Supporting a lower league football team may seem like a very unrewarding experience to the uninitiated. There’s very little glamour in either the football you are paying to watch, or the away days you are set to encounter. You must be hardened with emphatic support border-lining on the obsession if you are willing to stand on the concrete of the terraces after work on a cold and blistery Tuesday night in Barrow after a four-hour drive, hoping to nick a one-goal victory for the Imps (nickname), with just a half-time pie and the return journey ahead. This type of physical commitment in a digital world that enables you to participate in social activities and causes from the comfort of your own sofa, I would argue, has become rare.
We have been fortunate this year that our cup run has coincided with some good football and a real push to get out of what is called the non-league below the four professional divisions in England: The Premiership, The Championship, League 1 and League 2. History shows what a tough league the Vanarama National League is to get out of once you’ve tumbled into it with a great number of sizable towns and cities competing for the one promotion place and one play-off place, and often taking multiple attempts to succeed. Notable attendees of the 2017 class include Tranmere Rovers, who sport a bumper average crowd of 5,176*, York City and Wrexham.
Having spent many years in the company of brand managers, it dawns on me that this fan loyalty, sports fans have for their teams, is the commitment they seek to engender in their customers for their companies. Very few companies can rival the affection and affinity their customers have for their sports team. Having watched the rise in stature of my own team Lincoln City F.C. on their spellbinding cup run this year, my conclusion is that business absolutely can achieve this. There are some great learnings that brands can take from this success story to adapt how they communicate with their own ‘fans’.
With a typical 2017 work day beginning with a crushing volume of unread e-mails, a plethora of device notifications and an unruly assortment of usernames and passwords, one could be forgiven for not being able to muster any feelings other than surviving the day from the moment you walk out of the house. So how do you explain the thousands who awoke within our city to travel the length and breadth of the country to support their resurging local team?
Even something unfashionable can become vogue
When engaged in polite conversation, one would not often pull-out their love for an obscure non-league team as the conversation starter. Thankfully many years of conversation killing through being asked ‘What do you do in your job?’ has allowed me to weather these moments and steer dialogue back to more agreeable matters. During this cup-run, we have seen a realigning of these rules. Those sympathetic and often confused stares have changed to enthusiastic affirmation. ‘I’m rooting for you in your next game’ and ‘I think it’s incredible what you have done’. Believe me…that has never happened before.
Many products and services are like a non-league team, realistically only one company at one time can be Barcelona. On face-value who you represent may not seem that exciting or able to achieve their moment in the glittering sunshine. If you can capture the imagination of your customers, inspire and motivate, make them feel good about being part of your community, you too can be the stars of your own giant-killing noteworthy story. When what you do genuinely makes someone’s life better, everyone wants to be a part of it.
Once the torch paper is lit, don’t let the fire burn out
Credit to the Lincoln City commercial team here who have done a fantastic job. It would have been easy for what I’m sure is a small staff to throw their hands up in the ensuing media/fan frenzy and be unable to meet the increasing demands. Everyone who has worked in business understands the constraints with limited budgets and have experienced being a couple of staff members short of what ideally, they would like.
Social media has been very effective for the club to keep the momentum of the achievements going, keeping the fans updated, encouraged and not only attending the cup games, but inspiring greater attendances at league games for the crucial remaining games of the season. Players and even Directors have been engaged, personally displaying and encouraging the good feeling to emanate far and wide on the news wires and on modern media such as Facebook and Twitter.
The results? Greater advocacy, engagement and excitement around the brand, increased product users, positive feedback and a wider appeal. Who doesn’t want to go to their superiors with these holy grail improvements for their product or service? It results in cash.
‘I never knew I could love … like this’
The credit here must go to the team itself, who have represented both the city, the county and the football club admirably. The team once referred to by the late great Graham Taylor as ‘Little Lincoln’, writing its own Cinderella story for its supporters with victories over heavyweights such as Ipswich Town, Brighton & Hove Albion and Burnley. This good feeling can inspire new business and new opportunities you would never have thought possible.
The most incredible transformation I have seen is the creation of new fans for the football club. The quote I’ve used as point 3’s headline is the actual exclamation of a friend of mine, ‘I never knew I could love football like this’. Previously she had never been engaged in football, or sport for that matter. She has become number one fan of both the club and attending matches within a time period no longer than a month…and she’s not the only one. What type of black magic is this I hear you mutter at your desk, customers and relationships are fruit born from the hard labours and toils of many years? If you can give someone an incredible experience today that makes them feel good about themselves, you can create a new customer for life.
My personal favourite, as a marketer.
Attitude and spirit can prosper over skill alone
Few could argue the bookmakers and pundits’ predictions of battling defeats for the Imps in the face of opposition of greater size, prominence and budget. These battles are oft-recounted to us as ‘David v Goliath’ and otherwise dismissed as a great underdog story with little genuine expectation of an upsetting of the tides. How could a club, that few had heard of let alone point out on a map of the UK, upset the odds in such a dramatic way?
This will sound familiar to business, that has endured continuing negative messages such as a ‘challenging economy’, amongst the backdrop of political upheaval and global uncertainty. What once seemed like great opportunities can suddenly begin falling into the column of risk and never make their way back to the light. I want to encourage you to not let that happen. For there was nothing more than an opportunity handed to the Lincoln City squad to showcase themselves against their supposed betters, the more skilful, better-remunerated opposition. The risk of course was that good feeling would suffer at the hands of sizable defeat, but not only did this not happen, but as the fans had already been captivated and committed 100% to the club, nothing but taking their team away from them would have destroyed their advocacy. Skill used in combination with a great attitude and team spirit will overcome individual skill.
Handling yourself with class impresses everyone
One thing that should not be underestimated in this fairy tale is the swell of good feeling created before and during the cup-run by Danny Cowley & Nicky Cowley, the managers of Lincoln City. The unlikely heroes of the hour, the former PE teaching brothers from east London who made something truly special happen in Lincolnshire in 2017. A PR officers dream, dealing with their press responsibilities with both charm and humility, qualities that have felt lost on my TV since President Obama left office.
A constant throughout the cup-run in conversations with others was how impressed everyone was by how they represented both the club and city, and this in my opinion, contributed significantly to the good vibes encountered by Lincoln City fans wherever they went.
If you didn’t know, it’s Discover Lincolnshire Weekend 2017 on 18th – 19th March and there is all manner of free activities you can get involved with. Come and tell the locals how Lincoln City FC has inspired your business, I bet they buy you a pint.
Discover Lincolnshire Weekend 2017 – https://www.facebook.com/events/1391423997591032/
Visit Lincoln – https://www.visitlincoln.com/
Twitter – https://twitter.com/funkydigichris
If you’d like to find out more about what’s going on at Lincoln City, I highly recommend the Stacey West Blog @staceywestblog. You can read their piece on how the Cowley’s have used data to improve the teams performance here
Chris Barnard is Managing Director of FeedbackFans.com. Feedback Fans is part of a collective of global technology companies working towards a common goal of improving experiences that include: retail, leisure, finance, education, gaming and business services. By developing unique state of the art solutions and environments, and combining this with strategic execution, we ensure our clients and users prosper in the digital age.