Ep. 54: Fan Personalization & Selling an Event with Scott Brand
In each episode of The GameDay Playbook presented by FanFood, Rob Cressy discusses how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate gameday more efficiently.
Scott Brand, President at the Columbus River Dragons, joins Rob Cressy to talk about his fan engagement mindset. What is it like marketing minor league hockey in the South? How can you get fans who are new to the sport engaged at the beginning? Why is capturing fan information crucial to the ability to reactivate fans? How do the River Dragons get fans to feel like they own the team? Why is there a huge opportunity with personalization?
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Rob Cressy: (00:04)
Welcome to the GameDay Playbook presented by FanFood. A discussion around how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate game day more efficiently. I'm your host, Rob Cressy and joining me today is Scott Brand, President at the Columbus River Dragons. Scott, great to have you on the show.
Scott Brand: (00:29)
Good to be here. Thank you for having me.
Rob Cressy: (00:32)
Can you give a quick overview on who you are and what you do?
Scott Brand: (00:36)
Well, I'm currently the President of the Columbus River Dragons and we were in our first year this year. Before that, I was in Carolina with the Carolina Thunderbirds. A new expansion team that did phenomenally and was there for a couple of years. Then had a couple of cups of coffee in the minor leagues as a referee and grew up in Chicago playing junior hockey. Now I'm down here in the swipe box known as Columbus Georgia.
Rob Cressy: (1:06)
So, I think there's a lot of unique things that we get to talk about regarding the world of sports technology and fan engagement. And let's start with this. What is it like marketing hockey in Georgia?
Scott Brand: (1:19)
Well, you know the advantage we happen to have here is we have sports betting. So, we have a lot of military and so the military happens to come from all over the world in the country. So, we do have a little bit of a base and there was a history of hockey down here so people understand it, but at some point you do have to explain what the dasher boards are. You have to explain what icing is. They're very intelligent fans, but at some point, you just say listen, you like football? Yes. It's like football on ice. Or NASCAR, we have nights where people go in the corners and maybe one guy doesn't come out. So, it's unique but once we get them in the building I think our sport of hockey pretty much sells itself.
Rob Cressy: (2:12)
And with that, what do you do to help facilitate that conversation? So, we know sports fans are sports fans, not everyone's die-hard. And a lot of people haven't been exposed to hockey, whether they didn't play as a kid or they didn't have a local team there. It makes sense on, Hey, you gotta learn the rules and stuff, but we live in a world where everybody's vying for the attention of everyone else. So, even though you're the Columbus River Dragons, you're still competing for attention against ESPN and Coke and Pepsi selling advertising. So, what do you do to try and get that fan engaged at the beginning?
Scott Brand: (2:52)
Probably the toughest thing you need to do, and again I came from a hockey background and then was fortunate enough to spend some time in an ulterior. I don't know what the word you want to call pro wrestling, but a different sport. So, what you have to do is you have to switch it off your love for the game. So, you have to completely turn it off because you can talk about how great your sport is, whether it be baseball, hockey, football, and there are just some people that don't care. So, what we do know is we're selling an offense. We have to sell an event. It's gotta be a family-friendly event. And frankly, I'm selling a two and a half hour movie.
And here's the problem with the movie is we can write the script. Everything can go right. The bad guy can still win, or the crooked referee, the crooked sheriff can take the game away for us. So, what we have to do is it all becomes about engagement. I have to make sure that when mom comes to the game she's happy, she feels safe. Dad can have the odd beverage and the kids are entertained by two mascots that run around and are goofy. And then hopefully they're going to see the action on the ice and action's going to turn him into a hockey fan.
Rob Cressy: (4:06)
Do you do things specifically for each of the different, you talked about dad, you talked about mom and he talked about the kids? We can see the kids, that seems relatively easy because we've got the mascots. The dad, we would think would have a slightly more proclivity to like sports. But if we look at the mom's side of things, are you looking at fan engagement buckets by gender or age or a segment so you can speak directly to that mom instead of just making a general nature?
Scott Brand: (4:37)
When we put something together we always try and, how's military night going to affect the kids? How is military night going to affect dad? I mean, obviously dads are dads. And then mom, I mean we don't want mom to come there and a Sherman Tank comes through the stadium and she's not going to think that's wonderful, but what it is might be wonderful as they engage the soldiers that are in the building. Have their parents come on a jumbotron or, or through social media, and say hello.
So, we've got it for moms, we're really looking to make sure every event we have is kind of a family event, you know? So, what's happened now is the old segment was just, let's play hockey or play the sport, open the doors and people will come. The only thing you gotta get is value. You can get value, whether you increase you buying a ticket for X amount of dollars, you get a free pop or you get popcorn, you get a soda. So, really now what's happened is fortunately or unfortunately, sports fans are able to get more information and they can judge. They also have more, as you said it, you've got more decisions on what to do. Here in Columbus, I can go see a movie. I can go to the local establishment and have a beer. I can go watch the Atlanta Falcons. I can watch Columbus State University. So, really what you have to do is everything you put together has gotta be cognizant of that family fan because I think your other fans are gonna come in.
