Customer relationship management applies beyond the traditional product and service offerings. CRM has become a core strategic element of sports clubs that recognise the importance of managing and understanding their supporters. For many fans, the football brand is a passion! Due to their cultural ties and emotional appeal, sports clubs surpass organisations operating outside the realm of sports in brand adoration and loyalty. However, this brand craze creates a complex environment and requires careful management and anticipation. This process is especially difficult in the football industry where competition over followers is fierce. It is evident that football without fans wouldn’t be the sport that it is today; a weak fan base leads football clubs to ruin. Fans, as customers, are the base of the football club’s economic model and should not be taken for granted; they fill up stadiums, buy merchandise, and attract sponsorships.
A Special Kind of Relationship
Loyalty goes a long way in the football industry. It could be seen on the streets where fans wear the club’s brand identity as a display of allegiance to the club. Football fans choose their teams according to a variety of criteria. It could be as simple as enjoying the entertainment of a match on a weekend afternoon or liking how some of the players perform on the pitch. Less-enthusiastic fans might embrace a team because of their kit or colors or because of their regional or geographical identity. However these fans do not bring much value to the club as their so called “love” for the team does not necessarily translate into ticket or merchandise purchases. The club’s highest value customers are those who build their lifestyle around the club’s identity and attend matches. Long-term oriented relationships are crucial in the football industry as these fans’ loyalty is heavily influenced by family legacy and social circles.
Customer (Fan) Relationship Management Drivers
Fans will always want match tickets to be cheaper. At the same time, they expect the club to win championships and become successful. Not all fans understand the business behind football; clubs need to make enough profits in order to purchase and train players. This is what football clubs have to overcome and many have come to realise that the largest profits are to be made outside of the football pitch by maximising customer’s value through merchandise sales.
The rise of player costs and salaries has encouraged football clubs to diversify their business beyond the football pitch and implement CRM practices in order to maximise revenues. CRM in the Premiere League have been especially successful in retaining fans in times of crisis.
Manchester City Football Club (MCFC) is one of the Premiere League clubs that has implemented a rigorous CRM strategy of understanding and managing fans.
Manchester City Football Club
MCFC is aiming to become the most popular football club in the world. To do so, it is using a variety of tools and mediums to build a rapport with the fans. MCFC hired Goodform, a CRM consultancy agency, to devise and implement best CRM practices across the organisation.
Establishing a Relationship and Adding Value
Manchester City aims to differentiate itself from the competition. Their website, which was developed with the fans, offers a considerable competitive advantage. The website is user-friendly and contains no advertisements. It has gone through an extensive market research aimed at understanding the fan’s needs and expectations. This displays a sense of empathy and responsiveness to their online community. The website also contributed to some of their other service quality dimensions: access and tangibility. It contains everything a fan would want to know about the club and more; fans won’t need to visit third party sport channels or websites in order to know how their team is doing. The website has extensive match reports and highlights, live commentary, team sheets, match and comparative player statistics, as well as manager notes and photos. Fans could also submit their opinions and predictions about the match and interact with other fans around the world.
When purchasing a match ticket, customers can interactively select a seat in the stadium by getting a high-quality preview of what their angle of vision of the pitch is going to be. Other special web features include the Fan Cam. This application enables fans to locate and tag themselves or their friends in the stadium through an interactive, high quality, 360° image of the Etihad Stadium. The Fan Cam has integrated Facebook and Twitter into its platform to tap into the rapidly growing social-networking community.
Contrary to its rival Manchester United, the majority of MCFC’s fan base is located in Manchester. MCFC has directed its advertising campaign to stress the strong link between the club and the city of Manchester aimed at charming a number of stakeholders and appealing to the goodwill or spiritual awareness of some fans. Through their City in the Community (CITC) program, the club organises a variety of fundraising and volunteering events. For example, the Sky Blue Santa Stroll is a fundraising event of a 2.5 km walk around the Etihad Stadium organised during the Christmas season.
How they Identify Fans
Manchester City uses a permission marketing scheme to collect data from its supporters. When registering on the website, MCFC asks for the basic information of the fan’s identity, location, contact details, and preferred communication platform. Using their cutting-edge IT system, MCFC stores, analyses this data, and communicates it to all levels of the company. The information is used to profile the customer’s behavior, attitudes, and circumstances.
The stadium is equipped with RFID tag readers that streamline the entry flow of the supporters using their Clever Card. This member card is not only used to enter the stadium, but also to buy match tickets, make purchases in the stadium, and allow season ticket holders to buy-back seats for games they are not attending. This wireless solution is connected to their CRM software system which tracks and stores supporters’ purchases helping MCFC compile large amounts of real-time data on their fans, from the moment they enter the stadium to the time they leave. Purchases with the Clever Card help supporters accumulate loyalty points for discounts on future purchases.
