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Posts tagged ‘fans’

Passion, not Fashion: Non-League Day

Today’s post generously provided by Guest Author, Mark Bradley of The Fan Experience Company:

“Non League Day is with us on 10th October. It’s a wonderful opportunity to showcase our local clubs and it’s a chance to provide something different and engaging for fans who ordinarily would be occupied at a Premier League or Football League stadium or even stretched out on the coach wondering if Chris Kamara is going to start an update without the words ‘unbelievable Jeff’. It’s a fantastic opportunity, but I’m pretty confident that while many clubs will double, maybe triple, attendance, very few will use this as a springboard for sustainable growth.

So why just expect them to come as a ‘one off’? Why shouldn’t the experience be capable of converting a new generation of supporters to the ‘power of the small’? For me, Non League Day should be a catalyst for growth and every club should be capable of increasing and then maintaining that uplift in support.

Followers of our work will be familiar with my mantra about the ‘product’ being the experience and not just the 90 minutes. If that is true (and I believe it is) then the further down the pyramid you go, the greater the opportunities we have.

The experience is more intimate. You can walk around the pitch to get different views of the same game. You can hear what is being said by the manager and by the players on the pitch (granted: not always a good thing) and you’re bound to encounter folk you wished you’d got to know earlier in your life.

It’s affordable too. There is often added value (one price for parking, programme and admission) and refreshments are often freshly made local favourites (I’m thinking of the importance of Ock n Dough to AFC Rushden & Diamonds & Wellingborough folk; the burgers at Barwell and the wonderful stovies, bridies & pies we enjoy on our Scottish trips).

There is often a social club: somewhere to shelter from inclement weather or, as we once did at North Greenford United, to sneak into half way through an unimpressive second half to watch the Grand National. None of this will come as a shock to the already converted, but doesn’t this paint a perfect picture of what many fans feel is missing at higher levels of the game? It’s a powerful USP and it shouldn’t just be about achieving a peak of attendance tomorrow. It should be a springboard for a transformative uplift in advocacy, attendance and revenue.

These elements are plentiful at lower/non-league level. They’re also the cornerstones of a realistic growth plan. Our smaller clubs therefore have a fantastic opportunity, but as our experience (and research) shows, a significant number of them are missing out.

From the perspective of the supporter visiting the club for the first time, the failings can be especially fatal. My expectations are that there will be a clear website, easy to navigate with sufficient info to take the stress away from a first visit (directions, parking, costs, availability of food, etc.) and that the club will promote what makes a match day at their ground so special. Make it easy for me to get there, but also make me feel confident that I won’t stand out like a sore thumb. Make it possible for me to feel part of things.

While there are some fantastic practitioners about (my hat is doffed to Lewes FC and their outstanding match day promotional posters), many other clubs have complex, baffling websites, often lacking key information (e.g. admission prices) but containing a detailed statistical analysis of sock colours in the early years of the 20th century (or something). To put it bluntly, the new fan is already having to do all of the work. These clubs may not be complacent or arrogant, but it would be understandable if a first timer picked up that impression.

Social media places effective match day promotion and fan engagement within the reach of every club, so it’s disappointing to see some clubs only ‘broadcasting’ during a match with line ups and score updates. Fair enough, a resource is needed to communicate outside of these periods, but why not prioritise the search for a volunteer who knows about these things and can improve upon the service? Our club love affairs are 24/7, so why are some clubs playing ‘difficult to get’?

Obviously many of the smaller clubs I’m referring to will be relying on volunteers already and I acknowledge that it is often difficult to attract people to help on a match day. Having said that, it’s certainly preferable to have fewer volunteers than to present your potential future fan base with indifferent (or even hostile) individuals.   UK Charity Retail often faces that problem. We’re so pleased to have the assistance that we feel a little reluctant to try and ‘train’ or ‘manage’ our volunteers, even when their behaviours are damaging perceptions.

