July 7

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Lessons from Leaders – Jen Rottenberg

David Millay

July 7, 2021


This week we sat down with Jen Rottenberg, the CMO for Fan Controlled Football. We dove deep into how this innovative league has made virtually every decision around the fan, and we’ve distilled some of the top lessons from the conversation, below. 

Just as it sounds, this new professional league gives fans the ability to select everything from team names, colors, and logos to the plays that were called on the field during the game. To make that all happen, data is at the heart of everything FCF does, attracting unique audiences and crafting every aspect of the game for active broadcast viewing, as opposed to the traditional emphasis on the in-person experience.

From the conversation, here are three key takeaways to create deeper emotional connections with your fans.

For demographics, think behavior and goals > age

When the average person thinks of the term “demographics,” many people think in terms of age, race, gender, and other pre-determined characteristics. But to get to the next level of connecting with your fans, you must think about demographics in a different way, in a way that constantly needs to be updated and revised. It’s more work, but it’ll help you make more accurate decisions. 

I’m talking about demographics more in terms of behavior and goals. Fans aged “18-35” isn’t specific. Walk down the street, identify 10 different people between the ages 18-35 and you’ll find 10 different consumption patterns. There are too many choices today for how an individual person can choose to consume content or engage with a brand. To make assumptions based on a broad age range is to set yourself up for failure.

Focusing on behaviors and goals, we can begin to really dive in. We talked about this at length first with Zoe Scaman, in our podcast episode on How Fandom is Evolving. Jen talked us through how the Fan Controlled Football league built their league around target demographics: 

“So we broke them out into four segments… 1) the general football fan. 2) your more avid football fan, meaning somebody that’s doing something besides just watching. So they’re playing fantasy or they’re betting on it or they’re playing Madden and there’s a second tier of fandom and then 3) gamers in general 4) and then actually the fans of our celebrity team owners.”

Jen Rottenberg, CMO of Fan Controlled Football league

Think of your own fans. If you work in college football, you have the professional tailgater who is local and shows up every game. You’ve got the out-of-town alumni coming back for nostalgia. You’ve got the corporate partner or sponsor looking to entertain his guests for business. You’ve got the student, who is just there to cheer her face off. Each of those demographics has crossover when it comes to age, race, gender, but very little crossover when it comes to the activities they do on gameday and the way they want to engage with your product.

As a result, it’s more effective for you to craft your services and offerings by focusing on the different goals and motivations of your fans (which are always changing), rather than predetermined characteristics.

In the episode, Jen talked about their “pie chart” where they could actually visualize and break down this data. That’s where most sports organizations fall short. You may be able to map out a pie chart of predetermined characteristics, and you may be able to anecdotally describe the different types of fan personas you have, but can you accurately chart those new demographics with any kind of reasonable accuracy? If not, you must begin exploring how to capture that data. 

Move from “how do we get fans to watch?” to “how can we allow them to participate?”

Jen described the Fan Controlled Football league as “Madden in real life”. To expand on that definition, she said, “what we’re really doing is taking live professional sports and giving fans an opportunity to consume them and interact with them the way they would a video game.”

In the Fan Controlled Football league, fans can vote on plays and watch the camera angles they prefer. They earn badges and points for participating in surveys which unlocks the ability to vote on unique experiences, like naming the championship event or choosing the team logo. At the core of what the league is doing, their trying to get users to spend more time with them and get more emotionally connected to the league. 

And it’s a smart play because it taps into “the IKEA effect.” The IKEA effect is a cognitive bias in which consumers place a disproportionately high value on products they partially created. In a 2011 study by Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School, Daniel Mochon of Yale, and Dan Ariely of Duke, they described the IKEA effect as “labor alone can be sufficient to induce greater liking for the fruits of one’s labor: even constructing a standardized bureau, an arduous, solitary task, can lead people to overvalue their (often poorly constructed) creations.” 

The same goes for Fan Controlled Football. While the football itself may not be as high quality as the NFL, fans will tend to have a deeper emotional connection to it, merely because they helped build it. When it comes to your fandom, are they merely consuming content you produce, or are you actively encouraging them to help you build?

Improve or Die

From the Fan Controlled Football league’s website: “unlike traditional leagues, our focus is on optimizing everything on the field and through the entire fan experience. If something sucks, we’ll work with the fans. Heck even if something’s awesome, but we can make it better, we want to know.”

Do the senior leaders in your organization have that mindset? Or are they afraid to run a survey because they don’t want to hear negative feedback? 

As it relates to negative feedback, I get it. Especially from rabid fans. When I worked at Disney, a decade after we removed Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride from the Magic Kingdom park, we still would receive letters from guests who were upset we had removed it. And that’s okay. We want that type of passion and feedback from our guests. It forces us to have a great reason for why we removed that ride and be able to clearly articulate it (it was to make room for rides with characters that resonated with the next generation of kids). 

But if you can’t explain why a recurring pain point exists, and you’re not doing anything about it, your fans will be there to hold you accountable. Better to get a letter from your fans telling you what they’re upset about than silence. Because silence is a sign of indifference. And with the amount of new places for fans to spend their share of heart and time, indifference in your fanbase is something you quite literally can’t afford. 

No matter what your continuous improvement method of choice is, embrace the feedback, make adjustments, test, and learn. The organizations who have a culture where it’s always “Day One”, like Amazon, will be the organizations who succeed. And if you find yourself with people throughout the organization saying “we’ve always done it this way, and it’s worked before,” it may be time to give us a call. 

To hear the whole conversation with Jen and hear how Fan Controlled Football are using these insights to drive deep emotional connections with their fans, listen here.

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