Sports clubs need to invest for the long term in their digital stadium: Here’s how to kick start your digital transformation
For too long the main logic behind investing in your digital setup has been “because all our competitors are doing it” (and that is both in and outside the industry), but in this article we will dig a bit deeper and explain some of the underlying reasons on why modern sports clubs simply have no other choice if they want to stay relevant with their audience in the coming years and generate future digital revenue.
It is no longer just the big clubs who are fighting against notable brands in other industries. All clubs should today consider the likes of Netflix, YouTube, media websites and social media as competitors as they are all fighting for their fans’s attention. A fight that takes on a more sophisticated way than ever before, where relevancy is key and a strong digital strategy the foundation for success.
The digital landscape around sports clubs has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. Since the creation of their first official websites, many clubs have worked as media companies and gained a dominant role in the media landscape themselves, but while they may have had the advantage of exclusive access and build stronger connections with their fans, they are now facing an increased fight for the attention of their fans than ever before. An attention that cannot be served by just creating another amazing social media video.
It is no longer enough to have a website, have a few segmented newsletter lists and be present on the major social platforms if you want to stay relevant for both fans, customers and sponsors. You need to have a solid digital strategy that goes beyond your platforms and encapsulate your whole organization.
You simply cannot rely on doing what you have been doing the last 5 years or rely on other platforms as they will simply leave you behind and take their more digital mature friends with them: In sports the need for digital transformation is now.
Building your first-party data will be key
Up until now marketers have mainly used third-party data to create segmentation on websites and other digital platforms. Third-party data is often aggregated data of behavioral or search patterns collected from external marketing tech that suggest that the visitor has certain interests or in the market for a specific product. This is about to change and is where you as a club has great potential or a massive risk
The time is up for third party data as we know it. It will be more and more difficult to recognize your users and certainly through external technologies. With focus on privacy, browsers like Safari and Firefox are already on the forefront of entering a world, where all browsing in the future can be compared to browsing in forced “incognito mode”. Google is next up and intends to phase out third-party cookies by default before 2022.
This means that it will be more difficult to track and recognize the same user between platforms, devices and over time. You may see how your number of unique visitors in e.g. Google Analytics is increasingly higher than before. At the same time, knowing your users and their preferences will be key for all digital initiatives in the future, especially when dealing with the media market such as your sponsors. If you want to stay ahead of the market and know your audience, you need to collect, use and enrich your own first party data to create personalized experiences, comply with privacy legislations and get insights about your audience.
As a sports club you have tons of opportunities to collect first-party data. Sources like browsing behaviour on your websites or app, transaction data from your CRM, loyalty programmes and information about your audience’s future preferences from surveys or online activations can all help you in building your own knowledge of your fans. You can then turn to third-party data to enrich the profiles with more general consumer insights and traits.
You want to respect and reward loyalty Being a fan is all about identification and loyalty, but often you see clubs talking to their season ticket holders in the same manner no matter if they have just signed up or have just renewed for the 20th consecutive season. Existing season ticket holders still receive messages through banners etc. on club platforms despite having just renewed their season ticket.
To fix that you have to have the right marketing technology tools and your data in order throughout your organization. Recently we have seen how important loyalty programs can be during the re-opening after COVID-19 with clubs inviting the most loyal season ticket holders in for the first few games with limited capacity.
Have your permissions and consents in order
The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) intensified the focus on privacy and all media companies will need to adhere an increased pressure both from consumers and authorities to handle, protect and respect permissions and consents given (or not given). With the growing number of possibilities this area becomes more and more complex and important for every new channel or offering you provide. No matter the size of your club. Lately the authorities around the world have tightened the rules concerning marketing/cookie consents from Europa and California to Brazil and Denmark it has to be just as easy to say “no” as “yes” in the typical consent popups we all know too well. It also means that implied consent by just moving forward is no longer accepted.
Improve the customer journey by strategically work with your touch points
Customer journeys in sports are even more complex than traditional ones as they can be conducted from life, season and match day point of view. The questions need answers are plenty and the answers defines future outcomes; Does your organization understand the complexity of customer journeys in sports and can you replicate it in your digital setup?
