Capitalising on the connection with fans
There will soon be a different name on the great Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona. The Swedish streaming service Spotify has bought the sponsorship rights to FC Barcelona, and the name will shortly be seen on the club's shirts and on the stadium. If we are to believe reports in the media, it was touch and go as to whether the deal would go through or not. Although FC Barcelona is one of the biggest names in the sporting world, Spotify was not particularly in awe of the way in which the club connects with fans.
Barça claims to have some 350 million fans around the world. That sounds like a fantastic amount of people, for Spotify too. But the new sponsor couldn't help thinking: 'What can we do with all those people? What does Barcelona know about them, who are they, what do they like and how can we sell them our subscription services?' In short: how strong is the connection with that immense audience, actually? It then became apparent that FC Barcelona's fan database had never really been the club's top priority.
The club seemed to know fewer than 1% of those alleged 350 million fans. In other words: there are 'just' 3 million people whose names and e-mail addresses are recorded in the club's database. The club is able to communicate directly with that group of fans. The rest of the fans are unknown and, as a result, much more difficult to reach. That automatically complicates the process of selling anything to those people, both for Barcelona and for a sponsor.
In the Netherlands, too, I regularly hear those responsible for commercial activities at football clubs bragging about the size of their fanbase. Numbers that can quickly run into the millions of fans, if you believe everything you hear. I understand that it's good to suggest that you have a large fanbase, especially if, for instance, you're sitting round a table with a potential new sponsor. But those figures are often difficult to justify. Not to mention the fact that the club hasn't built up a real relationship with all those (so-called) fans.
There is a connection only where both sides have the sense that they belong together, know each other and care about each other. Fans love their favourite club and are often up to date with all the latest news. But that doesn't necessarily apply if the situation is reversed. I haven't seen FC Barcelona's database, but my experience with other football clubs is that they know precious little about their following. If they know fans' dates of birth, where fans live, what fans' e-mail addresses are, they already consider that quite an achievement. That is a very scant basis on which to form a connection with those fans. To make a connection you need to have a personal touch, after all.
Someone's age and sex is not enough to talk to someone on a personal level. To illustrate what I mean, I often use the example of Prince Charles and Ozzy Osbourne. Two completely different men, right? Not according to one of those databases, though. Charles and Ozzy were both born in the United Kingdom, in 1948; both have been married twice, have two children and are mad about dogs. But would you be able to win over their heart (or wallet) if you were to approach them both in exactly the same manner? No way.
If you wanted to sell a match ticket to a type like Ozzy, you'd have to use a different sales patter than for a type like Charles. However, if you want to achieve that then you need to take the time to get to know those different types. Only when you go to the trouble of understanding what such a person values in life can you actually say that you've connected with a fan.
An essential aspect of a fan database is knowledge of what fans want. On the one hand, because it's logical that you delve into each other's needs if you want to build up an emotional bond and, on the other, because it's the only way of capitalising on the connection with fans on a commercial level. After all, peoples' behaviour is not so much influenced by demographic features, but rather by needs and drivers.
I can well understand that Spotify, a data-driven organisation, was amazed at this. Spotify knows its users' behaviour through and through. All the data they collect is recycled to deepen the connection with their music streaming service. From annual lists of the most frequently-streamed numbers to suggestions for new podcasts and playlists compiled specially for me, music I'm bound to enjoy listening to. I sometimes get the idea that Spotify knows what I want to listen to even before I do. It's true: Spotify controls my listening behaviour.
The more that sporting organisations invest in getting to know their fans, the more successful they will be in creating a bond with fans. Sporting organisations that take connection with fans seriously have the opportunity - like Spotify - to have a greater impact on their fans' behaviour. By making the needs and wishes of fans apparent, it is easier to strike the right chord and win people over.
I hope that, in future, sporting organisations stop boasting about the size of their fanbase and talk instead about how strong their connection with their fans is. Wouldn't you rather have 3 million fans whose every wish you know, than 350 million fans who you don't know from Adam?