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Finnish football’s data-driven approach to growth

VERONA, ITALY - JUNE 06: Stephan El Shaarawy (C) of Italy is tackled by Paulus Arajuuri of Finland during the international friendly match between Italy and Finland on June 6, 2016 in Verona, Italy. (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)

Summary

  • The Football Association of Finland adopted a data-driven approach to increasing player numbers and growing commercial revenue as part of its participation in the Uefa GROW development programme.
  • It analysed the most relevant data sets from the information it holds on players and customers to identify challenges and opportunities in achieving these objectives.
  • Data analysis revealed important causes of player churn the association could address and pinpointed key timeframes in which digital communications would be most effective.
  • A segmented email marketing campaign targeted lapsed players with personalised calls to return to action and promoted merchandise purchases to ‘likely-to-buy’ groups.
  • The campaign exceeded its targets for increasing player numbers, enabled merchandise sales to beat target expectations by 400 per cent and has become the starting point for an accelerated investment programme aimed at enabling the FA to gain an even deeper understanding of its players, customers and fans.

 

“By analysing our participation data we were able to identify overall churn in registered players, understand the cause, and implement a digital solution.”

Kalle Seire, Head of Sales and Marketing, FA of Finland

 

Background

If you take a glance at a Finnish newspaper, website or TV sports bulletin, the chances are it will be an image of ice hockey or motorsport – not football – that jumps out at you, with Formula 1 stars Valtteri Bottas, Kimi Räikkönen and the habitual medal contenders of the national hockey team dominating in ratings, clicks and column inches.

The playing picture, however, is very different, with football the nation’s most popular sport, played by more than 140,000 adults and children.

Figure 1: Participation in football in Finland, by age, 2016

So, at first sight, the participation side of Finnish football is in strong health. But, as ever, the headlines do not tell the full story.

The Football Association of Finland (Suomen Palloliitto or FAF) has been concerned about participation rates since the late 1990s and has only sporadically met an annual target of 5 per cent growth in grassroots playing numbers ever since. The FAF added an impressive net 42,000 registrations between 2002 and 2004 but then saw the player population stagnate for almost a decade – even during a period in which the sport enjoyed the exposure of a comparatively golden age at elite level as a national team containing the likes of Jari Litmanen and Sami Hyppia rose to 36th in the world rankings.

Figure 2: Registered player numbers, 2002-16

Throughout this time, the association was aware of the generalised threats to participation most sports faced from changes in leisure habits and understood some issues specific to Finland around climate and facilities. Kalle Seire, the FAF’s Head of Sales and Marketing, says of the background situation: “As with all sports, we compete with the broad range of opportunities people now have to spend their time and money – this includes the ever-growing use of technology, from [internet] surfing and posting, to playing simulation sports such as EA Sports’ Fifa and esports.

“Also, due to the harsh climate, pitches in Finland must be able to handle snowy conditions, as well as the days becoming shorter earlier in the year. As a result, there is a need for all-weather pitches, 4G turf, facilities with floodlighting, and indoor pitches. Nationwide, there still is a lack of such facilities, although there has been a significant improvement during the last decade.”

Figure 3: Number of artificial turf football facilities built annually in Finland, 2001-17

Over the 15 years to 2017, the number of artificial-surface football facilities built in Finland each year jumped from two to 33, taking the total to 343 in 2017, yet that expansion alone did not trigger any significant participation growth. In 2014, however, the FAF was given an opportunity to take a fresh, and data-driven, look at the issue of playing numbers through Finland’s participation in the Uefa GROW programme.

Uefa GROW is an initiative to support member associations in developing four key areas of the off-field game:

  • the image of football,
  • digital engagement,
  • grassroots participation, and
  • commercial revenues.

As part of the programme, Uefa works with a number of specialist agencies to give smaller nations in particular access to international expertise that can help them identify challenges and opportunities within each of the four pillars and develop new strategies to progress their agenda around them.

For the FAF, a workshop with CRM and business intelligence agency Winners FDD set up by Uefa in November 2014 proved the launch pad for a mission to use data-driven digital engagement as a means firstly of raising participation numbers and then of generating increased commercial revenue from this expanded player base.

