Teams Score with 'Fan-Tastic' Engagement

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Here's how the Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Cavaliers, San Antonio Spurs, and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment are winning the loyalty of today's interconnected fan.
Customer Experience

Sports fans represent some of the most dedicated customers brands can hope for. But while loyalty in sports runs deep, maintaining a high level of engagement is often difficult, especially during an off season.

Marketers for professional sports teams are tasked with fostering a steady stream of fan loyalty but they also face situations where fans are more distracted than ever.

Today's hyper-connected consumer has access to myriad entertainment choices with rising expectations of an engaging experience. Savvy marketers know that traditional approaches to loyalty are no longer enough and are turning to a confluence of digital and in-game experiences.

The Boston Red Sox Hit a Home Run with Loyalty Investments

Filling seats at stadiums and ballparks is a challenge as the fan experience grows increasingly fragmented across mobile devices, TV, and social media. And while sports teams want to reach fans wherever they are, filling seats has become a priority, says Meghan Ryan, marketing and social media specialist for the Boston Red Sox. Getting fans into Fenway Park "is a large focus for 2015," Ryan adds.

Attendance at the historical stadium has been low in recent years and even season-ticket sales have been down. The Red Sox is responding by rolling out incentives to bring the fans back. Last year the organization introduced the Red Sox Rewards loyalty program for season-ticket holders. Members of the Red Sox Rewards programreceive a card that actsas a digital ticket and can be used to make purchases at Fenway Park, in addition to earning points that can be used toward meeting players or for autographed items. Members can also access their membership cards and tickets through the Ballpark App.

Ryan demurred from sharing membership numbers, but noted that the loyalty program is doing well and the next step is to make it available to other fans. "We want to build a robust loyalty program," she says. "And to do that, we have to make sure that we have a 360-degree profile of our fan base so we can reward them for their interactions with the team and their attendance."

The Red Sox marketing and IT departments are working on identifying the many touch points fans have with the team and connecting them to provide a seamless fan experience. The company is investing in CRM technology and other tools to connect ticket transactions, social data, email subscriber lists, and more, Ryan explains.

To provide a better in-game experience, the Red Sox has added other perks like the "Social Monster," a huge outdoor digital wall powered by social media marketing firm Postano. The Social Monster lets the Red Sox display social media content like Instagram photos, Vine videos, and tweets from fans, bringing a digital experience to the ballpark.

The team is also using social media to keep fans updated on special events and giveaways. Many of the giveaways will be aimed at children to help grow the Red Sox's next generation of loyal fans, Ryan explains. This year the Red Sox will be giving away bobble heads of its mascot, Wally the Green Monster, lunch boxes, and other prizes during certain games. The dates of the giveaways will be announced on social media platforms and the team's website. Overall, the Red Sox is focused on "getting smarter and developing new strategies for engaging fans wherever they are," Ryan says.

San Antonio Spurs Keeps it all in the Family

Long before the San Antonio Spurs climbed their way to the top of professional basketball, winning last year's National Basketball Association (NBA) championship title with the best winning percentage in NBA history, the team quietly celebrated a different kind of win-a service score exceeding 90 percent.

The organization scored high points with fans through an enterprisewide service transformation that appoints everyone in charge of the fan experience and aims to treat all employees like family. This approach to service delivery and fan engagement has resulted in an elevated fan experience and a steady rise in service scores for the past four years.

Getting this enterprisewide approach to service off the ground didn't happen overnight. According to Rebecca Caven, senior director of service innovation at the Spurs, the organization started its shift toward service innovation in 2010, but such a mindset change takes time. "We decided we wanted a service culture where everyone in the organization viewed themselves as service professionals," she says. "Whether you're in finance or sales, at the end of the day, the actions that you take impact what that experience looks like."

A working group was created, made up of Spurs President of Business Operations Rick Pychand heads of departments including catering, retail facilities services, parking, and usher services. The group created what it calls "FAMILY" values to represent new service standards: Friendly greeting, Arena awareness, Making memories, Image impact, Look and listen, Your 100%.

The next phase of the service transformation focused on training, coaching, and development. The organization's leadership received presentation and training skills to recognize and reward employees in meaningful ways. The training program was then rolled out to the building staff with informational FAMILY guides and FAMILY pins for each employee. They also provided customer service skills training that touched on a variety of topics from how to guide guests to their seats to tips for actionable service delivery.

