Collegiate athletics marketing is all about activating fan affinity. We pour painstaking effort into producing visually dynamic schedule posters with die-cuts, custom photography, stellar taglines and whatever the latest printing technique is so we can slap our fans in the face and get them excited about the upcoming season. We post social media graphics to let all of our followers know there’s a game coming up or tell them about the game we just won. I could sit here and list out the hundreds of things we do, as an industry, that are aimed at activating the affinity that exists within our fans so they’ll want to attend our events.
But that’s where the problem lies. Read that statement again: …activating the affinity that exists within our fans… If you think about it, most of what we do is focused on existing affinity. And we’re just trying to activate it.
But what happens when there is no affinity to activate? What happens when you’ve run out of fans to activate affinity within?
During the course of a recent research engagement, we discovered something very important about a particular university’s market: the alumni base in that area is extremely small. Additionally, the alumni from this school are quite wealthy and their attention isn’t just being pulled by other local entertainment options, it’s being pulled by far-off, exotic weekend getaways. Even if we overcame the things that were pulling fans away and activated fan affinity in every member of the university’s core local audience, we still wouldn’t be able to fill the football stadium because the pool of people with an existing affinity is so small.
The other mistake many programs make is assuming that alumni and/or fans that used to have an affinity for their athletic programs still have an affinity to be activated. We all like to think that because someone went to our university or used to come to our games, all we have to do is figure out how to activate that thing inside of them that will make them want to come back. But for a multitude of reasons, sometimes that’s just not the case. Sometimes alumni don’t care. Sometimes with former fans, it’s too late.
Whether you’re reaching out to people who have no ties to your athletic programs, alumni with little existing affinity for your programs or former fans that have grown apathetic, we must change the conversation from one of trying to activate fan affinity to one of creating fan affinity. It can be done, trust me. You see brands all over the world that go from non-existent to having extremely loyal “fans.” They do this by creating an affinity for their brands.
Okay, great. Stop activating. Start creating. Where do we start?
A coach wouldn’t develop a strategy to win a game without first scouting the opponent. In the same way, you must scout your opponent. Your opponent is apathy toward your program.
1. Who are THEY?
First things first: figure out who is in your market and speak their language. Time and time again, I’ve seen athletic organizations invest in a marketing plan targeted at individuals that may not even exist. The prospect group you envision is probably out there, but you have to make sure there are enough of those people in your market to move the revenue needle if you reach them and convert them. For instance, if you think the people most likely to attend your events are single men and you target your message to them, you’re going to have a problem if your market is actually full of 35-year-old mothers of two. If you know your market is full of PhDs, your message will be different than if you think it’s full of factory workers.
2. Who are YOU?
Now that you know who you’re trying to reach, you have to figure out a way to position yourselves in a way that is appealing to those most likely to come to your events. What makes what you have to offer better than what is competing for your potential fans’ time? Remember, we’re creating affinity here. We’re trying to appeal to potential fans that have no feelings one way or another toward our programs. Is your gameday experience family-friendly? Are you priced well? Are you a Power 5 school with big-name opponents coming in? There’s no right or wrong answer. You just have to figure out why what you’re offering is better than whatever you’re competing with.
3. Find Compatibility
Now that you know who your potential fans are and you’ve done a deep dive into figuring out who you are, you have to find common ground. If 35-year-old mothers are making decisions about what to do with their young children on Saturday afternoons, the hard-hitting action of top name opponents probably isn’t what is going to appeal to them the most. At the same time, if big hairy men are your target, talking up the hard-hitting action may be the way to go. We may be perpetuating stereotypes here, but marketing is based largely on understanding the typical characteristics and preferences of big groups of people and tapping into those likes and needs in order to make a connection and influence a decision. It works for every other industry in the world. It will work for you. Think of it like having a conversation with your father-in-law… if he’s a mechanic and you’re in marketing, you’re not going to insist on talking about marketing or he’ll check out. You do some research and figure out that he’s really into competitive duck-herding. OMG, you’re into competitive duck-herding! Now you have something to talk about at Thanksgiving. Find out what you and your fan base have in common. Then connect over it.
The reality is this: die-hard fans are coming to your games no matter how amazing your poster and social media graphics are. So marketing to them is like paying for the free mints at the end of a meal. And that’s exactly who you’re marketing to with the die-cut, 3D, pop-up, scratch-n-sniff schedule posters and animated gifs of Jimmy hitting that three-pointer. Don’t get us wrong: there’s a place for that when it comes to maintaining your fan base. But if you want to actually grow your fan base, you need to create affinity for your athletic programs. Do some research or engage someone to help you do some research. If you figure out who your potential fans are and then figure out who you are, you have what you need to drive attendance.