The art of fan relationship management


Pete Atherton, managing director of The Next Door, argues that falling season ticket sales and activist fan groups highlight the need for football clubs to develop effective CRM programmes.

Imagine a brand that is adored by its customers, conjuring almost cultish passion. A brand that is discussed and dreamt about almost every hour of the day and night, the ingredients or components and the packaging scrutinised in minute detail and every move subject to relentless media attention.

It’s either every brand manager’s dream or it could be a nightmare. But if you own or manage a football club brand it’s a daily reality and managing relationships with those “customers” is a delicate process.

Few brands suffer from poor sales because their customers are concerned about the financial credibility of the parent company’s owners. Few suffer significant peaks or slumps in their customer relationships on a weekly basis. But then again few brands (outside of fashion perhaps) have legions of customers who choose to wear their club’s brand identity as a badge of allegiance on the street.

Football brands in many ways transcend the normal relationship that consumers have with a product or service.

They are bound to their fans not simply because they provide an entertaining 90 minutes at the weekend or on the TV, because they fit with their lifestyle, have great players or a cool kit.

Their customers, more often than not, have deep rooted long-term cultural, family or social ties with “their” club.

The sense of ownership runs deep and fans are of course hugely sensitive about not just how well their club is doing, but about pretty much every aspect of their relationship with it, from the price and availability of tickets, to the design of the new season’s kit, when and where games are screened on TV, the attitude and tactics of the manager, to the quality of the turf outside the goal mouth.

With this in mind, it’s clear that communicating directly with fans requires a holistic perspective. An effective CRM strategy reaching out to fans must be rooted in a robust analysis of “customer” data, but must also integrate an understanding of the economic and emotional factors driving fans’ behaviour.

Could falling ticket sales be a symptom of the recession? Has the geographical region where the club’s fan-base is strongest been hit hard by redundancies? What are the issues that are being picked over in the local media? What are different factional fan groups saying via social media? Is the make-up of the squad and individual player behaviour a factor? Where does the club stand on issues affecting the game nationally?

Most of all though, do fans feel valued by the club? Is the CRM and broader marketing strategy reinforcing those long-term cultural connections with the club, do they do little to build a sense of ownership as well as a sense of excitement?
Higher gate figures and club-store sales are related directly to pride; how close fans feel to the team and whether they feel like part of the fabric of the club. With potential external factors in mind, direct relationship management should be focused on reinforcing this personal pride while adding value to the fan experience.

So, promotional activity and direct communications must be thought through in the context of events surrounding the club and must be fused with an awareness of the public relations issues and a clear brand communications strategy.

What a fan considers to be “added value” in his or her relationship with the brand may not simply be rooted in saving money and if it is, additional value could be achieved by connecting the fan more closely to the club through saving and incentivising them to stay close or get even more involved over time.

But value may just as easily be added by enhancing the match-day experience in the stadium.

It’s perhaps ironic that the many ways brands from other sectors have been attempting to use social media, content and shared experiences to build exactly the kind of cultural affiliations football brands enjoy.

There’s no doubt that, if they are managed and sustained effectively, customer relationships based on really close emotional attachments are incredibly powerful, but they also expose the brand to a far wider range of influences that can affect those relationships.

Be careful what you wish for.

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