A friend of mine was going to go to a local non-league club for the first time last season. The game was postponed, so he arranged to attend the re-arranged fixture. As the repeat fixture was scheduled for midweek, the club decided to make entry free for all. Nice touch. Quite right. However, when my friend arrived, the attitude of the volunteers bordered on the insulting. When he asked for help, they ignored him. It was clear they thought he was a free loader; just turning up because he wouldn’t have to put his hand in his pocket. So let’s look for volunteers who epitomise the spirit of the Club. Let’s examine the skill set required. Let’s not just bite the hand of the first to turn up.

One clear USP (unique selling point) for non-league clubs is the social club. Not only is the social club often the epitome of what makes a match at a smaller community club much more enjoyable than the experience at a higher level (i.e. it would be called ‘corporate hospitality’ & would cost an arm and a leg), but it’s also incredibly attractive.

It provides a haven in bad weather, keeps people occupied (pool, TV, drinks and snacks, etc.) and also allows you to meet people & make new friends. We all accept that the experience extends beyond the 90 minutes of the match and the social club, for the majority of clubs, is the element that makes them special. So how then do you explain the lack of information on them on many clubs’ websites? Are they family friendly? Can you eat there? If there are two blokes smoking outside and I have my young son with me, will I risk going up the steps?

Granted, many clubs do make a point of promoting their social facilities, but many more don’t. For me it exposes a very interesting attitude: that clubs only think about growth in relation to their existing and lapsed fans. There’s clearly nothing wrong with building growth on the ability of your existing fan base to recruit new supporters, but at least some of your growth has to come from people completely new to the club. So don’t hide your best asset from them.

Many small community clubs know who comes along week in week out, so that when someone new turns up; why not ask them if they’re going to come back?

Now I accept that the club won’t be selling tickets online nor routinely collecting customer contact details, firing off offers for future games and requests for feedback, but why not dedicate a few minutes to talk to these people, ask them what led them to drop by and see what can be done to encourage them to return? If they’ve enjoyed themselves, why wouldn’t they post testimonies? Restaurants and hotels want us to share our experiences on Trip Advisor and social media so why shouldn’t clubs encourage positive coverage in that way?

I have the outline of a manifesto for Non League & grass roots growth. It involves strengthening the club’s local identity by looking for the ‘niche’ that will make you stand out locally. It’s about promoting everything BUT the game. It’s about building a team of volunteers, not by word of mouth, but by engaging with local colleges and finding kids for whom the experience will be incredibly valuable and whose skills fill a gap that’s holding you back. It’s about thinking differently about traditions like the match day programme. Why persist with a printed copy that reaches 50 people when putting it on line could reach thousands (as St Helen’s FC have shown) and which then exponentially increases the potential for commercial sponsorship?

The fact is that many non-league clubs act in a way that suggests their growth plans are based on finally drawing Manchester United or Liverpool in the 3rd round of the FA Cup at some stage in the future. This betrays a lack of belief in the power of the unique experience they provide.

Invest time in figuring out what matters to new supporters and, where possible and realistic, take steps to deliver that. The fact that we CAN’T influence what happens on the pitch is seen as a frustrating reality by many clubs, until they realise that’s NOT what makes their club special.

The ‘power of the small’ is what makes non-league clubs different and what makes them different is what makes them special. The message from Non League Day supporters to fans is to come down to your local club on 10th October. The message from me to Non League Clubs is to do more to make your new guests come back.”



Come on WAVE #JoinTheTeam

Initiative from FC Barcelona, a Club that we have supported, and Turkish white goods, manufacturer and retailer BEKO, shows an innovative sponsorship activation.

“Fans from all over the World are gathering to create the World’s biggest Global Fan Wave! Join in now: #JoinTheTeam”


It looks like we will continue our support to a pioneering technology business from Media City in 2015.  Forget, the QR code, in fact don’t even refer to it in the same breath, the V-Code from VST Enterprises is destined to become a household name with blue chip early adopters to this application in fan engagement.

Brainchild, of Louis James Davis, the most endorsed drummer in the music industry and local lad – just take a peek at this video and then start to think how this gets translated into a sports and leisure setting.

