As sports and events continue to digitise the fan experience, many still rely heavily on email marketing to drive ticket and merchandise sales. Sam Windridge, Head of Commercial Development for the cloud software provider CM.com, explains how WhatsApp and SMS is "shifting the paradigm" for DTC communications and nurturing greater fan loyalty.
Building relationships with customers is important for laying the foundations to the growth of a business - and particularly for those working in sports while fan loyalty underpins the industry's commercial stability.
The speed in which rights holders are adopting direct-to-consumer (DTC) technologies, and particularly in the wake of Covid-19, has seen sport take on a huge undertaking to digitise its physical assets and increase engagement with global audiences.
Nevertheless, while the penetration of mobile is opening new avenues for ecommerce, including the sale of tickets and merchandise, one of the constant challenges for rights holders is to bring peripheral and evergreen fans on the customer journey - and to turn increasing engagement into revenue.
Despite all the opportunities digital presents the sports industry, the way in which the front office communicates with customers remains key to its success. And this is shaping the way some sports properties are talking to fans via mobile.
Though some persist solely with email marketing to inform fans of brand activations and when tickets go up for sale, others are turning to widely used mobile communications such as WhatsApp and SMS to keep customers updated. Considering that the vast majority of Gen Z and millennial fans watch sport via mobile, it is proving to be a forward-thinking adjustment.
Sam Windridge, head of commercial development in UK and Ireland for the cloud software provider CM.com, is helping the company’s clientele make this transition. Though some are still reluctant to change their marketing strategies, those who have adopted CM.com's fully integrated, end-to-end solutions are seeing the value in marketing directly to fans via mobile.
"The industry is awash with ticketing solutions that all have a balance of pros and cons," Windridge explains." However, while there will always be challenges around the sale of tickets, we come at it from a different approach for our customers, whereby the customer experience and customer journey is far more considered.
Whereas they previously would have had to buy three or four systems to communicate with their fans, in addition to the ticketing software, email has an engagement rate around only 3-4 per cent. By adopting platforms like SMS and Whatsapp into our integrated service, which have open rates north of 60-70 per cent, we have seen a gap in the market and have since gone strength to strength."
This approach is more commonly known as “conversational commerce” – a term first coined by the founders of the mobility service provider Uber – and aims to nurture the customer relationship by engaging them in a two-way conversation that proactively asks fans to offer feedback that helps to personalise their experience.
“It has shifted the paradigm,” Windridge continues. “Traditionally, selling tickets has been centred around price and stock management, including a marketing team dedicated to selling the event and a customer relations department that handles issues on any given matchday. As sport makes itself more appealing to younger generations, it must also engage with them via the channels they are using.
“However, while digital and broadcast media such as Amazon, Disney, and Netflix are moving the dial on DTC engagement, ticketing is still about logging onto a website and the customer finding their way through it. How often do fans receive ‘do not reply’ email correspondence when trying to purchase a ticket?
“It’s often a case that companies, and particularly those in sport, want to engage customers – but only want to do it on their terms, and don’t necessarily want to hear back from them. We know that doesn’t cut in the digital FMCG and banking world we live in today, so why shouldn’t we adopt a similar approach via the sports vertical?”
CM.com first adopted this integrated approach when working with Dutch professional football team NAC Breda, based in southern Netherlands, on a “better system of fans engagement and ticketing”. The company has since worked with other major sporting properties, including most recently the Formula 1 Dutch Grand Prix, held at CM.com Circuit Zandvoort in September, which saw the stage's return to the Netherlands after 36 years deliver a digital-first fan experience, including a data-driven ticket ballot that delivered record sales.
"When we talk to potential industry clients on what they are doing around their mobile communications strategy - and whether they are using WhatsApp, Instagram messenger, or perhaps Telegram internationally - they often don't see the point of it and wouldn't know what to do if they all replied", Windridge says. "For us, therein lies the beauty of it - to understand the customer and their personal wants and needs. We see hyper-personalisation as being very important, which isn't possible while email remains the traditional play.
"While we continue to see value in email marketing, when it comes down to the actual ticket transaction, there seems to be a general consensus that they need to offer the shortest step possible, whereby people simply buy a ticket and go to the event. We tell them to take a more nurtured approach and, where you have the mobile number for a customer, ask them how they'd like to receive marketing material and whether they would like to receive events information via the post, email, or mobile.
"By recognising that there are other valued avenues of communication, we are able to invite and engage audiences around a whole range of events, most predominantly in sport and music, and drive the fan from the digital experience to the physical, in-stadia experience. We can also complement a sport's club's native app in this way but ultimately the question remains: how are they communicating with the customer and nurturing that personal relationship?"