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May 19, 2011
Case Study

Event Marketing: NHL's All-Star Game fan voting campaign increases ballots by 15%

SUMMARY: Event marketing may seem like an easy proposition when your target audience is the rabid fan base of thirty professional hockey teams. But this successful campaign includes basic principles that marketers from any size business can use to improve promotions.

Read on to find out how the National Hockey League marketed fan balloting for this year's All-Star Game by taking the message to its fans and leveraging every asset at its disposal for a successful event marketing effort, while simultaneously increasing its database.
by David Kirkpatrick, Reporter

CHALLENGE

The National Hockey League playoffs are in full swing, and to mark the occasion we have an event marketing case study on how the league promoted its 2011 All-Star Game voting. Think there's nothing to learn from this pro league's campaign? You say you don't have 30 arenas full of rabid fans (customers) waiting for your message? Think again.

Yes, the NHL has some advantages when marketing an event, but when the effort is broken down to its basic tenets, the marketing principles used by the NHL apply to businesses of all sizes. Minus the body checks and slap shots, of course.

When beginning the process of marketing the 2011 All-Star Fan Balloting event, the NHL looked at the initiative as more than an example of event marketing; it also saw the entire campaign as involving direct and digital initiatives. This meant cross-department meetings and a great deal of planning.

There was plenty of time for planning -- due to the 2010 Winter Olympics, there was no NHL All-Star game last year.

The NHL had previously dropped paper balloting in favor of online voting for all-stars, so all voting occurred on the league website, mobile platforms and social media. The campaign involved these elements, and included the NHL's "partners" -- the teams -- alongside arenas full of excited fans.

Find out how these elements came together to create a successful event campaign, and how you can apply some of the same lessons to your event marketing.

CAMPAIGN

Like many event marketing efforts, the NHL's fan voting campaign had two purposes. The main purpose was to get fans to connect with the league and vote to get their chosen players into the All-Star Game. The secondary, yet equally important, goal was to get fans to register with the NHL to help build its database and mailing list. With this effort the NHL was able to accomplish both goals.

Step #1. Go where your fans (customers) are

It's hard to promote an event if you aren't reaching your target audience. Because the voting for the game was done electronically it was important for the NHL to ensure it reached as many fans as possible. Previous years saw success with voting at NHL.com and through SMS text messaging, but inside research found new areas to reach into.

Amie Ray, Senior Manager of Direct Marketing, said, "This year we decided to add the mobile-optimized sites and the Facebook voting because, through analytics of our website and studying our fans, we know that's where our fans are going. So we wanted to make sure that we were everywhere that our fans were."

The end result was fan voting at any of a number of places including:

o NHL.com
o Text (SMS) messaging
o Mobile-optimized and wireless application protocol (WAP) sites
o Facebook
o iPad optimized applications

The NHL did have to take into account international elements because the sport features players from across the globe. There were some issues with text messages from international fans because of SMS limitations with some wireless carriers, and the fact that the event included a prize element only open to North American fans.

Step #2. Leverage all of your assets

The entire campaign included a number of different elements that took advantage of the NHL's marketing assets, and even helped create an additional area of promotion.

- Email

The entire campaign launched with theme-specific email to its database. This send consisted of 31 email versions to four different segments of the list:

o United States
o Canada
o International
o French language-specific for Quebec

This send was targeted by both team and country. Ray explained, "For example, if you were a Rangers fan in the U.S., you would get this email that says, 'Who will you pick?' And it will show four or five Rangers that are on the ballot and that tells you to click to vote, or text the player's last name."

- In-arena

Even though the NHL had the powerful asset of a captive audience within an arena, think of those fans as "in-store" customers. The way to reach these customers is, obviously, in-store promotional material, but another way to engage them is through mobile-optimized websites. And no time is better to drive traffic to those specialty sites than when the customer is in the store and engaged with the brand.

The NHL took advantage of this idea by advertising the voting on arena video screens and having the arena announcer highlight the event. The league has a strong advantage with this promotion idea because it has video boards, announcers and even team marketing staffs at its disposal to get the message across, but the basic message is simple and plain: Grab the customer when they are interested in your promotion and make sure they know about ways to engage with your event, such as a mobile-optimized website they can visit while they are still in your store.

Ray said, "We had a lot of success with these (in-arena promotions), because the fans are there, engaged, watching the game, having a good time and then they can just act right then."

- Facebook

The NHL took advantage of its almost two million Facebook fans to push people to vote at that platform.

"They're already there, they're already logged in, and it's very easy," explained Ray.

The style of voting was a little different at Facebook, in that through the other methods fans could vote for any player at any position throughout the promotion. On Facebook, the marketing team decided to stagger the vote by position -- goalies one week, forwards the next, etc. The idea was to keep fans coming back to the page on a regular basis. The team found this approach helped create conversations among the fans and a higher level of engagement than the other voting venues.