Have you mapped your customer journey on e.g. a matchday? Have you identified the numerous touch points, where you are able to make a difference or collect data that can be used by the different departments to improve a more coherent experience?
Your future sponsor business may rely on it
A more consolidated and enriched view of your fans will allow you to speak to sponsors in a more decisive and intelligent way. Through your enriched first party data you are no longer guessing, but can actually tell which segments of your fans are most likely to show up for a match, which sections of the stadium are mostly in the market for a Mercedes or what demographic traits have your audience in a certain part of the country for your regional partnerships. This is what sponsors expect you to know and they certainly would rather talk about CTR and conversions rather than the number of trophies won the last few years. So it is crucial that your current digital setup is build for this.
Understand your business better
What happens if you spend resources on a campaign to get your spectators to arrive 5 minutes before their usual arrival time? How does it affect the turnstiles, do the fans buy an extra beer at the ground, does the players experience the extra support during the warm-up or did you see any negative effects such as decreased customer satisfaction or less revenue in the Fanshop because did fans not making it down to the Fanshop before as they were rushing for the entrance?
This is just a small number of reasons why I find a proper digital setup vital for acting and engaging in the modern media landscape as a club.
It is important to stress that there is no quick fix for this or one-size-fits all. It is a long process for organizations, but just as you would invest in your physical stadium, you should also invest in your digital stadium which often outnumbers the physical one in terms of visitors.
All of this obviously comes with a cost, but the possibilities for creating ROI can be found in the value of:
• Delivering and targeting relevant content and campaigns to the relevant people.
• Driving new partnerships and products through your own knowledge and data.
• Creating a more efficient organization.
• Reducing your risk of losing attention or knowledge/permissions/content of your fans.
If you have not already begun your journey you may do it through these suggested steps:
1. Analyze and create the foundation for the future
This may be a long and tedious process, but a proper foundation and analysis is needed for the long term. When I joined FC Copenhagen I spent the first year cleaning up platforms and the data setup. Starting from decreasing the number of web platforms from 17 to 6 and making sure all our analytics accounts were linked and properly set up to recognize the online customer journey from visit to purchase between platforms. We then started to analyze our organization to really understand the needs and possibilities for our digital strategy in the future.
At this stage you may have to “kill your darlings” or downgrade new feature development on platforms until the foundation is ready to build new features upon based on data, but you need to take these steps to create a proper baseline for future projects.
2. Obtain data and consolidate/integrate it
Having done your analyses you can start collecting and cleaning your data. You may already have several platforms which can help you and perhaps you have already collected a lot of data. You may also be able to integrate the different data sources quite easy or you may want to visualize the data and help your team in making data driven decisions. This is all possible, but make sure that the data is valid and clean.
Once you have a proper foundation and you have started collecting data there are tons of opportunities to enrich the data for further sophistication.
By adding demographic and consumer data from a statistical vendor you may be able to build customer segments and datadriven personas of your fans to help and acting on your audience.
You can start to use and connect the different touch points to create new data and get a whole new dimension.
You may want to enrich your audience by asking questions towards opinions, lifestyle, potential sponsors and other relevant questions that will add to your knowledge about your fans.
3. Build new products and services
Based on your insights and data you are ready to build new products and services. New offerings or inventory to sponsors. More detailed descriptions of your fans with greater evidence and targeting possibilities. Another one could be building the new app on top of your digital platform making sure that the data is transferred smoothly, whilst keeping both staff and end-users by serving relevant content.
One final recommendation: Invest in your teams. Often you need new or different roles just as you have seen more specialist functions created among the backroom staff in the sports department. The media landscape has changed dramatically the last 5-10 years, but has your organization?
The road might seem long and complicated but looking toward the future for the competitive landscape of sports the need for a commercially centered digital focus has never been more important.
Casper Heiselberg is a digital strategist in sports. He comes from a background as Head of Digital for FC Copenhagen spending 3 years creating award winning projects and initiated the club’s ambitious digital transformation.
He previously worked in a similar position at the Danish Football League and has worked with organizations like WTA, IOC, VisitDenmark and Sport Event Denmark in the past.
Casper also holds a master’s degree from Copenhagen Business School and has completed the UEFA Certificate in Football Management.