The National Football League—the most popular of the four major American professional sports leagues—is an industry unto itself, according to an infographic put together by the Finance Degree Center. The average value of an NFL franchise is just shy of $2 billion, Forbes reports, and the most valuable team in the league is the Dallas Cowboys, at $4 billion. Global Web Index suggests that 65% of all online adults in the U.S. are NFL fans; that number is 38% globally. An ESPN poll, meantime, reveals that just under half (49%) of Americans are fans.
Whatever the number, it’s major, and somebody has to make sure all of those fans are happy and get the experience they are looking for, all while helping to fill the coffers of this megabusiness.
Enter Aidan Lyons, who holds the unique title of VP of fan-centric marketing at NFL. Lyons described this position as bringing fans of all generations—Gen Z, Millennial, Gen X, and Baby Boomers—closer to the game through data-driven insights, brand, and technology. CMO.com had the opportunity to talk to Lyons recently during a “bye” week. The fascinating discussion follows.
CMO.com: There’s no more popular sport in the U.S. than the National Football League. How do you take something that’s already a huge success and use social media and digital marketing to make it even bigger and better?
Lyons: It comes back to, you’re the No. 1 sport and you have to maintain being the No. 1 sport, so you have to continue to innovate and make things better. You have to make the experience better on the field. You have to make the experience better in the stadium. You have to make the experience better at home.
What you’ve got to do is put your fan at the center of everything. Then you have to understand all those touch points that you have with the fan, and you have to make those touch points the best experience possible for them—whether it be a fan at the Super Bowl who opens up an app to find exactly where to go, what to do, and reviews the schedule of all the events and listings, or it’s a fan sitting at home who sees a jersey on TV, and she can pick up the phone and order that jersey. You have to use the data and touch points you have to make that experience the best possible because, in the world we live in, if someone has a bad experience, the person won’t come back.
Also, we are the most popular sport, but there are a lot of challenges out there right now. There’s a lot of competition. There are changing consumption behaviors, changing viewer behaviors, changing demographics, and how people are attracted to sports or not attracted to sports. So, yes, we’re No. 1, but we have to treat our fans in a very special way. We have to give them the best experience possible. We have to take all those data points from digital, social, in-stadium, brick and mortar, and give them the best experience possible.
CMO.com: Certainly it’s an entertainment business as well as a sports business. Can you talk about the difference in marketing between the part that’s trying to sell seats and the more traditional customer-experience marketing strategy?
Lyons: We look at the life cycle of our fans, the fan journey, and where they are. When you start to look at it that way, you start to see fans are in a certain stage of the fandom. You’ve got your rabid fans. You’ve got your casual fans. You’ve got your newer fans. Then you can start to understand and pattern to what drives that fandom.
Then we try to tailor our offers to that fandom. For example, say a 40-year-old man has purchased from the shop twice, both Jets jerseys, lives 100 miles from the stadium, and says he’s a Jets fan. It makes sense to offer that person a ticket because it’s where he is in his life cycle.
Then, say, you have Tim, who has played Playoff Challenge, which is a kind of easier fantasy game, who has never purchased from the shop, and lives 300 miles from the stadium. The offer for you would be to just play our regular season fantasy football game.
So it comes from understanding that journey and where the fandom is. Hopefully you can bring along that fandom by combining both, giving them insights and knowledge about the game, and also by knowing that as someone becomes more of a fan, they’re going to have an appetite for these things. You want to try and provide offers to them at the right time.
CMO.com: Some businesses create personas, which are not based on real people. Are you using analytics to actually market to real people?
Lyons: Yes, we are. We do work with our research team. These personas tend to be, as you described, more about everything. But within our own data sources, we can get more information about real people and what they’re doing, their touch points, and what channel preference they have. We’ll say, “These guys are more likely to pick up the phone. These guys, don’t even bother. They’re only going to answer you via e-mail, or if you send them a push or something like that.”
CMO.com: So it’s getting closer to one-on-one marketing?
Lyons: We’re not 100% there yet, but we will be soon. We’ve gone from many-to-many, to many-to-some, and now we’re almost at one-to-one.
CMO.com: Can you give me an idea of the array of platforms and channels you use to get all this information?
Lyons: I started my career in the league nine years ago in digital media. I headed up our business intelligence. Then, about three years ago, after being here when the league launched its own website, brought our clubs onboard, launched our own fantasy football game, and launched our own subscription products, I saw the rise of fan-level data, and we weren’t doing a great job of aggregating it. So I ended up on a project to bring that data together.
To the data points, we use everything. We’ll use consumption data on our owned and operated properties, such as our websites. We’ll use vendors to mix that with social data. Then we have our database and our data lake to bring it all together.
To your point about trying to get to understanding that fan journey and communicating during that fan journey, both for the fan that’s new all the way through to when they’re mature and at the peak of their fandom: It’s everything. The key in the center of it is our marketing warehouse that brings it all together. We mix all the data, not only with the goal of understanding the fan, but communicating to the fan and marketing to the fan.
CMO.com: Is social media a big part of this? Twitter? Facebook? Is that where a lot of it happens?
