Defining Fan Engagement

Thursday 11th July 2013 at 5:19PM

For someone associated with promoting fan engagement, it can only be good news that the phrase has become such a buzzword in British sport. However, having said that, I’m still working on a clear definition of what it is, so its recent prevalence may (whisper this quietly) be more a case of bandwagon-jumping than the dawning of a new age of enlightenment.

My definition of fan engagement is simple. It’s the process by which supporter value is created and delivered.

However, if you’re looking to optimise the concept at your own club (perhaps as a recently appointed Supporter Liaison Officer, for example), it’s worth looking at the component parts, beginning with supporter / fan value. Naturally, these are those things (experiences, services, interactions, products, behaviours, etc) that make fans feel valued and appreciated. In effect, it’s the process by which their deep love for the club is reciprocated and, when it’s delivered consistently, it increases a supporter’s emotional loyalty to his or her club.

Emotional loyalty? I told you this wouldn’t be simple. This is the sort of allegiance that traditional brands dream of and which, sadly, sport sometimes disregards when contemplating how to grow its audiences.  In the context of traditional brands, this is the result of the consistent delivery of high value customer experiences.

Cooperative Energy, with whom I’ve worked recently, understands this. Not only does the appearance of the word ‘Coop’ suggest inherently positive values to us but at key touch points within the customer experience, where it matters most, interactions are designed to remind us that we’re with a really special supplier. For example, new customers subscribing online receive a warm welcome by telephone – NOT a sales call.

Outside of the Coop movement and the music industry, there’s no other ‘experience’ that engenders such emotional commitment as sport. But unfortunately, our clubs often fail to grasp the power of that emotional commitment and end up selling a commodity, rather than an all-enveloping experience. I call it a ‘reverse Starbucks’. The globally dominant coffee purveyor takes a basic commodity and presents it as a groovy lifestyle experience with connotations of fair trade, healthy living and philanthropy (cue comments relating to tax affairs – Ed). Football, on the other hand, takes one of the most magical connections known to man but sadly often presents it as a ticket to be sold.

By doing this not only do you not create emotional loyalty, but you also begin to erode the supporter’s existing love for the club, converting regular attendees into TV watchers and advocates into ‘message board’ detractors.

However when supporters encounter value, emotional loyalty grows.  Fan engagement is the process by which we do this and we begin with some consultation, but with a focus on the origins of the commitment the supporter has to the club. If we can draw out the various strands of that relationship, we can begin to understand, from the supporters’ perspective, the DNA of the Club: what it means, what it stands for, how it should be expected to behave at any given situation, what its values might be if they were to be articulated, etc. In effect we’re talking about brand, and while that might sound like a dirty word for those diehards among us, clubs like Seattle Sounders and Borussia Dortmund – known for their supporter-focused cultures - filter all of their decisions through the prism of a detailed understanding of their DNA.

That is not to say that everyone has the same relationship with his or her club. That’s self evidently not the case, but by engaging at the highest level of meaning with different supporter groups, it’s possible to draw out something which is unique to your own particular club. It’s true that our love for the sport itself, in the case of football, is often articulated as ‘family, life, everything’, but when it comes to individual clubs, certain unique characteristics emerge, such as the self-deprecating ‘we don’t take ourselves too seriously’ mantra through which Doncaster Rovers is currently filtering its key decisions (in partnership with its Supporters Trust, naturally).

Working through all of the touch points that matter to the different supporter groups will help you determine where supporter value is being created or eroded. Not only will this process uncover lots of quick wins, but the process of seeing things through the customer’s eyes will also create the confidence to start thinking differently about the ‘way we do things’ as a football club. For example, is monthly membership (paid by Direct Debit on an opt-out basis) a better alternative to the season ticket? Some believe the latter may have become an unhelpful anachronism: draining resources once a year and forcing us to re-engage with our customer base every 12 months rather than making it easy for them to stay?

Many of my other blogs have shared instances of how individual touch points can be re-configured to provide supporter value. For new families, the ‘first time fan?’ page on the website can be critical to building advocacy. I worry about managing my kids’ expectations of food if there’s nothing on the website and may eat beforehand. Give me the info I need and I’ll happily look forward to buying your products. Equally, for fans eager to have a stress free pint at half time, the creation of tokens that can be bought pre-match and exchanged for a pint quickly at half time, generates a lot of value.

Measuring this value brings into play the universally accepted Net Promoter Score, but here some caution is required. Let me explain. Net Promoter (see for more) asks ‘how strongly would you recommend us, based on recent experiences?’ and companies simply subtract the % of customers who are indifferent to you from the % who strongly advocate you, leaving a figure which indicates the present level of (fan) engagement. If, over time, it moves up, it’s predicting growth for the organisation. Downwards = shrinkage.

In the context of football though, asking the ‘recommendation’ question presents some problems, especially for core fans, because they will find it difficult to separate their individual experiences from their deeper love for the club. As a minimum this means their responses are likely to be softened and the ratings artificially high.  In such cases, I’d recommend asking them ‘how valued do you feel?’ as this has the effect of removing the love from the equation and prompting an objective review of individual transactions.

For those capable of objectivity (new families, visiting fans, guests of hospitality purchasers, etc) the ‘recommendation’ question is likely to be sufficient. But having said that, I’d want to ask everyone the ‘value’ question, as regardless of the supporter type, it’s going to be helpful in pinpointing those areas that are letting you down.

So maybe there are several definitions of fan engagement: one for the strategic side and one for the app that lets you order a Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich at a Phillies game and have it brought to your seat. I haven’t set out to belittle the creators of the latter, but simply to offer up a definition – supported by some key principles – that everyone in sport, from pro to grass roots and everything in between, can derive some benefit from.  Or, perhaps better said, some value.


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