The RFID system allows entry of 1200 fans per minute, increasing speed and security, and attracting a whole new customer base: women and children. It also eliminates the long queues from the box-office and presents an incentive for fans to come to the stadium early and take advantage of their discounts. For those late birds, they will be able to purchase tickets online or via phone at any moment before the start of the match.
This technology has also brought large savings to the company; ticketless sales have eliminated the mail order system, removed postage costs, and significantly reduced the number of employees at the gates of the stadium.
A good CRM strategy requires a significant amount of data from customers. One of the issues that arise from this is the question of privacy. MCFC need to clarify their privacy terms in a more simplistic manner. The terms and conditions are long and contain legal jargon that might not be understood by everyone. The customer needs to know which information is shared and which is kept private. The Fan Cam could potentially raise such issue of privacy, as some fans might not want to divulge their presence at the stadium. The same goes for the RFID cards which have limited encryption capability and are thus vulnerable to third party detection.
Differentiation is Key
Together with Goodform CRM Agency, MCFC has implemented a rigorous CRM development cycle and segmented 33 target groups, each with a custom service system. Each fan has different needs and expectations, and represents a different value to the company.
The data collected through the website and RFID cards is used by the club in several ways. MCFC knows which supporter attends, when they arrive at the stadium, and their purchasing patterns. Overtime, this data generates an accurate description of the card holder and allows the club to locate where the unrealised potential value is, and to differentiate between fans to cross-sell merchandise and other services.
MCFC has implemented various tools to conduct dialogue with its customers/fans. “Points of Blue” is an internal committee organised to address issues the fans have. Every season, a survey is sent out to all the contacts on the database to gauge their perceptions about the products and services in the stadium. After having analysed this survey, the committee meets to plan for ways to address the issues. The minutes of this meeting are sent back to the fans and published on the website.
Apart from their website, MCFC strives to impose its presence on the web by tapping into the social networks of Facebook and Twitter. Community managers post and tweet about club updates and match commentary and allow uncensored customer initiated interactions. This feedback from the customers is stored in the database and is used to heighten customer knowledge which in turn improves competitive advantage. Throughout the web, MCFC uploads massive amounts of content daily, including video feeds of the team, to satisfy all potential needs of the fans.
Everything is Customized
Through their hospitality services, MCFC caters to a variety of clientele. The club offers a range of seating options where virtually every seat sections of the stadium is meant to target a specific profile of fans. For example, fine dining and elite seating at the Boardroom and Platinum Boxes is for high-value customers. Betting machines and counters are designed to fit the clientele of each section. The club has also taken into account disabled fans and created a supporters association for the disabled.
MCFC has partnered with Thomas Cook Sports to offer package deals for travelling supporters. This is aimed for the club’s most loyal fans that follow the team at away games and European encounters. Thomas Cook Sports helps them book the match ticket, the flight, and the hotel all in one package.
The customisation goes even further with the four different levels of membership options (Blue, Gold, Platinum, and Superbia), each with a different cost and benefits. The Superbia card is only given to regular and loyal supporters that bring the highest value to the club and thus enjoy a more individualised relationship with the club. However, the relationship between the club and low-value fans is on an aggregate level as they represent a low ROI. Much of the focus is then turned to fans with unrealised potential value. For example, the club set up a FIFA 12 video gaming area in City Square to attract young gamers and entertain them prior to the matches.
There is also a level of transparent customisation in MCFC. Using their database of customer profiles and history, the club is able to offer targeted promotions and push for merchandise sales fitting the customer’s preferences. Instead of advertising their matches, MCFC uses its CRM database to contact potential match attendees with targeted emails.
Product & Process Stage
Manchester United FC is juggling between mass customisation and invention. They are dynamic in the sense that they are constantly improving their services by asking fans of their opinions and suggestions. Using their massive data collected, they are able to offer new services and bundle new packages to attract specific target groups.
Successes/Barriers & Recommendations:
MCFC has to be careful not to overextend its CRM strategy in initiatives that solely add customer value. Before engaging in a costly CRM venture, the club needs to make sure that customer value will translate into business value. In the short-run, this could be achieved through incentive programs and cross-selling of merchandise and eatables at the stadium.
As the football industry is becoming more and more competitive, Manchester City should reach out to younger groups, to capture the fan base at an early stage. Football activities and long-term programs in primary schools need to be organised both in the UK and abroad. Involvement of the first team players would be more effective as it would have a greater impact on the kids and attract positive media attention.
MCFC needs to adopt a friendlier PR policy, where the media is invited to report on special events, and have access to transparent information from the management of the club. This will appease rumor frenzy reporters and perhaps polish the image of the club.
MCFC needs to conduct outreach programs for minority groups and women in the UK and tap into segments that are not necessarily interested in football. This would expand City’s fan base, embellish the club’s brand throughout society, and secure a strong following in the long-term.