Cover Story: Pats' Pact: Fans Are Family
The tousled look may have worked for James Spader in the '80s. But the era of the Brat Pack feathered-do was long gone by 2010, when New England Patriots fans were at a loss as to what to think of the thing growing on their quarterback's head. Even now, a search for "Tom Brady's hair" pulls up nearly 200,000 results.
The "Brady Mullet" was born at an inopportune time—early 2010, when a looming National Football League lockout coincided with the Pats' lowest season ticket renewal rate in a decade.
Analytics might solve one of those problems, decided Pats owner Kraft Sports Group (KSG) of Foxborough, Mass. In the summer of 2009, KSG had transitioned to an on-demand marketing platform from Boston-based email and cross-channel database marketing services provider ClickSquared.
Pulling in data KSG had been collecting since 2007, the organization chose to do behavior-based marketing—rather than demographic— using the organization's database of 2.5 million records, says Jessica Gelman, Kraft Sports Group's vice president of customer marketing and strategy.
The new strategy brought the Pats a historic high season ticket renewal rate of 97 percent for the 2010 season. But what was more important to KSG and Gelman was that this new approach to analytics allowed the organization to understand fans better and provide them with what they wanted and needed.
"We're very analytically focused and I consider us to be the voice of the customer within the organization," Gelman says. "We've evolved into a customer-centric organization where our goals are to understand our customers and be relevant/timely in our communication with them. Ultimately, we should know when renewal might not happen and be able to market and communicate to change that behavior."
Pats' Pact vs. Brat Pack
The ethos of the Brat Pack was to be morally bankrupt, money-making machines. Conversely, Gelman says, the Pats' pact with fans is to do right by them.
Granted, this is a team in the enviable position of having constantly sold-out home games and fans so loyal that the average wait for season tickets is 10 years. But, she says, KSG wants to make sure the current season ticket holders stay happy.
To that end, the Patriots set up a preference center where fans could choose how and when they'd like to be contacted. But it was about more than which physical mailbox or email address fans wanted to use for the newsletter, according to Daniel P. Smith, senior vice president of marketing at ClickSquared.
"I think the biggest challenge was just one of creating a common identity," Smith says. "Because what we saw is that a single person may use one email address when they buy things on Ticketmaster. And they may use another email address when they get their fan communications for the fan newsletter. Then they use another address when it comes to, for example, the season ticket holders maybe bought through business, and now they're using a business email address. And then, obviously, there are those who don't have any [email access], so they want a physical address."
So the Patriots chose to communicate with fans on their terms.
Relating to that theme, Gelman says, KSG discovered that some of the older season ticket holders didn't have computers, but still wanted to receive timely communications. "We created a program a few years ago where a season ticket holder could have other people receive the 'insider' emails we send. For example, if a grandparent is a season ticket holder, their grandkids or kids can also get the emails, which highlight all the benefits of being a season ticket holder."
The 2009 software upgrade improved further on that season ticket holder insight. Gelman says, "ClickSquared is the centralized system into which our other databases funnel. This enables us to see how one customer interacts across all parts of the organization."
KSG can see, for instance, if a Patriots season ticket holder purchased from patriotsproshop.com, saw a concert or watched the New England Revolution soccer team at Gillette Stadium. That helps the organization tailor communications appropriately to each fan, providing what it considers "benefits" rather than pushing upsells or cross-sells. Gelman notes, for instance, that season ticket holders who've attended a U2 concert may be interested in pre-sale tickets to another U2 concert. Or someone who bought a jersey at the ProShop may like to learn about discounts available specifically for season ticket holders.
"We did a deep dive into understanding who our customers are, both in their behaviors and feedback," Gelman says. "While we can market and communicate many things, we are using analytics to focus those communications. We are prioritizing areas that will impact our business across many dimensions, including operationally, by improving the customer experience or generating revenues."
Gelman says analytics helped the organization select two major behavioral groups and target communications toward them that improved the season ticket holder renewal rate for 2010.
For the first group, potential season ticket holders just coming off of the wait list after 10 years, may have been in college when they signed up and may have moved in the intervening years, she says. So email and postal addresses may have changed.
Enter the three-channel contact approach. According to Gelman, the Patriots first tried email, then direct mail and then, a month later, a phone call to alert the newest permanently seated fans to the "Rookie Season Ticket Holder Orientation." (Those who responded by one channel were not contacted through subsequent channels.) This generated a 200 percent higher attendance rate than in 2009, and email open rates were two times higher than those of veteran season ticket holders.
