12 Lessons for College Athletics at PACNet18: Simplicity, Superfans, and Sorting Through Strategy

Think back to your days at college. When weekends meant parties that started at 10 and trips to football games and basketball games with friends. Maybe you snuck in a little booze to pregame. You recognized so many faces there, and nothing beat the feeling of the place going nuts, cheering or chanting in unison as the music or marching band blares.

But then you graduate and get a job. And the allure, and ease, isn’t there anymore. Colleges are seeking to keep the students coming back as alumni and, nowadays, to keep students coming at all. Revenue isn’t as easy as it once was for college athletics departments all around the country, but there is no shortage of ideas and solutions.

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These were among the themes at the annual Paciolan Conference 2018, where thought leaders in college athletics, venues, live events, and digital and tech came together for a few days of learning and mingling. It is put on each year in Newport Beach by the eponymous Paciolan Ticketing company, owned by Learfield. Here are 12 lessons I gleaned from the conference:

Text is tantalizing – 98% open rate, keeping fans within text

It’s the most direct, and intimate, way to reach fans of any age, and it has been for years now — the text message. With the dominance of mobile, and the growth of messaging, those not in WhatsApp, Messenger, Snapchat, and, and even those in the messaging apps, are still texting. Even your mom and your grandma can text, and the 98% open rate on texts means texts are seen.

There are ticket sales and service happening via text message, and presales, event day alerts, and plenty of ‘dark social’ mentioning your game, team, or event. And the goal is to go from a text message to mobile web and signing in and registering pay info and…we want fewer clicks, so whether it’s a text or elsewhere, the goal is frictionless flow.

Keeping fans in the platform, wherever that is. More versatile technologies

Whether it happens on Facebook, your website, your own app, or somewhere else, keeping fans in that comfortable, consistent environment is increasingly important. Fans don’t want to feel like they’re coming in your place and then bouncing between other partner sites, apps, or even visual identities. Native solutions are the name of the day, and what was once a sea of apps is now a river of solutions evolving to exist and execute in a single app or environment. And whether it was technologies for ticket sales, group sales, upgrades, parking, engagement, payment, and more, it was more about how it could align with what you’re already doing and operating on. API and SDK and dynamic are thrown around more and more, and it’s better for fans. But even the best ticket and engagement flows can’t save a sub-par game day experience.

The power of traditions and creating new traditions

College athletics is notorious, in a good way, for its traditions. Traditions that are passed on from generation to generation, lending a sense of comfort and nationality to alumni of the school. The pageantry they bring to games is a powerful, unmatched tool. But that doesn’t mean new traditions can’t come along.

This salient statement came from a great keynote by Jack Swarbrick, Athletic Director for a little school known as Notre Dame. They have a ton of fabulous history and tradition at Notre Dame. But even Swarbrick knows generations evolve and, with them, new traditions can emerge, too. And tradition is properly rated as a tremendous way to drive emotional investment and a reason to come out to a game. This led to another insight from Swarbrick on the promise, but misrepresentation, of tech to help hold up and bring back attendance at games.

Game day experience has to be ‘fundamentally different’ from at-home – community, interaction; not just tech

It’s well-established that technology solutions like WiFi can be an integral and valuable addition to a venue and to fan experience. But it can’t be the only thing. You can have drones delivering beer to your seat that you ordered via your phone while streaming another game and getting your fantasy alerts while plugged in, charging, but even then you’re still short of the La-Z-Boy at home. Swarbrick used the words “fundamentally different’ to describe how the live attendance experience must vary with the stay-at-home option.

What does that mean? That’s for schools to fill in the blank — an experience that simply can’t be matched at home, an experience that inspires the feeling of togetherness, of being surrounded by thousands of others living it with you. And, yes, being the center of attention for thousands for just a fleeting, lifelong story moment, when you can make a cameo on the video board. What can you deliver that makes it so fundamentally different that not attending feels like a lesser option?