It’s fascinating and exciting and only limited by a marketers creativity.  Picture this storyboard:

“Fan with scarf around neck on double decker holds mobile to building as approaching ground and V provides latest info on today’s match – Get off bus and mingle amongst fans approach gate to Club and V gives team line ups – See burger vans and catering V shows today’s special offer Buy One Get One Free shares with mate – Enters ground with V code instead of season ticket – Scan V near steward and get matchday programme – Scan V and half time couple of pints awaiting avoiding queue; Good first half – must buy ticket for FA Cup Match hold up V code in away end one click purchase – Flash latest discount offers for today in Club Shop only – Read programme and V on players kit gives all stats for that player and availability of related merchandise to that player – Half time pint browse affinity offers for supporters from associated companies and latest events in stadium (non-football) – Sponsors messages  shown via V – collect data for them; Final whistle – V-code shows all highlights on bus journey  home.  Inside ground, FD reads V-code analytics”.

Benefits to clubs and supporters:


  • the complete FAN EXPERIENCE
  • mobile and accessible
  • up to date at all times.


  • interaction UP
  • engagement UP
  • cross selling UP
  • matchday sales UP
  • on-selling UP
  • better analytics R.O.I sponsors.

Watch out for the first club to make waves with the vavavoom of V-Code.

Blue Birds

I have just returned from “The Future of Sport” conference at Northampton Business School where I was a keynote speaker.  One of the panelists that I met was Mark Bradley from the Fan Experience Company.  He has kindly allowed us to repeat some of the case study on Cardiff City FC that has led to its recent awards:

“Today a group of club representatives, industry experts and customer experience specialists meet in London to determine which clubs win a Football League Family Excellence Award for 2012/13. This awards programme, designed not only to increase family attendance but also to promote wider fan engagement, began in 2007/08 after an initial pilot.

This programme, along with its ‘sister’ award (The Football League Family Club of the Year), was the catalyst for the emergence of Cardiff City FC as not only a benchmark for family engagement, but leaders in wider supporter engagement. The Club has picked up the Family Club of the Year award twice in the last 3 years (the other winner was Portsmouth FC), so it seemed timely that my son and I should take a visit to the Cardiff City Stadium to see how things have moved on since our last trip to the Welsh Capital in 2011. What has Cardiff’s experience taught us about supporter engagement and growing attendances?

We saw Cardiff all but end their 52-year exile from the top division with a 3-0 win against Forest on 13th April. As well as being a very good game, with plenty of incident (a lot of which seemed to occur in the dug out), it was a chance for us to have a look at what the Bluebirds have been doing ‘off the pitch’ too.

Our interest stems from the fact that when we first started working with the Football League in 2006 (on the pilot project that was to become the Family Excellence Awards), Cardiff was one of the first clubs to use that feedback as a catalyst for re-thinking their relationship with supporters ever since.

Julian Jenkins, Director of International Marketing / Special Projects at Cardiff City and I met up the day before the game and recalled our first meeting back in 2007. I was sharing the results of our first ‘family assessment’ at his club (during the club’s penultimate season at Ninian Park in 2007). Not only was the family experience a little lacking there (something of an understatement) but the Club’s reputation was so ugly back in those days that any form of redemption seemed light years away. Even now, a ‘Cardiff City’ YouTube search is more likely to produce menacing images than anything else.

We talked about my own personal mission: I wasn’t the sort of guy who would abandon his family to go the football every weekend, so I’d figured that, if I could convince them of the fun we’d have, they’d want to come with me and that would be my carte blanche to become a more regular attendee at the Stadium of Light (another club who’s approach to family engagement has been transformational in recent years).

We talked about the challenge of family engagement. It wasn’t just about meeting some of the overt concerns of the new family (Can we afford it? Will it be safe? Will there be something to keep the kids occupied?) but also a chance to uncover the less explicit needs (How can we avoid standing out? How can I manage my kids’ refreshments expectations? How can we enjoy enough of the atmosphere without adding any interesting new words to my kids’ vocabulary?). Importantly, we recognised that for a club to successful understand and react to this, there’d need to be a significant change in culture and attitude: in effect inverting the traditional hierarchy, where everything served the football, to produce an organisation where everything served the supporter and his or her experience.

