Treating Fans Like Real People: A Winning #SportsBiz Concept

A classic Seinfeld scene is when George Steinbrenner (as portrayed by Larry David) visits the Costanzas and is harangued by Frank Costanza, who exclaims “What in the Hell did you trade Jay Buhner for?!” In the modern day world of sports and social media, this kind of vocal vehemence is commonplace among fans spouting off with the intention of having their opinions heard, and valued, by the team. And, while social media is comprised by too many trolls and the irrational and immature, teams are increasingly embracing enhanced communication channels with fans. More and more recognize the value of engaging with fans, with social media playing a prime role. The weight placed on face-to-face or one-to-one interactions are also, rightly, gaining higher appreciation once again.

At the recent Q1 Sports Fan Engagement Conference (See day 1 recap and day 2 recap decks), there was a lot of discussion about the reprising usage of fan surveys. While focus groups can be contrived and analytics can help us make only educated guesses about fan intent and values, based on often nonlinear data, we’ve arrived at the revelation that, well, you can try asking them! San Diego Padres CMO Wayne Partello discussed how he gets valuable feedback and ideas from surveys and brainstorming sessions with fans and season ticket holders. Other executives in attendance talked about how feedback from surveys, directly from fans, have played a prominent role in influencing organizational decisions related to the fan experience. By reaching out to fans, particularly at a more engaged, even 1-to-1 level, you can not only reinforce that you value fans’ input, but also get some genuine, helpful ideas, too. Those marketing newsletters, instead of not inviting replies, should explicitly encourage fans to reply with questions, ideas, and suggestions!

fansurveyq1Photo source

When the corporate giant reveals itself to be relate-able, emotionally, and human, like its fans/customers, fans can better reach a level of affinity and identification with the brand. This is why I loved when New Orleans Saints social media manager Alex Restrepo, also speaking at the Q1 Conference, talked about empathizing and the importance of understanding the “mood” of Saints fans when posting on social media. It’s ok to be upset when the team gets beat badly, it’s ok to be excited (and unabashedly biased) after a thrilling win, and it’s normal to be exasperated after a close match concludes. The more you can blur that line between brand and friend, and connect on a deeper level, the stronger the unconditional affinity developed between fan and team.

I loved how Atlanta Hawks Director of Interactive Marketing Micah Hart stated their social media mindset, when I spoke with him recently. “My pitch from the beginning was to be the voice of the (Hawks) fan,” said Hart, whose team has been lauded this year for success on and off the court. “It’s not authentic to try and make everything like it’s always 100% and everything is golden.” Thoughtfulness and authenticity as social media guiding principles can go a long way.

So stop talking about the need to make emotional connections with fans, while still posting in a voice seeking to be some omniscient, stoic entity. The path to a fan’s heart is by showing the team has a heart, too.

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