What Is Fan Experience? (And 6 Ways Digital Sports Marketers Are Redefining It)
In the past, sports marketers traditionally dedicated lots of time and resources to improving the in-stadium fan experience. However, sports clubs and organizations are now faced with the task of redefining what exactly is “fan experience” in the digital age, especially as sports fans increasingly look to online and social platforms to bring them closer to the game.
Today, sports clubs know that if they can bring the traditional in-stadium excitement directly to fans through unique digital experiences, then big rewards will follow.
Importantly, this means that new digital sports fan experiences should try to mirror the benefits of traditional sports event experiences, which can be easily summed up by what Deloitte refers to as the ‘Core Four’ expectations. These consist of:
- A safe and comfortable stadium/environment
- A quality view of the game
- A high-quality game experience
- An exciting atmosphere
Yet, while the Core Four are still important, today’s under-30s, digital-first fans now demand more access and convenience from their sports clubs and organizations of choice.
This new generation of ‘digital natives’ (those in the ‘Gen Z’ and ‘young millennial’ brackets) are online for most of their waking hours, and they’re used to 24/7 entertainment and the multi-media experiences that come with it.
However, what makes them such a prize catch for sports marketers is also what makes them fickle: if they’re not entertained, then they’re more likely to switch to other entertainment types or platforms.
According to intelligence company Morning Consult, Gen Z viewers are half as likely as older generations to watch live sports regularly and switch over to other media.
The onus is on sports marketers to come up with ways to reach beyond the minimum ‘Core Four’ and come up with ways to engage with younger viewers while keeping more traditional fans happy.
In short, it means providing a tailored fan experience that goes beyond even the most demanding expectations.
What is fan experience today?
The core principle of fan experience is the same as it always has been: enhancing what the sports fan feels when interacting with the club or organization, with a view to building and sustaining brand loyalty.
Yet, the way fans are living this experience is changing dramatically.
Today, the ubiquity of smartphones and the proliferation of social media platforms are merging the physical and virtual worlds, providing consumers with numerous options for how and when they choose to experience a sporting event.
No longer are they just confined to the stadium, or even live TV coverage, anymore – even if most fans still enjoy the thrill of what live games feel like.
Instead, sports fans today prefer access to their club on their own terms, whether it’s watching highlights at 3am in the morning or taking a virtual stadium tour just before kick-off, and marketers have the digital tools available to make sure this happens.
These devices span the following areas:
- Social media, including Twitch, Twitter, Instagram, etc.
- VR and AR, powered by 5G internet that lets fans interact in new ways via simulation apps and in-venue experiences
- Blockchain technology in the form of NFTs that offer digital collectibles, unique fan experiences and tokenization.
So, how can marketers utilize these technologies to deliver a modern digital fan experience that keeps fans returning to the stadium, as well as spending money in other related channels?
And, more importantly from a business perspective, how can clubs do all this while maximizing their return on investment in these new digital methods?
6 ways to improve the fan experience
Before delving into the specifics, the best fan experiences come about because of excellent strategic thinking.
A meeting between all club departments to set out a strategy and clarify its goals is essential.
The outcome should be a detailed and researched fan experience strategy, setting out what every team member’s role is. Although firm and clear, it should also have the flexibility for changes should they arise.
Here are six core marketing tactics that such a digital-first sports marketing strategy should incorporate.
1. Introduce fan reward programs
Adopting a robust loyalty program has several huge positives, particularly via a points-based system.
It encourages fans to interact with the club to get more points, which drives revenue, as well as allows the club to easily pinpoint its ‘whales’ – superfans who invest the most money into the team.
With this knowledge, the club can target this demographic with specialized promotions, such as digital collectibles in the form of NFTs, or unique matchday experiences. They also get access to invaluable first-party data, including web activity, buying history and fan preferences.
From the fan’s point of view, they receive rewards for showing their commitment to the club. There’s also the added incentive of bragging rights over their peers – after all, it’s human nature to desire what our neighbor has.
Tokenizing this process has also generated big returns for sports clubs. French eSports club MCES recently launched a program that gives fans unique club tokens for every like, tweet, view or follow on social media. Fans can then exchange these tokens for exclusive gifts, from autographed jerseys to unique experiences such as participation in an official stream.
The result? A 40% boost in new subscriptions and 20,000 new social media impressions.
Digital sports marketing ideas like this are allowing clubs to maximize returns on fan engagement, and help them improve the fan experience in the process.
2. Produce the right content for the right social media platform
The true wonder of social media is just how universal it has become.
Younger generations are the most prolific users, but millennials and boomers also spend a large chunk of their free time interacting on these networks. The only difference is the networks they tend to use.
The club’s content plan must encapsulate as many social media touchpoints as possible, aiming to hit every corner of the fanbase. Mapping all these out and planning how each channel can add to the fan experience and its chief demographic is crucial.
The next task is leveraging the club’s social media to connect with each fan demographic via consistent high-quality content. Pew Research shows that under 30s respond better to the short-form video content of TikTok and Instagram Stories, which might include bite-sized player interactions, or quick stadium tours before a big event
Older generations, meanwhile, are more likely to respond to Facebook and Twitter posts, with interactive content such as polls and trivia that draws fans in and keeps them engaged before, during and after a game.
The marketer’s task, then, is to not only come up with a conveyor belt of rich, engaging social media content, but to put all of the relevant touchpoints in one place for easy access such as the official website or a club platform.
Below is a recent study that breaks down social media demographics by platform.
Social media use by demographic. Source: Pew Research 2021
3. Encourage athlete engagement with more virtual and metaverse interactions
Athletes, too, have a major role to play across all channels.