A bit of historical context will be useful at this point. Back in 2007 most clubs’ attitude to growth was ambivalent at best. If we win, crowds will increase, if we lose, we’ll have to consider discounting. There were few clubs (with Norwich as a notable exception) who had embarked on a proper dialogue with fans, to find out what the different groups needed and who were actively working with them to deliver.

We’ve always been proud of our contribution to the progress made at Cardiff City and it was great to recall some of the milestones along the way: like the time they ran a family survey after a miserable 0-2 defeat at home to Barnsley throughout which it rained continuously. ‘What one thing would have improved your experience today?’ the survey ran. Not one respondent mentioned the football. The same question was asked in a family focus group at the Club. A 9 year old, there with his Mum, said that he missed the chips and gravy he used to have at Ninian Park. They still served this at the new stadium, but the tray it was served in no longer had a lid to it. This, explained the youngster, led to the gravy spilling everywhere and his Mum subsequently outlawing said purchase. Rather than dismissing this as one isolated, unrepresentative comment, the Club and its catering partner fixed this immediately, giving an early preview of the culture change ahead and encouraging the application of this approach to other supporter groups.

Six years later, in these sophisticated ‘customer experience’ times, customers of First Direct, Sony & Nokia, etc, take some impressing, but what initially encouraged Cardiff on their journey was the fact that football fans’ expectations have traditionally been extremely low. Any business that adorns its customer areas with a variety of thinly veiled threats (do this and you get ejected, do this and you’ll get a banning order, do this and you’ll be arrested) isn’t going to create the sort of advocates who crowd out Apple stores on a Saturday morning. On the contrary: it’s going to create brooding disenchantment, destined to become widespread message board bile.

So it wasn’t long before Cardiff rigged their automated turnstiles to recognise any youngster whose birthday it was when they swiped their card. Three red lights flash, the family receptionist greets the family, the kid gets a gift and usually a ‘memory’ too. Maybe it’s a chance to sit in the dug out during the pre-match warm up, a chance to meet a player or an opportunity to walk a sacrosanct part of the stadium. Whatever it was: it mattered. It made people feel valued; it reflected the magic that binds so many people so emotionally to the Bluebirds and, importantly, for a club so traditionally mired in debt, it meant that more people came to games. In fact, during the period from the last season at Ninian Park to the present day, City has increased their family season ticket base from 459 to 7,250. This is remarkable by any standards and, in terms of growth, possibly only matched by Seattle Sounders (see other blogs here).

More than an hour before kick off, my son Luis and I had a walk around the family concourse. It was already half full. There were football skills games, a bank of PlayStations, a dance troupe and a magicians school where Mario teaches the kids tricks and then has them perform them to their pals, improving presentation skills, confidence and self-esteem (and leading to significant CSR sponsorship as a result). The kids’ food box included a signed player photo. There was pick and mix. The place was buzzing. But it’s what we found as we walked further around that really showed how the original ‘catalyst’ (of taking the customer perspective) had changed things substantially.

In the away end there were posters thanking the Forest fans for travelling 350 miles to support their team. There was a DVD playing, showing previous Cardiff / Forest encounters and the refreshment staff were all wearing Forest shirts (which were then to be given to delighted fans later in the afternoon). Incidentally, a Birmingham City fan came to support his team at a game earlier this season. A steward noticed he had a flat tyre and asked for his keys. When he came back to his car, the stewards had changed his tyre for him. As a consequence of the warmth generated by these kind acts, Cardiff City is experiencing a 15% year on year increase in visiting supporters. It wasn’t a long time ago that fans feared a trip to the Welsh Capital. Now it’s the first ‘away trip’ on the list.

We walked further around to the Canton Stand: the place you want to be if you want to really get behind the Bluebirds. To reflect a philosophy that has underpinned remarkable growth at the club, this whole experience was designed by a group of Cardiff’s very own hardcore supporters (for want of a better term). They wanted a better beer service, so now you buy your token when it’s quiet pre-KO and then quickly exchange it for a pint at half time (making people happy and driving up revenues by around 40% per game). They wanted some live music – and they wanted to determine exactly which type. We watched a fantastic version of ‘I fought the law’ being rattled out as we walked past. Ultimately, they wanted none of the restrictions that seem to represent ‘modern football’. There are rules of course, but through dialogue and with the support of the Safety Advisory Committee, a far higher tolerance is applied to things like (where it’s safe to do so) standing.

