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Best Practice Pros: How The NFL Scores Big In Email
Contributor Steve Dille shares insights on how America’s top sports league uses email to deepen fan engagement.
In our earlier profiles of email marketers that can serve as solid prototypes for other businesses, we dissected LinkedIn and Groupon: one a social media community, the other a massive e-commerce hub. Each found its own specific ways to use email as a primary pillar in acquisition and CRM.
This time around, we’ll leaf through the email marketing playbook (if you’ll pardon the wordplay) of a brand that’s at the forefront of engaging its audience in innovative ways: the National Football League (NFL).
To be specific, we’ll look at how “The League” – above and beyond the efforts of its individual teams — has maximized its use of email, amplifying fan fervor and driving revenue.
You’ve Gotta Feed The Fans… All of Them
Over the decades, the NFL has done an amazing job of promoting the sport, the characters and the mythology of the game. No wonder a huge number of NFL fans are nearly as hungry for behind-the-scenes insights, statistics, player profiles and analysis as Dawg Pound denizens are for a Cleveland playoff run.
In feeding the fan base the news and content it wants, the NFL has the considerable challenge of managing both scale and segmentation. There’s a huge body of fans to address, but it’s a league with 32 very disparate constituencies: the fan bases of each team.
Another challenge for the NFL is that it needs to give fans a variety of content that’ll satisfy everyone from the more casual fan to the armchair quarterback to the fantasy league devotee. The league has to appeal to both genders, too, since over 41% of the NFL fan base is female (according to Scarborough Sport Marketing), a share the NFL is eager to maintain and monetize (an effort complicated by the Ray Rice domestic assault incident and the league’s poor handling of the aftermath).
The NFL faces a unique challenge among professional sports leagues in that its actual inventory of game action is relatively tiny. Unlike baseball, hockey and basketball, where games are played nearly every day of the week, games in the NFL are largely a weekend-only affair. This leaves the entire work week with a void of action.
Fans can keep in touch with league developments via talk radio and cable sports during the week, but the question for teams is, how can you reach fans directly when there’s a lull in the action? Turns out that email has provided the NFL with what may be the perfect conduit for giving every fan what they want. It took inventive implementation, but it’s paid off.
An Umbilical Cord Of Content
Ever since the first days of NFL Films, the league’s marketers have understood the power of content, how it’s a key aspect of the total pro football experience for their fan base. The NFL supplies a treasure trove of content every week of the season. From videos to post-game and pre-game analyses, injury updates, historical information, fantasy league gaming and punditry, NFL Network programming… a never-ending stream helps drive the connection between fans, their favorite teams and the entire league.
Rather than ask fans to come to the source, however, the NFL now uses email to deliver an incredibly rich content consumption experience to fans that’s customized to each user.
The All-Pro In The Inbox
To subscribe to the NFL’s weekly fan-specific newsletter, users need to sign up at NFL.com, where they’re asked the obvious questions: What’s their favorite team? Their favorite NFL memory? A few personal details?
The user analytics go much deeper, of course; the NFL’s online tracking/eCRM technology provider, eBay Enterprise Email (formerly known as e-Dialog), has evolved to a state-of-the-art level of sophistication.
eBay Enterprise Email originally tracked NFL.com users to identify clicks, allowing outbound weekly emails to be tailored to their specific interests. Today, by tracking clicks inside each email, the NFL is able to identify the most popular content – and reactively tailor and expand the website accordingly, too, helping to capture new users.
But it’s the newsletter itself that’s a work of engagement genius — so much so that Marketing Sherpa named it the top email marketing program of 2013 in their Best of Email Marketing Awards (PDF), as well as their category winner for personalization/segmentation.
What makes it succeed?
- Richness of content, smartness of design. From video to articles to fantasy tips, there’s a lot to enrapture the fan — yet it’s organized in an orderly way that’s a pleasure to navigate, making engagement easy. In many ways, the newsletter is as substantive and entertaining an experience as the full-fledged website.
- Real-time excitement. A live “countdown clock” inside the newsletter lets them know how much time remains until their team’s next game; the NFL’s own fan feedback indicates that users often later re-open the newsletter just to check the countdown! Plus, up-to-date articles and videos are scraped from the website that very day, ensuring they’re fresh to the reader’s eyes.
- Compelling personalization. Content focuses on the reader’s favorite team — right down to putting that team’s logo in the masthead.
- Responsively designed. 50% of recipients use a tablet or other mobile device to view their NFL newsletter, so it’s fully enabled for every type of touchscreen. This supports the big screen / little screen experience.
- Cross-channel integration. Want to check on your fantasy team? Visit the NFL Network website? Browse analysts’ blogs, check out the new jerseys at the NFL Shop, or buy tickets? The email provides up-front integration with all of that, as well as being linked to the league’s social feeds.
The Scoreboard Tells The Tale
The NFL implemented this email marketing campaign in 2012, and it would appear that their new approach did the trick. The revamped email program saw:
- A more than impressive 121% increase in opens over the previous year
- A 26% increase in click-throughs
- A 9% increase in mobile opens
An Email Strategy At Every Position
Not to belabor sports clichés, but the NFL shows further bench strength across the board in leveraging email:
- 1st & 10 is a daily news email, complete with animated crawl, that delivers the top league-wide headlines in a crisp and clean layout that’s slimmed-down from the newsletter, keeping fans apprised of daily developments around the entire NFL.
- The NFL Shop gives fans a chance to opt-in for mobile alerts and emails about new merchandise updates, sale announcements and promotions.
- NFL.com Fantasy registrants can pick from a smorgasbord of alerts, like trades, waiver claims, trade deadline reminders, game day scoring and injury alerts and more, deliverable via email as well as via MS Texts, Madden NFL, or DirecTV.
Enriching The Relationship Between League And Fan
There’s no other way to put it: Email has proven to be a marketing MVP for the NFL. They’ve scored big by following best practices like…
- Leveraging email marketing’s core strengths. The NFL has capitalized on email’s unique advantages in segmentation, targeting and personalization.
- Intelligently innovating. The NFL has pushed email’s strengths to new extremes that demonstrate just how powerful and leading-edge a tool it can be on any playing field, but every innovation has been grounded in a strong grasp of technologies, marketing realities, and the psychology of the fans.
- Delivering immersion. The NFL has thrived by giving fans not just sport and spectacle, but by making it simple for anyone to feel immersed in the narratives and pageantry of the game. Email gives any marketer the chance to take “brand immersion” straight to the target, a lesson the NFL understands very well: by using it to help each of us feel we’re an informed and passionate fan, and by doing so on a very personal, fan-by-fan basis, the NFL has nurtured loyalty matched by very few other sports.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.