Sports brands need to enable fans, not engage them

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Sports Analytics

I have real difficulty discussing the word ‘engagement’ when discussing sports marketing, as much as it is essential to the whole ball game. In recent years, the word engagement has been used interchangeably across the sports industry to mean a million different things. The vague marketing buzzword litters meetings and briefs and rarely helps anyone to zoom in on specific problems and outcomes. ‘Engagement’ typically ends up leading people down a path of vanity metrics - seeing likes, follows, RTs and impressions as end-measures of success. At the recent Sports Analytics European football conference at Manchester Etihad Stadium, alongside the Scottish Football Association and the Belgium Football Association, we discussed why brands need to enable the fans, rather than engage them.

Enablement, not engagement

When we start to talk about enablement, our focus switches to real world outcomes for real people. We ask healthy questions like ‘how will this help people?’ and ‘what do we want them to do?’. It steers customer experience changes and product development cycles towards real world outcomes and sanity metrics - focusing on how to cause and measure positive real world change for real people. For example, a UX-based approach for the RFU focuses on enabling and measuring real world outcomes that are directly aligned to the KPIs in England Rugby’s core strategy around the Rugby World Cup.

People, not just data

We need to close the gap between big data and real people. Big data, much like engagement, is an obsession in sport that in recent years has dominated the narrative around customer insight.

Big data is great, but it’s only half the data that is available when we’re making decisions. Speaking to real people, observing their behaviours and understanding their motivations is a crucial first hand resource that adds colour and light to the insights available from other datasets. We encouraged the audience to recognise the value of combining a big data approach with human observation, explaining that where data shows us the ’what’, observing real people can tell us the ‘why’. By combining big data with ethnography and anthropology, we can start to learn not only from broad data trends and segmentations but from individual fans, ground staff and first line club employees.

Experiences, not technology

We need to shift sports brand’s thinking around technology and ensure that their focus is always on the experiences that new technology can enable. A series of drawings from 1900 which predicted how life might look in the year 2000, highlights how the artist had made predictions based on every experience we know becoming mechanised; orchestras had been replaced with robots and tailors and barbers were replaced with machines. In the modern day, where the big change is digitisation, not mechanisation, there is a danger that we fall into a similar trap as the artist - seeing every human experience as one which will eventually be changed wholesale by new technology.

As responsible practitioners in sport, we want to be enabling fans to have better technological experiences, not just more experiences of new technology. Posing the question ‘what experience does it enable?’ is the most helpful question we can ask when assessing the utility of tech.

For fan ‘engagement’ to improve, it’s crucial that opinion matures beyond vanity metrics. Associations and leagues must begin to properly identify the real world outcomes they want to enable in their strategies and then apply the tools and techniques needed to build the right products and services that enable those experiences for fans.

John Newbold is the strategy director at 383 Project.

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