“The Opportunity In Sport Is That There Is So Much Value Left On The Table”
By Ben Page | January 31, 2022
Chief Commercial Officer, Dan Lipman, talks to iSportConnect’s Ben Page about how InCrowd is helping sports clients to utilise data to drive change across their digital ecosystem and maximise ROI. We discuss the impact of data powered personalisation and innovative new technology that is enabling rights holders to transform how they connect and communicate with their fans.
Dan Lipman has worked in the sports industry throughout his career, originally holding marketing roles helping sports organisations such as British Athletics and The LTA to grow their audiences, with a primary focus on ticket sales strategies before his involvement with the launch of Tough Mudder in the UK.
“The US marketing influence for Tough Mudder was ahead of the digital sophistication we were used to with marketing UK sports events and products. Social media was just starting to become a ‘thing’ and we were learning very quickly how powerful it could be for reaching and marketing to new fans and participants. As the mass participation market evolved during this time everything quickly became a lot more about data and digital and our budgets in this area were growing dramatically year on year,” says Dan.
After working at FastTrack and then CSM, he joined Participate, a startup which soon became Human Race and went on to be the largest mass participation event organiser in the UK until its acquisition by Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO).
“The opportunity in sport is that there is so much value left on the table.”
“I think one of the key drivers for the acquisition of Human Race by ASO was the way we were using fan data to grow audiences and increase the frequency of attendees, whilst driving up average spend and retention, all by understanding who it was that was buying the entry to an event and what their motivation was; this expertise we could bring to the sports and events business,” Dan adds.
“Joining InCrowd was taking this process and doing it on a much bigger scale; every sport needs to evolve to focus on customer marketing to be able to maximise return on investment per customer or per fan and InCrowd’s core product solutions around data and personalised digital marketing rests at the heart of that; it felt like the perfect fit for me personally, and what I passionately believed would be the future of the industry.”
What was behind the creation of InCrowd and how has the business been progressing in recent years?
In 2015 InCrowd started as a connectivity solution for stadiums where fans were constantly having problems with poor signal, preventing them from broadening and sharing their in-stadia experience. Since then, InCrowd has grown exponentially and expanded its reach into the broader fan data and technology space including apps, websites, fan experience modules and in-stadia LED solutions. This has accelerated dramatically over the last two years with the addition of our Customer Data & Experience Platform which is really the piece that brings all our technology together.
“The reason InCrowd focused on mobile app development early on was because apps are such a rich form of data collection as well as a valuable marketing tool; something that is in the pocket of every fan.”
The opportunity in sport is that there is so much value left on the table. Sports organisations tend to have what is referred to as a traditional business model, generating revenue from broadcast, media sales and fan attendee revenues like ticketing and merchandise. Fan consumption is ultimately leaning towards digital, but there is still a lag between what fans want to experience and what organisations are delivering for the fans; this creates a challenge for the rights holder to own the digital attention of their fans.
In addition, there is significant value left on the table for brand partners. We came across an excellent stat from some research conducted by Fuse which showed that typically 50% of all brand spend is digital, but only 14% of rights inventory offered by rights holders is digital. This shows that 1) there’s a challenge in terms of creating that inventory, and then 2) there would be a further challenge in terms of selling or monetising those assets; our technology is really designed to close this gap.
The reason InCrowd focused on mobile app development early on was because apps are such a rich form of data collection as well as a valuable marketing tool; something that is in the pocket of every fan. Organisations can gather lots of contextual information and use that data to personalise and ultimately commercialise content and messaging in a stronger way and with deeper data than any other data source. The ambition was to show the value of data, and then use this platform to become a truly multi-channel content and marketing technology business, which is the InCrowd you see today.
On-field data has been growing, when you look at Opta (founded by Aidan Cooney, InCrowd Co-Founder) and other data companies who track player stats and movement, but off the field how drastic has the change been in the amount of data that is now available to these organisations?
People often don’t associate the on-field sports data with fan engagement but to coin a phrase from Aidan, “Opta was a fan engagement business”. If you look at the digital traffic for the vast majority of sports platforms, a lot of their engagement is in match related content i.e. match stats. At InCrowd, on-field and off-field data are not mutually exclusive; in fact, InCrowd are developing ways in which to bring all that data together and utilise it to create incredibly unique fan experiences.
“Especially in the younger generation of sports fans; interactivity and immediate information is simply expected.”
When it comes to creating these experiences for fans, the thought at the forefront of their minds should be how do they win the battle for attention? There are so many places for fans to engage with the sports, teams, and league they support, so what can the rights holder offer that ensures they own a greater share of a fan’s time.
This thinking needs to flow through all channels and touchpoints. Off channel audiences, such as social, are unsurprisingly larger than owned platforms, but the value per fan increases as they become more engaged in owned channels, mainly through the ability to own both the inventory around the engagement as well as, importantly, the data related to that engagement.
As an industry we are typically more equipped to monetise the inventory such as branding and assets at the point the fan engages, although commercial agreements still have a long way to go to appropriately package these assets. However, the industry has even further untapped opportunity with regard to the data monetisation; either using data to drive the fan to the next best action, or to capture the engagement and utilise that data to fuel the broader fan profile and marketing to the fan.