Rob Cressy: (6:10)
And what is the mindset around retention or multiple experiences? So, you'd mentioned that, Hey, get someone in there once and you guys are going to do an amazing job, but now that we've got that a team or a brand, can't just say, we're good. We're going to rest on our laurels. We need to continue to make sure to engage that fan. Because once again, once they leave that arena, all of a sudden they're back at zero. And while they have experienced your brand, you want to try and get them reactivated with what you're doing.
Scott Brand: (06:40)
Exactly. So, that's where the new age comes in. When I say new age, you're talking to emails and quit Twitter and all the other stuff, because we have that available now. So, what happens is what we're doing this year is we're trying to do the first-timers club. The first time you come in, we want you to come in and sign up, so I make sure I capture that email information. Then, shame on us if we don't send an email out the following Tuesday, saying thank you for coming to the game. What did you enjoy? How can we get you to come back? Send them an offer to come back. And then that's how we need to start engaging. I think that's where all sports has to do is now both sides could capture so much information. Can you use it correctly? So, that's one of the things we're going to do is start a first-timers club. So, it's your first time coming to the game. We might put your name on a jumbotron and say thanks for coming. If you give us your email information, we’re definitely gonna send you, how’d we do? What'd you like? What didn't you like? Try and make sure that they left here enjoying the product.
Rob Cressy: (7:51)
Here's a crazy idea. As someone who's a fan, who's always wanted to be on the jumbotron. I think less than five times in my life I have been on. But imagine if fans had the ability to know when they were going to be on the jumbotron. So, so often they want you to go crazy. And then maybe he's going to catch you for a second. Maybe you're looking at it or maybe someone's on their phone, but what about the opportunity to give someone more value by almost guaranteeing they'll be on the jumbotron because it's going to cost you nothing. But I would love to know if I could go to a hockey game and I was guaranteed to be on the jumbotron. And you're like, Hey, in between the second and third period, we're going to have our jumbotron fans or whatever, because guess who's not doing that for me? Everybody else.
Scott Brand: (8:44)
I'm just stealing that idea. That's outstanding. I think what we could do is obviously you welcome your groups, but I liked the idea of having new people or regular season ticket holder of the game up on the jumbotron and say, Hey, between the second and third period family show, you're looking at the jumbotron. Because if you're new and came in and allowed us to take your photo at the first-timers club we're going to throw your name up there. So, that's a great idea and I'm stealing that. I'm going to take credit for it.
Rob Cressy: (09:13)
Good. Go for it. I love it. I mean, I'm just speaking from the fan and I just know the way it makes you feel when you're on the jumbotron because everybody's looking up at you and everybody loves to see their name in lights. It's one of the beautiful things about marketing is the more that you can give to someone else and make them feel some sort of way, and guess what's going to happen. There's going to be a greater opportunity for them to increase word of mouth with you because they're going to be telling their friends you won't believe this. I was at a River Dragons game and I was up on the jumbotron. And God forbid, if somehow we can now create something tangible that can say, Oh, by the way, do you want a picture of you when you were on the jumbotron, which is actually a nice way to segue to the technology side of things. Because you'd mentioned you guys are capturing a bunch of different information. I'm curious from the tech side of things, what has worked for you, or what's your mindset like from the way you guys implemented and used tech to engage fans?
Scott Brand: (10:13)
Well, Facebook is still important, but what we're finding is people are following us on Twitter and on Instagram. So, when we send out just little clips people are just going with gaga over it. I hate to use that word. I can't think of a better one, but they really like it. Then we tag them or when we have them engage with us it gives them ownership of the team. And I think if I can get the fan that I own the team they're going to become our best recruiters. We're like every other team. We buy television time, we buy radio time, but really the word of mouth. And you're right when the first time a fan comes to the game, Oh my gosh, kid's got a picture with the Dragons.
I got my photo on the jumbotron. Maybe I bought a program and got a lucky end and won an oil change. I mean those are things that you mentioned are valuable. So, right now I think the biggest thing that social media is working for us is people can now get better ownership because obviously there's information going out. I think the one thing we have to watch yourself against is overfeeding them. And at some point when you get a text message every day or you going to email every day, I think at that point you become background noise. So, just to Tweet for the sake of Tweeting or Facebooking something for the sake of Facebooking to me, that's where we have to watch ourselves.