Social media’s ability to give fans access to exclusive behind-the-scenes content featuring training schedules, pre- and post-game thoughts and expert analysis is exactly why it’s one of the most powerful marketing tools out there.
On a broader level, athletes across the world are using their appeal to become marketing influencers off the pitch. As part of a club strategy, marketers can leverage their deep connections with followers to drive engagement and revenue.
Building the club and athlete’s personal brands in tandem is central here.
Interlinked YouTube and Twitch accounts are a great way to broadcast joint pre- and post-game content. In-stadium virtual interactions, such as AI-powered photo shoots with players, and unique player/fan experiences (especially as part of a rewards model) are hugely powerful devices.
Athlete engagement opportunities may even be about to step onto the field of play. The Brooklyn Nets recently applied for a patent for its ‘Netaverse’ idea, which involves transporting the fan onto the basketball court alongside the players in a 3D virtual reality game.
While the idea is still in its infant stages, the Nets said that this could include the fan experiencing the thrill of a game by putting them at the center of a VR rerun, or even in the middle of a live game.
It’s athlete engagement at the highest level, and the stars in question don’t have to do anything extra to create it — just play their game as normal.
In short, original and authentic digital media created by athletes is a gold mine for any sports club —it also helps boost the star’s profile and gives the fans the interactions they crave.
4. Utilize more digital assets, such as blogs and online hubs
Outside of social media, other digital mediums have a huge role to play in enhancing the modern fan experience.
The club website, or app, should contain well-researched, informative content that ditches corporate speak in favor of a personal tone.
In-depth blog articles and news stories, interlinked to other club and sponsor content, is not only crucial for the fan eager to know everything about their club, it’s also important for the high website rankings that drive traffic and associated revenue.
Quality content should be just as readily available in mobile form as via browsers: 66% of Gen Z teens consume news or current events via smartphone alerts and notifications, according to Deloitte research, while a sizable percentage of the older crowd are also comfortable with these gateways.
Again, it’s vital to have a content hub where fans can easily access this material. The club website has been the most obvious choice for many years, but new mediums are appearing.
Fan portals can be handy one-stop hubs with URLS that redirect visitors to club articles and videos, as well as sponsor content. Similarly, check-in buttons on club-related media linking to club channels is essential in building two-way traffic that drives fan engagement.
5. Produce more merchandise and digital collectibles for superfans
As ever, merchandising is a key revenue stream for clubs and must be fine-tuned to fit in with the modern fan experience.
Direct-to-consumer products are integral to this, bypassing third party platforms to deliver exclusive offers tailored to fan needs.
Fan data is key here.
By knowing their spending habits marketers can streamline and evolve their advertising campaigns to make sure that the product is always relevant to the target audience.
Knowing who the ‘superfans’ is also key.
The 2018 Deloitte Fan Engagement Survey showed that sports fanatics spend 175% more than the casual viewer, so identifying and targeting them with tailored promotions should be a part of any strategy.
Fan fanatics vs casual fans. Source: Deloitte Fan Engagement Survey 2018.
Whereas in the past, fans were happy buying a replica shirt or scarf before a game, today’s consumers are looking for products that stretch beyond tangible items and represent the digital age. They want unique experiences that make them the envy of their friends – it could be a one-on-one chat with a player, or owning an NFT of famous club moments.
A rewards-based points system works as an excellent incentivised model to lead supporters to high-level products. They receive points for any transaction or online interaction, which they can then exchange for merchandise after accumulating a sufficient amount.
Of course, any merchandise model would be incomplete without quality customer service to back it up. Investing in staff training that puts the club values and identity at its core is essential, whether it’s selling novelty items in the club shop or dealing with an online complaint.
6. Introduce new tech to the physical matchday experience
The modern fan experience may hold many virtual elements, but it’s important not to forget the bread and butter of club revenue: the matchday experience.
Enhancing the physical aspects of the matchday will make the difference between a good fan experience and a great one.
The club should start by collating common fan pain points via surveys and polls, then using the latest technology to address them.
Are lines around the stadium and at sales kiosks a problem?
All ticket scanning and payment methods should be contactless: QR codes help to cut down on waiting times, with ticket and food voucher codes available through the club app.
Is it a hassle finding facilities due to poor signage?
An employee task force in place will allow for a smoother fan experience, as well as clear and frequent signposting around the stadium to help fans get around. The club app or platform should ideally have virtual maps and detailed logistical info to help out, too.
New technology can also kick in once the game is underway. Many clubs, mindful of the growing use of devices during games, are working on ‘second screen features’ to complement the in-stadium experience.
This might be in the form of extra content via social media channels as the action unfolds, or it could involve installing screens in high-tier seating that provide the fan with live statistics, a multitude of camera angles, and instant replays.
Fans may soon be able to see stats hovering over each player via AR-enhanced glasses, while chats from friends scroll down the side of their vision, or access incredible pre-game events like the giant lion hologram enjoyed by fans at the inauguration of the Estudiantes de la Plata stadium in Argentina.
Extra services will also enhance the matchday experience. Giving the fan the chance to order refreshments from their seat via services such as SeatServe, interact with other fans during the game, or even play collective games on the stadium’s giant screens are now all real possibilities.
Only through blending the physical world with exciting virtual developments will clubs be able to hit the sweet spot of delivering the immersive fan experience that their consumers are looking for.
Stuck for ways how to improve the fan experience at your club? Contact Fanprime to find out how our fan reward platform can monetize fan interactions through multiple social media touchpoints and track valuable fan data.