Lyons: We found initially with social that some tools were not successful and some tools were successful. What we found is—and if I use the draft as an example—this year in April, instead of marketing to a fan based on their NFL team affinity—because all these players have no team at that point, they’re just about to be drafted—we used social to understand our fans within their own worlds, what colleges they were associating themselves with. Then we would market to them based on those affinities, to try and get them to watch those players being drafted, and then obviously follow them through to their own teams.
We were successful across all our engagement metrics. Prior to the draft, there was a concern that we would miss out because there was no star power—there was no Johnny Manziel or even a Todd Gurley. But by using social, combining that with what we knew about the current fan, and also what we knew about that channel engagement, we didn’t miss out.
We also found some other interesting things, like the younger generation is definitely interested in social entrepreneurship, people like Richard Branson and The Motley Fool. So you started to think, “We could do content on the NFL outside of what we’re currently doing, based on knowing what our own fan looks like with our ecosystem, and then looking to see what they’re engaging with outside of that ecosystem.”
CMO.com: Do you specifically and distinctly market to the different age demographic—the Millennial fan versus the fan who has had Giants season tickets for 40 years?
Lyons: Yes. We definitely try communicating with them directly, even in our onboarding process when someone comes in, depending on their age and what bracket they fall in. For example, again, Aidan is a 40-year-old man looking at Facebook, but Tim, the 22-year-old kid, will get Instagram or Snapchat. We’ve seen success with that.
That’s where I think we will become more dependent on social, because everything about social is partial to you one-to-one, and we’re trying to replicate that in terms of how we communicate. So it’ll become more important. Yet the key audiences for us are actually 13 to 17 years old, communicating to them and bringing their fandom along, and then also Millennial parents, communicating to them and getting them to adopt traditions that their parents have.
CMO.com: You touched on this, but just for clarity’s sake, how does the NFL market vis-à-vis the actual marketing?
Lyons: We have an integrated database project. So our clubs will come, and we will look at the profiles, like we talked about, and bring those profiles together. We will talk to a club and say, “What are your goals and objectives? What’s your priority?”
It’ll vary. Some clubs will say, “I want to sell some tickets.” Some clubs say, “I just want to bring my clients closer to me through community relations” or “I just want to promote a 5K run.” Depending on that, we’ll identify segments of fans that will be willing to engage with that club, based on their goals and objectives.
CMO.com: You talked about onboarding. What does the makeup of your team look like in terms of expertise?
Lyons: My team is diverse. On the database side, we have two people predominantly focused on creating all those profiles [for] onsite targeting, emails, and push notifications. Then I have a person dedicated to TV, taking our TV inventory and using TV to do top-of-the-poll marketing. I have a social medial marketing person, who obviously focuses on paid media and social media, again, using those profiles of the audience, whether it’s directly uploading to Facebook or creating them in Facebook to talk to those audiences.
Then obviously we have agencies for media buying. We work a lot with [vendors]. So we do have a lot of people outsourced, just because we struggle with the same thing that everyone else does in terms of headcount.
CMO.com: You also mentioned content. The sport is your content, for the most part, but what other kinds of content do you create?
Lyons: I think our marketing has changed in the sense that strictly on our brand side, we used to be marketers who would create the classic 30-second spot. I think now we’re creating content that tells a story. If you look at our youth football, it’s more about telling a story about how someone practices playing football, goes to school, and talks about playing the game, plays the game, and the whole journey through the years.
That gives us the ability, then, to take that TV spot, which has multiple different angles and different takes, and put it on social. And depending on that social, we can play with the time and length to see what fits best. So it has definitely become more about creating content that is marketable.
We used to have an issue where our content team that runs our content stream on social wouldn’t want to put any of our content on there because they felt it wasn’t authentic to the avid fan. But now when we put our marketing content there, we’re seeing that it’s as engaged with, if not more engaged with, some of our regular content.
CMO.com: It seems to me that you also use a lot of technology. Is marketing technology a big part of what you’re doing?
Lyons: It’s a big, big part of what I do. For me, it’s as important as the creative and telling the story because if you don’t have the ability to put the content where these new audiences that we talked about are consuming that content, then you’ve got a struggle.
So I think technology is very important. The way you have the ability to push data around in the world we live in, which previously you couldn’t combine with the technology, gives you the ability to not only extend your reach, but reach in a meaningful and succinct fashion into those targets.
CMO.com: Is there anything you’ve learned from your work at the NFL that would be broad advice for the reader, such as a general business enterprise CMO?
Lyons: I would say, [focus on] the combination of uptake in your offline data to your online and not treat people as either a device or a cookie. Trying to get to the bottom of marketing to a person will help you a lot because then your messages will be carried across multiple platforms versus what we used to do, which was just based, like I said, on a device or a cookie.
If you look at my cell phone, I’m going to look like a 9-year-old boy because of all the games that my phone plays. Then if you look at my desktop, I'm going to look like a 40-year-old man who works at the NFL. But if you know my profile and you’re tied to it, and you use the technology that we have available, you can talk to Aidan both as Aidan the businessman and Aidan the parent.