Saints in the Family Way

Tuesday 21st May 2013 at 8:11PM

On Monday 13th May St Johnstone picked up the Clydesdale Bank Family Champions Award: a tribute to their efforts in engaging with one particular part of the fan base. And what they’ve demonstrated has positive implications for the wider supporter community and for growth of the Scottish game overall.

The Family Champions scheme was introduced in 2009 to support clubs’ efforts to attract and retain the next generation of supporters. It aimed to reward progress, identify and share best practice, but in a different way: by getting real families, whose kids were keen to attend their first football match, to tell the story of their match day experiences, to give a ‘snapshot’ of the ‘new family’ experience and, as any real customer would, to give an indication as to whether or not they’d willingly come back and / or recommend the experiences to friends and family.

The point of this was clear: by giving clubs a different perspective on their match day experience, not only would they get some easy ‘quick wins’ but they would also be encouraged to think differently about their wider challenges.

Pre-2009 you could be forgiven for thinking that clubs viewed their product as simply what happened on the pitch and their ‘customer’ as the long-term core fan. For example, how else would you explain the lack of information on club websites (back then) for people thinking of coming to their first game? How else would you explain the fact that when most families enquired about attending their first game they were invariably asked ‘where would you like to sit?’ (as if they had some telepathic ability to Google Map the stadium and decide on the most family friendly section of a stadium they’d never visited before).

Taking the supporter perspective helps clubs (and the wider football world) to make clearer judgments on what it is that matters to people. Take the example of Doncaster Rovers in the English Football League. Having been relegated last season (to League One) and promoted back to the Championship this season, you would think that the one factor influencing sentiment around the club would be the way the team has played. But that’s not what the results of continuous fan dialogue and surveys have shown. The football’s not the most important factor. It is, remarkably, the only ‘on-pitch’ factor in the most influential five.  Having this level of insight into what drives supporter sentiment is vital when considering how best to make fans feel valued, attract new families and increase revenues.

In fact, if a club (and by definition, the wider game) demonstrates that it understands the fan’s deeper motivations for following (what it means to them) and for coming to games (what they’re looking for from their match day experiences) then by learning from best practice companies in other industries, they can work on ensuring each and every ‘touch point’ serves to remind them that they’re understood, appreciated, cared for and valued.

Interestingly, and to my knowledge, football has only been asking the question ‘how valued do you feel as a supporter’ in the last 12 months. Strange, when the result of this question is to give you advance notice on whether your club is growing or shrinking (and in Doncaster Rovers’ experience this season it’s been a reliable indicator of increased match day revenues).

But this is what the Clydesdale Bank Family Champions scheme set out to do: to get the clubs thinking differently and to drive engagement across the wider fan base.

The first 4 years of the scheme have seen Scottish clubs moving on to further phases of family engagement. Firstly, there was recognition that the status quo was unsustainable (in effect, believing that because a stadium is safe, families will come back and become advocates of the club). We started to see efforts to make the experience meet the self-evident needs of families: firstly, pricing that made it possible for family groups to attend.

Realistically, is it fair to resist ‘family ticket deals’ because you fear your season ticket holders will feel the valued of their tickets being eroded? More likely they’re just using that as an expression of the sense of disenchantment with the way they’re treated by their clubs.

We have started to see ‘family zones’ appearing, albeit initially not restricted to families (which completely defeats the object, as it only takes one outbreak of spiteful language, from someone who should be in another part of the stadium, to stop a family from ever coming back). Take Cardiff City’s example: from 450 family season ticket holders to 7,250 in 4 years: not achieved by simply creating a ‘concession’ stand with cheap tickets.

We have started to see more active mascots, family food deals, pre-match and HT entertainment with more innovation, etc, and kids’ sections in match day programmes.

But this was only phase one: perhaps with the outcome of ensuring existing families come back, but with no guarantee of growth. Enter phase two: true engagement.

