MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Capturing even a small slice of Asia's four billion consumers is a salivating prospect for any European soccer club and Premier League giants Liverpool see social media as the Trojan horse to unlock the region's vast commercial potential.
Liverpool's three-year exile from Champions League has not only hurt the club's finances, but also reduced their brand exposure in far-flung markets.
Engaging with their broad global support base via social media channels has become an increasingly essential way for the Merseyside club to attract new sponsors in emerging markets and convince the existing ones to stay on board during a lean period on-field.
"We made a conscious effort to boost our social media presence about 18 months ago," managing director Ian Ayre told Reuters in an interview.
"People often talk about the fact that this club or that club has this many hundred million fans in these markets.
"We took the view that the real relationship with a fan is having true engagement. You can have millions of fans as you want, but if you're not communicating with them, how are you really establishing that relationship?"
Asia has been at the centre of Liverpool's online charm offensive, with commercial managers deployed at a number of markets to generate localised content.
The past year has seen a flurry of new country-specific websites and social media accounts in a bid to convert casual fans into hooked-up, digital consumers.
Liverpool launched an Indonesian language website in May and a Thai language website last month ahead of their lucrative pre-season tour of Asia, which started with a stop in Jakarta and concludes with a match in Bangkok on Sunday.
"We now have 16 different local language Twitter accounts, and a number of different Facebook accounts and websites," Ayre said.
"That's been extremely successful for us ... It's drawn in a whole new swathe of fans that we knew were out there but are now starting to engage on a much greater level."
Liverpool also launched an Australian online store in the leadup to the friendly against Melbourne Victory where the team's wide-reaching appeal was seen in a crowd of 95,000 mostly red-clad fans who packed the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Wednesday.
Premier League rivals Manchester United attracted 83,000 fans to their match against an A-League "All-Star" team at Sydney's Olympic Stadium last week, part of a lucrative five-stop tour.
Apart from the chance to engage with their fans, the teams stand to earn A$10 million ($9.21 million) between them for their trip Down Under alone, according to local media.
SHOPPING WINDOW EFFECT
The pre-season tours' real value, from a commercial sense, however, comes from their shopping window effect, rather than short-term license fees earned from matches, Ayre said.
"It's very clear in the process we're going through commercially that our value and our appeal and our reach in Asia is a huge attraction to our commercial partners," he said.
"As many of them have seen this week, when we come to town, it kind of sets the place on fire ... the buy-in from fans and partners alike is phenomenal and it's one of those quite unique experiences for some of them when they see the size and the appeal of the club."
Asia-focused bank Standard Chartered extended their $30 million-a-year shirts sponsorship deal with Liverpool during the Asia tour and the club hopes social media buzz would help them attract more country-specific sponsorship deals in Asia like their 2011 tieup with Honda Motorcycle in Thailand.
Improved income from commercial sponsorships, despite a global recession and the lack of Champions League action, helped Liverpool raise revenues, even as they recorded a 40.5 million pound ($62.19 million) loss and raised debts to 87.2 million pounds in their last accounts from August 1, 2011 to May 31, 2012.
Ayre was positive about the club's outlook but declined to say whether the next accounts would record an improvement in their fiscal position as they seek to build a stronger squad to regain a place in the lucrative European tournaments.
"It's about the transition back to that rude health for the club at the same time as balancing our continued investment," he said. "Sometimes that means you don't invest as heavily as some people might like."
($1 = 1.0863 Australian dollars)
($1 = 0.6512 British pounds)
(Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)