Blazing A Trail To Improved Pro Sports Ticketing And Marketing

blazersWhen Dewayne Hankins moved from his marketing post at AEG – which owns several professional sports teams, including the Los Angeles Kings hockey club – to a new job as VP of marketing and digital for pro basketball's Portland Trail Blazers, the No. 1 imperative was clear: Think young.

Hankins had followed his boss, Blazers CEO Chris McGowan, following McGowan's move from AEG. They were excited at the prospect of taking the reins of a beloved team in a market that didn't have a lot of competition on the professional sporting front. But it was clear by the early demographics numbers they saw that there was trouble brewing with the Blazers. The die-hard fan base was aging.

"Our season ticket-holder base was older than we'd like and our single-game buyers were older than we'd like," Hankins said. "Our fan base had been there for many years but we were not reaching younger fans in the demographics."

In Hankins' estimation, one of the big problems was the Blazers' fossilized marketing approach. Like many traditionalist pro team marketing departments, the Blazers' old marketing team was entrenched with its old-school methods of promotion.

"As with many sports teams, the Blazers were very traditional in terms of their marketing: a lot of outdoor, a lot of print, a lot of radio, a lot of magazine, TV, that sort of thing. We really knew that we needed to find a partner that was going to help us in the digital space and do some groundbreaking things there," Hankins said. "Seventy percent of our tickets are bought online and for us not to have an online strategy was crazy."

It just so happened that Gabe Winslow and his team over at the conversion optimization agency Sq1 thought the very same thing.

A Portland native and lifelong Blazers fan, Winslow had actually pitched the Blazers digital marketing strategy services prior to Hankins' arrival but made no real inroads at that time. He'd given up on the team until he saw a press release about Hankins' hiring, with quotes about Hankins' passion for digital and data-driven marketing.

Winslow went for another pitch session and, this time, the team was ready to listen. Hankins said he was not only impressed with the ideas that Sq1 brought to the table but also the inexperience the team had previously with sports teams – he thought that would help the Blazers break some marketing molds.

"I also liked the idea of working with a company that did not have previous sports team experience, because it was really important to have a fresh perspective on what  it meant to sell a ticket," he said, explaining that agency not only brought that into marketing plans but also the buying process itself.

Before Sq1 even started with online search, paid campaigns and the like, it partnered with the Blazers to start first with completely revamping the ticketing process and then backing into marketing once that was complete. According to Hankins, the single-ticket buying process prior to last year wasn't fan-friendly or intuitive and it didn't maximize the value of tickets based on the demand generated by specific games.

"It used to be that a fan would have to go through eight, nine, sometimes 10 different pages just to get from 'Hey, I'm interested in tickets' to actually buying tickets," he said.

The newly organized ticketing site changed that and, in the process, it introduced real-time dynamic pricing for games based on the popularity of the teams the Blazers would be playing on any given day.

That dynamic pricing was fed back into the single-game ticketing page so that fans could get at-a-glance pricing information that could help them decide more easily what day they'd like to attend based on the team and the pricing. The development process included extensive A/B testing to optimize where buttons were placed and the fine-tuning of buying mechanics on the site. From there, Hankins and his team felt more confident diving into the digital marketing strategy.

"That was exciting, because the Blazers were advertising in a completely brand new way," he said. "We were digital remarketing, doing digital display, search engine marketing and doing YouTube advertising for the first time. Throughout the year we learned a ton about everything out there, tried a bunch of different methods and brought in automation with our email platform."

The results were dramatic. On the revamped page itself, the revisions yielded a 47% increase in conversion rate over the original, convoluted ticketing site. And while early postseason numbers are not available yet to show how demographics have shifted, Hankins felt confident the crowd grew younger simply based on the fact that last season 40% of single-game ticket buyers had never before bought tickets to a Blazer game.

Specifically from the digital campaign, the Blazers achieved a 630% direct ROI. This figure did not include view-through conversions – a Google metric measuring consumers who saw an ad and didn't click, but converted online within 30 days.

And the campaign managed to garner the Blazers a 65% lift in paid media average cart value vs. organic cart value. The progress was so immediate that the Blazers managed to move from the back of the pack in the NBA to becoming the fifth most effective team in terms of marketing spend and ROI for the season.

All that progress has Hankins and Winslow making plans for next year. At Hankins’ urging, Sq1 is starting a sports management division and is already in talks with multiple teams across three different sports leagues.

Meanwhile, Hankins said his team plans to build on the early success by using lessons learned and combining it with data gleaned from a new data warehouse the team has set up to fine-tune its targeting. In its sights is the goal to improve non-ticketing items like food and beverage sales and merchandise sales.

"We are talking a little about things like loyalty programs and rewarding our fans in other ways, but now we have the ability to go in and not just see what they spend on tickets, but also on retail merch and food," he said.

One option may be to activate the data warehouse and the Blazer's CRM to dig deeper into the data in order to export segments and do matches for CRM retargeting, Hankins explained.

"That way we can continue that message from onsite experience to email to the actual paid media in the marketplace and have one consistent message all the way across," Winslow said.

 

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