Thursday, May 21, 2009

Building Major League Loyalty

This week I attended the BCAMA breakfast speaker series - Building Major League Loyalty. The folks from the Whitecaps were there to parallel their experience of building fan engagement to building customer engagement. Now I'll say right off I don't know much about soccer at the professional level. My experience is at the local level working with Wendy's and McDonald's. Soccer is the biggest sport in Canada for both boys and girls. And I always wondered why that never translated into the professional sport. But I digress. My interest here was to see if there were any learnings that I could translate to use for my work with Women In Leadership Foundation or other clients.

Representing the Whitecaps was Bob Lenarduzzi, President and past player, coach, general manager, director of soccer operations; Kim Jackman, Director or Marketing; and Ryan McKee, Marketing Manager. I used to work with Kim at Ogilvy & Mather in what seems like lifetime ago. She was always a smart marketer and it was great to see her grow her skills over the years and land such an interesting and challenging role.

It is obvious from the beginning that Bob has the same passion for soccer that many of his fans feel. He lives his passion everyday and I think he could tell fun and interesting stories about soccer for days. He touches on his early days on the team and the slim days when the Whitecaps were barely holding things together. He talked about how there a lot of old time soccer fans out there that have lost touch with the Whitecaps, and how many of them are coming back with the MLS announcement. He talked about different owners over the years, and how the current ownership group really embraced a long term vision for the term (and soccer in Canada).

This brings us to point #1 in their five fan engagement strategy. What they called "Starting at the top". To many organizations this would seem to be a no-brainer. But it often isn't. In order to really succeed you need an organization where the most senior stakeholders (in this case the ownership group) have a focused long term vision, are engaged in making that vision happen AND their staff know they are engaged in it. It is too often you see Senior Management state their vision and then leave it to their executive team to get it done. In this case, everyone in the organization knows the vision, knows how they can contribute to it, and knows their ownership group is invested in the team's day-to-day progress.

The ownership group has 3 key objectives for the team - open and transparent to everyone as they are listed on their website. All staff and team use these objectives to screen key decisions (projects must meet at least 1 of the criteria to be considered to go forward):

  • To be one of the best small market sports franchises in the world
  • To grow the game of soccer in British Columbia & Canada
  • To be a significant community asset

#2 - No 5 minute solution

When you have a clear vision of where you are going and who you want to be it makes it easier to assess your environment for opportunities. But when your vision is unclear it is harder to do your due diligence because you can't focus. Who really is your competition and who shares your vision that can help you achieve it? Are you competing against yourself? This would have been a good question for GM to have asked itself many years ago - or perhaps they knew it but weren't brave enough to make the decision required to fix it... but I digress again.

In the Whitecaps case the new owners asked what relationship the Whitecaps had with BC soccer and Canadian soccer associations? The fast answer was 'we talk to each other'. The real answer was they competed with each other with duplicate programs. This overcomplicated things for players and their parents. So while at the grassroots things were booming it became more complicated to help the really fantastic players rise. Today the 3 organizations all live on the same office floor. They have audited their programs and are committed to creating great players together.

This didn't happen overnight, and the results of this new cooperation won't be fully seen for years. But they now have a structure that touches players/parents at all stages of their life cycle. This will also help gain momentum with sponsors and fan engagement too.

Point # 3 is "Let them in/be honest". This is when Bob suggested losing your credibility was like your virginity - you only lose it once. An old analogy but never more true than in today's very transparent world. People will forgive mistakes and respect your point-of-view, but they will NOT forgive being manipulated, spun or lied to. Being honest with people gives them something interesting to engage with. So the team is transparent in its information and looks for opportunities to make themselves accessible. Whether it is the team signing autographs, the head coach doing a Q&A with a supporters group or Bob doing a meet n'greet in the lobby at a game.

Of course when you give people the opportunity to engage they will ask tough questions and you must be prepared to answer them truthfully and honestly... and not telling them what they want to hear. Just like in real life people where people may not like it they will respect you more for it.

#4 - Revist Relevance

Again could be marketing 101, but often gets overlooked in the excitement for a new projects or innovative medium (ie: twitter). The Whitecaps has several core, but distinct target audiences - fan groups, parents/kids, original fans. Each of them is so important to the future of the organization, but each has very distinct needs. You can't do everything for everyone. So must be sure what efforts you make are relevant to that audience in the way they use or interact with the product. Otherwise your efforts are wasted.

#5 - Finish What you Start

Kim describes this as the bridge between engagement and loyalty. I'd call it ignore your customers at your paril. If you invite them in, allow them some ownership of your brand, then you must be prepared to act upon what you hear. You also have to be prepared that you may not like what you hear. A request could seem as simple as repositioning garbage cans. But if ignored it could lead to fans becoming resentful and then throwing a lot of beer cans on the field instead of in that garbage can.

During the Q&A they talked about how they pull in new fans. And the answer really is to engage their current fans in one-on-one opportunities, and that will grow them new fans.

The best example of how this 5 point approach is put into play is with their support group strategy. The Whitecaps have some very passionate supporters. But to put their opportunity into perspective their supporter clubs are maybe 30 members and in Toronto they are 1,500. A fantastic opportunity, but requires some long term efforts. For years these groups were all but ignored by the organization. Today the Whitecaps are including them in the vision for soccer in BC by listening, engaging with them, following through and providing them an opportunity to openly engage with the team. Relevant events such as pub nights with the head coach, where they get his honest opinion, go a long way to building loyalty and credibility (Plus getting those garbage cans helps too).

Their story feels like the tortoise in the hare (although I had to compare the Whitecaps to anything slow). They are willing to do the work that will pay them long term dividends. They are maximing all their available channels; engaging one-on-one with their very passionate fans and giving them ownership through open honest 2 way communication, due diligence, relevant response and follow through. But to me most important is that they have included those fans in the shared vision, so everyone can be as passionate as the ownership group in the story of the newest MLS team.

So how does this in the end apply to my Women In Leadership Foundation challenge. Well we have a lot of passionate women supporters, who will soon be better included in our vision for the future, engaged more with the brand AND will hopefully start sharing that passion with their friends.

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