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3 Keys To Sportsbiz: Tease, Incentivize, Reward

Many great things have been discovered by unintentionally: America, Penicillin, Velcro, the microwave oven, and Post-It Notes, to name a few.

A few week ago, thanks to a group of three of my Stetson University sport business students, I may have contrived a much more modest contribution to that list, but one that could equally impact sport business by providing a thought rubric for customer rewards program promotions.

From high school sports to the pros, fan rewards programs have flourished as vital parts of customer relationship management (CRM) strategies.

Lately, the analytics boom from big data provides insight and prediction reliability to aid CRM in ways that couldn’t have even been previously imagined.

But just like my students, who were seeking feedback on a sponsorship integration strategy for their final Properties & Sponsorships course project, I’m guessing that setting proper pace and remuneration points in a rewards program may prove to be a real challenge for many sport marketers, particularly if analytics can’t formulate a clear path (and sometimes even when it can).

Breaking It Down Into Questions

For example, how many “points” should a fan earn for attending a Wednesday night minor league hockey game as opposed to attending one on a Saturday night?

How soon should a reward be earned? How far apart should the reward intervals be?

And should the reward given after 20 accumulated points be worth approximately twice the reward given at 10 accumulated points?

These were examples of some particular strategic thoughts that I suggested the group might wish to consider relative to what they wanted to achieve with their rewards program, all while giving them the disclaimer that each approach needed to be properly vetted.

Three Step Explanation

In an effort to clinch my explanation with a simple summary, out popped three strategic words that I thought nailed it when strung together in a three-step progression:

  1. Tease
  2. Incentivize
  3. Reward

Let’s examine these fundamental steps in terms of escalating participation in a fan rewards program.

Tease

Who among us likes to be teased?

Before you blurt out “no one,” consider some wisdom given to me years ago by my long-time friend Dr. Colby B. Jubenville, the most emotionally intelligent human being I’ve ever met.

I once complained to him that I couldn’t decipher one particular young lady’s intentions regarding her pursuit of a possible romantic relationship with me, and that it frustrated me, because I “didn’t like having my tires kicked,” as I thought I so eloquently put it.

“Yes, you DO like it,” he retorted, “or you wouldn’t keep hanging around for more!”

Although I didn’t admit it to him, I knew he was 100% correct.

Why?

Because my notions of the possible rewards of such a relationship were too intoxicating to abandon!

And so it goes with sports fans: they love being teased!

And, to quote Depeche Mode, they just can’t get enough!

Otherwise, why would anyone sit through the stress of a three-overtime thriller, like my dad and I did on in 2007 as the Arkansas Razorbacks outlasted the No. 1 LSU Tigers in three grueling overtimes?

How could I have otherwise managed to smile for months after personally witnessing my alma mater’s Louisiana Tech Lady Techsters lose the 1994 national championship 60-59 to North Carolina on a miraculous three-pointer that clearly came after the 0.7 seconds that were on the clock had expired, ushering the era of TV replay into college basketball officiating?

And since 1999, why have I sweated, screamed, bled, and fumed (often for days on end) at every shot, dribble, call, play, and outcome that doesn’t go the way of my dear friend Gregg Marshall’s basketball teams?

Like most sports fans, it’s because I can’t get enough: enough of the possibilities, enough of the excitement, and enough of the rush of winning, even though it may not feel as good to win as it hurts to lose.

So get completely comfortable with the notion of teasing sports fans along the path of your reward program, because, after all, they’re completely used to it.

How can this be accomplished?

The ways are endless: serial partial reveals, behind-the-scenes glimpses on social media, contests, appeals from star players, and basically any other way to create what’s now known as the 21st Century social epidemic of FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out.

Incentivize

But after a while, even the most (fool)hearty souls will no longer pay heed if all we do is cry “Wolf!”

When I grew weary of “having my tires kicked” without some reasonable level of expectation, I no longer pursued that particular relationship (and Colby just laughed).

And so it goes with sports fans.

Tease

Teasing is understood, and often expected, but an indefinite tease that yields no reasonably anticipated expectations will fail to retain interest, at least later, if not sooner.

