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Amid COVID-19 uncertainties, the Stanley Cup winner gets the right message to the right fans by using analytics and smart segmentation.
By Chris Murphy | December 2020
As the National Hockey League’s Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup championship on September 28, Travis Pelleymounter, who leads season-ticket sales for the Lightning, was already thinking about next season.
Amid the joy of the franchise’s first championship in 16 years, Pelleymounter and his colleagues in sales and marketing faced a huge professional challenge: How do they sell 2021 season tickets and connect with the team’s passionate fans with so much uncertainty due to COVID-19?
A championship team full of fun, popular players is the greatest gift for anyone selling season tickets. But this is 2020. The NHL playoffs took place with no fans in attendance, at two cities in Canada where the players quarantined in a “bubble” against coronavirus. So Pelleymounter faced a power play full of questions from fans: How many games will NHL teams play next season? On which dates? How many fans will be able to attend?
“Right now, I have to say, ‘I don’t know’ for all three of those for the first time in my career,” he says.
What the team can offer, Pelleymounter says, is “communication and contingencies.”
Emails are a foundation of that strategy, and it takes a total team effort to deliver them in a way that fans appreciate. Mixing creativity with smart technology, the sales, marketing, and data analytics teams work together to ensure they send only relevant messages, using Oracle Eloqua Marketing Automation, part of Oracle Cloud Customer Experience (CX) applications.
For example, soon after the Stanley Cup finals, the team sent an email aimed only at people who had indicated they were not renewing their upcoming season tickets or had put their season ticket payment plan on hold.
The email asked them: “Stanley just got here. Where are you going?”
The message was opened by 40% of recipients and led to some key ticket renewals. Pelleymounter estimates at least $160,000 in revenue is attributable, at least in part, to that campaign, which boosted the renewal rate among that group by a couple of percentage points.
At the same time that the Lightning relied more on email communications, the rate at which fans unsubscribed from emails declined. That’s because each email went to a smaller number of people, targeted to their interests.
“You would think all of the season ticket holders would fall into one bucket, but they don’t,” says Christina Kori, the Lightning’s digital marketing manager.
The organization now connects regularly with around 200,000 fans, purposefully down from a list of 500,000 in the past. But email open rates are now typically 40%, up from about 12% before this new focus.
Tampa, Florida, may not be the typical hockey market, but the Lightning’s fan base is “incredibly loyal and committed to the team,” Kori says. The Lightning’s use of Oracle Eloqua helps it keep a strong human connection to those fans.
“That’s why I work in sports. I think it pulls people together.”
Pelleymounter believes every season ticket holder should be paired with only one team sales rep, so that they have an individual to contact for questions such as how to move their seat location or change how many games they buy. The team used Oracle Eloqua’s automation to ensure that each email to a season-ticket holder includes the right rep for that fan.
Pelleymounter admits he worried when the team decided to send a “drip” of email messages—several one after another—to fans that weren’t renewing their season tickets. “I first thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to get calls, saying we’re spamming them.’ I haven’t gotten a single one,” he says.
The team is actually sending fewer emails in total. Kori credits a change in mindset: Focus less on the volume of emails sent and more on getting the right responses based on targeted messages. Culturally, the sports world is wired for big crowds, since attendance and viewership drive the business, so the idea that sending fewer messages overall might work better initially caused “a lot of heartburn,” she says.
“Having eyeballs on things has always been very important in sports,” Kori says. “What we have found in marketing is that just because we’re getting eyeballs doesn’t mean they’re taking the action we hope they will.”
The Lightning surveyed season ticket holders to understand their biggest concerns. The top ones included health and safety, number of games, price, and general uncertainty, and those factors have guided the team’s communications.
The Lightning organization now has so much faith in its digital marketing that it has stopped sending a physical follow-up letter to people canceling their season tickets. It sends that alert by email—with the same “drip” approach, such as saying their tickets will be canceled in 48 hours, then one saying in 24 hours, and then one saying their tickets have been canceled—so call right away if that’s incorrect. “Those messages led to some really important saves,” Pelleymounter says.
Going digital took faith in the technology as well as the strategy. “If you ask what Oracle did, it’s something we can be extremely confident in,” Pelleymounter says. “Now I know that if we segment out, and we message intelligently, we’re going to get engagement.”
Executing on this strategy also has brought with it a new way of working, with constant brainstorming across the sales, marketing, and analytics groups. “It helped the culture of our organization, and I don’t say that lightly,” Pelleymounter says. “We’re so connected and collaborative with our digital marketing team now.”
Winning through teamwork—that’s something the whole Lightning club learned a lot about in 2020. On the ice, the club set a record for the most overtime minutes in the Stanley Cup playoffs by a champion. In the back office, the team learned how to make new digital connections to celebrate a historic season with fans and help rally a city during a time of angst and uncertainty.
“That’s why I work in sports,” Pelleymounter says. “I think it pulls people together.”
Photography: Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images and Bruce Bennett/Getty Images