Taking the Emotion out of Sports Marketing
Have you ever been emotionally hijacked? You're confronted with harm, either physical or emotional, and all of a sudden you're in fight or flight mode. Your blood starts pumping and you cease to think clearly. Your mind gets blurry and you lose all ability to make rational decisions. Sound familiar?
We all experience it but how we react differs from person to person. Some people lash out in anger and can't control what they say or do in those moments. Some people shut down completely and flee the scene physically or psychologically (or both). But the one thing that remains true in all cases is that the brain is reacting on emotion and it is scientifically incapable of making completely logical and rational decisions.
There's a science to this, of course, and it all has to do with how humans have evolved to protect themselves from harm. What's happening in our brains when we get hijacked? What causes us to lose the ability to think rationally in times of crisis? Well, I'm no rocket surgeon but according to the internet, it all has to do with the amygdala. That’s the area of the brain that processes emotion. When faced with a threat, or any situation really, the amygdala immediately kicks in to assess the situation. It asks itself, Can this hurt me? Should I fear this? If the answer is yes, it immediately sends a message to the rest of the brain which triggers the hormones that tell us to either flee or fight. When we face potential danger, the amygdala takes over nearly the entire brain, including the part that allows us to make rational decisions. Think of it as human evolution's security system. When danger is present, our brain goes into super-protection mode and it simply turns off all the parts of the brain that normally regulate our emotions.
What does this have to do with sales and marketing? Well, emotions don't just prevent us from making rational decisions when faced with fear. They can also take over in other situations, resulting in us making irrational buying decisions. And don't think for one second that companies don't take advantage of this on a regular basis. Raise your hand if you've never made a buying decision based on emotion. You see product X and you suddenly start thinking about how much pleasure it's going to bring you. You picture yourself wearing it, eating it, or driving it and you can't stop thinking about how badly you want that thing. All logic and rationality leave your brain as the emotional side shuts down your ability to think about things like I can't afford this, or I'm going to feel like crap if I eat this entire cake. So just like when you’re hijacked out of fear, you make decisions that aren’t fully rational. When you eventually start thinking rationally again, regret sinks in. You apologize to your partner for screaming unintelligible expletives at them for 45 minutes straight. Or you return the gold-plated Winnebago you thought you couldn't live without.
Industries all over the planet do their best to take advantage of your emotional buying decisions. From product placement at check-out stands to test-drives at the car dealership, they look for ways to play on your emotions. Have you ever been to a state fair and gone into one of those buildings where there are hundreds of products being sold and each one is being demonstrated by a charistmatic salesperson with a microphone strapped to their face? Believe it or not, those people spend years honing their craft to figure out how to get you to making emotional buying decisions. That's why it's so effective. They demonstrate their product and paint a picture for you of how much your life will improve if you just buy this one product. You visualize yourself with that amazing potato peeler preparing the best spiral cut homemade french fries your neighbors have ever seen. You think about the praise you'll receive for having the most attractive side dish at the church picnic. And you buy whatever it is they’re hawking. On the drive home, of course, you begin thinking rationally again. You get home, put your potato peeler in the drawer and never quite figure out how it works.
As those state fair salespeople will tell you, emotional buying decisions are a short-play. If you don't hook them quickly, they’re gone. If somebody says they're going to think about it, you've lost the sale. Because when they think about it, they start thinking rationally. And these sales strategies aren't based on rationality.
Emotional Buying in Collegiate Athletics
Athletics is an emotional thing for most people. Fans live and die by their sports teams, and there is no better example of irrational decision-making than that of sports fans and the things they do to show their passion for their teams. But here's the problem with playing on emotion when trying to drive fans to purchase tickets to your events: it doesn't work. Yep, I said it. Using emotional messaging to drive attendance to sporting events DOES NOT WORK. But what's worse is that it's the number one strategy employed by almost every athletics organization out there. High-impact photography of student-athletes looking larger than life on posters. Commercials that show your favorite players knocking the snot out of your biggest rival. Don't get me wrong. I love that stuff! I love those posters and I love seeing those commercials. But again, when it comes to motivating people to purchase tickets and attend events, it doesn't work.
