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Direct Response Marketing

DR Marketers Can Take a Page From the Sports Playbook

1 Jan, 2013 By: Doug McPherson Response

Sports marketers who are well versed in direct response turn to social media and other new DR outlets to create long-lasting relationships with fans.


It’s getting downright kooky. Call it the wide (and wacky) world of sports. Imagine what some athletes and teams will do to attract an audience.

You might remember last year’s Olympic runner Nick Symmonds — the guy who auctioned space on his left shoulder (yes, his shoulder) where the Twitter handle of highest bidder would be tattooed for all to see during the games in London and for the rest of his track and field appearances in 2012.

Then, this past summer, the University of Central Florida Knights (UCF) football team got a little creative with some paint: the school painted the athletic department’s Twitter handle right on their home-field turf in to recruit more fan-followers. There it was —
@UCF_Athletics — in big, bold lettering right on the field.

But is it really kooky if these stunts really work? It’s tough to argue the results.

Symmonds took home $11,100 for his shoulder space. Hanson Dodge Creative, an ad agency in Milwaukee, coughed up the cash. Since then, the agency has named him to its active-lifestyle advisory board, plus it has given Symmonds hundreds of thousands of dollars in services — free of charge. What’s more, the attention the sponsorship has brought the agency has far exceeded its investment, Symmonds told the New York Times (yes, some nice free publicity, too).

“You’re never going to find a better CPM,” he said at the time.

And the UCF Knights now have hundreds more followers, too. UCF’s associate director of athletic communications, Brian Ormiston, supported the move and says, “The bottom line is it worked. We have more followers and it was a lot of fun.”

The fact is that DR marketers can learn a lot from sports marketing. It’s not always about crazy publicity stunts and shoot-from-the-hip exploits. Actually, to Jon Last, it can just as easily be about carefully planned strategy.

Last, president of the Sports & Leisure Research Group, a marketing firm in White Plains, N.Y., goes at his job armed with science and words and phrases like regression analysis, attitudinal segments and multivariate. There’s no tossing anything on the wall to see what sticks. Or — if he does — you can bet he’s spent plenty of time cooking up whatever’s to be tossed.

His company serves several pro sports teams with zero tolerance for haphazard approaches to anything, and that includes marketing. With Last, it’s about strategic approaches that analyze behaviors and other research to find those best customer segments and then to customize targeted offers to each one.

Last says in today’s uncertain times, it’s particularly important to be methodical and thoughtful. “Sports teams and event organizers are competing for consumers’ pocketbooks,” he says. “Sports fans are an opinionated and passionate group who often speak with their wallets if a team isn’t performing well or if watching the team isn’t more exciting or more entertaining than alternatives.”

As a way to respond to those circumstances, Last says the sports world, including ticket and merchandise marketers, have started tapping a more comprehensive strategy that often mixes behavioral data and survey research to better understand key customer segments, identify inflection points and tailor direct marketing efforts in more customized ways than they ever have.

The 2C2R Formula

For Last, part of the equation for sports is building a “viable community of loyalists.”

“Sports marketers are rightfully putting greater emphasis on customer loyalty and fan experience,” he says.

To that end, Last has created the acronym 2C2R — and though it sounds like a complicated football maneuver, it’s relatively simple and includes four elements:

  1. Communication: “The best loyalty marketing efforts take great care in crafting the right type and frequency of marketing communication to best customers,” Last says. “They realize one mass message often doesn’t form the one-to-one bond that demonstrates to customers that they’re valued and appreciated. Plus, the communication acknowledges unique needs and offers a solution instead of just a sales proposition.”
  2. Community: Good fan communities bring people of shared needs together in a meaningful and honest exchange. Sports & Leisure Research Group applied this concept for a cruise line by offering forums for passengers to meet in before they set sail, for past guests to share memories together and through special events that fostered literal community building within local markets. Finding the right approach can often be as simple as conducting needs assessment and concept testing research.
  3. Recognition: Best-of-breed loyalty efforts go out of their way to make the customer feel special. “A great example was when I returned to a favorite hotel after about a three-year lapse,” Last says. “To my surprise and delight, the agent at registration welcomed me back and asked me if I’d like the same room that I stayed in last time.” Last explains the gesture cost the hotel nothing, but it demonstrated commitment to cultivating customer relationships. Recognition can be as simple as remembering birthdays or distributing commemorative pins or apparel that fans can wear as badges of honor, distinguishing themselves from others. “It’s a soft-sell approach that shows appreciation and doesn’t tarnish your brand through discounting,” he adds.
  4. Reward: Many marketers skip immediately to this step, associating good customer retention efforts solely with points and reward programs. While research has shown offering aspirational carrots at the end of sticks to acknowledge long-term loyalty does work, too many sports marketers falsely assume that fans will become as locked in on the prize as they are.