Rob Cressy: (11:54)
Well, it becomes a value ladder where you say, all right, based on our strategy, is what we're creating something that is going to inspire, educate, entertain our audience? And while we do want to have a consistent cadence with things, I agree with you because is there anything wrong with text message marketing? No, none whatsoever, but is there something wrong with me getting a three ticket package text message every single day for two weeks straight? Yes, because you're not delivering value to me, but if instead, you said, Hey, on Tuesday, we're going to have our first-timers club. Boom. If you're a part of this or you want to be a part of it because I think a lot of marketing oftentimes misses the engagement element. And if brands or teams made sure to ask a question on every single post or added a unique piece of value or entertainment to someone, Hey, check out this video from dot dot dot, or you have the opportunity to dot dot dot, get something where someone's taking action as opposed to just the here's a thing.
Scott Brand: (13:03)
Yeah, no, you're absolutely right. I think I have smarter people than me that understand that I call them the kids, the kids understand the social media aspect and that's something we, every day we talk about social media. The importance of it and how we engage the fan. And what we need to do is try and figure out how to make it personal. Instead of it looking like an email blaster, which we used to do. I'm old enough to remember when we used to send letters out to everybody, you know? So, you're right. I think now with technology we can almost individualize every single tweet or post that we put up.
Rob Cressy: (13:51)
So, you mentioned that about handwritten letters, why couldn't that be a potential option? So, oftentimes things that are inefficient actually deliver more value because you know what I've never received before. I've never received a handwritten letter from a team. I've received a handwritten letter from very few brands. One of them who does every single time, I order as a company called a First Form, which does nutrition and supplements. And when they do their order, the person who packs it writes. And it's not just one sentence, it's like two sentences, blah, blah, blah. Hey thanks, Rob. We're really excited to have you part of what we're doing. And I'm telling this right here on this podcast. So, clearly it works there. And it's a way where if we look at all the noise that's out there going and saying, let's double down on personalization. So, how in the world we make that happen?
Well, one, can we get the addresses of these people and their phone numbers? And quite frankly, that would be a good thing for you because the more information that you can gather on your audience, the better and maybe turn this into an exclusive club just like the first-timers club that you're talking about there. Well, let's take it to the next level and say, listen, we would love your phone number and your address because we want to do some cool things for you. That would also give you an opportunity to activate some other partners in a unique way. Think of it less as direct mail in more as personalization.
Scott Brand: (15:19)
No, I like that. One of the things we do is, I think you know, listen, your minor league hockey team we’re the lowest level. We don't shy away from that. We are what we are. So, we have to throw out what can we do that will engage and what do our fans want? Our fans want the players. I agree with you. It's nice to get a letter from the president, thank you, blah blah blah. I've never scored a pro goal in my life. In the scheme of things, it's great here's a guy running a team. I want to go see the leading score, the fighter, or the goaltender. He likes the goaltender for some reason, I don't know why. But one of the things we do in November is we make sure we call every single season ticket holder.
We set up five phones. We have the players go through, take a list of 10 season ticket holders, and call them. And so the response we got from that was incredible. I mean, it costs nothing. And to have a player call you with, thank you for being a season ticket holder, did so much for us. It's funny some season ticket holders view it as their opportunity to tell the team that their power play sucks. But regardless, it's still kind of fun. They want to get the little kid on a phone and say hi to Jay Group or whoever’s calling.
Rob Cressy: (16:49)
And I don't think it's a bad thing if a fan says the power play sucks because what you have is someone who cares about the game and the team because really we're looking at a different level of the fan because when we're talking about mom and dad and kids, they're not saying, Hey, Scott, powerplay sucks. No, they're there for the experience. So, it's a different level of fan. And while you're actually saying all of this is what about the opportunity to all right, well, if it works on phone calls, what have you then took it for social media? What if the players could send a direct message video to some of the fans that are part of your first-timers club or your season ticket holders? The reason why I know this would work is one of the tactics that I use every single day is I send video messages to people, personalized ones. Whether it's in email, on Instagram, DMS, or in text messages. And why do I do it because no one else does it? And there's something unique that happens when you pick up your phone and you see a video from someone.
So, once again, just like you were talking about, if we know it works for a phone and it costs no money, well wait for a second, why wouldn't we just have the players do that? And here's the little thing that you can do that can actually help the players. You know what? That can help them build their social media followings because we all know that people want more people to follow them. So, therefore find a player and say, Hey, go and send these 10 DMS from someone. Chances are one is going to blow their mind. But two, you're going to get some new followers out of this. Three, everybody should use a little bit of media training because it is going to be a great skill for them to have.
Scott Brand: (18:24)
No, I liked that idea and I'm not taking that one too. Wow, you're right. I think you go from the telephone and again as a child of the sixties, the telephone or mail to sending them a personalized message I think is a great idea. I think that's outstanding.
Rob Cressy: (18:44)
So, the last thing I want to talk to you about is... What was that Mike?
Scott Brand: (18:48)
Want to come work for us?