This is an output of a deeper understanding of what matters to people: not just to families, but, by implication, to the wider supporter base. One family told me that when they’re thinking of taking their kids to their first game, one of their principal concerns is to be able to manage their kids’ expectations of food. After all, you might get a 0-0 bore draw, but at least the kids know they’re going to get something nice to eat. But by not promoting what’s available on the website, clubs miss an opportunity to declare themselves family-focused.

St Johnstone, St Mirren and Inverness Caley Thistle are among the first clubs not just in Scotland, but also in the whole of the UK, to pick up on this point and make a subtle but effective step forward. Like for St Mirren (twice SPL Family Champions), the development of more family-and new-fan friendly websites was a key first step along the road to engagement.

But what else represents true family engagement?  Let’s examine some of the key family touch points and see what the opportunities are.

Many SPL clubs allow people to pay cash on the turnstile, but this means that for families attending their first game, there’s no chance of a souvenir ‘first ticket’ – that badge of honour you’ll be no doubt instagramming 30/40 years down the road – so while we’re not advocating wholesale match day process changes, there are certainly opportunities to help fans ‘celebrate’ the occasion (photos, certificate, etc) and they contribute to memorable first impressions. Also, having family testimonials on the website, or even an introductory video, will also work well.

Not every Scottish club benefits from wider open spaces around their stadia, so while Clubs want fans to come down to matches well ahead of kick off time, it’s not always possible. However, where there are information points, meeting points for news fans, mascot presence outside the ground, meeters and greeters, surprise ‘upgrades’ / random acts of kindness, freebies for early arrivals, programme innovation (extended middle sections that pull out to reveal huge player posters and / or 3D programmes – first appearing at Millwall FC in 2012) and activities for kids to do, the likelihood of keeping families and ensuring they’re happy to spend more at your stadium, is significantly improved.

‘Identity’ is a key factor when it comes to true engagement. Activities or experiences that reinforce the identity of the club are always likely to create affection and advocacy. In the areas of retail and refreshments, SPL clubs are starting to demonstrate some talent in this area, from Ross County’s Haggis, Neeps & Tatties pie to Dundee United’s unforgettable ‘Santa is an Arab’ Christmas hat – these are all things that don’t just encourage a liking for football, but for YOUR specific club.

Inside the stadium, St Johnstone carefully regulates entry to their family zone (as others are increasingly doing) creating a safe, friendly and yet loud and affecting atmosphere. Their hard-working mascot Super Saint gets involved with the Captain / Young Mascot photo at every game; devotes time to individual families and works the young audience fantastically well. He even has his own section on the Perth club’s official website.

St Mirren was the first SPL club to consider each of the key family touch points and apply some different thinking (again recognised by their commendation this year). Their Panda Club extends the match day in a way that doesn’t just entertain, but trains, encourages and engages the kids that take part. The Match Day becomes more than the 90 minutes – the draw on families stronger.

Elsewhere, Hibernian and Dundee United have both picked up commendations for the pace of family engagement over the past 12 months: from the fantastic refreshments experience and great ‘off the pitch’ entertainment at Tannadice, to the friendly, engaging impression considered at every important touch point on your way to and at Easter Road

For next season, we’re keen to see what families make of the Partick Thistle experience – a club with a good history of engaging younger supporters and Celtic’s new Family Zone is already creating a lot of positive speculation, with their recent Family Open Day drawing massive interest.

It’s clear that there’s still work to be done, but the improvement and the increasing pace of change augurs well for not only increasing family attendance across the SPL, but also for encouraging Clubs to apply the lessons learned to the wider fan base: getting a better understanding of what the club means to them and what matters most and then having the confidence to engage with EVERY fan group to use dialogue as a tool to increase sentiment, support and advocacy.

This season has, understandably been characterised by Rangers’ absence and the debate over reconstruction, but quietly, behind the scenes, some significant steps forward have been made and the pace of change is increasing. 

Clubs are finding that by getting into the heads of new families, their hearts come a lot quicker. It's a philosophy that's capable of being translated across many different fan groups and it represents a positive step for Scottish football.

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