In terms of collecting fan data, historically there’s been a significant focus on transactional data (ticket sales, retail), because it’s been the easiest data to get hold of. But it becomes a little bit more challenging for rights holders to positively impact ROI for themselves or their sponsors based on transactional data alone. Capturing and overlaying digital behavioural data linked to the fan with the existing transactional data is powerful.
For example, you might be a football club or sports organisation that sells season tickets. Say there are two supporters who both buy their season tickets at the same time who are the same age and demographic; how do you distinguish between them and build useful marketing segments? With additional data such as capturing their web browsing behaviour you might then understand that one of them is interested in content from the women’s team and the other is interested in the under 23s team content; suddenly creating a useful marketing tag with which to segment messaging to these fans; we’ve seen huge uplifts in ticketing, merchandise and OTT subscription revenues with clients through relatively simple segmentation using this type of additional data layer.
There is also a risk in collecting all that data and not doing anything with it. What InCrowd focuses on is identifying the key commercial challenges for each organisation and then mapping what data points will enable them to overcome that challenge. From here we’re able to collect and make available the data both for insight reports and for marketing segmentation and personalisation that will actually move the dial.
From that point, it’s clear that there must be that value proposition that you’re also giving back to fans…?
InCrowd’s strapline is ‘driving ROI through data powered digital experiences’ and the value proposition you are referring to is the ‘digital experience’ part of that. InCrowd doesn’t think rights holders should be solely operating in or competing in an advertising space, i.e. implementing ad tech on their platforms and then trying to push sponsor or owned campaigns through that because you’re ultimately competing on a CPM basis with huge platforms that can reach other audiences.
One of the unique things about InCrowd’s technology is that when you’re personalising content to people, there’s such a broad scope as to what you can do. We could change the gamification that people see, the branding within that gamification, the post-gamification call to action brought to you by a sponsor, all of these things are much softer than just a ‘wallpaper’ ad banner on your website. That could extend to a carousel of videos or an image gallery brought to you by a partner. The way to truly engage with fans is by using data to deliver these experiences and make them personal, with value to the fan, not just advertising; that’s the wrong type of relationship for rights holders to have with their fans.
What are the other key issues that organisations are most regularly facing that InCrowd is able to solve?
At InCrowd we often talk about a phrase, ‘horizontal lines’. Sports technology and data has always been isolated into what we describe as verticals, whether that’s your website vertical, email marketing vertical, social. ‘Horizontal lines’ is about the seamless connection of all of these technologies, in particular content and data flows. So ultimately you can take one central pot of data amalgamated from all of your digital sources and activate this through content on all of your fan facing channels – this is the heart of InCrowd’s technology and mission.
There’s been a huge rhetoric in the industry about the use of data and digital for a long time, and it seems the challenge in making it reality becomes operational; either seemingly impossible or too expensive to piece all of these technologies together. That’s what InCrowd has solved by building a central technology which connects all of these things together.
“The challenge is not just going to be having the technology and implementing it, but also being able to articulate the value appropriately to sponsors.”
The addition of new technology always comes with questions around resources and headcount; is there more work to be done by more people to implement this? Actually, in a meeting with one of our clients the chairman of the business asked the marketing manager implementing our technology how he found it. I really enjoyed his answer; he said initially there was an increase in set up time, but now it’s at a point where the team is doing less work than they had to before with ten times the sophistication because of how smart and automated the technology is; everything’s now running for them.
A further challenge is meeting the brand expectation when selling in the current climate to brands looking for digital sophistication. The challenge is not just going to be having the technology and implementing it, but also being able to articulate the value appropriately to sponsors. There is a defined cost for a TV ad or logo on a shirt that doesn’t fully exist in digital yet. It’s going to be interesting to see what digital value represents as a share of overall sponsorship value in the next few years.
When you look at the gameday experience for fans, what are some of the most important ways that InCrowd are playing its part in developing that area in particular?
We tend to break the audiences into categories of watch, follow and attend because, in any one moment, you’ve got fans that are interacting in a different way: those going to the game, those consuming or following on the digital platform, and those watching on a broadcast or a stream. So when we’re developing our technology, we consider those three audience groups and what their experience might be.
For the attendees, InCrowd was the first tech provider to launch native mobile ticket wallets in sport; digitising that experience to help collect more data for the rights holder and make a seamless entry for fans. Once we know that fan’s attending because of that ticket, we can use personalisation technology to deliver a completely different experience from one fan to the next; perhaps travel information, retail offers or sponsor initiatives. An example of this is the Hundred; InCrowd built the official app and it is believed to be the first multi-venue UK sports competition to go one hundred percent all in on mobile ticketing. Because of this, the organisers of The Hundred, ECB, were able to gather more data on every fan attending a game, and could engage them in more relevant activities and content throughout the app and across the day.
“You don’t want to be getting to a world where you’re segmenting for segmentation’s sake and creating ultra-personalised audiences that are making such a marginal difference that it’s not relevant vs the effort.”
