Martin Stephenson is a troubadour, raconteur, folk music historian, songwriter and performer, as likely to appear in your front room as to be treading the boards at the local gig venue. Subject of one of my books (“Song of the Soul: The Authorised Biography of Martin Stephenson” Ardra Press 2009) @MGStephenson abides by a simple philosophy: the power of the small.
To Martin, the little things are the most important. Eschewing the traditional corporate path, he walks down different roads, believing what he does has more in common with cottage industries (effectively ‘home producing’ music and making just enough to cover his costs) than ‘hit records’. And his community is growing – through simple word of mouth.
The little things are important in spectator sport too, but they are often lost in the relentless focus on ‘winning’ where the ruthlessness associated with the pursuit of sporting glory seeps into other aspects of the relationship between the Club and the supporter.
Sports Clubs rightly strive for high volume increases in attendance (hundreds and thousands) so the concept of going the extra mile for one little supporter seems somehow irrelevant to the greater scheme of things. And yet, the benefits of taking such an approach are, in my view, the genuine foundation for growth.
We’ve explored the culture of sports clubs here before and I’ve argued that the ‘ruthlessness’ described above translates into an anti-customer culture: a ‘we know best’, internally obsessed, highly secretive and distrusting view of the fan.
Some years ago I was shown some correspondence from one Club where a visiting fan had written to complain about his treatment at the hands of the local stewards. As part of this letter, he’d talked about having visited 46 different stadiums and this was the worst treatment he’d ever received. The letter he got back from the Club’s Head of Security ended with the bombshell ‘I’ve been to 72 different grounds, so I know better’.
So embracing the ‘little things’ is an opportunity to augur in fan-centricity: a customer culture where the pre-eminence of the supporter takes precedence. But if we’re honest, it’s fast growth that’s going to be a more motivating factor and the ‘little things’ matter here too. It’s natural that any initiative designed to drive attendances upward will be expected to deliver increases in the hundreds or even thousands, so developing a mindset that believes in achieving this through the quality of consecutive individual experiences is often resisted.
A good example would be ‘discounting’: often the fall back position when ‘sporting glory’ is failing. Our mindset expects this to appeal to large numbers of people and we’d often prioritise that in terms of, say, a letter of complaint that’s landed on our desks.
But what would happen if you were to read the letter, shed your defensiveness, call the supporter, invite them in, meet them at the main reception and walk them through the changing rooms to the dugout and chat to them in full view of the pitch?
What would happen if you deployed a team of people who would pro-actively look out for supporters with issues, problems, distressed kids or even those arriving late, in a panic or even, heaven forbid, a visiting fan who thought he could pay on the day and is now in danger of not being able to see his or her beloved team in action?
What would happen if you let a family sit in the dugout for 30 minutes before kick off? What would happen if you allowed some fans to help your security people steward the players’ car park? What would happen if you were to randomly choose a couple of your most vociferous fans and allowed them to stand at the side of the pitch to watch the game?
What would happen if you routinely read the local papers, looked out for sad stories, such as a local youth club being vandalised, offered help and support, maybe 200 tickets for the disappointed kids to attend your next match – maybe even going so far as to develop your own DIY SOS Team of local businesses, who can come to the aid of the community?
What would happen if you celebrated an individual fan at every game: maybe because of longevity of support, maybe because of their work in the community, maybe because you just felt like it?
How about you drop the idea of the same divisive ‘run out’ music at every game and asked fans to make their own suggestions? How about using a different one every week, getting people to vote for their favourites and then adopting them at key games, before running the process again next season?
How about ensuring that every new fan comes to a meeting point maybe 90 minutes ahead of their first game? What would happen if they met a Club representative, heard a little about what makes you special, had a quick tour of the facility and made to feel like they belong?
How about finding a little boy crying (he’d fallen and hurt his head) at a TeamGB game (not even your own club), ensuring the medical people see him and then finding out that your club is actually playing his club in a pre-season friendly? How about dispatching your club mascot to meet him at that game, keeping in touch, sending some gifts and inviting him and his family back to your stadium to see your team in action?
How about meeting a family on a road trip who are actually from your club’s city and discovering they;re concerned their 7 year old son might lose his affinity for their local Club and start following one of the ‘big clubs’? How about inviting him and his family to a game, giving the youngster a personal tour of the stadium, dressing rooms, etc? How about sharing the contents of the ‘thank you’ letter that soon arrived with your co-workers?
The above questions were asked and wholeheartedly answered at Huddersfield Town, Cardiff City, Portsmouth, Sheffield United and Seattle Sounders. I sometimes feel a little disingenuous associating these actions with growth, as if somehow the warmth is artificial and only done to drive growth, but it’s done because the culture of these clubs allows it.
Stepping back though, it’s clear that the exponential rise in the use of digital media has begun to temper our British high tolerance of poor service. Once there was a time when we’d tell 5 people about a good experience and maybe 9 when things go bad. The reality now is that incidents of poor service are ruthlessly shared (see Trip Advisor) while magic moments are likely to find their way onto millions of smart phones and laptop screens.
Doncaster Rovers were relegated recently to the third tier of English football – not a time for engagement, you would have thought – but the programme we’re working on at the Keepmoat Stadium has its foundations in the ‘power of the small’. So far, we’ve only taken a few short steps (real fan experiences as a catalyst for different thinking, major fan survey and initial improvements) but I learned yesterday that – a full two weeks before the new season starts – the Club has already matched last season’s season ticket sales – a feat largely unheard of post-relegation. But a key part of the plan is to bring these ‘magic moments’ to life: often more of a mindset challenge that a ‘to do’ list. I plan to share these with you in a future blog.
Ultimately, offering wide discounts really doesn’t engender enduring engagement – it’s simply ‘bought’ loyalty and can often augur in a level of expectation that makes future marketing initiatives less effective.
Making individuals feel ‘valued’ demonstrates ‘earned’ loyalty and that’s the kind that leads to genuine engagement, (digital) word of mouth and, ultimately, growth that sticks. And you make people feel valued by treating them as individuals, looking for the opportunities, and sharing the magic we all hold in our hands.
Martin George Stephenson invites his followers to a song-writing weekend where everyone can get together, enjoy the vibe, create music and spend some time with their hero. It’s only a small gathering. That’s the whole point.