There’s nothing quite like a NRL grand final to drive brand engagement and customer acquisition. Especially if — like the Cronulla Sharks — your brand has been on the nose in recent years.

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Speaking at a breakfast hosted by Marketo in Sydney last week, Scott Maxworthy, Head of Digital Commercialisation for the Cronulla Sharks, shared how the NRL club transformed itself after finishing at the bottom of the table in 2014 to creating memorable brand experiences for its long suffering fans in the weeks surrounding the 2016 grand final.

“In 2014 we were the wooden spoon. We were coming off the back of ASADA. The brand stunk, the culture was horrible,” Maxworthy said.

In October the Sharks won their first NRL premiership, ending a 49 year drought by defeating the Melbourne Storm 14-12. Maxworthy attributes the two year turnaround to a change in culture, presided over by new CEO, Lyall Gorman, whose first job was to hold fan forums to diagnose problems facing the club.

“The tools are important, the tech’s important but the fundamental and most important thing is people,” he said. “Without good people it’s just technology and tools. If you have a passionate team working towards a common goal you will achieve great things.”

Maxworthy, who joined the Sharks in late 2013 to help the develop the club’s digital strategy, provided insights into the marketing activity around the grand final. Given the team’s only two previous grand final appearances were in 1973 and 1978, a strategy needed to be quickly formulated once the Sharks secured their spot in the grand final, just one week out from the match.

In the week leading up to the grand final the club capitalised on the energy surrounding the event, hosting media events and welcoming the tens of thousands of fans who converged on the leagues club, signing up 3,500 new members.

“We had 3,500 people giving us fantastic data like their email address, their phone number, where they live, how many children they’ve got — whatever. It was great data acquisition,” Maxworthy said.

The club also sold $1.6 million dollars worth of merchandise during grand final week, which is the same amount it sells the rest of the year.

“If the merch manager walked up the stairs with a bag of flags, people were taking them out before we could get them in the store and they were queuing up with merch just to get in there to buy it,” Maxworthy said.

“A lot of that was dormant fan engagement, because fans were neglected for so long and it had been so long, but all of a sudden we were relevant.”

On a typical week, the Sharks receive about 650 pieces of user-generated content via social media, surrounding the grand final that number rose to 6,500. The club took the fan content, and using a tech called Stackla, broadcast the social posts on the big screens throughout the club house.

The role of digital  

Maxworthy said his technology decisions were driven by a desire to improve customer experience and create fan moments. The key drivers of that being social, mobile and video.

The first step was to implement Tealium, “It allows us to play any vendor and plug it in and stitch that customer data together.” The club chose Marketo as its marketing automation tool to personalise customer experience.

To build a business case around the new technology, Maxworthy trialed the new tech with its members. He explained, “We get about 1.2 million website visitors but our fan and member database is only 42,000. There’s a disconnect there and so what we wanted to do was identify people coming in [to the website] but then put some lead scoring around those visitors to then feed to our telemarketing team to follow up membership.”

The result was a 36 per cent increase in membership revenue, ninety one per cent member retention, the number one net promoter score for NRL and increases in ticketing revenue, Maxworthy said.

The Cronulla Sharks has another unique property where it can gather customer information — its stadium.

“Having a stadium means we can geotarget and [get] an overarching perspective to build that single customer view and understand what that lifetime customer value is,” Maxworthy said.

In 2017 the club plans to develop a stadium app to offer more personalisation and improve wi-fi connectivity in the venue.

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