Marketing at Speed in Professional Sport

We’ve recently, as in the last six months recently, completed our first ever pair of ‘Enterprise Software’ partnerships. Like London buses, you wait ten years for one then suddenly two come along at once .. etc. etc.

One partnership is with Adobe Campaign, a Marketing Automation solution, and another with Tibco for their Business Works  Enterprise Application Service and Messaging product. Both are envisaged over the same sort of term – three years or more, and both are at the heart of a new effort to provide ‘Enterprise Class’ sales and marketing services to our clients. Together these represent a combination of solutions to handle both data integration and end-to-end processes for ‘Marketing at Speed’ in Professional Sport.

Tibco helps connect the dots and provide ‘real time’ data.

Adobe Campaign provides an automation layer for marketing communications that are personalised, timely (thanks, Tibco) and relevant.

Use cases focus on two areas – ‘Bricks’ – for in stadium / on location, and then ‘Clicks’ for ‘the internet’.

For ‘bricks’, we need to know when a supporter is ‘present’, and be able to identify who they are at the same time. In the ‘real world’ this relies on Access control for perimeter access notification and then ‘loyalty’ schemes for EPOS / Till systems linked to a membership card.

For ‘clicks’ we’d like to know when a customer signs in or downloads an app and links this to their membership. In principle an app can also access GPS for physical location, or go further in-store for NFC or iBeacon level of location information.

From them on Tibco helps applications exchange information in real-time, and Adobe furnishes these applications with the right marketing content that is relevant to the individual supporter and the ‘context’ – including the club’s offer or promotion catalogue.

Behind both is the Sports Alliance ‘data model’ that powers both the identification of the supporter and their history with the Club.

Its been ten years in the waiting so its worth explaining the background to this. We’re a funny kind of company working in a funny kind of market.

First, the market. Its fragmented, disjointed and, some of the times, possibly schizophrenic… and underlying this limited in terms of resource and expertise required to tame software and data for ‘enterprise class’ marketing.

To the average observer or ‘supporter’ – the generic term for customer in the industry – a Professional Sports Club looks shiny and big from the outside, with extensive media exposure, a smattering of celebrity and a generous and tangible physical asset with a rectangle of grass sitting in the middle. Commercially, however, they tend to be both extremely fragmented and yet also extremely limited in capabilities in many areas.

The direction and flow of money through the business is public knowledge, the majority inflow coming from higher-level media or sponsorship deals intermediated by leagues or other bodies exclusively designed to market and sell these rights, and flowing down and out directly almost straight through to the players, and their agents, who provide the product.  The infrastructure and organisation remaining inevitably has to focus on what it takes to underpin the ‘main event’ – the matchday – and the other ongoing customer-focussed businesses such as retail, hospitality, or community struggle for attention and resources from what is left over.

The marketing side of the business is primarily all about retention, structured around subscription or membership products (season tickets), and focussed on monetising the big concrete and steel asset with grass in the middle 2 or 3 times a month. In these terms, even the ‘biggest’ brands are local or regional at best in terms of the customer base who will come to the venue and experience the product and pay for it on a regular basis.

Secondly, then, back to us. Sports Alliance has been defined by the clear tension between these realities or limitations on one side and the expectations and ambitions on the other, spread and shared across many individual clients. As a guide to our client network, we have over 50 individual clients. In terms of size, the best proxy is unique customers or supporters under management. Our largest clients will have more than a million, the smallest down to a few tens of thousands. Pooled together we have nearly 15mm customers under management from the UK and mainland Europe. And yet both these ends of the scale, largest and smallest, are in the same business, with the same supporter needs or expectations, and the same ‘customer experience’ to try and deliver.

Sports Alliance as a company has been formed and evolved around these twin realities – part technology, part services, providing an extremely broad set of functions and applications from ‘back end’ systems integration and marketing data warehousing, to ‘front end’ multiple line of business sales and marketing applications or solutions, and then a further layer of services on top for clients that also want them. Within all of this is a focus on a data model that makes sense and can be replicated and evolved within and between clients.