The Spurs also created a Service Innovation Department in January 2011. It holds weekly meetings to discuss potential areas of service innovation. The group sends out a notification to all employees and partners before each meeting seeking agenda items. Caven explains that the process aims to ensure folks participating in the meetings feel like they have a voice and an outlet for solving problems. During the meetings the team brainstorms ideas on how to improve the fan experience before and after events.

One of the first suggestions from the meetings involved increasing the organization's engagement level among individual game purchasers who aren't season ticket holders or premium clients. Now after fans purchase their tickets, the Spurs sends email messages highlighting places to eat in the arena and informing them of events occurring near the arena that may impact them on game day. "We like to keep them informed before and after they come to the arena," Caven says. After the event, the Spurs sends a thank-you notification with a survey attached to detail their experience before, during, and after the event. In addition, a "Text for Care" program allows fans to text a short code during events to interact with the staff if they have questions or concerns.

Caven also notes it's important to celebrate fans' milestones. Attendants deliver goodie bags filled with t-shirts, hats, or pendants to seats of fans celebrating birthdays or anniversaries. If it's a child's first game, attendants present them with a "My First Game" certificate. "We try to arm staff with the unexpected to make someone's day," Caven explains.

The organization even equips the elevator attendees with stickers and pens to distribute to unsuspecting passengers, and empowers the ushers to perform service recovery. So if they see a guest drop his drink, they can reach out to concessions to replace it. Caven says in the past, concessions would refuse to replace those items, but because everyone's mindset has changed and they're all empowered to work together toward optimizing the fan experience, they're all thinking, 'how can we make the experience better?'"

To gauge the effectiveness of the organization's service delivery, the team conducts two or three mystery shops per event. Mystery shoppers evaluate the entire experience-from the sound and music to food and service. Through the vendor Service Scout Scores, fans evaluate the entire experience-from the sound and music to food and service. The system generates 30-page reports that the Spurs use to spot trends and recognize employees doing a good job. So far, scores have been on a steady incline. The first season following the start of FAMILY Values, the average service score totaled 89 percent, the next season it increased to 90 percent, the following jumped to 91 percent, and at the beginning of this year it totaled 92 percent. This year the organization hopes to achieve a 94 percent goal and Caven says so far the monthly average has been totaling 95 percent.

The organization also plans to continuously evolve its service innovation efforts and FAMILY Values with the launch of a new app called GoodSnitch this spring. Caven explains that it provides a platform for fans to give feedback during games about their experiences. It also provides a forum for fans to publically recognize staff who go above and beyond for fans.

Celebrating employee successes is the key to the Spurs' FAMILY Values maintaining momentum. The organization continuously recognizes these wins in briefings, at annual training events, and in meetings. Recently, to increase a sense of ownership in solving issues for the organization, Pychdecided to celebrate everyone's efforts by giving all employees in the building $50 gift cards. And after last season's championship win, Pychbought championship rings for all full- and part- time staff and all of the building staff--a gesturewhich Caven says reinforces their value to the organization. "It's not the things you say; it's what you do," she says. "You're either a company that really cares about people or just talks about it. The more you do for them, the more you do for the experience of the fans."

Mobile and Social are a Slam Dunk for the Cleveland Cavaliers

Michael Conley, vice president of digital for the Cleveland Cavaliers, agrees that getting fans to share tweets and photos during a game helps drive engagement. For instance, when long-time center Zydrunas Ilgauskas retired two years ago, fans were encouraged to submit congratulatory messages for Ilgauskas, which were displayed a jumbo screen during an on-court ceremony.

With Postano's help, about 800 social posts from Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter were projected on the court while Ilgauskas spoke at the podium and more than 27,000 total pieces of social content were generated the night of the ceremony. "This was a fantastic way for fans to see their messages in real time and be involved," Conley notes.

A major challenge in social media is making sure you have enough relevant content though and so the Cavaliers told fans about the Ilgauskas ceremony and the opportunity to send messages nearly two months in advance. "Think of it as a way to get out ahead of an event to start the conversation," Conley remarks. "So by the time the event night came #AllforZ was our primary hashtag that we were monitoring but then we also had other streams that we could pull into the mainstream that were Cavs-related and game-related."

The Cavaliers are also working on mobile strategies. "We have more mobile traffic than we do desktop traffic now," Conley says. "So our production team, our designers, and our developers are all focused on a mobile-first strategy for engaging our fans."