This ethos of engagement extends into community work too. No longer is the Goal of the Month competition solely a focus on the first team. Goals A and B might be the likes of Bellamy, Helguson and Whittingham, etc, but goal C will always be from the Club’s wider community. When a video was shown of a young child with Downs Syndrome scoring for the Club’s junior disabled team, 93% of the crowd voted for him. I hear that many were in tears watching him do a lap of honour with his trophy at the following home game.

The recent ‘big wrap’ Christmas initiative, where toys were collected for impoverished families and under-privileged kids, led to the beneficiaries being genuinely overwhelmed and before last year’s League Cup Final against Liverpool, the club held an amnesty on Liverpool shirts and collected several hundred that went to good homes on Merseyside. They also take a DIY SOS approach to people in the community who need help. Doesn’t this more properly reflect the purpose of a football club?

The hospitality part of the experience is more accessible now. There’s a ‘lads’ experience’ room with table football, cold beer on ice, music and a great seat. All of the Club’s hospitality customers worked with the Club to design the new match day dining experience. This philosophy of engagement and consultation even stretches to retail, where regular email surveys determine what people want to see in their club shop – because when they’ve been part of the design process, they’re going to want to buy.

So what have we learned from this? Had these changes happened at a club with less jaundiced external perceptions, then I don’t think the impact on attitudes to growth across the game would have been so impactful. The fact that they’ve happened at Cardiff City – a watchword for violence right through to the early 2000s – not only shows that anything’s possible, but that it’s possible at ANY club.

Over the years, I’ve come to see progress in fan engagement as having three specific stages.

Firstly, the status quo: post-Taylor Report safe modern facilities, but with an enduring attitude of indifference to supporters’ needs. Simply being safe and modern does not ‘engage’ fans nor lead to growth.

Secondly (and I like to think we’ve played a big part in this) the impact of exposure to real supporter experiences (and the dialogue emerging from this) has seen clubs reconfigure their processes and systems to make it easier for fans to engage. In the context of family engagement this would be the emergence of family pricing, family zones and more engaging junior supporter clubs, for example. My guess is that the vast majority of Clubs have reached this level now, but Cardiff (and a few soon to be celebrated others) has taken a further step.

Step 3? This is where different supporters see their needs (particularly their unspoken ones) reflected in their interactions with their club (match day and non-match day). Involving supporters in decisions that affect their own experiences, trusting their instincts and using their perception of the Club’s identity as your anchor, leads to people feeling cared for, feeling valued and, as a consequence, experiencing a lot of love for their Club. This can transcend performance on the pitch (which you can’t control anyway) and not only revolutionise your own supporters’ view of your Club, but also completely turn round the way the rest of the world sees you.

Ultimately the secret is to recognise that, just as in any other progressive business, growth and engagement is a product of the organisation’s culture. Cardiff’s experience – and it is this that really makes them stand out – is a testament to taking the supporter perspective, using this as an ‘epiphany’ for thinking completely differently about a club’s relationship with supporters and urgently seeking the change the culture and create the conditions for supporter engagement to thrive.

Incidentally, both Cardiff’s game and my beloved Sunderland’s (that weekend) both finished in fantastic 3-0 victories – with mine bringing back memories of Gary Rowell’s famous hat trick in a 4-1 win at St James Park in 1979 (only to see my new found confidence shattered by last night’s collapse at Villa Park). But sometimes it’s not all about what happens ON the pitch and, in this, Cardiff City have a remarkable story to tell.”

Some of the approach taken by Cardiff has to be applauded and could be a good lesson for others to follow suit.  Yet, the decision of moving from Blue to Red and rebranding shows less of a respect and consultation to the fan stakeholders.  Maybe a compromise like attached from Cardiff City Fans Forum is what’s needed – but who am I to decide – it’s surely one for fans to comment on?