“In countless loyalty research projects we’ve conducted, clients are often underwhelmed to see how unwilling the customer is to engage in a new points program or track their behaviors for far-off rewards,” Last says. “The key is to reward frequently in soft and subtle ways, while making the pursuit of long-term rewards as seamless and self-managing as possible. We’ve heard in too many focus groups, ‘Please don’t give me another points card to carry around!’”

Finally, Last says he’s also a big fan of “RFM” (recency, frequency, monetary) to decide quantitatively which customers are the best ones by examining how recently a customer has purchased, how often they purchase, and how much the customer spends.

“So if we know that a group of customers have bought the jerseys of a particular player, we can target them with collateral material featuring the same player,” Last says. “Of course, if the file is large enough, you can also conduct multivariate tests and see which collateral pulls better against different segments.”

Twitter With a Twist

Of course, many sports teams have been striking out on their own, especially when it comes to social media as a marketing tool. Take the Denver Broncos — they claim to be the first NFL team to announce the firing of a head coach (Josh McDaniels in 2010) via social media.

Since then, Twitter has landed a permanent spot on the squad. In fact, the Broncos have been tweeting for the past five years. And when John Elway rejoined the team in 2011 as an operations executive, he added social media to his playbook. Since joining Twitter, Elway has reached out to fans by announcing trades, signings and cuts with social media.

Today, more than 40 Bronco players have joined Elway in representing the team on Twitter and giving fans a locker-room style look into the lives of NFL players.

And now a new company is helping sports teams add some yardage to their Twitter and other social media efforts. Brian Razzaque started SocialToaster, a social marketing firm in Baltimore, in 2010 as a way help organizations, businesses, individuals — anyone, really, who has an audience or fan base — get their message out via social media to strengthen relationships with useful information, to occasionally sprinkle in some subtle sales messages, and to also measure results for clients.

In a nutshell, the company recruits “super fans” to share organizations’ messages as a kind of third-party, non-invasive endorser. Teams’ super fans often get perks such as signed team memorabilia. “It turned out that sports teams were a natural fit because they have a ready-made fan base,” Razzaque says.

The company says the typical pro sports team has about 3,000 super fans who share content to a total average audience of 1.2 million people — a far more effective and affordable way to connect to fans compared to traditional cost-per-click marketing.

Razzaque says SocialToaster replaces the cost-per-click model by allowing sports teams to control their messaging and how often content is pushed to fans.

“We push messages across multiple platforms, including LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, but traditional online ad buys are relegated to an individual channel or search engine,” he says. “That means we provide the viral lift at a fraction of the cost.”

SocialToaster counts the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts, the NBA’s Detroit Pistons and the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks and Buffalo Sabres among its clients.

Mike Donnay, senior director of brand networks at Palace Sports & Entertainment and the Detroit Pistons, says for the team, social media success isn’t only about sustaining growth, but also growing fan engagement. “Super fans are becoming the go-to person for our brand, and we make it possible for them to have exclusive content before anyone else,” he adds.

Last season, the Pistons had 40,000 followers on Twitter. By late November 2012, the team had nearly 100,000 followers. Donnay adds that ticket sales have increased, too.

Razzaque says in some instances, the viral lift (the ratio of number of visits generated to the links shared) can be as high as 245 percent. SocialToaster charges clients a monthly fee that starts at $379 a month and rises based on the number of active super fans who are helping share content.

The company now has about 60 clients — many outside the sports realm, some in consumer goods and retail, non-profit, entertainment, education and even some bloggers and politicians.

“We ask potential clients two questions: One, do they have an audience that likes their brand enough that they could produce someone (a super fan) who’d be willing to share information about that brand? And two, are they publishing content that’s interesting enough that the super fan would like to share it and that their audience would actually read it?”

With sports teams, a super fan might tweet about players and team news about 85 to 90 percent of the time, but use the rest of the time to announce a few seats left for the big game or that a jersey is going on sale.

“We know with social media it can’t always be about selling. You have to be sensitive to the medium,” Razzaque says. “You have to intersperse sales and calls to action with useful information.” ■


About the Author: Doug McPherson


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