Pay Attention To Me! Why ‘Participatory Fandom’ Can Be A Game Changer

In his March 2014 column, SLRG President Jon Last speaks to the impact and importance of good customer relationship marketing strategies in sports.

Let’s set things straight. This is not a puff piece for formal and costly customer relationship management (CRM for those who like acronyms) programs. Faithful readers of this newsletter know that, by trade, I’m a sports marketing researcher, and many marketing researchers often shudder at CRM’s disruptive ability to refocus clients away from good basic consumer research. But I’m also a sports marketing guy who has hopefully built a reputation for being able to effectively translate consumer insights and observed behaviors into tactical strategies, and some of our recent work has reaffirmed my belief in the potential for CRM best practices to be a potential game changer in building the fan relationship.

CRM in its basic, overly simplified form, is about getting closer to the customer and building strongly integrated relationship strategies to win loyalty. In a sense, most fan properties are instinctively practicing certain aspects of CRM by communicating with fans and seeking to integrate formal or informal feedback into these contact strategies. Where the train leaves the station (and where the costs of implementation can become prohibitive) is in the deployment of behavioral tracking, formalized segmentation and database modeling. Those are big steps, often challenging to manage and not always easy to embrace given the relatively steep ROI requirements.
But, as with researchers who often enter the CRM value chain at its initial and foundational stages, I continue to believe that the basic concepts of CRM are easy to implement and not necessarily budget busters. Better still, at its most fundamental levels, building a two-way relationship with fans can actually serve as a hedge for less controllable drivers of fan engagement, like a team’s on field/ice/court performance.

We are in an era of incessant interactivity and involvement. Our research has definitively showed that fans who feel a sense of community, shared experience and personal stake in their favorite brands, teams or properties, exhibit greater levels of commitment, loyalty and empathy when things aren’t going well. Two poignant and recent examples come from vastly different clients, one for whom we regularly conduct fan focus groups/feedback sessions, the other a property for whom we’ve implemented a formal research community of best customers. Beyond the tactical and strategic specifics of each of these efforts comes a more fundamental and frequently expressed sentiment by the fans researched — the mere fact that each of these properties is valuing and seeking fan opinions has strengthened the bond between seller and buyer. To have a stake in the game, and to be acknowledged for having a vested interest in the success of the team/property, is an incredibly powerful community builder.

From that basic observation should come a number of easy-to-implement tactical strategies that any sports property can leverage to strengthen customer relationships. From the basic blocking and tackling of transparent communication and articulation of vision to regular social media presence, segmented offers and fan research to more sophisticated customized programs that incorporate the four key tenets of “2C2R” (communications, community building, recognition and reward), extending the olive branch is a smart and necessary business practice that will strengthen the bonds between property and fan.

Among some of the more fascinating research that we’ve conducted over the years have been immersive studies that integrate fan attitudes and how they relate to actual purchase/attendance behaviors. It’s apparent, even before initiating any research, that in a constantly connected world, it’s more difficult than ever to break through the barrage of messages, constant commentary and outreach hurled in our general direction. The competition between sports and all other forms of entertainment and interaction has never been greater. Forward-looking properties that take the time to understand where they fit into this proliferation of choices and make the effort to understand how best to insert themselves into the constant conversation and rampant distractions are organically taking the right initial steps towards more formal CRM deployment.