You’ve then got the followers, and this is where match stats come in, to engage fans with match driven content, like voting for player of the match. Speed of updates is crucial; InCrowd really focuses on how quickly automated match alerts for any sport are released so that fans get that information as quickly as possible.
Then we have the watcher. InCrowd has developed innovative products like interactive gamification integrated into the broadcast, such as Man Of The Match voting for the Rugby Football League (RFL). Fans at home on the sofa are interacting with the broadcast from their mobile, affecting change on the TV creating a two-way experience.
Going back to how consumer habits are changing; all the above development and advancements in how sport is delivered to fans is a direct result of this change. Especially in the younger generation of sports fans; interactivity and immediate information is simply expected and if organisations can’t deliver, there’s a risk of losing those fans back to social media and other digital platforms.
You often mention personalisation. Looking at the big picture, how deep can personalisation truly go and where are we at right now?
We’re not discovering anything new by saying that the more you personalise something to somebody, a pattern will follow in terms of increased engagement, or conversion to either engagement or purchase. However, we are aware that we need to be realistic with the time and resources that organisations have to deliver, activate, create content and manage campaigns.
Secondly, you don’t want to be getting to a world where you’re segmenting for segmentation’s sake and creating ultra-personalised audiences that are making such a marginal difference that it’s not relevant vs the effort. So the key with personalisation is to understand what levers will make a difference. I could segment an audience by every ten years of age, when actually it may just be worth doing under 25s and everybody else.
“The typical interaction between a fan and a rights holder is slightly disjointed.”
On the segmentation/personalisation debate, there’s a role for both. There’s a role for creating segmented audiences to drive marketing efforts and there’s also a really valuable role from an emotional perspective to go deeper with personalisation.
We’ve created a product with the English Football League, called SkyBet EFL rewards, that’s all about creating digital badging and gamified rewards around fan behaviour. It’s beneficial from a rights holder perspective as they can start to understand how fans are engaging with their league but the fans are also benefiting from this value exchange, hence a willingness to continually part with their data. We also built a predictor game bracket tournament for SkySports with personalised graphics based on team selection; 21% of players shared their predictions on social media, the reason they shared this content was because of the graphic being personal to them.
From your experience Dan, what would you say are ways to keep in touch and engage with fans that aren’t being used to their fullest potential?
I think it goes back to one of the things I said earlier on, which is that the typical interaction between a fan and a rights holder is slightly disjointed. If you look at the typical week for any sports fan, how many times might they go on that club’s website compared to engaging on social channels or looking something up on search engines?
Rights holders need to own that share of attention and establish what it is for each of their different fan groups that enables them to own that share of attention on a regular basis. InCrowd places fans into cohorts; covering casual fans, matchday fans right through to super fans. The fan profile is something we think the rights holder could really own because they can piece together data from many behavioural touch points, whether it’s streaming, predictive gaming, content engagement or brand click throughs, other platforms simply don’t have the ability to do this.
There’s a lot more to be done with rewards and a lot more to be done with loyalty. Both of those things are really centred around that profile, holistically identifying each of your fan cohorts, your ‘right to own’ content and activations and making sure you’re the destination of choice for each of those different audience groups.
If your club were able to show you a history of every goal you’ve seen in attendance, how many times you’ve seen Leo Messi play in your stadium etc., that’s a piece of value no one else can offer. InCrowd places great value on the fan profile; with it, our clients can generate incredible fan experiences and create new commercial opportunities for the organisations and for brand partners.
The organisation won Agency Of The Year at the Sports Business Awards in November; what are the next goals for InCrowd as it continues to evolve?
We’ve been constantly operating slightly under the radar for quite a while because we were focused on delivering value for our clients and trying to get to a position where we have a real point of difference in our technology. We really believe with our client roster that we are delivering this now and with a real depth of technology implemented we’re going to start to see really significant case studies in terms of fan experiences and engagement KPIs, as well as revenue and commercial value metrics.
What we’re doing with technology is market-leading and innovative; it is different to what everybody is doing, so it’s an exciting year for us to have clients fully embedded across such a broad range of our technologies
We’ve also made the decision to double our investment in product development, looking at what is successful, what’s working and what’s not. This work has been the driving force behind two years of really strong commercial growth. InCrowd will be investing a lot more because as an industry we’ve only scratched the surface of the potential value of our audiences. There are currently nine billion fans and they’re each worth $32 to the industry, that’s predicted to grow 100% In the next five years and 100% again in the five years after that. That’s a huge commercial opportunity for everyone in the industry and we’re excited to be at the heart of realising that value!
Driving ROI through data-powered digital experiences
With data, app, web and in-stadia solutions managed by a powerful customer data and experience platform (CDXP) and supporting professional content, data and strategic consultancy services, InCrowd helps leagues, clubs, federations, venues and sports media activate the full potential of their dedicated and passionate audiences, driving significant ROI for the organisation and commercial partners.
InCrowd works with multiple sports organisations and clubs including UEFA, FIFA, EFL, Sky Sports, Premiership Rugby, URC, Rugby Football League, Formula 1, ECB, ICC, Indian Premier League and multiple clubs across the Premier League and Championship, helping them deeply connect with their fans converting fan interaction into ROI & advocacy.