MLB teams batting a thousand with social CRM strategy

Companies building CRM strategies can learn from how Major League Baseball uses social media to connect with fans.

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Take me out to the ballgame.

And while you’re at it, I prefer bleacher seats for Wednesday night games, want an IPA to wash down a plate of lemon chicken, hope to win a retro T-shirt in the next team trivia giveaway and I might make a comment on Facebook about overpaid athletes after reading the star centerfielder's derisive tweet about playing day games.

That’s a grand slam of expectations from a customer, but with a solid social CRM strategy in place, Major League Baseball (MLB) wants to hear from the peanut gallery. MLB teams want to understand, and try to meet, the expectations of their fans, because they otherwise risk losing them.

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They know fans can’t put down their smartphones, tablets and laptops and that they expect an intense electronic relationship with their favorite baseball teams. Fans want personalized updates about seats, food, promotional contests, player transactions and the score of tonight’s game.

Not wanting to lose a sports fan’s disposable income to NASCAR or some other summer pursuit, MLB uses social CRM tools to readily provide that connection -- by doing all but letting its customers sit in the dugout.

Nowadays, fans can buy their tickets on an MLB team’s website, follow the tweets of players, “like” behind-the-scenes photos a team posts on Facebook, comment on a manager’s moves on team-supervised blogs and get updates on open seats, new merchandise and weather for the first pitch.

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In turn, teams hope that by communicating through social media outlets, they can better know their fans and build a loyal customer base, win or lose.

“When fans get a direct response from us, they feel, ‘The team has connected with me,’ ” said Keith Beise, who handles social media for the Minnesota Twins. “They feel the whole organization has reached out.”

Bill Wanless, the vice president of public relations for the Boston Red Sox AAA-affiliate Pawtucket Red Sox noted, “These days, fans want more. They want the latest information; they want to feel part of things … And they tell us what’s working, what they like and don’t like.”

How Teams Implemented A Social CRM Strategy

MLB teams still market their brands by using gimmicks that have been around since Babe Ruth.

Aside from the game itself, teams entice fans with free bobblehead dolls, contests for tickets and merchandise, meet and greets with players and on-field entertainment in between innings.

The Kansas City Royals, for instance, have Pine Tar Night in May, giving away bats painted black on their top ends to commemorate the team’s Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett’s use of such a bat to hit a controversial homerun against the New York Yankees in 1983.

But with the digital age giving consumers greater control over their purchases, MLB has increasingly used electronic platforms not only to attract but also to respond to fans.

Ball Clubs Look to Microsoft for Uptick in Ticket Sales

Although Major League Baseball teams are getting a better feel for their fans through social media, they still want a more defined measurement of customer activity to improve marketing and ticket sales.

Several teams have started using a version of Microsoft Dynamics CRM, customized for sports organizations by Green Beacon Solutions LLC, based in Newton, Mass.

Despite starting the 2012 season with a sellout streak that stretched nearly a decade, the Boston Red Sox still wanted to move from “shotgun” marketing to a more targeted approach.

So the team has begun tapping Green Beacon Solutions’ Dynamics version to measure ticket sales, suite sales and premium experience sales. The program also involves extensive surveying of fans to determine their satisfaction levels.

It’s a far cry from tracking information on spreadsheets and sticky notes, said Ron Bumgarner, senior vice president of ticketing for the Red Sox.

The Minnesota Twins also have the Dynamics program but had yet to go live with it in April, according to the team’s manager of database marketing, Brandon Johnson.

While Twins players started out of the gate slowly this year, team employees were uploading ticketing data into the CRM system, Johnson said. There have been “ups and downs” with the process, but as the season got under way, there were more ups, he said.

“It’s a great tool to help our sales [team] organize and segment out their various accounts,” Johnson said. “It helps us keep a finger on the pulse of fans.”

Targeted CRM will allow the Twins to speak differently to a fan who is on the cusp of buying season tickets than to one who is not even in the figurative ballpark, he added.

Another American League club, the Oakland A’s, started using the Dynamics program last season and has had success tracking ticket sales and services.

The A’s also have a new digital ticketing analyst who will further mine the information provided by Dynamics, said Travis LoDolce, the team’s senior manager of digital marketing.

“It seems to be working well so far,” LoDolce said of the CRM program. “It’s all about targeting … It’s better than having a drawer full of papers.”

On a basic level, MLB’s 30 teams use a digital framework provided by MLB Advanced Media, the interactive and Web wing of the league.

Each team contributes content to many social media channels: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Google Plus. Pinterest, the content-sharing network that has attracted women, is the latest social channel to catch baseball’s eye—the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians use it to post photos of apparel.

Social CRM tools permit a level of interaction that teams have long wanted, allowing for a back-and-forth dialogue with fans outside of the stadium gates, said Anne Keegan, the Indians’ assistant director of communications.

“Our use of Twitter is evident of that,” Keegan said. “We have lots of players and the manager [Manny Acta] on Twitter. They really have a two-way discussion with fans. This is a time in sports when we’ve never been able to do that. It’s been really fun.”

Aside from building a following on the popular outlets Facebook and Twitter, the Indians this season started initiatives on four other channels: a WordPress blog called TribeVibe that gives behind-the-scenes access in the clubhouse, a Tumblr blog that highlights the sights and sounds of Cleveland, a Google Plus page to serve as a discussion forum and a landing spot on Pinterest to promote merchandise and offer recipes.

The Kansas City Royals, the Indians’ American League Central Division rival, also posts a variety of game-related developments with social media, including scores, big plays, trades and injuries, videos and photos, and traffic and weather updates.

Social CRM and Fan Feedback

A decade ago, interaction with fans was limited to phone calls and mail, said Travis LoDolce, the senior manager of digital marketing for the Oakland A’s. The team had a website, but it was a solitary venture with the team selling tickets and posting news and features.

Now, the A’s website offers personalized service to fans, even allowing some ticket holders to choose food for upcoming games. Season ticket holders have access to e-brochures with personalized information, including a three-dimensional image of their seats.

Social media channels not only allow teams like the Royals to build a bridge with its fans, but they also enable the team to further its marketing program—and customer experience management strategy—by offering  ticket packages, charity events and giveaways through posts and tweets, according to Erin Sleddens, the team’s director of online and target marketing.

“What’s changed is we make the posts more interactive,” Sleddens said. “We still want to market, but instead of posting that it’s T-shirt night, we will have a poll for favorite T-shirt.”

In addition to enhancing the customer experience, teams also use social media to listen to their customers.

“Any question we can answer we will,” Sleddens said. Tweets about storm clouds rushing toward Kansas City or when the parking lot opens, for instance, would prompt a response from the team.

But “comments that the team didn’t do well the night before—there’s nothing we can say to that,” Sleddens said.

Indeed, making the relationship between fan and team feel genuine means the team can’t dominate the conversation; similarly, businesses can’t dominate their customers in social CRM settings.

“If we’re hearing positive feedback and we’re hearing negative feedback, then we have a passionate fan base,” the Indians’ Keegan said. “We want to bring things to the ballpark to make it enjoyable.”

And fans don’t hesitate to offer opinions.

“They let us know they like that contest in between innings, that they like the music, that they want to hear more about the players, who’s going up to Boston, who’s coming back,” said Wanless of the minor league, Rhode Island-based PawSox. “We want to learn to get better. If they have suggestions, we’ll take them.”

The PawSox want to stay on top of the latest technologies so they can reach more fans and better learn their likes and dislikes, Wanless said.

“But we also have to remember what got us to this point,” he added. And that is getting fans to enjoy the game on the field.

This was first published in July 2012

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