Atlanta Hawks, Braves Using Fan Engagement to Get People to the Game

Most professional sports franchises are small businesses too, with limited budgets and employees. Atlanta Hawks Chief Creative Officer Peter Sorckoff, and Atlanta Braves VP of Marketing Adam Zimmerman, are doing fascinating things to create great experiences for their fans.  In a featured session at ExCom 2016, an event on the future of customer experience and commerce I co-organized with John Lawson, Sorckoff and Zimmerman discussed the challenges and opportunities of utilizing cutting edge technologies to stay connected with their fan base. The panel, moderated by social media strategist Dorothea Bozicolona-Volpe, tackled a variety of issues from using CRM for data collection, omni-channel engagement, mobile GEO targeting, disruptive in-venue technology and more. And while their focus is on fan engagement, the lessons and experiences they share can be used well beyond the world of sports.

Below is an edited transcript of the conversation, along with the embedded video of the session.

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Atlanta Hawks, Braves Using Fan Engagement to Get People to the GameDorothea Bozicolona-Volpe: What types of data and information are you collecting and how do you leverage that information that you are collecting to create better experiences.

Peter Sorckoff: I think sports is probably behind the curve a little bit with the big data phenomenon and we’re working as hard as we can to catch up. We really will collect any data we can, to be totally frank with you. Most importantly buyer data comes to us through Ticketmaster.

Buyer data is interesting but it doesn’t really give us all that much on the behavioral side. When people are in the building we love to collect as much data as we can in that space in place too.  So we have a new integrated Wi-Fi data system. You’ve got to give us five fields of data.

One of the problems in sports is one person usually buys tickets for four people. So we will end up with a pretty significant data on that one buyer but the other three are completely invisible to us and that is that’s a real struggle that I know all sports teams are trying to find solutions for and there are a lot of different tech providers who are trying to trying to solve that for sports teams.

Not only will we know where you parked, where you came from, where your seat was, what entrance you walked in, which concessions you potentially bought, and when you walked in the team retail store if you bought something at the store. We’ve got some technology right now that’s really interesting that we’re beta testing specifically in the retail side to give us a little more insight on which store walls, and how they’re merchandised, actually make the most dollars for us, and facial recognition technology we’re testing now which gives us a sense of male shoppers versus female shoppers based on how things are merchandised.

Adam Zimmerman: I’m keenly interested in the data I can extract from social. I think that the bar of success on social right now is on engagement. I’m really interested in what can I learn from the data and how can I make that actionable with that engagement. So that’s something we’re really studying very diligently. The second thing and some of you might be familiar in sports we have what’s called the territory.

And so there is a restriction that Peter has as it relates to where he can market and he has a team in Charlotte.   He has a team in Tennessee, teams in Florida.  On the other hand, the Braves have a very large geographic territory. Seven states across the southeast mean tens of millions of people. I certainly want to drive people to my building. I’m also keenly interested in how people consume the Atlanta Braves across a very large footprint so that’s something we’re studying as well.

Dorothea Bozicolona-Volpe: Once you have a strategy in place what are the key performance indicators that let you know my strategy is working right.

Peter Sorckoff: We keep it fairly simple. There’s an intent we measure, and then conversion obviously is extremely important. Our relationship honestly with the customer has been very transactional in the past something and we’re really working hard to move away from that.  Really trying to build attribution models and in particular any opportunity we have for direct attribution. We’ll fund until we lose traction; retargeting would be a great example of that. Search is a great example of that because we know we pushed this out either in the social space or over desktop, somebody clicked on it. We follow them all the way through the sales process.

I think probably most sports teams are shifting more and more of their emphasis into digital and into social in particular because you can track efficiencies on your spending against what your strategies are.

Dorothea Bozicolona-Volpe: What channels are you focusing on when you think about social media?

