How Popular Football Club and Comic Festival Adjusted To COVID-19
COVID-19 pandemic brought many changes and challenges in numerous spheres. The digital world and more specifically the field of digital communication is evolving quicker than before, in an attempt to answer the crisis. Institutions, companies, cultural and educational organisations are seeking ways to remain active and sustainable during the pandemic. At the same time, these organisations are experimenting with digital transformation solutions that will allow them to stay connected with their audiences and stakeholders. This paper discusses the changing landscape in digital communication in Greece, under the scope of COVID-19 focusing on two case studies: PAOK FC, in Thessaloniki, and Comicdom Con Athens festival. How did these structure respond to the crisis? How did they adjust their services and products during the coronavirus pandemic? What is the impact of their digital strategy on their various stakeholders? Could COVID-19 become an opportunity for building stronger communities? Using the above cases as examples, we will attempt to address useful remarks regarding the digital response of brands towards their communities in times of crisis. We applied a qualitative research method approach using as a main tool in-depth interviews with the key informants of the two cases. In the case of PAOK FC we spoke with the New Media Director of the brand and in the case of Comicdom Con Athens with the festival organisers. In addition, we also studied and analysed social media data with a focus on content and engagement in relation to both case studies.

Dorner and Edelman (2015) tried to define the "digital" in digital transformation by concluding that it can be broken down as such: creating value at new frontiers, creating value in core business and building foundational digital capabilities. Moreover, they highlighted the connection between a brand and its users stating that "being digital means being closely attuned to how customer decision journeys are evolving in the broadest sense. That means understanding how customer behaviors and expectations are developing inside and outside your business, as well as outside your sector, which is crucial to getting ahead of trends that can deliver or destroy value". Digital transformation strategies are connected with customer experience. They propose social listening, real time engagement on multiple platforms, omni-channel services and personalised experiences utilising AI and big data. According to Morgan (2020), "before a digital transformation can truly begin, the company must switch its mindset from being product-focused to being customer-focused. The driving force behind technology decisions should be customers, and the goal should be to make their lives easier instead of making things easier for the organization. A customer focus is the basis for all other digital transformation decisions". Especially, in times of crisis, digital solutions might be able to reconnect users with the brand and sometimes, even create stronger experiences. In addition, one of the critical characteristics of a successful digital strategy is resiliency and the building of a mindset proposing that brands today should be flexible and creative to survive complex crises. As stated by the PwC 2020 Global Digital IQ research, "transformation never ends. That's what most Transcenders believe and it guides what they do. Their cultural DNA empowers them to navigate change and be prepared for anything. 67% of Transcenders lived through a major disruption—merger or acquisition, business model change, or senior leadership change—in the last two years and have come out stronger. They've learned from those challenges and embrace the concept of change as the only constant". The Covid-19 pandemic has already started pushing brands to embrace a digital transformation strategy and value its impact to their sustainability. Every day more and more brands are adopting digital solutions in an attempt to remain active and also overcome the traumatic multi-effect challenges of this difficult situation. According to Filev (2020) four areas will face the most dramatic change: telecommuting, on-demand food and services, virtual events and the cloud. The events industry is one of the most affected by COVID-19 with bigger and smaller global events either cancelled, or transformed into virtual events . As little is still known whether physical events will return to normality, virtual ones might become the new standard. Event organisers around the world, whether a sporting or cultural event, have to think creatively in order to keep their audiences engaged and themselves alive and sustainable.
The case of PAOK FC
PAOK FC is one of the biggest football teams in Greece. Apart from that, PAOK is a leader in digital communications, having been awarded for two consecutive years (2018, 2019) the title of Digital Brand of the Year. In the midst of the COVID-19 turbulence, and with all athletic activities cancelled, we studied how they kept their relations going with fans through the use of their digital assets. According to PAOK's New Media Director P. Aroniadis, "during this crisis we became more active. Our fans need more of the team, than the team needs the fans. We really want to be close to our community and this is why we are focusing on strategies that allow us to connect with her". PAOK has developed several activities to keep its audience engaged, but also to "help them feel secure and happy". Among these events, the club organised virtual tournaments (FIFA and Football Manager) with the participation of PAOK's players, which was live streamed for their fans to watch. In other words, they did transfer the football action to the digital field, as actual sports activities were paused. In addition, they broadcast interviews with the players, either live on social media, or pre-recorded on YouTube, where the players shared personal moments during quarantine. One of the most interesting digital activities that PAOK has adopted and expanded during the COVID-19 crisis is the use of a Viber group chat where fans send messages and share videos under the hashtag #PAOKatHome. This Viber community is very active and the employees of PAOK are responding to every message they get in an attempt to make their fans feel a sense of togetherness with the club. As highlighted by Aroniadis, "it is important to listen, to take care of your community". Creativity and acknowledgement of people's needs are two more components of an efficient strategy during the crisis. It is important to find ways to navigate within the abundance of content offered nowadays online. For PAOK, the type of content that seems to win is the use of video. Aroniadis observes that although video was the favorite type of content before COVID-19, during quarantine it has got even more popular. The interesting fact though is that what has changed is the way people watch a video. "The number of viewers in longer videos have risen, comparing to the pre COVID era, since people now are not in a hurry and has the time to view something extended to keep them company" notes Aroniadis and he adds, "In YouTube the view rate has increased by 31% and at the same time the number of videos watched by users is increased by 37%. In addition, in Facebook, during the last month, we had 2,7 million views in videos, number increased by 172% compared to March". Moreover, regarding the actual content posted Aroniadis insisted on their strategy of sharing user generated content and "playing at the same team" with PAOK's fans. Another question is what about the engagement? Although the engagement rate has not changed much Aroniadis highlights that the crisis has impacted the existing models that monitor the behavior of online users. "Our vulnerable psychology reflects the engagement numbers, where we observe ups and downs but without following any of the known standards", he says. From there Aroniadis makes a very interesting remark regarding prime time in social media, supporting that "morning posts are not performing well in contrast with the ones posted later in the evening, because more people tend to stay up later as they do not have to go to their office in the morning". Finally, as far as it concerns the platforms, Instagram remains the main social media network followed by Facebook, while there is also the rise of TikTok "as more and more people are producing funny videos, trying to find ways to entertain themselves and also taking a more active role". From all of the above, we can conclude that PAOK seems to follow the needs of the community, standing by the community of fans during a time of severe crisis. That's why, according to Aroniadis "our club's community will become stronger after that crisis".
The case of
Comicdom Con Athens
Comicdom Con Athens is the oldest comic festival in Greece, which has happened every spring since 2006 and attracting more than 15,000 visitors. This year, the festival was postponed due to the urgent situation of COVID-19. The organisers decided to put together an online festival- StayComicdom - with the same exact dates as the actual festival on 10-12 of April. The StayComicdom online celebration of comics included seven zoom meetups with Greek and international artists and editors, a digital artists alley, free comics from Greek comic publishers and artists and discounts for online shopping from comic shops. According to the organisers "this event was an attempt to remain active, but also our way to support the community, both our audience, but mostly artists, publishers and local comic shops that are facing a severe financial crisis, among others". Under the hashtag #StayComicdom the Greek comic community felt connected again, participating in online discussions, and buying comics, with the chance to see new, yet unpublished, works by aspiring artists. Half of the artists participating in the actual show (50 out of 100) exhibited their work via the digital artists alley, while almost all of the retailers taking part in Comicdom Con Athens participated in the virtual event and more than 300 people attended the zoom sessions. Although someone might argue that the amount of live viewers was low, the organisers stated that they were more than satisfied, stressing the fact that "this is a total new experience for Greek users, participating live in online events". On the other hand, the reach of the posts within the recorded sessions (later in the month) was high with the numbers reaching 4,000 views and more than 800 unique viewers per video, proving that people during quarantine have the time to watch larger videos (all videos lasted over 0ne hour). So, was this a successful effort? "We were excited to find out that the market moved and people bought online their comics, that the artists connected with their fans", said the organisers. At the same time, the impact of the event in the brand image of the festival was big as they received loads of congratulations messages as well as motivation messages to repeat such types of events in the future. In addition, according to part of the community, that was an action that made Comicdom Con Athens to stand out from its competitors underlying the character and the mission of the festival and the team behind it "to offer hours of volunteer work for the art form we love" ( The challenges for jumping into such a decision were many with the main one being "the fear of non participation on behalf of the community, as the psychology of people in such difficult times is unpredictable", say the organisers. And they continue, "we organised StayComicdom in less than a week and all the publicity went via social media, only with organic posts and virtual word of mouth. This was a very different procedure from the one we usually follow for the physical event, as we prepare it for almost a year". On the other hand, there were a series of benefits, such as the reduction of production expenses, measurability and accessibility to a variety of audiences. Indeed, according to the organisers, "we did have participants from all over Greece saying that this event format is easier for them to attend, as well as from abroad. The most important benefit though is that when everything seemed paused we were on move and that will keep us and our community connected".