Chris Foster, Project Manager at NHL.com, said, "This is the first campaign that we did which had total integration of Facebook Open Graph on the broadband site [NHL.com]."

Every player, as well as the entire campaign, had a "like" button. Facebook users who "liked" an individual player, or the entire event promotion, would update their Facebook statuses to reflect that "like," extending the total outreach of the campaign.

- Organic buzz

While the NHL leveraged all its institutional assets -- email, in-arena promotion and its Facebook page -- the buzz around the event took off with a viral life of its own.

"What we found is there was a large amount of organic promotion that just came from the grass roots level," stated Foster.

He added this organic buzz promoted both individual players and specific teams, and came from a number of sources:

o Blogs
o Websites
o Message boards
o Social media

This organic promotion was an offshoot of the success of the institutional elements, and made the campaign that much stronger.

Step #3. Use the event to build your database

Often event marketing can be used to collect customer information and build contact lists and databases. The NHL used its fan voting promotion for just this purpose.

Ray explained, "Building our database is one of our top priorities. We do use those leads to promote all of our other businesses throughout the year."

She mentioned two places the NHL uses its database for promotion:

o Direct-to-consumer business, such as sales through NHL.com

o Advertising the "tune-in" message to alert fans when games are to be aired

Information collected from this promotion was particularly valuable because the balloting method was targeted by fans' favorite teams. The NHL wants to be able to use its entire list to send relevant and very targeted messages throughout the year.

Fans voting at the Facebook page or by text message did not have to sign-up, although text votes did receive a bounce-back message asking if the sender wanted to set up a text alert.

Fans voting at NHL.com, at a mobile or iPad optimized website, or any other voting location had to register with the NHL before they could initially vote. Once they were registered they could vote as often as they liked without any further hassle.

Ray described the registration data capture as "very important" and "definitely one of the top priorities" of the entire event marketing campaign.

Step #4 Define success and continue reviewing results

As with any marketing effort, you want to define what makes a successful event marketing campaign.

For this event, success was measured in the amount of fan voting the campaign created, but Foster noted another success was the improved user experience. He said bringing the campaign to fans wherever they were -- at the website, in the arena on smartphones, on Facebook -- made the campaign very easy to interact with from a user point of view.

Ray added, "We have a very large analytics department, and we are looking at our analytics across all of our platforms daily, monitoring trends and seeing what our fans are doing. Right now fans are consuming large amounts of video on our site."

Looking to next year she said, "We'll just keep monitoring [the analytics] and then when we open up discussions and start brainstorming about how to make [fan voting] bigger and better for next year, we'll definitely have all those analytics at our hand."

Step #5. Step back and look at the big picture

For this event, the NHL was surprised by the amount of conversation between fans, and all of the organic grassroots campaigns. With research they went into new online areas because they knew their fans were there. The result was a high level of fan engagement.

"In this day and age fans communicate," said Foster. "They communicate online and (that) can be a powerful message (for all fans). What we want to do is be part of that conversation. "

One way the NHL tracked, and sparked, these fan conversions was by using Twitter to monitor messages and comments about the All-Star voting. The league also used the platform to start conversations and drive traffic to the Facebook voting. This was aided by the the teams, because their individual marketing teams were also on Twitter pushing their players and monitoring fan conversation.

Foster continued, "It's no longer one-to-one. It's almost a spider web in that knowing this interaction has become global and it shapes the way that fans voice their opinions and the way that fans follow their teams."


RESULTS


The NHL was able to grow its database through registration information, fan voting increased from 2009 (the year of the previous All-Star Game), and it came away from the effort with new business intelligence about how to leverage emerging technologies, like smartphone-optimized websites and social media to increase organic engagement and promotion.

Other results include:

o Total ballots increased 15% over 2009
o Each registered user averaged 7.5 ballots
o Online ballots actually dropped 5%
o Mobile and Facebook channels collected 16.9% of ballots
o There were 14 million votes
o Each ballot averaged 5.7 votes
o SMS participation was up 18% over 2009
o New channels collected 16.5% of all votes
o Participation breakdown: U.S. 71%, Canada 28%, International 1%
o NHL.com mobile page views are up 62% year-over-year
o Facebook fans are up 441% year-over-year
o Video starts at NHL.com are up 148% year-over-year


Useful links related to this article

CREATIVE SAMPLES:

1. Multichannel (Web, mobile, Facebook) look at ballot
2. Email

NHL.com

ePrize -- NHL's partner in the All-Star Voting campaign

Social Media Marketing: Turning social media engagement into action at Threadless

Email Plus Facebook Marketing: Fresh ideas from FreshPair

Members Library -- Event Marketing: Entrepreneur drives year-round sales, increases email list

Members Library -- Improve Your Facebook Profile to Increase Consumer Interaction: 4 Tactics

Members Library -- How 'Localizing' a Brand Through Social Media and In-Person Events Created a Successful Product Launch

See Also:

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