ASK THE QUESTION
Mark works all over Europe helping associations, leagues and clubs to understand and improve fan engagement and their match day experience.
The Fan Experience Company was founded in 2005, and in 2019/20 they oversaw the assessment of over 350 games each season in 13 countries.
I think we can all agree that, for clubs who rely on match day revenue for their survival, things will have to change post-Covid.
Our White Paper, Season One of the Fan Experience Experience podcast and our People Developmentsupport have all focused on how important the Fan Experience is going to be in the immediate post-Covid period.
We know that when economic uncertainty, rising unemployment and personal health concerns are added to the issue of fans who have either lost the habit or who won’t return until they can ‘hug a stranger in the away end when we score a last-minute winner’, the situation is challenging at best.
Most people we speak to believe that, as capacities are lifted, there may be an accompanying boost in attendance, but in the medium term and, we would wager, from the start of the 2021/22 season, the outlook is far less certain, with most expecting match day revenue to fall.
If ever there was a time for clubs to question the things they do, it is now. Right now.
We fear that many owners honestly believe that fans’ genuine post-Covid concerns will evaporate once they get back into the habit. This reflects the pre-existing belief that they’re less driven by their experiences and more by that distant promotion’ or cup run.
It’s an attitude that is, quite frankly, difficult to believe in an era where successful businesses in any sector are driven by an obsession with the needs of their customers. But perhaps this is driven by a sense that football fans are somehow excluded from that ‘business to customer’ sphere because of the irrationality that prevails in the game.
Fans are always ‘connected’ regardless. They really just want to go to the game. They don’t really have an opinion about their experiences and that the ‘return’ they expect is no more than a partially realistic hope for future success. They accept that some elements of the match day at their club are hopelessly out of date (cash-only payment) or simply hopeless (running out of food before half time), but the ‘habit’ transcends inconveniences that are somehow merely penitential.
The progressive owner, by contrast, will be re-thinking relationships with fans in order to be able to anticipate their changing habits and perceptions and thereby optimise the resources they have.
Any business worth its salt has a dashboard that feeds into regular top table meetings. What are our customers saying this week? What’s the key positive? Where do we need to improve and how are we going in relation to our longer-term ambitions? How many football clubs have such a dashboard and can answer those questions?
AZ Alkmaar is one of the few clubs globally who take a reading of fan sentiment after every single home game.
That’s right: not every couple of years or maybe when there’s a crisis on the pitch, but every time the team plays a home game. This shouldn’t be seen as some visionary activity, but the ‘bread and butter’ of any spectator sports business. The fact that it’s absent from the vast majority of non-elite clubs we know just shows how unprepared the game is for the difficult moments ahead.
Let’s at least have an engagement KPI (Key Performance Indicator). Let’s have a score that tells us how engaged our fans are – how positive their levels of emotional connection are.
This is not just about their likelihood to attend and renew but about how they feel; how positively they are likely to speak about the club; how likely they are to forgive when the club gets things wrong and the extent to which they believe the club understands, respects and honours their emotional investment in it.
A decade ago, we undertook some research with a League One club in England. It led us to recognise that there are at least two vital KPIs clubs should use: Net Promoter and ‘personally valued’.
Of the first, much is known. ‘Based on your most recent experiences with us, how likely is it that you would recommend us (e.g., recommending to friends and family interested in football that they should attend a match and start supporting the club)?
It’s a question any business worth its salt will ask of its customers. But it’s not the only one. You need to understand the reasons behind the NPS© score. If they’re scoring you high, why is that? Conversely, if they’re unhappy, what’s behind these sentiments?
There are, of course, many sports businesses around the globe who use this metric (most in the USA), but one thing we have learned is that, when we’re talking about sports fans, you need to ensure you’re in tune with the perspective of the long-term fan: he or she most emotionally connected to the club.
Let’s take my club Sunderland, for example. If I’m asked, ‘how likely is it that I would recommend Sunderland’, I may be tempted to reflect my love for my club by exaggerating my answer. I’m not likely to recommend Newcastle.
That is, indeed, what we found a decade ago. When the fans of the League Club we worked with several years ago were asked the Net Promoter question, the aggregate score was positive (somewhere in the region of +3 to +5).
But when the same fans were asked a ‘re-worded’ question (‘based on your most recent experiences as a fan of NN club, how personally valued do you feel?’), the resulting score was markedly different: around -60.
Was this because using the phrase ‘personally valued’ somehow clarified that we were asking about their own individual lived experiences on match days? We think so.
In our many years of working in football, there’s a sense that the slow pace of change and the failure to embrace new ways of working with supporters has its origins in the belief that our supporters don’t really want it in the first place.
But how do you know if you don’t ask them? This is not the time to assume, but to actually ask the question…
….and show some interest in the answer
Our White Paper on the topic of safety and fan experience ‘It’s Just Like Watching Pret’ can be found here
© The Fan Experience Company 2020