Why You Can’t Afford to Bench Your Data This Season

As far as brand loyalty goes, college sports have got it pretty good.

With few exceptions, the marketers behind most consumer brands live a constant struggle to instill their audience with a level of passion that even approaches how a college sports fan feels about their team.

As an alumni of the University of Texas, the UT Athletics Department probably doesn’t need to worry about me waking up one day and deciding to be an Aggies fan. It’s not really a Coke vs. Pepsi scenario.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that sports marketing is easy. I’m just saying that you face a different set of challenges when you have a built-in audience.

It becomes less about capturing and converting the competition’s audience, although you certainly should if you can. It’s much more about capturing the true value of your own audience and converting that into revenue dollars.

Fan excitement year over year is hard to predict. Team performance, prestige of recruiting classes, and confidence in the coaching staff all play into how eager fans and alumni are to participate (and spend money) from one season to the the next.

As an athletics department, truly taking ownership of your fanbase empowers you to do more across the board. You will sell more tickets, move more merch, receive more donations, deliver more value to sponsors, and most importantly – improve the fan experience.

In 2015, successful athletics departments are focused on more than getting the most out of their athletes. They’re getting the most out of their fans. And they’re doing it with data.

Grow. Engage. Transact.

According to Dan Migala, grow, engage and transact should be the goal of any athletic department’s digital strategy in 2015. This is the theme of a NACDA Report published this past June.

Success seen by schools like Mississippi State University demonstrates that following this simple recipe allows marketing teams to “create a larger data pool to better understand, engage and monetize fans.”

As everyone in the college sports world knows, Mississippi State’s 2014 football season was one for the record books. Last year, the Bulldogs “climbed from being unranked in week four to No. 1 for the first time in school history by week 7, which is the fastest rise to the top in AP Poll history (via NCAA.com).”

In the June NACDA Report, Migala also praised the Bulldogs’ marketing team, noting that “MSU likely also became the first team to create audience profiles and segments of more than 500,000 fans in that same time period.” This led to a 1,300% return on digital media spend for the ticket packages they were promoting.

Wherever MSU ends up in the rankings this season — and Umbel wishes them all the best – their athletics department has done something very important that AD’s across the country should take note of: 

They have laid a foundation for data ownership that will allow the department to engage and monetize fans for years to come, through good seasons and bad.

Umbel knows a thing or two about fan data, and we’ll happily go head-to-head with anyone who says they can help a sports team do it better. But rather than lay down a challenge to other marketing tech, let me instead lay down a challenge to athletics departments.

If you truly want to grow, engage and transact, you have to understand the data-driven processes to support it. Here at Umbel, we have our own recipe for that.

Activate. Segment. Convert.

1. Activate

It all starts with understanding who your really fans are.

In the NACDA report, Migala describes a cookie and pixel tag strategy. Cookies can tell you something about how visitors to your website behave online, like which other sites they visit. Combined with pixel tags, you can define which of those anonymous users are converting. Matching those conversion pixels to third-party data can give you demographic attributes to inform where you target additional fans with display advertising.

This is a solid approach, but it’s just scratching the surface. In terms of data, it falls just short of giving you a true look at who your fans are as individuals. Third-party data is great. But it will never be as reliable or as insightful as first-party data.

In our experience, activating your fanbase with social authentication delivers a granular look at who your fans are and what they like that third-party data alone simply can’t match. We’re talking verified email, age, geography, and thousands of brand affinities to boot (more on that later).

Fans are never more optimistic in their team’s ability to go the distance than early in the season. Titles and bowl games are still on the table. Eager fans are the easiest to activate, so make the most of their optimism and activate them while they’re still excited about the season.

2. Segment

Having access to data is great, but it means nothing if you can’t make sense of it and then do something with it. This is where segmentation becomes vital.

Most athletic departments are drowning in data from a variety of sources: Ticketing data, merch data, POS data, venue and event data, web analytics, mobile analytics, donor data. Some of it lives with one team, some with another team. Some of it is in excel docs, some of it is in Archtics.

Many teams have invested in a centralized data warehouse, and having all of your data in one place is certainly an advantage. Still, most marketers aren’t data scientists, and making that data actionable can be an intimidating task with limited manpower and know-how.

When it comes to data-driven marketing, how your data is organized is just as important as having the data in the first place. A customer-centric index allows different kinds of data from different sources to be associated with one universal profile for each individual fan. Any data point or any combination of data points become available to segment by.

Segmentation is not a new idea, but this kind of architecture brings all of your fan data to the table. Go beyond building a segment of people who bought a ticket to a particular game. In the same breath, get a look at what content they consumed on your website, what they purchased while at the game, how much they’ve donated to the athletic fund, and their brand affinities via social.

This is all intelligence that you can use to inform email campaigns, call lists, look alike marketing, sponsorships and more. Actually, let’s talk about brand affinities and sponsorships for a moment.

As Jason Belzer wrote on Forbes.com, sports sponsorships has changed. Sponsors are seeing diminishing returns in simply having their logo featured next to a sports team’s or on advertising in the stadium. “…the focus has now shifted on finding dynamic partnerships that allow engagement with consumers on an ongoing basis…”

Think of a sponsor that your team works with closely. Now imagine that a staff member could create a segment and deliver that sponsor a granular look at everything you know about the individuals that make up their brand audience within your fanbase. Not only could you show who their sponsorship dollars are buying access to, but because you also know something about those fans, you can help sponsors design an experience those fans actually want.

Giving non-technical marketers the ability to slice and dice their fan base in a customer-centric environment opens up a world of possibilities.

3. Convert

I’ve spent a lot of time here nerding out on data. Let me end my ramblings nerding out a bit on marketing and how fan data can actually drive conversions.

First establish your desired outcome  what action you want your fans to take. Next, do some exploration and see what the data says about people who have already taken that action. Now, use your marketing brain, craft some good creative and get out there.

Sell More Season Tickets
Do you need to sell season tickets? Figure out what your current season ticket holders look like and build a segment of fans that look like season ticket holders, but haven’t bought season tickets. Send them an email, or better yet, have your sales team call them on the phone.

Increase LTV of Your Donors
Do you need to increase the value of your donor base? Segment your current and expected donors by lifetime value (LTV). Nurture high-value donor segments. Grow low-value donor segments more intelligently.

Fill Empty Seats
Do you need to fill seats to a low-performing game? Run an activator contest to gather social data for people who bought tickets to said game, and then plug that data back into Facebook to target look alikes.

Empower Marketing Across All Sports  
Do you sell out football but struggle to get fans out for other sports? Activate your fans during football season and build out segments of people that like basketball, volleyball, or baseball. If you’ve got home addresses, you could drop them a letter if you felt so compelled.

Sell more merch to your fans across the country who can’t get to a game. Solicit bigger donations from people who look like high value donors. Strategically touch any fan persona of interest across any marketing channels you have access to. This is growth-hacking down to a science. I mean, you’re practically cheating at this point. But I digress…

You’re the marketing pro. You know what outcomes you’re trying to drive and how to craft campaigns to accomplish them. We just want to see you use data to do it all better.

And there will never be a better time to start than this season.