Much has been written about ‘digital transformation’ and how brick and mortar retailers need to embrace technology in order to compete with the impending doom that is Amazon. While some of this literature is helpful in providing strategic guidance for brands looking to further digitize their business, a good deal of content is loaded with generalizations and buzz phrases that only topically speak to your standard conference keynote themes like omni-channel approaches or one-to-one personalization.
In reality, realizing these themes is challenging and it may take many years for a brand to see them achieved. While certainly important, aspirational goals need to be balanced with nearer-term wins that form a foundation upon which a successful digital strategy can be built. While there are a number of pillars to a successful digital strategy, one common key to success is user engagement. As hundreds of brands compete for the attention of customers, engaging content rises to the top and connects brands with their audiences in meaningful ways that leave lasting impressions.
Sports teams from every professional league are nailing the engagement challenge. While retail brands can’t always capture attention with hard hits and game winning goals, there is much that can be learned from how sports teams have captured the attention and share of wallet of their fans by focussing on engagement throughout their digital transformations.
The Shared External Threat
Just as retail has been threatened by powerful e-commerce brands, sports teams have come under fire from all angles. Massive high-definition TVs and online fantasy sports have made the at-home experience often more compelling than attending games in person. Increasingly diverse urban cities offer more entertainment options than ever before and more and more kids grow up spending their time and money on ‘alternative’ entertainment options such as e-games, festivals and other forms of entertainment. Professional sports is certainly facing stiff competition for discretionary share of wallet.
Yet, for the most part, sports teams have adapted well to these changing tides in three engagement-centric ways that brands and retailers can learn from. At the core of these initiatives is a guiding principle of the connection between the fan experience and engagement.
- Digital Personalization: Engagement Through Relevance
While most retailers have made sizeable investments in digitization and personalization, many lag behind. Mobile apps provide a unique opportunity for brands to create highly personal and engaging brand experiences. They offer a data rich ecosystem where a customer or fan experience can be highly customized to suit the interests of the audience. Most sports teams view their apps not just as a marketing platform, but a place to engage their fans and create a unique dialogue between the team and those who follow it.
Teams leverage surveys and notification preference centers through their apps to allow a user to determine which types of communication they are interested in hearing from the team about. Teams capture data about favourite players, ticket purchasing preferences and a fan’s location to understand what type of fan they are and how they might best interact with the team. They leverage this understanding to craft a content strategy that goes beyond purely marketing. They create campaigns like quizzes and game previews that are targeted and engage their audience, reviewing engagement data to learn more about fans the type of content they care to see. They also leverage data to create highly relevant, last minute ticket deals to fans within a few miles of the game (not those located across the country.) Relevance is engaging.
For retail brands, this isn’t about just understanding user profiles for targeted ads, it is more about crafting a customer experience that is increasingly reflective of a customer’s preference. For those retailers and brands that do have apps, the ability to personalize is made simple with content platforms that allow publishers to easily create campaigns like in-app surveys and quizzes that can be leveraged to better understand user preferences. Basic data points such as the types of product categories or your current region can have significant impact on the relevance of communication, and in-turn, engagement. Seasonally relevant content such as holiday themed contests and product discovery campaigns engage customers based on interests, going deeper and more relevant than simple banner ads or basic push campaigns.
2. Investment in the Stadium Experience: Engagement Through Better Experiences
With larger TVs and cheaper beverages at home, competing with the couch has been a challenge for teams. Enhancing the venue experience has been top priority as more and more teams have made significant investments on this front. With the goal of bringing more fans to games and having them stay longer, teams have put the fan experience at the forefront of these investments and decision making. Many teams have implemented mobile ticketing and in-venue wayfinding solutions to making venue entry and navigation more seamless. They have wisely adapted their mobile strategies to facilitate in-stadium vs. at home content, to match the use cases of attending a game. In one of the NFL’s newest stadiums, the Minnesota Vikings greet fans attending US Bank Stadium with a unique set of in-stadium features through their mobile app, simply because they are at the venue. They can offer upgrades and game replays from the various vantage points of the stadium for those in attendance. These investments not only improve the fan experience but offer new and unique ways to engage with the game day experience. They combine both utility and surprise and delight features and content that are unique to attending the game.
Some retailers have made this sort of investment to enhance their shopping experiences, many lag behind. While it may not make sense for every category, there is proven value in making your store a destination experience. Just as sports stadiums allow fans to walk through a museum of a team’s history, shoot hoops amidst backdrops of favorite players or view live sharks and stingrays with your kids, retailers can make their stores a destination of choice. Cabela’s and Bass Pro shops provide a great example of what games and creative displays such as giant fish tanks can do to make the retail experience a destination. While most retailers are closing stores, these outdoors retailers are adding to their brick and mortar footprint. Whether this is through technology investments that improve utility such as mobile check-out, buy online pick up in store or through in-store experiences that bring families and keep them in-store, investment in the venue experience is one that has proved its worth for both sports teams and retailers alike
3. Loyalty: Engagement Through Rewarding the Non-transactional
While retailers have a long history of leveraging loyalty programs to drive larger basket size and customer loyalty, sports teams are increasingly adapting the concept with their own twists. While many teams do adopt some form of earn-per-dollar-spent on merchandise, many teams have deemphasized a pure focus on the ‘spend and earn’ model of loyalty programs, choosing to focus more on rewarding brand engagement and interaction with the team.
In many ways, sports teams are pushing the boundaries and redefining loyalty. Teams such as the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins reward fans for reading and engaging with content in their app as well as for attending specific bars to watch the game at their ‘watch parties’. Beyond just looking at different behaviours to reward fans for, teams are also reinventing the traditional rewards portfolio. Instead of toasters and blenders, teams are offering engaging experiences such as autograph sessions, locker room visits and game day experiences. Some teams like the Toronto Blue Jays baseball club give fans the opportunity to cash their points in for contest and lottery entries with the chance to win autographed items or win exclusive fan experiences. These are just a few examples of how in many ways, sports teams are moving the dial on the traditional loyalty model.
Both retailers and sports teams compete for attention and share of wallet. In today’s economy, mobile brand engagement and connecting with customers in non-traditional ways is crucial to growing and maintaining a customer following and share of spend. While there are still many challenges sports teams face when growing their business, they have no doubt been very successful in adapting to the engagement challenge.
Through a mobile-first approach to investments in personalization, the game-day experience and a new take on loyalty programs teams are connecting with their fans in different ways, and perhaps more importantly, in the way their fans want to engage. By placing the improvement of the fan experience as a guiding principle, business and technology decisions have resulted in positive results for sports teams – many of which are transferable to retail.
Keeping Your Audience Engaged — What Retailers Can Learn From Sports was originally published in Rover on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.