The Cavaliers, for example, are experimenting with gamification features on its mobile app. The app presents users with questions that are based on the game that's taking place in real time. So if point guard Kyrie Irving scores 12 points, that will trigger a question such as, "How many points will Kyrie Irving have at the end of the first quarter?" Conley explains. "What's nice about the trivia is if you're in the other end of the arena you can say, 'I want to challenge you for your points off the same question that we're going to answer. If you get it wrong I get your points, if I get it wrong you get my points, and if we both get it right we draw.'" And fans who play with the app in the arena get the added bonus of seeing their names on huge leader boards that are displayed on screens in the arena.

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Keeps Pace with its Hyper-Connected Fans

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) also understands that to cultivate strong customer relationships, its sports teams must engage their fans wherever they are. As Canada's leading sports and entertainment organization, MLSE owns the NHL's Maple Leafs, AHL's Toronto Marlies, NBA's Toronto Raptors, Toronto FC of Major League Soccer, and other sports and entertainment properties.

MLSE has mainly relied on email to keep fans updated on upcoming games, ticket offers, and special events. In fact, the organization received a Gartner & 1to1 Media CRM Excellence Award two years ago in recognition of its innovative use of customer insights and targeted email campaigns.

But to keep up with its increasingly hyper-connected audience, MLSE is expanding its marketing toolset to include enhanced mobile apps and social media features as well, says Business Intelligence Manager Robert Craig.

"We know there are lots of ways to reach our fans and we want to make sure we're providing them with value-added experiences," Craig says. "So regardless of whether someone is at home or at the stadium, we want to make that experience relevant and something they wouldn't get unless they interacted with us."

One of the initiatives includes leveraging location data to offer mobile contests that fans can only access during game time or when they're at a stadium. MLSE is also partnering with Cisco to provide Wi-Fi access in the stadium and instant replay capabilities on a smartphone. Fans watching at home may get a different experience, such as contests tailored for those watching the game on TV.

These plans are still in nascent stages but they're a reflection of today's interconnected fan, Craig notes. Presumably, these digital initiatives would also give MLSE more data that they could apply to targeted messages. For instance, when fans log into an MLSE mobile app, the organization can connect the user data from its mobile apps with its CRM database to create richer audience profiles.

MLSE is also seeing fans interacting with its teams through social media. The Toronto Maple Leafs' Twitter account (@MapleLeafs) had the highest number of followers in the NHL this season. And Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry even received votes on Twitter from Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Toronto Mayor John Tory for a spot in the NBA All-Star Eastern Conference in February (he won the contest).

Looking ahead, MLSE's road map includes a greater focus on real time insights and data science to identify more opportunities to engage fans as well as make faster decisions. For instance, if a campaign isn't resonating with fans, the organization wants to find solutions for tweaking the campaign quickly, Craig says. MLSE is looking for automated solutions, as well as building out its business intelligence group. "We want analytically minded people who can explain complex insights in an understandable way," Craig says. "And by combining all these efforts, we'll be able to provide our fans with an even better experience."

Atlanta Falcons Is Building 'Ultimate Fan Experience'

Indeed, "no one puts their phone away in a sports venue," notes John Armstrong, North America leader at IBM Interactive Experience (IBMiX), Big Blue's digital agency. "The challenge for sports teams and other brands is how do we continue a dialogue [with customers] when there are so many distractions?" The answer, Armstrong maintains, is a convergence of digital and physical experiences. AMB Sports and Entertainment (AMBSE) shares the same sentiment and tapped IBMiX to develop interactive technologies for the Atlanta Falcons' new football stadium.

"We know that creating the ultimate fan experience means meeting fans where they are, providing them with the platform to interact in a seamless way, and introducing them to new offerings that exceed expectations," says Rich McKay, presidentand chief executive officer of the Atlanta Falcons, in a statement.

The stadium is expected to be completed by 2017 and will include a63,000 square foot HD video board, other digital video displays, Wi-Fi services, and the ability to place orders from an app and have the food delivered to your seat. IBMiX is also developing an app feature that uses publicly available traffic data to help users find available parking spaces and map out the quickest routes in and out of the stadium. The key point is to "put fans in control of the experience," Armstrong says. "We want to provide fans with as much value as possible and it's up to them to decide how much they want to interact with us."

Sports teams have the advantage of a loyal fan base, but even these organizations need to continuously drive engagement and thank customers for their support. And while sports teams must contend with more competition for a fan's attention, digital loyalty programs, mobile apps, and other technology are opening up new opportunities to interact with fans, putting the proverbial ball back in a marketer's court.

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EXPERT OPINION