Turning fans into fanatics

There are plenty of sports fans that believe attending a live game is excitement enough to qualify as an awesome experience. Big league teams fulfill the need to belong to a community and our need for healthy competition. There is no shortage of entertainment for most, and the very nature of sports can get people sitting on the edge of their seat in anticipation of the unexpected, be it a 3-pointer, a triple play, a fumble or a fight on the hockey rink. (OK, maybe the fight isn’t so unexpected.)

Intrinsically, spectator sports are designed to create adventure, so why would Mike Birdsall of FanConnex look to improve the fan experience? For starters, as I learned on my recent trip to London, one person’s excitement in baseball can be a snorer to a cricketeer who ironically watches a five-day match. As a family man with two boys, Birdsall knows that stadium attendees engage at different levels. When the action is fast, most are attentive, but that could be only five to 10 minutes in a lopsided game or one with little action. That may leave an uninterested 12-year-old or someone just along for the ride suffering from boredom. Ultimately, sports teams want each fan to embrace every live experience regardless of the action on the field, and with the typical ballpark visit pushing $250 for a family of four, big league business needs to deliver to everyone.

Birdsall started solving this issue for the San Francisco Giants seven years ago by creating the Digital Dugout. The Bay Area is the center of technology, and Mike and his wife, Maureen, were in the thick of it with their successful Web and social media firm, Birdsall Interactive. Landing the contract with the Giants to build the team’s Web site was the kind of high-profile business coup that many CEOs dream of. Going beyond the scope of expectations, Birdsall now has the chance to change the very essence of national pastimes the world over.

Birdsall likes baseball but identified the inconsistencies in the experience. He recognized the desire of live fans to interact with the on-field experience with activities such as scorekeeping and stats. He figured that wireless in the ballpark coupled with local online games and activities would get fans deeper into the game, regardless of the action on the field. I have to admit that when I first heard of this several years ago, I was skeptical. The thought of dragging laptops to the field was silly, even for Silicon Valley technophiles. This skepticism was supported by relatively low online activity at the games for years.

But then came the iPhone and 3G network. With a friendly Web interface and the explosion of online apps, fans started looking for ways to entertain themselves online when action was slow. Birdsall was ready for them. Since AT&T was the new stadium sponsor, the stadium had the iPhone connections ready to go, and Birdsall offered fans a slew of ways to benefit. Features include: information such as finding your way to the best grilled hot dogs, games like Fantasy Baseball, and coming this year, the Holy Grail of electronic interactivity, instant replay in the palm of your hand 20 seconds after the play happens.

[See video of Kevin talking with Mike Birdsall at AT&T Park]

Birdsall’s prescience has led to more major league opportunity. He has teamed up with AT&T to bring the FanConnex experience to stadiums everywhere. The program is designed to be affordable enough to install in any pro or college stadium, and of course, all teams are exploring ways to further monetize the online fan activity. Birdsall spends much of his time figuring out how to entertain the fans in surprising ways that enhance the experience of going to see your favorite team on the field. He has to put himself in the mind of not only the serious fans but the less-engaged fans, as well. In this role, he becomes the fan experience advocate and, of course, opens his product up to scrutiny and vocal criticism not usually held back by sports fans. As wireless digital activity becomes a regular part of fan culture, FanConnex must innovate to continue to make a ballpark visit something special for both the occasional attendee as well as the season ticket holder.

There are several aspects of Birdsall’s approach that can be applied in lower profile businesses. Here are a few questions to stimulate some offline activity on your part: What part of your customer’s experience is being ignored? Are you designing your experience only for the fully engaged? How can you give the casual user of your product an “Awesome Experience”? Do you revisit successful interactions to prevent being stale? How will technology change your customer interaction in five years?

Even the most exciting events and activities can become stale and mundane with frequency and inconsistency. Every company is responsible for the quality of the customer interaction. The longer the engagement, the more innovation is required to make it fresh and exciting. The objective is to stimulate your customers into being fanatical about your delivery.

KEVIN DAUM is the principal of TAE International and the author of several books, including “ROAR! Get Heard in the Sales and Marketing Jungle.” He is a regular speaker and consultant on marketing and book development. Reach him at [email protected]. Check out Kevin’s Quest for the Jewish Super Bowl Ring at http://www.awesomeroar.com/. Kevin will be the featured speaker at CEO Think Tank’s Fourth Annual Growth Strategies Breakfast on March 9.

Read Kevin’s previous column.

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