Sell 60,000 tickets and you fill a stadium for an afternoon. Create 60,000 memories and you'll fill a stadium forever.
Experiences become memories, memories become traditions and experiential marketing is the way to create an emotional bond with customers that pulls them back to your brand over the competition again and again.
Pro sports teams live and die not by their teams’ records, but by their ability to create experiences that begin long before kickoff and continue way after the stadium has emptied. They create fans, not customers.
We’re here to say that experiential marketing is for every industry. While your marketing will be specific to your brand, we’ve pulled three principles from pro sports marketing to help you convert customers into loyal brand fans.
Listen and Learn
After the Utah Jazz’s $125M arena renovation, Bart Sharp, CMO at the Utah Jazz, shared that his team spent an entire year researching what Jazz fans wanted beyond the court before making any renovation plans. Their research showed a strong desire among their fans for more premium options, ice cream (yes, Utahns love their ice cream), and Instagrammable photo opps. With these findings, the Jazz transformed their arena to provide fans unforgettable experiences.
BuiltBar has a unique way of ensuring their customers are heard and that feedback gets injected directly into their marketing campaigns. “We’ve actually put the customer service team under marketing leadership. That way we can pivot and change quickly without going through multiple channels,” said Colleen Ferrier, VP of Marketing at Built Bar. “So we’re hearing as leaders directly what the customers love, what they don’t love, what they’re liking, what they’re not liking. And we as a team can shift and change quickly for them.”
By directly listening, learning, and responding to customers, Built Bar’s marketing team has the ammunition they need to generate more value for their customers.
As marketers, we must prioritize listening before campaign creation. We should never assume we know why someone came to our websites or their purposes for joining in the experience. Every time we make assumptions, we limit ourselves and miss opportunities for our customers, putting time and energy in the wrong places.
Do This: Customer feedback/research surveys always endear customers to you—show you care and learn from your most important audience. Also, consider moving Customer Service under Marketing to close the customer feedback loop.
Capture and Capitalize on Momentum
With only .9 on the clock, Deandre Ayton scored a game-winning alley-oop against the Clippers during the Suns’ 2020-2021 season. Being hyper-engaged on social media, the Suns’ social media team quickly recognized an opportunity to capitalize on the excitement surrounding the play. New “Valley-Oop” shirts were announced on their social channels that night and available for purchase the very next day. No one could have predicted the alley-oop, let alone prepare t-shirt designs. But the Suns were ready—they took an awesome on-court experience and memorialized it for the fans.
Marketing teams have to find ways to monitor momentum. Bart Sharp shares how this is a key principle they follow within their marketing strategy. “I’ve learned in this industry you’ve got to be very nimble because things can change very fast. In an instant, we have to shift our focus and find ways to capture that momentum.” Sometimes the team is playing really well and there’s a story there. Sometimes there’s not. In pro sports (and really in just about any industry) you can’t predict how the seasons will go. You can have an idea based on data you’ve gathered (players on the team, how we compare to competition, injury reports, etc.) and that informs direction. But if things get going and you notice momentum is building somewhere else, you’ve got to make that pivot.
Marketers may be the best planners in the world, but following the momentum inherently means that marketers must be ready to abandon their plans—which is frankly really hard to do! What if the Suns chose to just stick to their content calendar? They would’ve missed out on a huge opportunity for the brand to bond with fans.
We all remember the classic example of Oreo capitalizing on the power outage in the 2013 Superbowl with a tweet about “dunking in the dark.” The brand acted quickly around a current event, which was only possible because they were aware of what their audience was doing and how to appeal to them in that moment.
It doesn’t take a huge team or expensive software to interact with your audience. Plan all you want, but be ready to strike when the opportunities arrive.
Do This: Marketers can’t capitalize on momentum if they aren’t looking for it, if they don’t have a supportive infrastructure, or if they don’t have the green light from leadership.
Put Your Best People on the “Front Lines”
Tyler Gibbons, VP of Marketing at Real Salt Lake (RSL), shares how seriously they take online interactions with their fans. “When someone shares wearing a team jersey and you respond back to them on social, you probably made that person's day. You're going to have a fan for life.” In their case, RSL is extremely careful about who on their team has the permission to dialogue with fans—they don’t underestimate the power of these micro-experiences.
Creating an experience doesn’t mean that you need a full event or production. Experiences can be small and individualized for your specific audience. Hubspot emphasizes that even when you give your audience a tangible experience, there must still be an online dialogue happening. Dialogue is especially crucial to industries where the experiences are largely digital. It’s those conversations that become a major part of audience-brand bonding.
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Look at the interactions happening with your target audience. Is there a way to build an online element into a tangible experience? Are you keeping a dialogue going on and offline?
A major sign of marketing maturity in an organization is the level of experience they place in customer-facing roles (such as social media managers, customer experience, etc.). Unfortunately, many brands put their “greenest” people in these roles—preventing organizations from fully capturing their audience’s feedback and preventing audiences from an elevated experience.
There’s a reason why pro sports teams pull in top talent for game-day coverage. Inside the NBA, for example, features the beloved Charles Barkley and Shaq. College GameDay utilizes former athletes, coaches, and other experts to talk about the football games. Both shows have subject matter experts in charge of the dialogue, giving this dialogue the best people to engage audiences.
So don’t put your least experienced employees in charge of all the digital dialogue for your brand. Make sure that whoever is helping to create that dialogue knows and understands your company’s offering, your values, and how to interact with your audience in a way that is meaningful to them.
Do This: Don’t hire entry-level for audience-facing positions.
Alright 97th Floor, Stick to Marketing
Pro sports marketers have an obvious edge in creating customer experiences—their product is literally an experience—but their playbook is written for every brand in every industry. A stronger focus on experiential marketing truly can turn your brand observers into lifetime, loyal fans.