Adam Zimmerman: Major League Baseball’s had a partnership with Snapchat for a few years and we executed the first ever Snapchat program at spring training with the players and they were actually allowed to sit in the dugouts and participate. What Snapchat does is it’s that nexus point of TV meets engaged fan community. That’s why it’s such an incredible platform for us to watch, listen and learn. The live story that’s being created; that curated fan content is really going to be impactful.

Peter Sorckoff: I think of other channels for us. We sort of made our made our living on Twitter for a while mostly because I think what it really did was change our voice. As we made a fairly significant repositioning of the brand over the last two years, Twitter was a great way for us to do regularly demonstrate the new us. The unfortunate thing is we had a really hard time actually making any money from Twitter in particular, so while it serves that purpose and that’s great and we can be topical and be front and center a lot, the most growth that we see is an Instagram. And Instagram has just jumped ahead of everybody by leaps and bounds in terms of growth and appetite for content.

But at the same time I don’t know that we have really also devised a great way to monetize that space either. Facebook, which everybody likes to say is trailing in the distance, is probably the one social channel that we have been able to harness from a financial standpoint. And Facebook has now integrated themselves with Ticketmaster where you don’t have to leave the platform to buy a ticket.

So if we get a deep level of engagement we can actually sell product in that same space while we’re engaging which is really fascinating for us.

Adam Zimmerman: Several weeks ago we had NASCAR fans in the audience by chance during the anniversary of Dale Earnhardt Sr. passing at Daytona in an accident.

We respectfully acknowledged that via social channels because Dale Sr. was a big Braves fan. So we put a tasteful piece out on social media and a couple of wonderful things happened for us in terms of social. Dale Jr., his very popular son, acknowledged to us via social media and then happened to win a race that very evening where the reporter said you must be thinking about your dad today and he said I am. ‘I’ve been following social media and I really want to thank the Atlanta Braves for acknowledging my father’. All of a sudden we had ridiculous amounts of engagement – about 35000 people engaged with us through various Atlanta Braves social platforms. Now I have a database of people who identify as an Atlanta Braves fan and a Dale Jr./NASCAR fan. And that would become actionable and you will see that show up in a promotion at some point this season.

So I’m very intrigued with how we can use social to get the engagement that then becomes a database that becomes actionable to drive revenue.

Fan Engagement

Dorothea Bozicolona-Volpe: How do you engage the individual?

Adam Zimmerman: The holy grail in sports marketing is if I knew what you wanted to do around your love of your favorite team, that would be fantastic. So over time we hope that we put programs out there that we hope you’ll like. You pontificate on what players you like and what matchups you’d like to see, whether or not you should fire my coach, so forth and so on. If I’m able to scale that and pay that off I have very impactful targeted promotions. So a few years ago we started this thing. It’s now become ubiquitous called surprising delight where we would watch social media through various social listening tools and if we saw something interesting we would we would reach into that fan’s life and make that happen for him or her. And they were rewarded us.

Now there was a method to the madness. We looked at Klout scores, we looked at a couple other things but we were able to pay off fans hopes and desires in a way that made them fans for life. And I think that is that still becomes the next generation in sports marketing because data technology enables us to do that thing with great effect and with great frequency.

Peter Sorckoff: I think we also recognize along with the rest of the world that people like recognition and they like recognition from organizations or groups that they have deep affinity for. And sometimes it’s the really simple things. It is acknowledging a tweet; actually pushing something back to somebody or  re-tweeting something; even something as simple as liking a post that somebody else has made that gives them some social credibility and acknowledgement from this humongous organization which frankly is not nearly as big as they think it is. But has this huge profile so there’s really little things like that.

Dorothea Bozicolona-Volpe: Adam as it relates to social engagement what are you doing right now to take the data analytics you’re grasping from each one of these experiences you’re creating and monetizing it?

