Major League Baseball on Using Omnichannel to Engage Sports Fans
Concurrent with the erosion of religious practice and the so-called “third place,” attendance at sporting events has fallen. Sports teams are trying to reel fans back in by offering value-added digital experiences to coax them into stadiums.
It’s a hard sell. The alternative is watching the game from the comfort of home, tuning in and out intermittently, or even just replaying excerpts of the game on-demand or browsing statistics.
With so many touchpoints to choose from, sports teams like Major League Baseball are trying to meet their customers in every single one and bring fans closer to the action than ever before.
Why it’s important to allow your customers to disengage
Rather than discourage cell phone usage during games, the MLB, the NFL and the NBA have ramped up Wifi and cellular connectivity and invested billions of dollars into their mobile apps to enable fans to order beer, hot dogs and t-shirts from their seats and access social media feeds without leaving the app.
It’s part of an effort to provide an omnichannel experience where fans can engage with their favorite teams year-round and maintain that engagement when they arrive at the stadium.
“Once you get inside the stadium, you check in and then that opens a whole new window of engagement with the stadium and the park – what’s the shortest beer queue, where’s the nearest bathroom,” Jerry Anderson, senior director of software quality management at Major League Baseball, said at a recent event in New York City.
Cultivating fan engagement before, during and after the games
MLB’s digital arm, MLB Advanced Media, offers two apps for every team in the league, Ballpark and At Bat. Ballpark focuses on individual stadiums with special offers, maps and tickets. AtBat provides news stories, stats, scoring and postseason details. The teams eventually want to monetize both apps once they’ve reached a critical mass of user engagement from delivering premium customer support.
Image credit: Major League Baseball
MLB consists of 30 member clubs in the US and Canada, hosting over 2,500 games per season. Every stadium has its own unique design; every team its own branding and values.
Anderson said he and his team completely revamped the iOS and Android mobile apps from last year’s iterations to enable teams, leagues, clubs and stadiums to customize the mobile experience for their fans.
“You can’t just throw an app onto a product or platform and say, we’re good to go,” Anderson warned. “There’s a cost in terms of investment of skillset around that platform and the impact on quality metrics.”
Too much customizability leads to fragmentation; too little results in inflexibility, hence the need for a baseline.
“Where we’re spending a lot more time is designing quality control, so that way, regardless of the platform, we have all the metrics in place to ensure success,” said Anderson.
Image credit: Major League Baseball
However, that’s not the only type of fragmentation the MLB contends with. Recently, sports fans have shifted away from live-streaming to replaying games on-demand, forcing the MLB to diversify content (from interactive scoreboards to GIFs to 90-second video clips), focus on curation and make content accessible across a range of channels, networks and operating systems.
While device coverage is critical to the overall digital experience, it’s the continuity of the experience from one device to the next that truly elevates the omnichannel experience. Even so, it’s important not to spread oneself too thin.
“We were focused on a huge expansion to a point that was almost sustainable, so now we’re thinking about which targeted platforms we should support,” said Anderson.
Using real-time data to sweeten the deal
Sports teams like the MLB increasingly rely on data to make in-game, business and operational decisions, including merchandising, retail, pricing, promotions, inventory, staffing, security, in-park advertising and so on.
Some are even looking to couple their detailed customer transactional and engagement data with external factors such as weather, traffic, seasonal standings and day of the week, to optimize each of these types of decisions.
This led MLB to consolidate multiple marketing teams under one roof – namely, the media, creative and data teams, who were previously situated in different offices. Now, when someone makes a discovery, they can immediately share it with the other teams.
“For example, if we see that some fans respond better to messages that feature the ballpark experience, we can immediately apply this insight across similar audiences,” Barbara McHugh, senior VP of marketing at MLB, wrote in a blog post for Think With Google.
A focus on data reinvigorates an organization’s focus on the customer as customer data insights shine a light on experiential gaps, wins and opportunities. For instance, MBL used to run long infomercial-type video ads to squeeze in all the information they wanted fans to know.
However, the data showed customers weren’t engaging with this type of content, so the marketing team cut the ad length and focused on one message, such as a winning streak or specific player. Performance metrics showed an immediate rise in engagement.