club president in Jim Pallotta who has backed this content strategy right from day one.
"He just gets it—and that makes my life so much easier. When I speak to people working in similar positions at other clubs or brands, they say the hardest thing is getting buy-in from the top as there are a ton of middle managers between themselves and the owner or board who try to stifle any content that is different or could be risky."
There will surely come a day soon when more clubs do take the path of clubs such as Roma, Leverkusen and Besiktas into a brave, fun new world.