The Case For In Person-Immersive ‘Listening’ To Understand Sports Fan Behavior

The lead item on March 12th’s Marketing Insider speaks to the value of in-venue observational research for sports marketers.


I’ll be the first to admit that social media and technology have transformed and enhanced the tool kit for those who research fan attitudes and perceptions. Social conversation listening can often proactively surface issues and amplify the loudest voices for sports marketers.

That said, I’ve often maligned those who rely too heavily on these sources as marginalizing the perspective of the “silent majority.” In fact, with the generation of social conversation and buzz often among the objectives of sports marketing programs, meta scans and attempted quantification of conversation can in some ways further cloud any insights derived from an attempted objective assessment of their veracity.

Rather, I’d suggest that with today’s rightfully obsessive focus on optimizing fan experience, the optimal recipe for “fan listening” and “voice of the customer” insights should extend well beyond social media monitoring. It should even go beyond traditional qualitative and quantitative marketing research, particularly when those two modalities are limited to house files or opt-in fan communities, each with their own inherent biases.

Sports marketers are investing significantly on a proliferation of onsite activations, interactive experiences and enhanced creature comforts aimed at delivering a more engaging fan experience. And they should, because we all recognize the broader competitive landscape for the attention and wallets of our target customers.

But as the onsite experience becomes more nuanced and broader in its offerings, I’d maintain that traditional feedback loops, referenced above, while important in their own right, stop short of good old-fashioned, discrete and immersive observation. Memories are selective, and often clouded by recency. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t an important means to gauge the stickiness of sports marketing activation, but there’s a void in the absence of observing fan experience in the moment, and its impact on overall fan satisfaction and future resultant actions.

I’m a big advocate of observational research modalities like mystery shopping and ethnography because they enable researchers to immerse themselves in the actual world of the customer — to walk a mile in their shoes in a natural and unstructured environment.

The beauty of adapting these approaches for the sports marketplace is that traditional barriers like the high cost of recruitment and time requirements are condensed into the natural and finite environment of sporting events or retail spaces. The benefits and insights derived are rich and can often be captured on video, and edited and shared in reels for marketing management.

Embedding research teams in sporting goods retail opens a window to the impact of point of sale and visual merchandising, as well as the efficacy of product education on salespeople.

In-venue observational research under trained eyes and with appropriate moderator interactions can capture emotional connections or frustrations in real time. We’ve seen this to be particularly effective in assessing the impact of various social space and F&B enhancements.

Bottom line, a greater focus on listening to fans can greatly benefit sports marketers. Observing these same fans can take insights to an even higher level.