FXF 2012: Review

Friday 4th January 2013 at 10:23AM

Two weeks ago, Pat Coyle and I co-hosted Europe’s first Fan Experience Forum at the Museo dell’Auto (http://www.museoauto.it/website/) in Turin, Italy. The event, which had its origins in discussions begun at 2011’s Stadium Business Summit in Barcelona, aimed to help sports organisations grow through both physical and digital fan engagement.

Sports businesses globally are facing a time of unprecedented challenges. Not only is the economic crisis forcing less engaged supporters to prioritise their resources more judiciously, but there are also a host of secondary matters to address, ranging from the high quality of the ‘in-home’ TV / media experience (why should we stand in the cold when we can watch at close quarters in 3D / HD, etc?) to the fact that there are so many attractive leisure activities available to us these days – many designed to meet our individual needs as ‘consumers’.

As people with a big interest in what makes successful organisations ‘tick’, we wanted to present the growth challenge in the context of commercial service excellence. How do organisations achieve pre-eminence – especially in times of difficulty? What differentiates these organisations? What are the common components of their growth strategies? How do they organise themselves in front of the ‘customer’ and what tactics do they deploy to remain agile in a crowded, rapidly-changing marketplace?

Turin’s Fan Experience Forum allowed us to do this: to re-define fan engagement in the context of progressive business growth. It’s simply not enough to present ‘fan engagement’ as a series of operational innovations focused on connecting the supporter to the venue and / or Club. We need to fundamentally review our fans’ motivations, better understand what matters most to them, engineer the key touch points to deliver that value and relentlessly measure the advocacy our interventions are driving.

The world has moved on and sport cannot afford to be left behind.  Back in 2006 my (then) 7 year old daughter was so bored at a football match that she took out her Nintendo DS and deployed the Bluetooth functionality to allow her to have a conversation with an equally bored youngster in the home end.  But how many Clubs were set up to meet that need – or even aware that interactions of this type were even going on in the first place?

It’s relatively simple to persuade people of the value of learning from commercial best practice. In sport (and stadium management) however, while people get excited about the potential for gain, their enthusiasm wanes when it becomes clear that we are indeed talking about the pre-eminence of the ‘customer’ – and sport never was too keen on being nice to people (I offer the traditional UK indifference to visiting supporters as evidence, m’lud).

So we need a wake up call and that’s how I kicked off the event – explaining how exposure to the real experiences of current, potential and lapsed supporters can be a catalyst for re-thinking identity & purpose – and then re-evaluating growth strategies in that context.

I’ve worked closely with Cardiff City, so am well acquainted with the remarkable transformation from ‘most feared destination’ to a club where there’s been a 1500% increase in family attendance in 3 years. But what struck me most about Julian Jenkin’s presentation was the importance of having a plan. Many clubs do one-off surveys to gauge customer warmth. Not at Cardiff. They regularly measure advocacy and now have a leading indicator of growth. That’s right: their two-way dialogue and regular measures mean they’ll have advance notice of revenue performance and overall growth.

Neil Doncaster of the SPL spoke about the use of supporter consultation during his time at Norwich City FC. Again, this was characterised by attention to detail, consistency and no ‘heat of the moment’ short-term commitment. The rewards were dramatic.  When the club was promoted to the Premier League a decade ago, they kept their season ticket price rises to a minimum (effectively inflation linked – nothing more), while a club promoted with them ‘exploited’ their loyal fans. When both clubs were relegated the following season, Norwich City experienced a rise in season ticket sales. You don’t need me to tell you what happened at the other club …

And speaking of the Premier League: We had a comprehensive insight into how they support growth, through their innovative Visit Britain quality assessment programme and related activities.  Taking the ‘customer’ view has, among other things, helped expose how difficult the customer journey is in areas such as ticketing. By putting the clubs in the shoes of the potential supporter, the Premier League has been able to help clubs re-configure the experience to emphasise ‘ease’ and reduce ‘hassle’. The phrase ‘sales prevention techniques’ raised a smile in the auditorium.

Mike Quarino showed how re-configuring traditional processes to meet growth needs works particularly well in the area of loyalty and recognition programmes. At Philadelphia Union not only does your loyal attendance earn you rewards, but turning up early, turning up in bad weather, participating in a fan summit or even responding to a fan survey ALL earn you points – which you can then ‘cash in’ via ‘money can’t buy experience’ auctions. It’s a process designed to reward the right things: authentic fan loyalty and activities that help expand the club’s community.

Having a clear understanding of the ‘customer’ was explored in a number of sessions, with my abiding memory of Dave Boyle’s presentation being the tendency for businesses (and sports clubs in particular) to talk ‘down’ to customers – as an adult would to a child. Re-imagining the conversation as ‘adult to adult’ helps you to address the perceptions deficit.

We moved from physical to virtual with the help of co-host Pat Coyle, who showed how deployment of service excellence in the context of digital fan engagement and then had Tery Howard of Miami Dolphins, Paul Hawkins (of the famous Hawkeye technology) and Nick Becker of recent Premier League Champions Manchester City present a memorable list of innovations all aimed at expanding the experience, engaging the supporter and strengthening growth.  I was particularly taken by City’s Tunnel Cam: the chance to see what really goes on behind the scenes – and bringing people much closer to the action.

At the heart of the conference was a joint presentation by Sefton Perry (UEFA) and Stuart Dykes (Supporters Direct) on the role of the Supporter Liaison Officer (of which I write more here http://www.bradleyprojects.com/news.php?id=50). This role, ostensibly to promote fan / club liaison and co-operation, also offers an opportunity for Clubs to appoint a ‘change agent’ – and therefore institutionalising a catalyst for different thinking across the whole of one particular sport.

For me, this was the glue that bound the various conference components together – a vision of a supporter-oriented sport, based on a clear identity, shared values and experiences that generate measurable advocacy and which drive sustainable growth. 

Fan engagement offers the stadium business sector a new direction. The customer view has exposed existing strategies (like winning and / or discounting) as obsolete – anachronisms from a time when we thought we knew best.  But those who do know best build their businesses around customer motivation – and Turin proved beyond doubt that this is a model that demands attention. 

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