Rob Cressy: (18:50)
Right, exactly. See, this is how we get down on this podcast. So, the last thing that I wanted to jam with you about is you have a background in Pro Wrestling. I thought this was very unique because pro wrestling is entertainment and above all, it is for the fans. So, I'm curious what lessons in fan engagement you can share from your experience in that that might be able to help anyone because I'm very much a student of the game and you can take things from various sports or things in the world and apply them to teams and brands and companies because a lot of others aren't going to do that.
Scott Brand: (19:33)
Well, first of all, I mean it's tough to admit that you're a pro wrestling fan. First of all, not a lot of people will admit that, but then turn around and you look at the kind of income that the WWE does and all the other ones do. Yeah. So, I got out of hockey I think for the third time and went back to Michigan and went to a wrestling show. And next thing I know I'm talking to the owner and we took a company and we were Flint, Michigan only and we want to go all over the state. He opened up a training school as one of the most unique training schools I think in pro wrestling. He's actually doing well despite not being able to run shows right now. But here's what I learned is coming from sports and that background, you're always trying to defend your sport and tell people how great it is.
Probably, I owe Vince McMahon a thank you because he kept referring to wrestling as sports entertainment. And when you think about it other than people actually play the game of football, hockey, basketball, baseball our jobs were in the sports entertainment business. He's exactly right. So, I think if you can get as many people as sell out an arena on Monday night throughout the country which WWE does. On a Monday night, there are 18,000 people in an arena in the middle of the country watching something that we all know is predetermined. Coming from a wrestling background you never use the word fake, it's always predetermined. If you can wrap your mind around the fact that people are buying and spending money and spending $200 on a real belt then at that point I think you start learning some lessons about your own sport. Fans short for fanatics is once we get them engaged with the River Dragons, they're going to buy a game jersey and game jerseys aren't cheap. They’re close to $200 but people will buy them, put their name on them, but their number on them, put their favorite player on them.
So, really what pro wrestling taught me is to stop looking at selling the sport. You're selling an event. You're selling a 2 hour, 15-minute event. Pro wrestling you know how it's gonna end. Movies you know how it's going to end. With us, it doesn't matter how it ends. I gotta make sure people walk out of the building, they got their value. They had fun. Even if we won, I don't care if they forget the score. I just need them to know they got value and they're coming back.
Rob Cressy: (22:12)
I absolutely love that. And I am actually one of those people because as we speak, I have a wrestling championship belt which was actually my fantasy football trophy. So, the winner every year of the league gets a belt. And it's one of the greatest things in the world because who doesn't want to walk around with a championship belt and we've even seen it in other sports. I remember when the Detroit Pistons won the NBA title years ago, Rasheed Wallace had these championship belts. There's so much of what you said that makes sense and applies because if you can be someone who entertains your audience and gets them to look forward to hearing back from you again, cause that's the key. So much of marketing is pushed on us. So, it's like, why do I want this or need this? But with the mindset of wrestling is, wait for a second, we want to engage you in making this the best experience possible for you. And that is available to, whether it's wrestling, hockey or just a regular company because always think about what would you want.
Scott Brand: (23:17)
Well, absolutely. I’m pretty famous because I wrote the icing rule that's used by the entire world right now. And I was famous for that until I tried something stupid. And that was to take, in hockey we have a shootout if we're tied at the end of the game. I took that and moved it to the front of the game. My theory was, first of all, it's exciting fans like it. As a hockey guy, I absolutely hate it. So, we did a pregame shootout. The first time we actually did it our game went into overtime. In overtime, I thought it was exciting because we already knew if we didn't win and overtime, we lost cause we lost the pregame shoot out. But those are the types of things you have to think outside the box. You have to take gambles on things that maybe aren't normal in our sport. Is that a gimmick? And that's a famous word in wrestling, it might be. But had we won that game I think I would have been a hero. But unfortunately, I'm guilty.
Rob Cressy: (24:18)
And on that note, we will end this. Scott really enjoyed jamming with you. Where can everybody connect with you?
Scott Brand: (24:24)
They can go to Dragons.com is our website. You're welcome to send me an email if they'd like to, I'm pretty good. And that's really easy. It's Scottb@rdragons.com. If anybody's got any great marketing ideas, let us know you. One of the things I've always said, there's no such thing as a bad market, only bad marketeers. So, I think you can pretty much sell anything anywhere if you understand what you're selling and you remember what it's about. It's about the value, entertainment and fun.
Rob Cressy: (24:57)
As always I would love to hear from you about this episode. Here's what I would like. I would like a marketing idea from you around how to better engage fans because we shared a few on this and there's an endless amount of things that could potentially happen because remember we're fans. So, what is something that you would like? You can hit up FanFood on Twitter @FoodOnDemand. On Instagram @FanFood app or on LinkedIn. And as always, you can hit me up on all social media platforms @RobCressy.