Seire explains: “As a national governing body, one of our key roles is to grow the number of participants – from players to coaches, referees and other volunteers – and this additional support from Uefa enabled us to put an increased level of focus on increasing our registered players.

“We were also interested to learn of Winners’ research that quantified the value of the relationship between playing and spending on football: they identified that current players spend 6.3 times more money on tickets than non-players, and 2.2 times more than former players. From this you can immediately see that if we can get more people playing our sport, we will be supporting our future – not just for the national federation and our teams, but also for our local clubs.”

Data acquisition

The first stage of the project was to identify the datasets the FAF was able to construct and interrogate, and determine which of these would produce the most relevant information to take forward into the analysis and insight phase.

The analytics business more widely typically draws on four principal types of customer data: demographic, behavioural, transactional and lifestyle.

  • Demographic data is the basic information analysts and marketers routinely seek about target audiences – typically starting with their age, gender, place of residence, household income and marital, family and employment status.
  • Behavioural data tracks these consumers’ interactions with the rights-holder both online and off – in everything from how often they visit their website and how long they stay for to whether they respond to email marketing, use mobile apps, attend matches or volunteer at grassroots level.
  • Transactional data monitors their spending patterns across tickets, merchandise, corporate hospitality, sponsor offers, etc.
  • Lifestyle data comprises a broader set of information typically provided by third parties such as credit agencies and provides a rounder picture of the customer’s non-sporting interests and habits, such as the car they drive, the credit cards they use, or whether they holiday abroad etc.

For its initial steps into the world of data-driven strategy, the FAF focused on the first three types of data, which it was able to accumulate through its own systems and databases. It began by making an initial assessment of which data points would be most useful in identifying:

  1. the issues behind the lack of growth in playing numbers, and
  2. the best means of engaging current, lapsed and potential players during the digital communication phase of the strategy.

Seire says: “How did we identify the sort of data that would be of most value to us? That’s a really good question. At a time when everyone is obsessed with ‘big data’ we focused on just the data that’s important for our objective. So, in the case of registered players, we focused mainly on behavioural data – how many years has a player been registered for? When did they stop playing? Has a player re-registered this year? What club, league and district is the player in? In our participation and competition system we retain all sorts of information about our players’ performance and discipline, and we also retain information about our coaches and referees, specifically the courses they attend, appearances etc. These factors played a big part in understanding how we communicated with them in terms of what we said and when we said it.

“We take the same approach with ticket and merchandise sales – we look at a fan’s past-purchase behaviour, what have they bought, when did they buy it etc. And then on top of behavioural and transactional data we look at their demographics – age, gender, where they live etc.

“We haven’t done a lot in the lifestyle area but that’s where the third-party enhancements might come in. So at some point in the future we’ll enhance our existing data with third party data from suppliers such as Acxiom, Experian or CallCredit, but for now we’re focusing on organic data growth.”

Data analysis and insight

In the same way that data sources were ranked and drawn upon for their relevance to the strategic objective of influencing grassroots participation and registration decisions, the analysis processes then applied were also selected for their ability to draw out relevant types of insight.

So key goals at this stage included identifying trends in behaviours within different target groups, assessing responsiveness to the sort of communications that could potentially be used in the final campaign, and clarifying the sorts of impact factors that could measure overall success.

Seire explains: “We always made sure to start with the objective that is set in our strategy – what are we trying to achieve? Then we look at the data available, and the tools we have at our disposal. A lot of analysis can be done in [Microsoft] Excel – people under-estimate what a great platform it is – but for more complex processes, such as predictive or propensity modelling, regression and correlation analysis, we’ll use dedicated software.

“Email plays a major role in our marketing strategy and the broadcast platform we use – Campaign Monitor – provides various reports.  We also use Google Analytics to track web behaviour and of course we use the native social media analytics.

“The other common tactic we use is to look at external forces such as population and population movement. Statistics Finland, the office for Finland population stats, provides a great service where you can download information about our population in regions and based on age group and gender. When we overlay that type of data with our participation numbers we can see the scale of impact our sport has on our country.