Thus I cautioned my three students: “When setting up your rewards program, you need to determine how reasonable the expectations of success are when encouraging the fans to move from one level to the next.”

Obviously, lower-level achievement stages should be relatively reachable, as well as frequent. Naturally, the incentives won’t be as great initially as they will be later, but that’s a reasonable expectation.

As fans move to intermediate levels, expectations of loftier incentives should naturally emerge, but like before, sport marketers need to do everything to frame the incentives as being achievable, despite increased expectations of commitment and performance from fans.

And even as fans enter advanced levels of the rewards program, where they know very well that only high levels of commitment and performance can yield the ultimate rewards, they still must be caused to believe that those utopian reward levels are actually achievable.

How can sport marketers create this?

Again, many ways exist: personalized communication at regular intervals—particularly via snail mail and/or email—that documents the fan’s continued progress over time; phone outreach from team staffers to create dialog that could reveal any questions, issues, or problems; and deal-sweeteners that could persuade fans to attend outside of their planned appearances, like concessions vouchers, parking vouchers, merchandise discounts, and birthday/anniversary recognitions, just to name a few.

Reward

When times come to reward fans for their loyalty and devotion, many sport marketers might be tempted to take the widely spewed form of philosophical marketing ignorance called “under-promise, over-deliver.”

This philosophy is one I’ve cautioned my students against for many years.

Although its basic premise is probably well intended, the philosophy goes astray at the point where customers come to expect over-delivery as the new normal.

Let’s face it: no matter how good your franchise may be at customer service, it’s run by humans. And sooner or later, it’s going to hit a ceiling in terms of just how much it can humanly do for customers.

Bottom line: you cannot indefinitely blow ‘em away every single time.

Once customers are desensitized, satisfying them will become virtually impossible. Then they’ll be seeking whatever else besides your product can give them their next big thrill.

Here’s what I’ve taught my students: what’s delivered to customers should be exactly what’s been promised to them.

In terms of reward programs, that means that rewards should be precisely on target for the performance required.

That might sound a little mundane to the marketers out there who favor an over-the-top, used-car dealer method, but lots of fun, creative options still exist with this approach.

One thought is to provide as much individualization and personalization as possible. Like sponsorships, not every piece of inventory will have universal appeal, and neither will rewards. The fan with nosebleed season tickets might want two $200 club-level seats, while the fan who already has club-level seats might want a team jersey. And one season-ticket holder might want a leather team jacket, while another season-ticket holder might prefer a meet-and-greet with the team’s iconic hall of fame retired player.

Another approach is to steal a play from the gourmet restaurant playbook. After a certain point, food is food. But food presentation options are virtually endless, and they can make the dish special to the recipient, even when they know what to expect.

For example, a good steak can be a fairly common find in many markets. But Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse brings that bad boy out on a hot plate, sizzling in a pool of butter. And even though you know a great steak is coming your way, you can’t help but drool when it gets within five feet of your table, just as I’m doing while typing these words!

In sportsbiz terms, it goes like this: mailing tickets to a season-ticket holder is nice. Mailing them in a designer box with some team goodies is even better (ala what Orlando City Soccer Club did for me last season).

Having the team mascot deliver them personally with bells and whistles to the season-ticket holder’s place of work or residence would be even better! (Naturally, a reward this spectacular would be reserved for a landmark number of season-ticket purchases, e.g., every five years.)

So your customers know what they’re going to get, and you deliver exactly that, but with a personalized touch and a few daubs of butter, just to make it sizzle.

As much as I hope this tease-incentivize-reward will help you design your rewards program, I can’t take full credit for it.

Thank Darius McGriff, Austin Finnk, and Jonathan Jerozal for inspiring it.

As we left the classroom, Darius asked, “Is this what they use in the industry to develop programs like this?”

“Not yet, Darius,” I replied, “but I’m about to write a column about it, and maybe they will before too much longer!”

All three young men smiled and laughed, probably because they knew that such a philosophy would help them create a CRM system that wouldn’t leave money on the table.

And after grading their project, which included a dynamite plan for a Stetson Athletics customer rewards card program sponsored by a local sports fan shop called Sportsanity, I’d say they certainly accomplished that goal.

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