The Power of the Small

Friday 5th September 2014 at 3:42PM

Non League Day is here. It’s a wonderful opportunity to showcase our local clubs and it’s a chance to provide something different and engaging for fans who ordinarily would be occupied at a Premier League or Football League stadium.

But why just expect them to come as a ‘one off’? Why shouldn’t the experience be capable of converting a new generation of supporters to the ‘power of the small’? For me, Non League Day should be a catalyst for growth and every club should be capable of increasing and then maintaining that uplift in support.

Regular readers will be familiar with my mantra about the ‘product’ being the experience and not just the 90 minutes.  If that is true (and I believe it is) then the further down the pyramid you go, the greater the opportunity to grow. 

The experience is more intimate. You can walk around the pitch to get different views of the same game. You can hear what is being said by the manager and by the players on the pitch (granted: not always a good thing) and, like we did up at Eppleton CW in Hetton-le-Hole last night, you can have a natter with lovely knowledgeable folk who will set you questions like ‘which are the only current non-league clubs who have played in the top division of English football?’ (You can check my twitter timeline on 5 Sept to see the answers @fanexperienceco).

It’s affordable too. There is often added value (one price for parking, programme and admission) and refreshments are often freshly made local favourites (I’m thinking of the importance of Ock n Dough to AFC Rushden & Diamonds & Wellingborough folk; the bacon rolls at Cambridge United and the wonderful stovies, bridies & pies we enjoy on our Scottish trips).

There is often a social club: somewhere to shelter from inclement weather or, as we once did at North Greenford United, to sneak into half way through an unimpressive second half to watch the Grand National. None of this will come as a shock to the already converted, but doesn’t this paint a perfect picture of what many fans feel is missing at higher levels of the game? It’s a powerful USP and it shouldn’t just be about achieving a peak of attendance tomorrow. It should be a springboard for a transformative uplift in advocacy, attendance and revenue.

These elements are plentiful at lower / non-league level. They’re also the cornerstones of a realistic growth plan. Our smaller clubs therefore have a fantastic opportunity, but as our experience (and research) shows, a significant number of them are missing out.

From the perspective of the supporter visiting the club for the first time, the failings can be especially fatal. My expectations are that there will be a clear website, easy to navigate with sufficient info to take the stress away from a first visit (directions, parking, costs, availaibility of food, etc) and that the club will promote what makes a match day at their ground so special. Make it easy for me to get there, but also make me feel confident that I won’t stand out like a sore thumb. Make it possible for me to feel part of things.

While there are some fantastic practitioners about (my hat is doffed to Lewes FC and their outstanding match day promotional posters), many other clubs have complex, baffling websites, often lacking key information (e.g. admission prices) but containing a detailed statistical analysis of sock colours in the early years of the 20thcentury (or something). To put it bluntly, the new fan is already having to do all of the work. These clubs may not be complacent or arrogant, but it would be understandable if a first timer felt that way about them.

Social media places effective match day promotion and fan engagement within the reach of every club, so it’s disappointing to see some clubs only ‘broadcasting’ during a match with line ups and score updates. Fair enough, a resource is needed to communicate outside of these periods, but why not prioritise the search for a volunteer who knows about these things and can improve upon the service? Our club love affairs are 24/7, so why are some clubs playing ‘difficult to get’?

Obviously many of the smaller clubs I’m referring to will be relying on volunteers already and I acknowledge that it is often difficult to attract people to help on a match day.  Having said that, it’s certainly preferable to have fewer volunteers than to present your potential future fan base with indifferent (or even hostile) individuals.   UK Charity Retail often faces that problem. We’re so pleased to have the assistance that we feel a little reluctant to try and ‘train’ or ‘manage’ our volunteers, even when their behaviours are damaging perceptions.

A friend of mine was going to go to a local non-league club for the first time last season. The game was postponed, so he arranged to attend the re-arranged fixture.  As the repeat fixture was scheduled for midweek, the club decided to make entry free for all. Nice touch. Quite right. However, when my friend arrived, the attitude of the volunteers bordered on the insulting. When he asked for help, they ignored him. It was clear they thought he was a free loader; just turning up because he wouldn’t have to put his hand in his pocket. Let’s look for volunteers who epitomise the spirit of the Club. Let’s examine the skill set required. Let’s not just bite the hand of the first to turn up.

One clear USP (unique selling point) for non-league clubs is the social club. Not only is the social club often the epitome of what makes a match at a smaller community club much more enjoyable than the experience at a higher level (i.e. it would be called ‘corporate hospitality’ & would cost an arm and a leg), but it’s also incredibly attractive.

It provides a haven in bad weather, keeps people occupied (pool, TV, drinks and snacks, etc) and also allows you to meet people & make new friends. We all accept that the experience extends beyond the 90 minutes of the match and the social club, for the majority of clubs, is the element that makes them special. So how then do you explain the lack of information on them on many clubs’ websites? Are they family friendly? Can you eat there?  If there are two blokes smoking outside and I have my young son with me, will I risk going up the steps?

Granted, many clubs do make a point of promoting their social facilities, but many more don’t. For me it exposes a very interesting attitude: that clubs only think about growth in relation to their existing and lapsed fans. There’s clearly nothing wrong with building growth on the ability of your existing fan base to recruit new supporters, but at least some of your growth has to come from people completely new to the club. So don’t hide your best asset from them.

Many small community clubs know who comes along week in week out, so that when someone new turns up; why not ask them if they’re going to come back?

Now I accept that the club won’t be selling tickets online nor routinely collecting customer contact details, firing off offers for future games and requests for feedback, but why not dedicate a few minutes to talk to these people, ask them what led them to drop by and see what can be done to encourage them to return?  If they’ve enjoyed themselves, why wouldn’t they post testimonies?  Restaurants and hotels want us to share our experiences on Trip Advisor and social media so why shouldn’t clubs encourage positive coverage in that way?

The fact is that many non-league clubs act in a way that suggests their growth plans are based on finally drawing Manchester United or Liverpool in the 3rd round of the FA Cup at some stage in the future.  This betrays a lack of belief in the power of the unique experience they provide.

Invest time in figuring out what matters to new supporters and, where possible and realistic, take steps to deliver that. The fact that we CAN’T influence what happens on the pitch is seen as a frustrating reality by many clubs, until they realise that it’s the overall experience they offer that is the more realistic growth plan.

The ‘power of the small’ is what makes non-league clubs different and what makes them different is what makes them special. The message from Non League Day supporters to fans is to come down to your local club tomorrow. The message from me to Non League Clubs is to do more to make your new guests return.


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