For the ‘back end’ technologies, until now we’ve been firmly in the ‘build your own’ camp, based primarily on Microsoft technologies – SQL Server in the middle, with some C# /.NET and web tech from ASP to MVC and WCF SOAP/XML. ‘Front-end’ is more hybrid, split between ‘lower level’ partnering and some more of the ‘build your own’. Where the market has evolved in terms of SaaS providers we’ve partnered or integrated with the obvious leaders, for CRM this means Dynamics or Salesforce, and for ESP a broader set of suppliers, and for BI Tableau. In any of these, we find ourselves primarily concentrating on data schema and configuration required for replicated a data model and then letting the standard application functionality work around this. In some areas, for example Marketing Campaign Management and Loyalty, we’ve carried on and built ‘Front-end’ completed solutions, mainly down to the fact that 3rd party products in these areas were either too expensive or not fully fit for purpose.

We’ve watched as in recent years occasionally one or two of the larger clubs in our universe have taken a direct sales route to ‘enterprise’ software and solutions, often as part of a sponsorship package, and we believe it would be fair to say that the success rate or return on investment where this has happened would be marginal or arguable at best. The skills and resources required not only to implement but then maintain and evolve these solutions are often underestimated.

Anyway, enough about us or ‘me’. It takes two to tango, or to do a deal, and ‘Enterprise Software’ vendors had, in our niche, remained resolutely ‘Enterprise’ in approach to this. As noted above, where there was the possibility of a ‘big catch’ with a traditional, direct capital expenditure model, the software sales team would carry on in this vein if there was any possibility of a good old fashioned commission on sale. Build it, market it, get one or two ‘reference’ big fishes, and surely they will come.

Sports Alliance, even in pooling together networked resources, has financially been unable or unwilling to go for anything resembling a traditional ‘Enterprise’ solution licence independently. Pooled together as 15mm customers we look even more suspiciously like an ‘Enterprise’ and any traditional licence would in itself be many times the multiple of our total company turnover.

So, what’s changed? Essentially, it looks like we’ve met in the middle.

First, the Enterprise software approach has, at least in our case, shifted towards a more accessible quarterly subscription model, billed in arrears, and one layered to allow for a ‘slow start’ with clear tiers going up as business or usage increases or grows. And that was probably the most significant and necessary component. I spent a number of months with another Enterprise Application vendor who offer a subscription model, but billed only it turned out yearly in advance. Its hard to fund that in our business. Why has his changed? Overall, I believe this is a realisation that the ‘Enterprise’ market model simply doesn’t work outside in the world of SME/SMBs, and some money for software that has very little other cost of sale is simply better than none.

Secondly, Sports Alliance has to recognise that we can’t continue to spread ourselves so thinly and improve on what we do for our clients significantly. We’d continue, as one client said to me recently, to be ‘stuck in third gear’ (a metaphor that will rapidly become meaningless with self-driving cars. I presume he meant a 5 speed car gearbox as well, and not a 10 speed rear cassette on a bicycle).

The use-cases we’re looking at focus on ensuring that the ‘full’ customer profile and history this represents is visible in two massively important areas – when the customer is on site, and at the other end on the internet. Remember, we’re fortunate to work in an industry where the nature of the customer affiliation is such that the more we can show we know about them, the better. Other brands might look spooky or raise concerns of privacy when showing knowledge over a customer relationship that can span decades of sales history, and involve close personal and family relationships across generations.

For on-site, this revolves around the ‘real-time’ physical presence of the customer at the stadium or venue, and ensuring that the customer experience is as delightful as it could possibly be. ‘Real-time’ is difficult to achieve in an industry that is heavily siloed or disparate in systems and applications, and where integration tends to be batch based. We need to identify the location of the customer onsite either by access or entry to the perimeter or at a point of sale via a loyalty scheme or programme identifier.

For the internet, there is also the additional hurdle of identification in an application in a market where many Clubs do not control their own rights or properties and where Ecommerce partners will have separate, standalone applications for sales. Single Sign On, and the opportunity to treat a customer consistently across different applications or touch points, is still very much a work in progress.

So, once identified and we know where they are – in stadium/shop or in an application – its over the marketing department and the campaign or offer catalogue

  1. Personalised in-store loyalty promotion
  2. In application games ‘points boost’ for behaviour
  3. Prompt to redeem loyalty points in newly opened hospitality area exclusively for Season Ticket Holders
  4. Special event local to supporter’s on following weekend for Soccer Schools participants from previous year who have had a birthday party at Club
  5. And so on…

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