NFL Tackles Online CRM

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The National Football League has some of the most dedicated fans in the world of sports. So developing an e-mail marketing campaign would seem like an easy run into the end zone, right? What the league found instead was that it had the same challenges as any other organization looking to connect with its customers: identifying who they are, how to reach them and what to do to keep them coming back for more.

Courting both the casual fans who surf the net for scores and stats and hardcore fanatics who live and die by chat rooms and rumor boards, the league needed a marketing plan with several functions. Not only did it need to draw people to its hub site, www.nfl.com, and build a virtual community for its approximately seven million monthly visitors, but it also sought to use the technology to really get to know those fans--one of the most important goals of any marketing plan.

"We knew we had millions of visitors, but we really didn't know that much about them," says Evan Kamer, senior director of new media for the league. "We needed to extend the relationship and really open up a dialogue with the fans."

The league pursued an e-mail campaign targeted to each individual fan's interests, looking to build a database of information about fans' online clicking and purchasing habits. "The only concern was that a lot of people that use these vehicles are classic direct marketers," Kamer says. "We're not only out to sell hats, T-shirts or CDs--we are essentially selling ourselves."

After starting an interactive marketing group, the NFL began looking for a company with technical expertise, scalability and a proven track record of servicing companies comparable in size to the league. The strongest contender was e-Dialog, a Lexington, Mass. company specializing in precision e-mail marketing for both the retail and B2B sectors. The company also had a track record of satisfying major clients, such as Ticketmaster and the office supply retail chain staples.

"The NFL had never done direct marketing, but they really saw the Internet as a tool to get to know the fans," says John Rizzi, CEO for e-Dialog. "While they are the most successful league in the world, they were also smart enough to realize that there are other leagues out there that also want their fans."

The NFL drew up a three-year plan with e-Dialog to use link-filled, weekly e-mail newsletters to foster relationships between the league and its fans. Though many companies approach the project with rigid, structured objectives and do-or-die target dates, the NFL decided on a looser, more free-flowing attitude. "We haven't really set any [subscriber] goals," Kamer says. "We just want to make sure that whatever the number is, we get [the newsletter] to them and make them aware of it, and if they are interested in it, that they have easy access."

Both the league and e-Dialog say the campaign is a popular one: When the first e-mail newsletter went out in late 1999, about 300,000 fans had signed up. This year, that number is about 1.5 million.

streamlining the Process

After collaboration and brainstorming sessions, the two sides decided that e-mail newsletters would be divided into three sections and would follow a specific format each week to help foster familiarity.

The first section would contain three to five links to the latest news and features about each fan's favorite team. Stories would contain everything from draft picks and training camp updates to mid-season alerts and post-season wrap-ups. The second section would showcase the league's merchandise, and the last section would contain general information about the league, along with links to new interactive features on the hub site.

The start-to-finish process, from when the NFL green-lighted the first newsletter to when it arrived in subscribers' e-mail boxes, took only about three weeks, according to Jim McNulty, director of public relations for e-Dialog. McNulty says that both sides had their own tasks and responsibilities to streamline the process.

Executives at the NFL established a clear chain of command, opening lines of communication that connected the league's in-house staff of 10 new-media employees with the geographically scattered writers for each of the NFL's 31 (soon to be 32) teams. Writers gathered information and sent it to the league's New York headquarters, where staffers entered it into e-Dialog's campaign-builder interface. League employees in charge of the process spent between one and two hours familiarizing themselves with the system, McNulty says.

For e-Dialog, this time was spent on technical tweaking, creating newsletter templates, developing transfer and integration protocols and exploring the information collection process, McNulty says. Then, once the first newsletter was ready, the league invited fans to sign up for it at www.nfl.com by having them enter their names, e-mail addresses and favorite league teams.

Kamer says the league didn't need to ask subscribers about their preferences for different e-mail formats because e-Dialog uses a proprietary technology to "sniff out" each fan's capability to view HTML graphics in their e-mail. To track reader clicking habits, the league uses e-Dialog's URLRedirect technology, which tracks click-through rates for links in the e-mail newsletter by giving them special URL codes that pass readers through an invisible electronic turnstile on their way from the newsletter to the NFL site. Tracking results are then viewed, in real time, via e-Dialog's e-mail management interface, EMMIT, a front end, customizable solution that handles data, content and reporting functions.

The information the NFL gleans from the system will be used to chart the future direction of both the weekly news-letter and the league's hub site, Kamer says. "We're looking at the subscriber base as the base of a community," he says, noting that the database can show how fan opinions and needs change, allowing the newsletter to change with them.

"We are going to evolve the relationship more and more," Kamer says. "Sure, there's the technology we're using--e-mails, streaming video and video clips--those are sort of neat, but we want to continue to explore the program, to keep building a community of users."

Holding Onto Fans

John Sheppela, a Massachusetts-based football fan, has been a subscriber to the newsletter for about a year. A frequent organizer of fantasy football leagues, Sheppela relies on the newsletter to provide him with a running tally of what NFL players are doing both on and off the field.

But above all, Sheppela says, he reads the newsletter to get the lowdown on his favorite team, the Pittsburgh steelers. "I like it for the extra info," he says. "I grew up in Pittsburgh, but I don't get the inside track [on the steelers] that I used to. This is something I can check at a moment's notice, and I find things out that I wouldn't be able to find in the paper."

So far, the e-mail campaign has worked to not only gain subscribers, but also to keep them. Unsubscribe rates are less than 0.2 percent, Rizzi says, and the information-gathering process has become much more streamlined. Where it took three weeks to plan, set up and send out the first newsletter, the entire process now takes less than 24 hours.

And, McNulty says, the newsletter has already produced results. After the first newsletters went out, the NFL's online sales jumped 300 percent since 1999, and the league raked in $35 to $40 million in sales from the direct marketing campaign. Kent Allen, research director for the e-business sector of the Aberdeen Group, says in his 2001 report, e-mail Marketing: Relevancy, Retention, and ROI, that e-mail marketing jumped more than 270 percent from 1999 to 2000 and has emerged as the premiere online method for reaching customers and maintaining two-way relationships.

According to Allen, some of the most successful e-mail marketing campaigns have been those that offer strong brand recognition. "I'm seeing the best response rates, the best bang for the buck, where there's a deep affinity for the product or brand," Allen says. "Success involves finding the right customer that's interested in what you have to offer."

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