No dead time at games

There are going to be timeouts and media timeouts and intermissions at games and events. But this is the generation of mobile — where there is something stimulating literally every waking minute. So to have times when there is nothing but background noise or ad reads or static logos or commercials on the screens – it’s unthinkable and unacceptable to fans these days. Marketers have acknowledged that and have sought to rectify it — with DJ’s and music, constant contests and cams and content, and on-site and mobile engagements and activations that make the game just a fraction of the full fan experience. Fill any dead time or down time, time when fans could possibly think for a second if there is something better they could be doing at the time. This is constantly on the mind of college athletics folks, I learned.

Omni-channel engagement for millennials – and recognizing activity on each

We’re long past the realization that fans are engaging in many places. But we’ve moved on to more – to what fans are doing and want to be doing in those places and on those platforms. It was interesting to hear the marketers there how they approached each platform, knowing the different intent and best uses of each, aligning it with how fans or students used it. Emails got lots of opens, but didn’t get a lot of clicks for one school, so they focused on visuals to disseminate info. Instagram and Snapchat were also visually driven, but more creatively consistent with the platform. And Facebook and search ads drove clicks and conversions, with messaging and creative structured differently.

It’s important to know the behavior of fans on each touch point,and to define goals, success, and ‘conversions’ on each. Then the strategy and creative can be adapted appropriately. It’s not one-size-fits-all, and it never will be.

Let student athletes be at the forefront of donation efforts

Donations remain a vital part of a healthy college athletics institution. But boosting and giving can’t just live on the egos of rich grads, the mandates for season ticket holders, and the endowments of namesakes. Storytelling is at the forefront more than ever, and when fans know the student athletes they’re supporting, the fiscal and emotional investment is so much stronger. It’s why external relations teams are working more and more with content teams, and why the stories of student athletes are being told in higher volume and with beautiful creativity and skill are being told more than ever. Sure, fans will give to an institution, but it’s more powerful when fans are giving for the sake of other people at that institution.

Scale successes – from Olympic sports to revenue sports and vice-versa, especially for giveaways

There smaller, less ‘mainstream’ sports, where getting triple digits of attendance is a big win. But while college athletics marketers understandably spend more time and resources on the big revenue sports, it doesn’t mean they don’t toil and stress over how to increase support for every other sport on campus, too. And it’s often these smaller sports where they’re able to, and have to, get more experimental and creative.

They can be a testing ground where a good idea that can increase attendance by a few dozen at an Olympic sport may drive a thousand or more increase at a bigger sport. Whether it’s giveaways, themed events, on-site activities, ticket deals, music, contests, or any number of creative ideas — scale the successes to other sports, to derivations of ideas that work that can engage even more fans. Because especially younger fans, alumni, and students are a challenging but coveted group…

Efforts to Win Over Young Alumni

The most successful in this challenging but important endeavor are getting them started early, and making it easy. There were several tactics mentioned throughout the days there that helped increase the likelihood that students who attend games and support their school and teams would continue to do so after graduation.

One of the key principles seems to be to get them started early. Make sure they know how life as an alumnus doesn’t have to mean life without going to games. There are young alumni ticket plans that help gradually increase to life as a full-fledged, full-paying/donating season ticket holder. It was important to make students aware of the great options, and to have physical presence at some tent pole events, especially those leading up to graduation. Mississippi State had a clever tactic, too, with having points from their student loyalty program roll over to an alumni/donor program, essentially creating that use-it-or-lose-it feeling for their recent grads.

The messaging around donation for young alums was also a topic of advanced discussion. Treating recent grads, who may or may not have jobs and may or may not have oodles of student loans to pay off, the same as others decades from getting their diploma, is foolhardy and borderline irresponsible. Being vague about giving ‘what you can’ was similarly put down as a less-than-ideal way to craft the message.

