'That's the Mother Lode': What's the Secret to Making a Football Tweet Go Viral?

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportDecember 26, 2019


When a major football occasion is under way, Twitter is often the only place to be.

The 2018 men's FIFA World Cup generated 115 billion Twitter views, with activity on the platform spiking when Kylian Mbappe scored the fourth goal of France's 4-2 win over Croatia in the final. During this year's UEFA Champions League final between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, Twitter activity helped drive social media interactions past the 1 billion mark for the first time. The game's official hashtag, #UCLfinal, was used 1.6 million times on Twitter, while Liverpool's most popular post-victory tweet garnered over 80,000 retweets and more than 200,000 likes.

So in a conversation of a million voices, how do you make your tweets stand out above the chatter? Here's some advice from the experts.


1. Be Prepared (or Not)

"Some tweets are meticulously planned; others happen on a whim," says renowned Twitter humourist Jonny Sharples. "Some things in football—sackings, transfers etc.—don't come out of the blue. If you think of a good joke that relates to one of them ahead of time, then you can have it ready and waiting for when that eventuality happens.

"Other things—great goals, player reactions, Iranian defenders doing roly-poly throw-ins at the World Cup—come completely out of the blue, so you've got to react to them when they happen."

While some prominent Football Twitter operators rely on improvised reactions, others prefer a more meticulous approach.

"How many tweets do I have in my drafts just now? I dread to think," says pun-slinging football writer Tom Victor. "Just checked, and it's a clean 20, one of which I probably ought to delete on the grounds that it relies on underwhelming Wolves striker Leo Bonatini becoming culturally relevant and, I mean, come on."

Tweeting as GeorgeWeahsCousin, Wigan Athletic fan Luke found Twitter fame in July 2016 when his satirical tweet containing made-up facts about Gibraltarian side Lincoln Red Imps, who had just beaten Celtic in a Champions League qualifying match, was picked up by Britain's Sky Sports News.

GeorgeWeahsCousin @WeahsCousin

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Sky Sports News using my fake Sky Sports News stats. https://t.co/RMU8ylnVCp

But for all the enjoyment that he took from carefully crafting hoax tweets, he draws comparable satisfaction from the jokes that he dreams up on the spur of the moment.

"I tend to like the reactive stuff if it does well, something that's just off the cuff, rather than a planned tweet," he says. "It's always a surprise to see a tweet go viral when it's something that wasn't even in your head five minutes earlier."


2. Think Outside the Box…

Norwegian content creator Kristian von Streng Haehre posted one of the biggest tweets of the 2018 World Cup when he had the brainwave of pairing a video of Senegal's players cheerily warming up for a match with the theme music from Disney's DuckTales cartoon series.

His consequent tweet, which has amassed more than 75,000 retweets and close to 175,000 likes, demonstrated the value of a tweet that takes something that has already been widely seen and repackages it with a unique slant.

Kristian @vonstrenginho

The Senegal warm-up is even better with Ducktales music. https://t.co/4VvyxeyOC4

"I'd seen the original video of the already-viral Senegal warm-up from the 2018 World Cup," he says. "I just loved the energy of it and how synchronised it looked, and thought it'd go well with some really bouncy music. And obviously the DuckTales theme is the bounciest tune of them all. I didn't really think it'd get that much of a reaction, but it just went on for the rest of the World Cup."

Von Streng Haehre enjoyed similar success last season with a tweet in which he took footage of then-Cardiff City manager Neil Warnock confrontationally squaring up to a pitchside television camera and dropped it into the video for the classic 1997 The Verve song "Bittersweet Symphony." The initial footage of Warnock had already done the rounds on Twitter, but Von Streng Haehre's imagination—and consummate video editing skills—gave it a new lease of life.

Sharples garnered over 2.4 million views with a tweet that spliced footage of Pep Guardiola from the Amazon Prime Video documentary series All or Nothing: Manchester City with a clip of Ricky Gervais dancing around as David Brent in The Office.

"As soon as I saw Guardiola jumping around the Etihad dressing room, my mind was immediately taken to David Brent dancing around the Wernham Hogg offices in Slough," he explains. "It was a match made in heaven, and it's one of a handful of tweets that made my phone completely unusable."

Jonny Sharples @JonnyGabriel


3. …but Keep Things Simple

Nothing cuts through the social media noise like a tweet built around a universal association that strikes a chord with a wide audience. And inspiration for such tweets can hit you when you least expect it.

Opta's Duncan Alexander found the Twitter sweet spot in October 2017 with a joke about the Brighton & Hove Albion team sounding like a stag weekend lineup that came to him while he was trying to repair his washing machine one morning.

Duncan Alexander @oilysailor

The first seven names on the Brighton team sheet sound like a stag weekend roll call https://t.co/VxzENZ7APo

"I was scrolling through Twitter as I was waiting for the washing machine to drain," he says. "As I saw that lineup, I thought, 'That sounds like a load of T-shirts in Gatwick Airport at 6 a.m.' The general rule of thumb is: The simpler the message, the more reach it will have and the more people will like it."

The need for simplicity extends beyond the content of a tweet to the language in which it is written. There's no point dropping the funniest football joke of 2019 if people need to read it three times before they understand it.

"Something I've learned in the last few years is that the language has to be not technical and not archaic," says Alexander.

"Like using team nicknames. If you write 'the Lilywhites' [for Tottenham] or 'the Gunners' [for Arsenal] or 'the Red Devils' [for Manchester United], immediately loads of people will glaze over or won't understood what that means. It's finding that kind of everyman language, but getting the message across."


4. Aim for Mass Appeal

There are enough football fans on Twitter to guarantee that a finely polished tweet will reach a fittingly wide audience, but for true crossover appeal, you need to find a way of tweeting something that will chime with people whose interest in the game is either fleeting or non-existent.

"It helps if the story, whatever it is, has a reach outside football as well," says Sharples. "The perfect example of that came earlier this year with the Rebekah Vardy and Coleen Rooney story, which had its roots in football but had a far bigger reach than that.

"And if your joke hits the right person, then it can spread like wildfire. This one, despite not being particularly clever, was shared by James Corden, so it hit a huge audience."

If you're in it for the numbers, a celebrity retweet is worth its weight in gold. A tweet by Victor about Nicolas Pepe and Ben Mee last August soared past 13,000 likes thanks in part to a helping hand from a certain tweet-happy ex-England striker.

Tom Victor @tomvictor

They need to rename Nicolas Pépé ‘Valerie’ for the way he made a fool out of Mee

"As with pretty much any tweet that does numbers, it just needed one big account to get on board," he says. "In this case, Gary Lineker for some reason."


5. Get Your Timing Right

Ultimately, you can forget about breaking Twitter if you don't send your tweet out into the world at the right moment. Like Kevin De Bruyne ghosting to the edge of the box to meet a team-mate's cutback, the secret to the best tweets lies in the timing.

"There's no point coming up with it a day after everyone's stopped talking about it," says Alexander. "A Saturday afternoon or a Champions League night, that's the mother lode. And it's got to be around a team or a player that people care about."

But as strong as the temptation to tweet will be when something happens that sets the Football Twitter universe ablaze, if you can't think of anything good to say, it's often better not to say anything at all.

"The thing I've learned over time is that knowing when not to tweet is almost as important as knowing when to tweet," Alexander adds.

Think of a good idea, present it in a way that immediately makes sense to people and time it so that it lands at a moment when millions of football fans are glued to their Twitter feeds, and you might just hit the numbers of your dreams.

"Timing, being original and being first make a difference," says Luke. "If it's during a game or an event where Twitter is particularly active, it can fly."