"In the case of our new season ticket holders, a primary focus was educating them about all of the benefits they have as season ticket holders," Gelman says. "However, also, we needed to understand their expectations coming off the wait list and how we should tailor our efforts compared to more tenured season ticket holders."
The second group needing special attention was noticeably absent from the stadium: season ticket holders who had missed games.
"There were indications, based on their behavior, that they weren't going to renew," Gelman says, so the organization thought about how to generate excitement among these season ticket holders to get them back in their seats. "We defined messaging to help them understand both what they are missing by not attending a game and their alternatives, like posting their tickets to TicketExchange."
Emails alerted these season ticket holders that they were missed, that they're entitled to special privileges and that they could've sold their tickets to other season ticket holders and wait list members through the New England Patriots TicketExchange.
"Of course, we analyze their opens and clicks," Gelman says. "If people didn't open, then we knew we needed to make additional efforts to have impact. Regardless, after the first missed game, we wouldn't necessarily be concerned because there are a number of reasons why people miss games."
This first missed-game trigger email generated a 1.5 percent higher renewal rate than the control group, who didn't receive the email. Added in with the 55 percent open rate for this communication was the hot spot of "where and when" program winners, Gelman says. This most heavily clicked area of the message was where the Patriots reminded these season ticket holders, "'Hey, if you come to the game as a season ticket holder, you could win a pre-game field visit or an instant seat upgrade if we see you wearing your pin,'" Gelman says. "People are curious. They wanted to see who had won before."
Another missed game raised a bit more concern for her.
"If they missed another game, the second outreach effort was a survey," Gelman says. "So we could understand, 'What's happening here? Why did you actually miss this game? What information are we maybe not providing?' And, most importantly, 'What can we do to make sure you have a better experience?'"
The survey saw a 40 percent open rate, and Gelman says 1 percent [more] of the fans receiving this message renewed their season tickets [vs. the control group].
But if some fans in the second email batch didn't respond, Gelman says, "the third phase is calling people and/or sending a letter to them to engage them and make sure they know that, 'We want you to remain a fan of the team and a customer of the organization.' "
In the end, the approaches added up to the historic high season ticket renewal rate of 97 percent for the 2010 season.
Gelman says each touch was monitored so that if a season ticket holder responded to an email, for instance, the fan wouldn't get a call "unless something in their response necessitated that we reach out to them."
It's the same way the organization monitors what's going on inside the stadium—by talking to fans when they leave.
"We do surveys after many games," Gelman says. "If we find there was an issue, or something that should've been addressed that wasn't elevated during the game [through chatting with the] security guards [or texting] into a phone number, ... we act on [it]. We'll call them or confirm the information."
Beginning with the retention mail and again in July, when the organization sends out season tickets, the Patriots remind ticket holders that most of the communication from the team will be coming via email. For those who aren't comfortable with email, they're reminded that they'll be receiving direct mail. Plus, fans learn that there's a phone number reserved for season ticket holders' concerns.
Other than that, Gelman says the Patriots try to reach out to all the season ticket holders at least a couple more times a year—to alert them to events meant just for them, for instance.
"They're really going through brick walls, trying to make sure they're talking to the fans everyday," Smith says.
Putting aside the Brady Mullet for a moment, Smith points out that the Patriots story is far from a shaggy dog story, or even an underdog tale. The Patriots could've continued to thrive without being so loyal to their fans and without trying to cater so much to their needs.
"What I think is just neat about this story, in general, is the patriots are a very successful franchise," he says. "There's a long waiting list for season ticket holders. ... Take it away from a business relationship that I'm involved in here and, just as a fan, the amount of effort they put into making sure that their season ticket holders are happy, that their season ticket holders renew—when you've got a long line of people waiting to take their place—I think just speaks volumes to really, truly wanting to engage customers, create loyalty, etc., when I think the easy thing to do here is just say, 'Who cares? There's all kinds of people just waiting to sign up as soon as that guy leaves.'
"But [KSG] goes through these great efforts to make sure that every fan is having a great experience, that they want to come back year after year," Smith continues. "And I think using the amount of analytics they do just for signs of potential attrition, and then taking a lot of actions to make sure that doesn't happen, is just really noteworthy given the reality that there's a long line outside the door."
Gelman says the goal is to be able to know each individual fan.
"They're not just a ticket," she says. "They're part of our extended family."
Take that, Brat Pack. The Pats' pact with fans may change the meaning of that mullet. After all, this customer-centric approach is progressing faster than Tom Brady's hairstyle—which re-entered the 21st century in September.