Emotion-based sports marketing appeals to two types of fans. The first type is die-hard fans. They're the ones who watch every video you post on social media and share it with their friends. They tailgate before the games and they sit in the same seats their family has had for as long as they can remember. Their kids have your posters on their walls and they get really excited when the commercials come on TV because they get to see that big hit and one-handed TD catch that never get old. But here's the thing. They're coming to the stadium next Saturday no matter what. They'll be there whether they see that commercial or get that poster. They'll be there whether you spend $100,000 on outdoor advertising or $0 on outdoor advertising. Now, I'm not saying that you shouldn't market to them. I'm just saying that if you want to drive attendance, don't spend your time marketing to people that are coming no matter what your poster looks like.
The other group of fans that emotion-based marketing appeals to is the casual fan. These are people that may have grown up a fan of your program or perhaps even went to school there. They go to a game or two per year, they have some existing affinity for your teams, and if they don't attend the game they're probably going to be watching it on TV. So it makes sense to play to their emotions, right? It makes sense to show them the passion and hard-hitting action and activate that affinity within them, right?
Playing to the emotions of a casual fan works. The problem is, it doesn't work for long enough to convert them into a ticket purchaser. Or even if it does, it doesn't always result in them actually attending once they've purchased. And it doesn't keep them coming back. As I stated before, emotion-based marketing is a short play. You're at the check-out line and see something you want, you buy it right then and you use it right then. You're at the state fair and you picture how much better your life will be when you're finally able to cut your child's hair using this amazing vacuum attachment. So you buy it right then. The state fair salesperson doesn't care if you actually use the thing once you've bought it, they just want you to buy it.
Athletics doesn't work that way. We play on casual fans' emotions with those hard-hitting commercials, billboards featuring taglines that fuel their passion and posters with die-cuts and high-impact photography, all in an attempt to activate their affinity for the alma mater. And it works, temporarily. But we're not selling a bag of M&M's at the check-out counter. We're not selling an impulse buy. What we're selling requires that they "think about it." The exact thing that emotion-based marketers don't want to give their buyers time to do. These casual fans see the commercials and billboards and think, "Oh, man. I gotta go!" Then their amygdala allows them to start thinking with logic and rationality. They start thinking about how comfortable their couch is, how expensive the beer is at games, and how much warmer/cooler it is in their climate controlled home. And home is exactly where they are on Saturday afternoon. Because if they didn't care about all of those things, you wouldn't need to be marketing to them.
If you have empty seats, new fans with no existing affinity for your program cannot be ignored. Professional teams fight to win over people that relocate to their market and colleges shouldn't be any different. If you're a sports fan and you move to the Raleigh-Durham area, you're surrounded by 3 major universities with storied athletics programs. Whose events are you going to attend? Whichever one markets to you in the way that's most effective to fans with no existing affinity. And as you can probably surmise, appealing to their emotions won't work.
Okay, so if emotion-based marketing doesn't work for athletics, what does?
Rational and logical messaging.
Athletics makes the mistake of thinking that what we're selling is any different than any other product or service. It's not. We want people to buy a ticket and attend an event. That's what we're selling. We need people to connect with that purchase the same way they connect with buying a pack of gum, a car, or a chicken sandwich. We have to show them why what we're selling is better than whatever else is competing for their time. And how do we do that? The same way Dentyne, Ford and Chick-fil-a do it: by researching their market, developing a strategy to appeal to the most likely buyers in that market, and executing that strategy through creative implementation.
Another great tactic is utilizing ticket sales teams. Ticket salespeople are athletics' version of state fair salespeople. And that's not an insult in any way, shape or form. They're trained to do they exact same thing only they're selling tickets instead of potato peelers. But they use the same tactics. They get you on the phone, play to your emotions, paint the picture of how much better your life will be if you're at the game and they get you to buy. If you say, "I'll think about it," they know they've lost you. For the record, I love ticket sales teams. I think they're great and every athletics program should have one. The problem is, just because a fan is convinced to purchase a ticket does not mean they're going to attend. Just like that potato peeler, there is a high-likelihood that they'll stick those tickets in a drawer and never quite figure out how they work.
For that reason, ticket sales and marketing have to go hand-in-hand. Both work. But both are more effective if they can lean on each other for support. If you market to fans and build affinity, they're more likely to buy when that ticket salesperson calls them. When they buy a ticket, they're more likely to attend if you're marketing to them. But your marketing cannot be based strictly on emotion or you're throwing money away.
So do some research to figure out who your casual and new fans might be. Then create a strategy for reaching them. Figure out what media is most likely to reach that group. Then build a campaign that targets them specifically. You can't be all things to all people. The good news is, you don't need to be.