March 31, 2011
How To

Mobile Apps: NHL's Calgary Flames deliver instant content to engage fans

SUMMARY: One great part of content marketing is that your audience receives unfiltered information from your brand. Prospects don't have to read about you in a magazine or see your video in a newscast -- they connect with you directly.

Mobile apps are one way to provide a strong, direct connection. See how the NHL's Calgary Flames used a new app to provide a steady stream of content and build an audience of fans who want the latest game scores and videos instantly, wherever they are.
by Adam T. Sutton, Senior Reporter

Sports marketers have to pull in fans and keep them engaged with the team. That's why marketers for the NHL's Calgary Flames provide a steady stream of stats, articles, photos and videos that fans love.

"Our first rule is to get the content out there for people to absorb," says Michael Board, Director, Digital Content, Calgary Flames.

Board manages the Flames' digital content on websites, social media profiles, and its latest channel, the Flames' mobile app. Launched in December, the free app enables the team to instantly deliver branded to content to fans.

The app has been downloaded tens of thousands of times. Just two months after launch, its number of downloads equaled:

o About 66% of the Flames' email subscribers
o About 10% of the Flames' number of unique website visitors per month

About 44% of the fans who have the app are active users, Board says. Apple has contacted the Flames about the app and featured it in the Great Canadian Apps category of its app store.

The Flames' mobile app provides a constant, always-available connection between fans and the team, and also enables Board's team to offer sponsorship opportunities to partners. Here are five key tactics that made the app a success.

Tactic #1. Give your audience what it wants

One way to hold onto fans, Board says, is to provide services that make it easier for them to be fans. The app fulfills this goal by providing a constant stream of information and media about the Flames.

When designing the app, Board said it had to have four key types of content:

o News - feature articles and stats
o Photos - often of players
o Videos - such as game footage
o Social media - comments and a forum

Other provided information includes the team's schedule, game scores and game highlights.

Overall, the app is a branded environment featuring the Flames' logos and colors throughout (see creative samples). The news, photos and videos consistently engage the audience. Fans can respond by commenting on content or posting to the forum.

- Make it easy to use

If presented poorly, sports statistics can be confusing. Board wanted to offer fans plenty of stats and other media through an easy-to-use layout, he says. This was a key consideration that drove many design decisions.

For example, fans can select which section of the app -- such as news or videos -- opens by default each time the app is loaded.

"It really doesn't seem like a lot, but it was an important part of the build because that allows people to customize the app to their liking and it makes for a better user experience."

Tactic #2. Always have fresh content

The Flames did not want the app to be static. Otherwise, fans might download it, use it once, and forget about it. Instead, the app updates constantly so fans can check-in daily to find new content and comments.

"Our fans are passionate. They like to stay on top of things. That's one reason why we had to get this out there," Board says.

Board has a five-person staff that generates content and maintains the Flame's media outlets. The staff followed a daily publishing schedule even before the app's release.

- Almost fully automated

Although the app is a new channel that needs fresh content, Board has not needed to hire additional staff to maintain it. Instead, the app features content that the Flames already publishes as part of its routine.

Articles and forum posts, for example, are pulled directly off the Flames' website and uploaded to the app using JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) feeds (send your resident coder to the link below). Despite this, there has not been a noticeable drop in traffic to the Flames website, Board says.

Tactic #3. Plan for on-going maintenance and updates

The Flames must keep the app functional across mobile platforms that change constantly. Its content may be automated, but the app's software has to undergo regular updates.

This is managed, in part, with the help of a software company the team partnered with to build and maintain the app. As of February, the app was available on RIM (maker of the Blackberry smartphone) and Apple platforms, and they've since launched an Android version. These three platforms comprise about 85% of the U.S. smartphone market (see useful links below).

- Double-check performance

Also, Board has recruited coworkers to keep him updated on the app's performance. He identified about five owners of various smartphones in his office and checks in with them to ask how the app is working and if they would like to see any changes.

This diligence helps prevent bad user experiences. The app is intended to delight fans and deliver the branded content they expect. If the app suddenly stops working on a major mobile platform, it could negatively impact thousands of fans.

- Keep the design fresh

Aside from offering fresh content, the Flames will update the app's features and designs to regularly engage its users.

Tactic #4. Promote the launch and later updates

Here's how the team promoted the app during its initial launch:

- Homepage

The Flames first offered the app in a soft launch for two days on its homepage. This was done as a precaution to ensure the app worked well before offering it on a broader scale.

By clicking on a large "hero shot" image on the top-half of the Flames' homepage (see creative samples), visitors could visit the Flames' mobile site to see links to download the app.

The app worked perfectly during the two-day soft launch, Board says. Afterward, his team added an icon on the homepage that led to a landing page for the app (see creative samples), and also started promoting it in other outlets.

- Email to house list

The Flames' email newsletter is sent weekly and typically features one main item and three smaller items below. To promote the app, the team featured it as the main item in its email newsletter for one week (see creative samples).

Of all channels, email was the most effective at capturing attention for the app, Board says. The initial email achieved:

o 17.2% open rate
o 30% clickthrough rate (see creative samples below)

The team continues to mention the app about once a month as a lesser-item in its email newsletter.

- In-game promotion

The team's home venue, the Scotiabank Saddledome, is equipped with large digital banners that loop around the rink, Board says. The app is featured on these banners and on the large scoreboard about three times per game during breaks in the action.

The ad lasts about 25 seconds, Board says, and includes an audio address that encourages fans to visit their app stores to download the software.

- Social marketing

The Flames have accrued a combined 93,000 fans on Facebook and Twitter. At launch, Board's team mentioned the app in these channels and linked to its landing page

- Promote regularly

The Flames will promote the app as it changes and updates. For example, a small marketing campaign was planned for when the app became available on Android devices. The team also mentions the app about once a month on Twitter and Facebook (see creative samples below).

Tactic #5. Make a full commitment to the channel (and fans)

The Flames' mobile app is not a half-hearted test. Board considers it an area of serious potential. His team will continue to maintain it with fresh content and software updates.

Had the app been launched without concrete plans for publishing, promotion or maintenance, it would not likely have performed as strongly. Like a blog with stale content, fans would have lost interest after seeing the same content day after day.

Instead, the Flames' commitment has resulted in a successful launch and solid growth. Board hopes to double the app's number of downloads by the end of the hockey season, which would surpass the size of the Flames' email database.

Board plans to hire additional staff to help maintain the app if it continues to grow at its current pace, he says.

"We will go find them to make sure the app continues to work because we are pretty committed to this platform."

Useful links related to this article

Creative Samples:
1. Flames mobile app screenshots
2. Launch email
3. App landing page
4. Homepage with app icon
5. Launch ad for homepage
6. App mention on Facebook

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JavaScript Object Notation (JSON)

Atimi Software: Helped build and maintain the app

Calgary Flames

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