Into Their In Box

What’s the quickest and easiest way to reach your fans? In today’s world, it’s through e-mail messaging, a great alternative to direct mail.

By Kevin Reneau

Kevin Reneau spent over two decades as an athletic administrator at the University of California, overseeing marketing and communications. He is currently founder and President of Clear Break Solutions (www.clearbreaksolutions.com), an e-mail marketing company focused on college athletics.

Athletic Management, 15.2, February/March 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1502/inbox.htm

One of the major challenges athletic administrators face today is their departments’ multi-layered presence on the Internet. Web site service-provider choices, e-commerce ticketing and merchandise issues, online branding, licensing strategies, and customer relationship management dynamics—it’s enough to make even the most tech-savvy athletic director’s head swim.

So how do you know where to put your resources and exactly what will produce the best return in the long run? One avenue that seems most promising, yet remains largely untapped in athletics, is a strategic e-mail marketing and communication initiative.

This strategy entails sending e-mail messages to fans updating them on everything from the latest game scores to the newest available apparel. Used properly, personalizing your e-mail messages can go a long way toward providing the genuine one-to-one relationship with fans, and that can translate into revenue streams fairly quickly.

For example, e-mailing discounted ticket offers to fans can turn 5,000 unused tickets into $50,000 for a single game within minutes. Sending an e-mail to fans in early December with photos of your school’s new line of sweatshirts can encourage them to get their holiday shopping done with a few clicks of the mouse.

Most e-mail programs include a field from the database allowing the message to begin with “Dear Bob” or “Dear Jane,” but real personalization means more than that. It means giving the customer information and offers in areas of his or her interest. If a fan is only interested in a school’s football program, that’s all the communication he or she should receive. The same goes for women’s basketball, men’s soccer, or volleyball. Fans with children receive information about special family ticket offers or summer camps, while childless fans are not bothered with irrelevant messages.

Looking for another plus? E-mail marketing can save your program money. Between printing and mailing, each piece of direct mail you send costs your department about $1.30. Sending a monthly athletic newsletter to 5,000 fans via regular mail has a price tag of $6,500 each month. If you transition just a third of the subscribers to e-mail, you’ll save $20,000 annually.

Many in the business sector have already started jumping on the e-mail bandwagon, and the trend is expected to continue. In fact, a recent study by the leading research and consulting firm The Winterberry Group predicts e-mail marketing will grow 41 percent annually through 2005.

But before you make the leap into cyberspace and start e-mailing fans, you’ll face some complicated decisions. For starters, what software should you use? Do you need a completely integrated solution, or will a simple e-mail program do the job? Who should be in charge of the project, and how does it all work?

Programs & Personnel
The first step in this process is choosing a software program. Colleges have a wide spectrum of options, both in prices and features.

A simple list-serve process, implemented internally with off-the-shelf products like Eudora, Outlook, or FileMaker Pro, will cost almost nothing. These programs have the ability to send out general information in text format, but not the ability to target segmented audiences according to their interests and demographic information. These simpler systems won’t allow you to monitor the results of your new e-mail plan, either.

At the other end of the spectrum is a full Customer Relationship Management (CRM) model offered by companies like Siebel, Oracle, or E.piphany. These systems typically integrate data to create a snapshot customer profile (including personal information, ticket-buying histories, donor information, etc.), but are quite costly ($75,000 to $250,000 annually for the system and another $50,000 to $200,000 in staff salaries to manage the system). In addition, full CRM solutions haven’t lived up to their hype in the business sector, performing disappointingly over the last several years.

College athletic administrators may find the most logical choice somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. For $10,000 to $20,000 a year, athletic departments can license the software they need and pay for the e-mails they send, without any associated consulting. At a slightly higher price tag, marketing firms can assist in the set-up of the program.

When analyzing your options, the most important aspects to consider are the program’s ability to segment audiences by their demographic information, to monitor which fans have opened the e-mails and which have responded, and to send messages with rich graphics and color. It’s also best to choose a system that’s user-friendly enough so that a “non-techie” coach can follow the half dozen steps necessary to deploy an e-mail message to a mass audience.

Another step in this process is to figure out who will administer the program, including setting the overall strategy for the department and monitoring the results. Most schools will choose to have an assistant or associate athletic director in charge of marketing supervise an e-mail program because of its potential to generate revenue through ticket and merchandise sales. Others may assign a media relations director, emphasizing the communication value of the program.

Regardless, several others within the department, from sports information interns to coaches themselves, will also need to be in the communication loop. That means there must be department-wide education about the benefits of the program as well as training on how to use the system.

Developing the Database
Once the system is in place, the next step is feeding the database with names and e-mail addresses. To start developing your list, compile and integrate what you already have with those from your coaches, the ticket office, the alumni association, and the school’s Web site. Then, add to your list at every opportunity. Ask for e-mail addresses on all ticket renewal forms, during in-person ticket transactions, through sign-ups for give-aways, at home athletic contests, and in local newspaper or television advertising.

Once you have a list of your fan’s e-mail addresses, you’ll also need a database of information about them in order to target your messages. The easiest way to get that information is by having fans register and fill out a questionnaire indicating their preferences. The types of questions will depend on your marketing goals, but here are some suggestions: affiliation to school, income level, sports they follow, ticket-purchase status, and family status.

In addition, consider offering special prizes as incentives to get people to register their information. For example, the University of Oregon recently added several thousand new names to its e-mail list by offering everyone who registered a chance to win court-level seats to the biggest men’s basketball game of the year against top-ranked Arizona. You could also offer registrants the chance to win sideline passes to a football game, a seat on a team charter flight, a personal coaching session from one of your department’s coaches, or free pizza for a year from a sponsor—all items which can be had at little or no cost and will attract lively interest.

During the registration process, don’t forget to ask for and receive permission to send future e-mail messages. If you don’t, your messages could end up tagged by anti-spam software and tossed into the trash along with countless junk mail messages they get every day.

Content Is Key
Last but not least, it’s important to focus on the content of the messages. Attracting customers to register for the service is important, but retention is equally crucial. The content must prove of value to your recipients, or they will eventually ignore the messages or even unsubscribe from the service.

When you’re crafting your content, consider starting with what you already have. Chances are, your school’s sports information office is producing a slew of news releases and game reports and posting information to your Web site. With just a few more minutes of their time, they can turn those releases into e-mails sent directly to fans who will appreciate receiving them.

Communications from coaches and student-athletes can also cement your relationship with your fan base. Fans would be thrilled to open a Monday morning message from a head coach or team captain, thanking them for their support in Saturday’s big win and providing a little insight on a key play of the game.

It’s also critical to monitor the effectiveness of your content. Most programs allow you to immediately view how many recipients opened the e-mail, how many clicked through on an offer, and how many people chose to unsubscribe. That data can be invaluable in adjusting future strategies.

Many marketing experts now believe that a solid e-mail initiative is far more important strategically than focusing resources and energy on a Web site. “However unglamorous as it might be, e-mail is the ‘killer application’ of the Internet,” says marketing guru Michael C. Gilbert. “It is person-to-person communication, and the one thing that breaks down barriers faster than anything else on the Net … Stop waiting for people to discover your Web site, and start discovering their mailboxes.”