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Inside the Portland Trail Blazers’ Winning Marketing Playbook

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The Portland Trail Blazers are winning a different kind of championship; one that has just as a big an impact on fans as the NBA Finals — even if they don’t know it.

For the second year in a row, the Trail Blazers have been recognized as the NBA’s Digital Innovator of the Year, and have consistently been among the top three peer-voted teams in the league. As director of digital experience for the Portland Trail Blazers, I couldn’t be prouder.

We must be doing something right. And that “something” is our intense focus on using metrics and analytics to deliver stellar fan experiences both in and out of the arena. We’ve built up a lot of hard-earned knowledge and best practices, and I’m happy to share some quick pointers.

Ready? Let’s go!

Tip #1: Prioritize the fan experience

Athletes and fans alike live for game time; those few energetic hours when everyone’s attention is locked onto the court. Marketers treasure that kind of attention, but it’s low-hanging fruit. Any team can host a game and watch their engagement spike for a day.

The real test happens between games. Fans check out the players’ Twitter feeds, watch the highlights on YouTube, and occasionally drop by the team website. But the team brand?

The brand is silent.

Benched.

Fan experience happens anytime and anywhere the team brand is present, not just the four regulation quarters (and occasional overtime). Online ads. The quality of the merch. Highlight reels. How easy it is to buy tickets. It all matters.

The Trail Blazers digital marketing team does our best to take this to heart. Every campaign we run is conceptualized through the lens of “what will the fans think?”

We’re pretty lucky in that the NBA is very forward-thinking with their social media policies. We’re one of the few leagues that allow highlights to be published on social media, and they provide the tools necessary to help with video. The Trail Blazers take full advantage of this and leverage videos and animated GIFs as much as we can, and in fun and irreverent ways that amuse fans.


The emphasis on fan experience also applies to our ad campaigns. Facebook retargeting segments fans into different groups based on their interests, which allows us to present ads more specific to them and with a higher chance of providing value.

The net result is a fan base that is amazingly supportive. We’re not the biggest team in the league, nor do we have the highest numbers of followers, but they’re totally engaged and interact more with our content.

Tip #2: Pay attention to the metrics

One of the biggest keys to our success has been our ability to be nimble. We don’t have the resources of larger teams, which means we have to be careful where we spend our marketing dollars.

For instance, we cut back on the number of billboards, radio ads, and TV ads we’ve purchased, and instead invested in digital efforts like social media, Facebook ads, and app development. They provide much more value for money and are more relevant to today’s market.

But we don’t just blindly throw money at the web team. We have multiple tools in place, TrackMaven among them, to judge just how well we are (or are not) doing. We take great pains to discover who the fan is, what group they belong to, and what interests them the most about the Trail Blazers brand. TrackMaven is especially effective at tracking content impact, so that we can hone in on the most effective assets and create more like it.

Other tools in our tech stack include Marketo, for greater traffic and conversion tracking, Tradeable Bits, which is a Canadian company we use for fan engagement, contests and the like, and various data visualization and analytics tools to be able to manage this information effectively.

The net result of all this tracking and analysis technology is a digital marketing presence that emphasizes quality over quantity. We create content and communications that our fans enjoy, which increases fan engagement and builds strong brand loyalty. We also use them internally to prove marketing’s value to the franchise, which I’ll talk about in my next point:

Tip #3: Build team cohesion

One of the parts I love most about working with the Trail Blazers is how much internal support the digital marketing team gets. I’ve been around the block enough to know that this is a very rare thing. It’s refreshing to be able to work with the video production or events team and not meet resistance every step of the way.

This kind of cooperation has a concrete impact on the bottom line. When multiple internal departments have aligned strategies and goals, projects get done faster and with less fuss. There’s more room for quality control because there’s less time wasted on politics and red tape. Assets are more creative and more effective because ideas flow freely and can come from any direction.

Take our app, for example. It’s built to be a hub for the fan’s entire Trail Blazer experience. Right now they can use it to access any content we produce; but you can also use it to purchase tickets, use it as a mobile wallet, and a few more things besides. That level of functionality only happens if the app development team has a good relationship with ticket sales, the arena vendors, the online merch team, and the stadium itself.

But you shouldn’t expect this level of support as a given. I think the biggest fear for internal teams — no matter what company you work with — is that their time will be wasted on your “silly” idea. We’ve worked hard to overcome this prejudice and built up a strong internal trust over time.

We overcame the fear by sharing the results of our campaigns with everyone — good and bad. Other departments saw the returns from things done right, and the duds when more cooperation would’ve made the difference. It’s fortunate that we’re able to use marketing analytics tools to track and visualize this campaign data, because now that other departments know what we’re trying to do, we receive 100 percent cooperation.

The ability to prove marketing’s worth also helped us gain management support — I can show the board hard numbers on how our marketing projects have impacted the bottom line, and can more confidently predict the outcomes of future campaigns. We know which channels deliver the most ROI, and which ones need to be scaled back. This process of constant analysis and refinement results in optimized marketing campaigns that deliver both value for the fans and revenue for the team.

Wrap-up

Metrics and fan engagement. It sounds ridiculously simple when you put it that way, but it can be incredibly challenging to do consistently and well. You’ll need to put together the right combination of people and technology to pull it off, and it has to be utilized in a strategic manner. But what you get in return is a rabid fan base that will support you both financially and in brand influence — and that makes it all worthwhile.

It’s always nice to be recognized by your peers for a job well done. It’s a validation that we are indeed taking the right approach towards serving our fans and highlighting the players as the superstars that they are.

This article was written by TJ Ansley, director of digital experience for the Portland Trail Blazers. Follow TJ on Twitter at @tjansley.

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