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Article | Turning the Abstract Into Clarity

Leveraging Data to Boost Fan Retention

For athletes, practice makes perfect. They consistently work to improve, honing their skills as they look to perfect their game. And when it comes to cultivating steadfast customer relationships, companies must do the same. Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE) initiated a strategy specifically designed to establish a unified system that listens and responds to customer preferences and interaction history.

As one of Canada's leading sports and entertainment organizations, MLSE owns the NHL's Maple Leafs hockey team, NBA's Toronto Raptors basketball team, AHL's Toronto Marlies hockey team, Toronto FC of Major League Soccer, the Air Canada Centre, and a number of other sports and entertainment properties in Toronto. Its CRM and research department, which acts as the central hub for analytics and customer intelligence for all facets of the business, champions intelligence-based decision-making across all of MLSE's properties. It leverages insights from its database of more than 2 million customers to strengthen its core organizational value of "exciting every fan."

"Our fans are the lifeblood of our teams," says Neda Tabatabaie, director of CRM and research, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. "They live at the center of our company's vision and values, and we strive to excite and inspire them with everything that we do. Our 'fans first' approach means understanding our fans and their needs, giving them the proper channels to share their feedback, listening to them, and applying the learnings."

In 2012, MLSE centralized its analytics and research operations under Tabatabaie. The team manages MLSE's CRM database, email marketing campaigns, and research and analytics projects for the entire organization. It coordinates data-driven initiatives with a number of other business units, including marketing, IT, ticket, and senior management.

How it's done

Customers are segmented based on past purchase behavior, demographic profiles, media habits, lifestyle trends, psychographical profiles, and potential for future growth. MLSE then analyzes the data to gauge customers' varying expectations and measure their loyalty and satisfaction of customer interactions, marketing messages, and the overall fan experience. MLSE also tracks this data over time, to observe changing sentiment and patterns.

For example, MLSE targets one key Raptors demographic: the "Young Urban Trendsetter." It tailors marketing messaging to these 20-something consumers looking for the latest products and entertainment experiences. They are presented with relevant ticket offers for Friday night games and "Guys Night Out" specials. As a result, MLSE has seen a 30 percent increase in email open rate compared to non-segmented campaigns. MLSE wants to drive short-term response, but also nurture long-term fandom through relevant and timely communications.

The company's centralized analytics hub has triggered more productive and consistent interactions with fans, timely access to customer data for analytics, and deeper insights into what truly inspires fans. For example, the group analyzed three years worth of ticket purchaser data, which revealed moments of truth in fan life stages. MLSE is working to be more mindful of how to interact with customers at these moments to provide fans with product options based on where they are in their life, family, and career commitments. In addition to departmental initiatives, MLSE launched an internal program to communicate how analytics align the brand's objectives, strategies, vision, and values.

The data-driven approach is already paying off. The 2011-2012 sports season saw a 67 percent decrease in the number of emails fans received over previous seasons, a 54 percent increase in email open rates, and a 166 percent increase in click-through rates, proving that quality trumps quantity when it comes to driving fan engagement. And satisfaction with email communications nets real ROI: the Raptors now rank fourth in the NBA in terms of revenue generated by email. These results help to reinforce that analytics and targeting strategies enhance a positive fan experience.

The results have fueled momentum within the company around fan retention. Departments now prioritize programs that build the long-term value of a customer, rather than reaping the immediate and short-term gains of a single ticket sale. It's a winning strategy that works no matter what happens on the ice/court/pitch on a particular day.

Note: MLSE is a winner of the 2013 Gartner and 1to1 Media CRM Excellence Award for analytics.