Fan(al) Retention

Tuesday 12th February 2013 at 3:46PM

I always enjoy my chats about sports growth with @RHunterPaul. Robbie comes at the subject as a Rugby League legend, an enthusiastic marketing graduate and (most recently) Business Development Manager with the Huddersfield Giants. I come at the subject as a football supporter, a fan engagement enthusiast and an avid fan of service excellence: that which makes the best businesses tick.

It seems to be a healthy combination of perspectives as we rarely find anything that we don’t have different opinions on. Naturally I always end up agreeing with him (I know it’s hard to tell us apart, but I suspect he might beat me 3 times out of 5 in a bar room brawl). But there’s rarely a pause for breath when it comes to the subject of fan engagement.

This morning we were talking about loyalty. Not just the kind of loyalty that binds a fan to his or her team: the lifelong love, the memories, hopes and dreams, the metronomic tick-tock that forms a backdrop to our family lives, but the loyalty signified by the renewed season ticket: that somewhat less emotional but fundamentally critical prerogative of the sports club.

The recession we’re enduring makes it doubly important to get your focus right. There’s a view that it makes more sense to focus on your existing supporters (and maybe lapsed ones) than prospective ones. For a variety of reasons, including familiarity, the fact you have their attention and their love for your club and the game, they represent an obvious key target, so you’d expect to see clubs in a range of sports focus strongly on keeping them onside (sorry).

In Rugby League, from my own experiences, the focus is very much on the season ticket holder. Every club (especially at this time of year with the start of a new season) leads on renewal. I would even argue that the emphasis is so strong, that people viewing the recent fantastic TV commercial for the sport and visiting their local club website, could be forgiven for thinking that the season ticket is their only option, such is the paucity of encouragement to ‘come for the first time?’

I like Salford Reds’ approach. Fans who paid for match tickets for the Wigan game last Friday can subtract the cost of their tickets from the cost of a new season ticket. In actual fact, this was probably the result of the protracted take over negotiations, but nevertheless, it’s a good thing. Try it out. If you like it, take the cost of your match tickets off the cost of your first season ticket. Brilliant, especially when Super League U16 season tickets include free entry to all away games too. So, take Wigan Warriors’ £26 junior season ticket, for example. That gives your kids 26 games for £1 each. At Robbie’s club, where youngsters come free, then it’s even better value. Every game – home and away – is free.

For many years, the only time a football fan like me would hear from his or her club would be at season ticket renewal time. Sometimes, the bizarre timing of the invitation to renew would only serve to magnify the complacency of the sender.  Rather than waiting for the rare 6-0 home win and then hitting the post box, I’ve heard from people who can remember their rather formal request for monies arriving shortly after a 0-5 home defeat. What sort of a message is that? Come on, you know it’s not going to get any better, so stiffen up and hand over the cash. You know you want to.

Fast-forward several years to the present and we’re starting to see better-judged, well-pitched (sorry again) creative campaigns (I’m reminded of work done at Middlesbrough FC and Cardiff City FC recently).  However, in the wider sports world, a contradiction (and, by definition) and opportunity remains.

The fact is, the season ticket renewal can often introduce a risk that should not be there in the first place. If a fan intrinsically feels unhappy or uneasy about the relationship (regardless of the cause), the arrival of the request to renew might magnify this and lead to a disengagement. As I’ve argued recently, there may be scepticism about your attempts to attract new fans – specifically around how pricing promos devalue their season ticket. This, however, usually obscures a more fundamental feeling of disengagement. So why not dedicate certain match days to celebrating your season holders? The oldest, the youngest, the most travelled, etc. Make them your recruitment sergeants. Give them the opportunity to bring along some pals, at a special price – BECAUSE they’re loyal season ticket holders.

Equally, when there has been no communication throughout the season (bar the unimaginative sales efforts that sail straight past most people’s hearts), the sudden arrival of the renewal request can often introduce a note of scepticism. So why not build the relationship throughout the season? Create feedback channels and dashboards that give you a snapshot of season ticket holder sentiment. When it peaks, intervene with positive news. When it dives, er, intervene with positive news.

There is always a risk that a ‘first time’ member / season ticket holder (i.e. in their first season) may not yet be convinced of the value of the commitment. This now becomes an externalised debate that, again, may lead to lapsing.  So why not emulate those global service leaders who rigidly send a 30-day survey / request for feedback to new customers? Hello there, you’ve been with us a month now. Has it turned out the way you’d hoped? What’s gone well? What have we not delivered? How could we improve and make you feel more valued?

I can also recall many occasions when Clubs tell me fans complain about the cost of their season ticket being a prohibitive factor. Curiously enough, once I’ve engaged more directly with these supporters, a different theme emerges. Of course they understand the need to support the pursuit of glory on the pitch, so they appreciate the need for the cost of the ticket, they just want the club to make it more affordable.

Make it easier for me to pay is the cry and clubs who have, for example, introduced 0% credit schemes (and have taken the credit risk too, since who wants to risk failing a credit score in the pursuit of a season ticket?) have achieved some remarkable results. One Championship club has 60% of its record-growing season ticket base on such a scheme.

Some are even beginning to question the long-term feasibility of the annual renewal altogether. Monthly membership, with an opt out required from the supporter, seems to indicate far less risk, assuming some basic engagement is achieved. If football is the heartbeat in our lives, then surely it ranks above the mortgage, the gas and the electricity. Make it monthly and breaking the connection feels less like a risk.

Clubs like SuperLeague’s Widnes Vikings with their Stronghold membership scheme and the AFL’s Western Bulldogs with their fantastically creative membership package, are challenging the status quo and taking the discussion forward, but the key, to me, is in ensuring that membership is underpinned by pro-active consultation and engagement.

Season ticket holder parties have become the norm in the USA. Divide the number of ST holders by the number of weeks in the year and invite a group in every week to meet the CEO, the manager, some players and some backroom staff. Have an open, unrestricted debate, talk about why you love the club, share stories, agree why the Club matters and what more can be done to reinforce the club’s identity in ways that improves sentiment and grows the Club.

Progress is being made. It’s evident that there’s a new approach in the air. But while the notion of having a Fan Retention Manager remains alien to the majority, the chances of us reducing the risk at the heart of the current system are limited.

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