Adam Zimmerman: One of the major programs we’re going to do this year at Turner Field is we’re in a countdown. Each one of our last home games so it’s a final season of Turner Field and we’re going to go from 81 to 80 to 79 to 78 and somebody is going to come and pull down that number. So to go back to my Dale Jr. example when I invite him to come in pull down a number I will be able to take that database of fans and say to them before everyone else hey building is going to come down a number and we love you to be there. And so if they buy tickets if there is some level of monetary engagement I’ll be able to track that. This is an example.

Dorothea Bozicolona-Volpe: I want to talk a little bit about technology inside the venue.

Adam Zimmerman: I think Peter might agree with me; technology is the great arms race in sports marketing.

Peter Sorckoff: One technology that we brought into Philips Arena last year is a 3D video mapping projection system which is if you haven’t seen it absolutely stunning. And it’s a technology that really you don’t see anywhere else so it’s very unique in that way. I’m always conflicted by technology in sports to be totally honest. To Adams point it’s a huge separator and a point of differentiation partly from our brethren, but probably more importantly from the TV experience. I’m less concerned about competing with Adam and the Braves; we actually probably collaborate more than we compete. I’m competing for somebody staying at home on their couch to be totally frank with you and so for me the way I try to frame technology with all of my team is to never forget this is it deeply human and analog experience that people are coming for. And technology is a way to enhance that but not to replace that.

Dorothea Bozicolona-Volpe: How are you using technology as a customer service vehicle?

Adam Zimmerman: You think about all of the customer experience touch points that we have. In all of ways that fans might now very much voice their displeasure instantly with something that we’re doing incorrectly. So how do we how do we figure that out maybe someone’s had a bad experience with parking. Maybe it’s stuff that Peter and I can’t control but it’s still attributed to us and how do we very quickly aggregate and reach out to that fan which we do and I’m sure Peter does as well to try and have that direct one on one engagement with that person if they have an experience that could be better at any point in their consumption of our product.

Peter Sorckoff: I really resisted apps for a long time to be totally honest with you. I kind of think they suck in sports and I’ll put that out there because they’re kind of commodities; you look at the Celtics app in the Hawks app the Lakers app, it’s basically the same thing just re-skinned. And unfortunately a lot of time it is the same content that you find in other places that has also just been dropped and dumped into there. So I think that’s a pretty negative viewpoint on apps.

What we have found in the NBA across the 30 teams is 80 percent of the app downloads are outside the hundred fifty mile marketing radius or DMA of the team. So I don’t really need to build an app for somebody who’s a fan in California, because I have a very hyper local business. I have a building I need to fill right here and partners that I need to drive their business for right here locally.

So that has kind of set the framework for us on what an app should be in the future. What we’re efforting towards right now is an app that should help the fan overcome the encumbrances of coming to a game in person. So imagine if you bought a ticket and the ticket now only lives on your phone completely paperless. And when you get to the game there’s going to be a phone reader. And before you even get to the game when you pull up the app it’s going to use geo targeting; the GPS on your phone is going to know where you are and it’s going to ask you if you want the quickest trip time and directions to the stadium. It’s going to tell you which parking lot is the closest one to the closest entrance with the shortest line to get to your seat. To me that level of utility is now really fascinating and if we want to go back to Big Data behaviorally, I get to really start to understand some things about how the customer is going through this journey of consuming my product. So for me touchless readers where I can order my parking in advance and it lives on my phone. My ticket already lives there I can order food in advance and actually tell them what time I want it ready. So when I walk up to the concession stand my food is already prepaid. I just go to another reader touch my phone and the food is sitting there ready to go. These sound far-fetched but these are actually not that far away.

And I think they again are really going to revolutionize the experience because these are generally the pain points that fans tell us. It takes enjoyment away from coming to a game live. So to me that’s the real utility about the future.

This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.

Brent Leary Brent Leary is the host of the Small Business Trends One-on-One interview series and co-founder of CRM Essentials LLC, an Atlanta-based CRM advisory firm covering tools and strategies for improving business relationships. Brent is a CRM industry analyst, advisor, author, speaker and award-winning blogger.