“This type of mapping – actually putting our fans, players and volunteers onto a map so we can see their geographic distribution – is a relatively simple but under-used process.  When you take this visual approach to data analysis, you get greater buy-in from your colleagues – it’s easy for them to see things on a map that aren’t evident when looking through several spreadsheets.”

Figure 4: Geographic distribution of registered football players, 2016

These processes yielded some valuable insights that both identified the problems the engagement campaign needed to address and suggested some testable options for overcoming them.

The first of these emerged from analysis of player registration data, which revealed that participation numbers were not so much static as in a constant state of churn that was being masked by the number of people leaving the sport being matched by the total of those coming into it.

So in 2011, for example, the FAF recorded an increase in player numbers of 1,018 overall. However, the reality was that the association actually registered 32,059 new players but also saw 31,041 hang up their boots.

Matching demographic data with these gains and losses also highlighted some key age and gender groups to target. Seire cites post-18 participation as one such example, explaining: “At around age 18, participation drops as young adults move to university, typically because either their lifestyle changes, the university doesn’t have a facility or the right environment to encourage continued play, or the individual is not aware of the opportunities around them.

“This is where targeted email marketing was the most useful – keeping that age group engaged as they transitioned from an at-home school environment to independent living.”

In other groups, however, patterns of churn were markedly different, with factors specific to female players raising some more complex challenges that the FAF is having to take a longer-term approach to meeting. Seire says: “Further work is taking place to address the issue in female players – we know that 12-14 tends to be the drop-off for them, but in their case email isn’t the best channel, hence the need for a data management platform: we need to be able to use other communication channels with them.”

Figure 5: New and lapsed player registration numbers, 2002-15

Figure 6: Net gain/loss of registered players, 2002-15

Further analysis of the same data also identified an urgent need to target de-registered players as soon as possible after their participation lapses, as the likelihood of their returning to the game falls dramatically after just one year of absence.

Figure 7: Return to participation rates, 2003-16

Moving beyond the behavioural data provided by the association’s player information sets, analysis of transactional data provided some more useful insights into the willingness of particular customer groups to spend with the FAF. In particular, the research found that fans who had previously bought official merchandise were more likely to purchase again in future, giving the association a strong target group for the campaign’s revenue generation aims.

These kinds of audience segmentation – by behaviour, demographics and transaction history – enabled the FAF to test a range of communications designed to stimulate player registration and promote commercial interaction to identify which ones had the greatest impact and reach.

Seire says: “We tested the principles the analysis gave us through email marketing, sending campaigns in segments – for example, we might split our sales list into groups of fans who recently bought tickets, who had never bought tickets, or who had bought tickets several years ago.  Messages about summer camps might be split between a segment of parents of young children and another in which emails are sent directly to older children, and further segmented into those children who are registered to play with one of our clubs and those who used to play.”

As well as steering its approach to email marketing strategy, these insights were also used to support the work of the association’s football development department, identifying which geographic areas were over- and under-performing and then enabling knowledge sharing between the two groups and pinpointing the regions on which additional resources should be targeted.

Actions and outcomes

The initial analysis processes the FAF applied enabled them to create a range of targeted digital communications programmes that achieved some extremely quick wins around merchandising sales, had some strongly positive impacts on grassroots playing numbers and have been developed further across the two years since to take in more sophisticated analytics techniques and set an increasingly ambitious range of objectives.

Seire explains: “It was quite fortunate that when we started working with Winners to use our participation data to generate closer engagement with our players that it was November and our first few email campaigns promoted our range of Christmas gifts for football fans. Through just three emails we exceeded our annual online store sales target so we immediately saw the benefit in expanding our marketing plans when thinking about the different groups of stakeholders we have.

“We achieved 400 per cent of our annual sales targets for our online store in the first full year we used email marketing and today our merchandise sales also include football-related products for a grassroots player as well as for a fan of the national team. That has happened because we immediately understood that a closer collaboration between the development and marketing departments – which quite commonly work individually within governing bodies of all sports – would be of greater benefit to both: our players can buy tickets and merchandise, and our fans can become players, referees or coaches.

