Ready for some football? If you're Jim Smith, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Atlanta Falcons, that increasingly means delivering information to fans in the stadium, on their flat-screen TVs, desktop computers and mobile devices. When they want it. "Today's consumer wants to control their own experience," said Smith, a keynote speaker at the upcoming GlobalDirections '13 conference in Washington, D.C. In this SearchCIO interview, Smith talks with Executive Editor Linda Tucci about the changing demographics of the Falcons' fan base, the intersection of IT and marketing, and how the old saying, "The customer knows best," is truer than ever in today's NFL.
Is everyone tethered to mobile devices and online experiences? There must be some fans still left who are computer-illiterate.
Jim Smith: There are. We do have a set of longtime season ticket holders who probably aren't as connected as many of our younger season ticket-holders. But when you look at the overall marketplace, our fan base almost mirrors demographically the Atlanta DMA [designated market area]. It's stunning how close it is. We're one of the few sports properties in Atlanta that really reflects its entire community.
To your point about fans being tethered to mobile devices: If they're not at the game, they're definitely a two-screen fan base right now -- the TV screen and some kind of mobile device.
Smith: Yes, in an unbelievably growing number. Some of that has to do with Fantasy Football, and some of that has to do with the popularity of the league -- people want to know what's going on in other games. So, at home, their two screens are the TV, on which they are watching a game or multiple games, and their second screen is their phone or iPad -- and some people still have a desktop. On those, they are following Fantasy Football stats, things that are going on in other games, and they're chatting via Twitter or Facebook. So, they are definitely multitasking.
I'm thinking of my husband yesterday, who could not get his Verizon NFL Mobile app to work. It seems sort of pathetic, but there it was.
Smith: Tell him he wasn't alone yesterday.
So, when you say this multiscreen, multitasking audience is growing, can you give me a breakdown? Are your traditional fans still the majority and the mobile multitaskers a niche segment?
Smith: The best way to look at it is: We have a finite number of people who can come to a Falcons game; we have an infinite number of fans we can potentially reach because of TV and social platforms. So, we can continue to grow our fan base even though it doesn't necessarily relate to a ticket sold. That's the evolution of sports in general. It used to be [that] the only way to gauge how many fans you had was based on how many tickets you sold.
In the olden days, when the NFL wanted to enhance their fans' experience, it could do things like make the seating more comfortable in the stadium. That seems like an unambiguous improvement for the fan and a benefit to the franchise if better seating increased ticket sales. But with online engagement, it seems information-based initiatives can fall into two camps: building links to your fans through new media such as mobile and online apps, and then gathering more information from them at the same time in order to sell more advertising. Is that a valid dichotomy?
We have to provide the opportunities for consumers to consume; we just can't tell them when to do it anymore. … The expectation of now is here.
Smith: You hit it -- except I'm going to break your analysis into two ideas, one being customer-experience-focused and one being more internal-marketing-focused. You mentioned that back in the old days, it was about making seats bigger and playing replays, doing things that we delivered to the customer that we thought enhanced their experience. Well now, customers are demanding that they enhance their own experience. That's where the technology piece comes in. And that's why the relationship between the marketing people and IT people is so critical now -- which is much different than in the past.
Today's consumers want to control their own experience: They want stats when they want it, not when I put it on the video board. And that's where the capacity of these stadiums has to be able to handle what the customer wants. Our owner, Arthur Blank, always says, 'If you really want to know what the customer wants, ask him.' And too many times, we don't ask, we create without asking. That's something we are going to do very differently in our new stadium.
When I think of the football stadium experience, I think of people tailgating and having a beer or whatever -- but not checking their mobile phones while they're doing this to look at video or text messages. But I know I'm a dinosaur.
Smith: It is stunning to watch them. It is stunning to watch what people do -- forget five minutes -- to watch what they do in the 35 seconds between plays. The action stops and they go to their mobile device and they're doing something on that device. It is a fascinating learning lab at the stadium.
CMO-CIO huddle up on serving multiscreen fans
Gartner came out with the now infamous statement that by 2017, marketing's technology budget is going to exceed that of the CIO. Do you have money for IT in your marketing budget?
Smith: We do have a budget. It doesn't sit specifically in marketing; it sits within IT. During the budget cycle, we collaborate to make sure we're putting in the technology we need to enhance the experience, as well as enhance our business. We just implemented -- we were behind on this -- just now implementing a CRM [customer relationship management] system. It was a partnership between marketing and IT, but that one lived in the IT budget. That was a significant increase in investment over the prior year. We went with Microsoft.
Do you meet with the CIO?
Smith: All the time.
What are the skills of your CIO you find most useful? And (we'll make this generic) what sort of skills do you think CIOs really need to have to help them better do their jobs?
Smith: I think we're very fortunate in that we have a CIO who likes to partner on projects rather than having to be the one driving every single project. He drives certain projects, but he is really looking for partners. That is how we have the greatest success internally. We also have a digital media team that sits within marketing. They're idea creators as well. So, our CIO has a second partner -- a marketing partner and a digital media partner bringing ideas and technologies and thoughts to the table. We may be a little different from other companies.
How important is it to develop these IT engagement capabilities in order to bring in revenue by selling more advertising?
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Smith: We have a different perspective. We'll focus on all those things -- not to drive advertising revenue but to drive deeper customer loyalty or enhance the fan base, whom we can then sell directly to with our other programming. For example, we have a merchandising operation that has online video services we offer, and we still do have some tickets to sell.
Further down the road, advertising is coming. Advertisers are interested; we just don't have the mass yet, like an NFL.com or an ESPN.com does, to offer significant eyeballs. I do foresee a day when that will change. But we are one of 32 brands in the same discipline. We have our own app. It has 200,000 users. I look at that as another extension for people to interact with us, like our website, like our Twitter account, like our Facebook page. The consumer is going to choose which one they want -- but we'd better be good in all four of them because they may choose just one of them.
In addition to the video, what other IT-related products do you have coming?
Smith: We have an experience app that we're testing. We're creating a 'memories' platform. Football is very emotional. Going to a sporting event is emotional, it's fun. We believe that if we create deeper memories, we create more loyal fans. The memories platform is a benefit for season ticket holders. They can choose to be a part of a special event at the game that they don't have to pay for. It may be holding the American flag that you put on the field before the game. Or you can be in the tunnel that the team comes out of. Or you might get a cheerleader visit or a mascot visit, or you get your picture on the Jumbotron.
There are teams that are selling these services, but we have chosen not to go the revenue route. We think they're better as experiences, and if we do them well, they will create a memory. We couldn't do this without technology. It's on the Falcons app; you'll see a part that's called Memories, and if you put in your season ticket number, the scheduling is done automatically.
The Memories platform sounds like a Disney idea.
That's right. I'm a huge Disney fan. It all kinds of sums up to this: We have to provide the opportunities for consumers to consume; we just can't tell them when to do it anymore. We used to think we could: We're going to give you replays when we want to give replays to you. Well, they want replays when they want them. I guess it's the impatient generation. The expectation of now is here.
Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, executive editor.
This was first published in September 2013