My thought is a good move, therefore, is to make specific ask or offer an instant incentive. Just like getting fans to a game, it is so important to get ’em started early. It’s better to ask for a matched $18 donation to celebrate the class of 2018 than to be vague or present packages in the hundreds or thousands. I like the idea of Clemson’s IPTAY – I Pay Ten A Year ($10/year). It’s better to have 90% contributing a small amount than 9% contributing large amounts. But it’s not just the donor database marketers are interested in growing.

Capturing the anonymous fan

This is a consistent concern across all sports, live events, and venues – anyone that sells a ticket for admission. There are so many fans coming to games and events – with friends, with a free ticket, with a secondary market-purchased ticket – and these fans remain mostly anonymous to marketers, disconnected numbers in a database. There was silence, at first, when this question was posed for a panel, followed by a handful of tactics that all had varying degrees of success.

There is the good old-fashioned,but still mildly effective, enter-to-win sweepstakes; and they’re getting more digital, mobile, and even social and engaging. Gated WiFi, where fans enter an email address and perhaps other info, in order to access WiFi. This is often a good way to collect names and emails, but is not always welcome by fans and prone to throwaway email addresses used only for such convenient purposes.

A third tactic, seen even more so in the pros, are on-site activations with tech and/or partners that allow fans to create memorable, shareable mementos that they can then post to social media or have emailed or texted to themselves. Fans get something cool to share from the event, and marketers get the personal info from fans they want and need to get more and more those heretofore anonymous fans identified into their database.

Digital fan journeys – and optimizing everything

We’re long since past the understanding that fans don’t experience or act in a silo. They are coming into contact with the team and brand a number of ways on a number of different platforms. And the better we imagine and understand the mind of the fan, the context of the activity, and the path of these journeys, the better the results.

In action, this translated into putting ticket buying messages in places where fans’ intent to buy was likely stronger [i.e. Schedule pages] rather than making them jump through hoops and hurdles to get there. Along with context comes customization, too, with messaging and creative that reflect a real-time understanding of information and data. Some of the examples seen at the conference show we’re closer to the right offer and right message at the right place and time than ever before.

Target fans at a granular level, engagement > reach

We’re always trying to get bigger, to reach more, to add more rows to the database. But it can’t be at the expense of not fully engaging and maximizing the fans that are already emotionally bought in. It also means being more strategic with fan engagement strategies, and actually planning and executing different strategies for different fans for whom there are different feasible goals.

While it’s not a perfect connection, one point that stood out to me came from a representative for YouTube Sports, who specifically works with their college sports clients. The expectation is that he would have clients post more — to reach more, get more views, and increase the chances of discovery. But, quite the contrary, the advice was to actually consider posting less, to instead focus on quality content.

It’s less about reaching as many fans as possible every day, and instead favoring cultivation of communities, with fans that come back and feel a relationship with their teams and their schools. To extend the example, fan that stumbles upon a YouTube video one day indeed has some value, but the fan that comes back to visit and watch and engage again and again, well, it’s not an apples to apples numbers comparison game. Engagement is increasingly thought to be superior to reach, as we graduate to a more mature mindset for metrics.

Similarly, a marketing manager for Clemson Athletics detailed how they, among other ways, have broken their fans down into cohorts, most simplistically with ‘current’ vs. ‘potential’ fans, particularly prominent coming off a national championship in football when it was harder, but more important, to discern the bandwagon fans from those that have been, and will be, there all along. The cohorts were identified and messaging and marketing strategy was developed differently, while keeping a cohesive brand of showing what it means to be a Tiger at the center of it all.

This was my second trip to PACnet and it was encouraging to see that true progress has been made from year to year. The challenges that were on the minds of many last year have given way to solutions and ideas (and, yes, new challenges) this year. And just about all of it is evolution and change in a positive direction — more empathy and compassion for fans, more personalization, customization, and fewer tricks and less friction. We can envision the future, even as it seems like we’re in a race against time, battling a war we may lose in favor of live attendance. But it’s resulting truly great, communal, memorable, shareable experiences for fans. And if that’s a side effect of doing better business, that’s a winning recipe for all.

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