And he adds: “I often hear people talk about the cultural challenges [of data strategy adoption] – getting different departments to come together for one single aim. We have managed to achieve this in the Finnish FA. From the start we were clear what we wanted to achieve and what we had to do to achieve it, and we had support from everyone involved.”

On the playing side, the campaign was set an objective of achieving a 5-per-cent increase in registered player numbers in 2016 and ultimately delivered a 7.2-per-cent uplift as its email targeting became increasingly segmented.

Seire says: “As the national governing body of football for Finland, our focus is on the whole country, but we also do segmentation on a regional basis, for all age groups and both genders, and across multiple football formats too. We believe in personalised content and segmenting, and we are now able to segment our fans and participants so that we can work with specific user groups depending on objectives in hand.”

Figure 8: Growth in player registrations, 2014-16

The next stages in the programme are threefold:

  • to expand the revenue focus from merchandise into ticket sales,
  • add more complex metrics such as sentiment and intent to the data mix, and
  • move quickly to building a 360-degree view of fans and players that matches new ‘unknown’ data with existing information from FAF databases.

Seire says: “Player registrations and merchandise sales are easy to measure but when it comes to things like sentiment and intent we still have some work to do. That is part of the longer-term road map for us but there are a number of social analysis products out there that provide this measurement so we will be looking into these in 2018. We’re also yet to see an impact on ticket sales but we’re still at the early stages of using data in this way – watch this space, we’re moving quickly as we see the tremendous benefits.”

And he adds: “In our immediate development stage, Winners will be supporting us as we look to leapfrog the traditional next step of a single customer view to combine a 360-degree view of the fans and participants in our databases with previously ‘unknown’ data, specifically from our anonymous website visitors.”

To do this, the analytics process will look to identify ‘unknown’ website visitors by finding a matching record for them within the customer or Facebook profiles of people who are already known to the organisation. Once the two profiles have been matched (for example, through the IP address of an unknown user being used by a known user), they can be merged into a single record that is far richer and more detailed in the historic information it holds, and which can be used to create more targeted communications again.

Seire explains: “Unknown data can be useful in its own right – for example, cookie retargeting, or providing general insight into customers’ interests and behaviour – but when an unknown customer becomes known, maybe through registering to use a website, purchasing something, signing up for a newsletter etc, they become more valuable as you can then add email, SMS or mobile app push messages to your targeted marketing.”

Key learning points

The FAF’s experience as a newcomer to data-driven marketing communications offers three key lessons for other sports organisations with similar challenges and goals:

  • Personalised messaging based on customer segmentation gets results
  • Meaningful segmentation requires the right data, not the most data
  • Adopting the right processes creates a virtuous circle in which successful outcomes unlock new investment to enable more advanced segmentation that yields better results again.

Seire sums up: “The key lesson we’d like to share is that by engaging with your stakeholders in the right manner with personalised content, based on what we know about them, you can increase participation, revenue and engagement. However, you have to know your objectives, you must have a quantity of data, and you need to follow processes. There’s no short cut – but when you get it right, you can see results. This then enables you to secure more investment to continue the process, improving and advancing continuously.”

And he adds: “It all begins with having the right people doing the right things – things that are different than a few years ago. As we have resourced our analytics further, the biggest challenge for us has been getting hold of our data sets held in different systems across the organisation, to provide a 360-degree view of our customer base. This is always a challenge when implementing CRM – securing the data, cleaning it up, and then maintaining that data hygiene. But we’ve got a great team here and with support from Uefa GROW have continued to progress our approach to using data.”

The overall outcome of the process has been to make the FAF a data-driven organisation that takes an evidence-based approach to setting its strategic priorities and identifying the tactics best suited to achieving its prioritised goals. Seire says of the journey: “By analysing our participation data, we were able to identify overall churn in registered players, understand the cause, and implement a digital solution to encourage current players to re-register at the appropriate time, with triggered reminders set as an automated follow-up.

“We now use data analysis as a regular part of our process – we’re currently using Power BI by Microsoft – and with the new data management platform we’re designing, envisage business intelligence playing a greater role in our processes in future again.”

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