People say that sometimes crisis is also an opportunity. Within the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic new opportunities arise for brands to reconnect with their audiences. Both cases discussed in this paper proved that during this global crisis, people need to interact with the brands they love. This need gives brands the opportunity to become more creative and to leverage on, or explore more, their digital assets, or even think of new ways to engage with fans in the future. According to the StayComicdom organisers, "when this ends, we are thinking of producing hybrid events, combining online with physical presence". Moreover, brands can act as catalysts for the well-being of their key stakeholders. In both of our examined cases, one of the most important motivations on behalf of the brands was to support their fans morally, keeping in mind that "when this difficult period ends, people will remember that we stood by them", as Aroniadis says. At the same time, they can amplify the message of governments and health organisations about social distancing and stay home policies. In our cases it is interesting to note that both organisations used within their campaigns words such as "home" or "stay", encouraging their communities to keep safe during the pandemic, while enjoying the new experiences offered. Overall, the level of resiliency and active presence during the crisis seems to become a crucial factor for the long-term success of the brand. "If your actions and brand response in a disaster don't align with your brand positioning strategy, you could risk losing the respect of your audience for good" (Harvey, 2020) is the strong message consumers are sending towards their favorite brands. Especially for non-traditional commercial brands, such as a football club or a comic festival, all actions related to the support and the strengthening of the community result as added value for their reputation, as proved in both examples. All crises at some point come to an end and "how you position your brand during these challenging times will decide whether you survive the crisis" (Harvey, 2020).

Tsene, PhD | Open University of Cyprus/Advanced Media Institute
Maria Briana, PhD | University of West Attica

Digital Communication Network begins the series of publications on Digital Challenges in the Time of COVID-19 Crisis.