Marketing in New England: Interview with Revs COO Brian Bilello

Earlier this week, we posted our Q&A with Timbers VP of Marketing Cory Dolich.  Today, we were fortunate to have Revs COO Brian Bilello answer some questions about the Revs marketing strategies and efforts.    The Revs have really amped up their online presence in the last couple of years and have started to aggressively use Twitter as a marketing tool.  Also, their new blogger initiative is very innovative and should provide a great forum for fans to connect with their team.  We last chatted with Mr. Bilello in April of 2009.  A copy of that interview is here.  Thanks to Mr. Bilello.

Footiebusiness.com: In a recent interview with the Sports Business Journal, you discussed the Revs’ decision to credential independent bloggers in 2011.  What is the motivation behind that decision?  Do you believe this will help the team better connect with its fans?  What will qualify a blogger for a credential?

Brian Bilello: In terms of team communication, we’re always exploring ways to better inform, entertain and service our fans. During the past few years, social media has opened new avenues for bloggers to increase their reach to fans. In our case, they can tweet an entry with #Revs or post it on our Facebook wall and have it seen by tens of thousands of Revolution fans. Given that bloggers now have this larger promotional platform, they are reaching more and more fans and becoming greater influences in the soccer community. We feel it’s important to help them get accurate information about the team, so that has been the basis for this new initiative. In terms of qualifying, we’ll be looking to first credential those who have existing blogs and who regularly write content. It will be somewhat of a work in progress as we get into the season and we launch the program. But as you can imagine, we won’t be able to credential 100 bloggers, so we may have to create a new accreditation process at some point.

FB: Similarly, how are the Revs utilizing social media?  Some teams are aggressively relying on Twitter, posting frequent training camp updates, linking to blog posts about the team and providing teasers about signings and ticket promotions, while others have been slower to adopt the technology. You are currently on Twitter as are members of the team’s communications staff.  How do you anticipate the team using Twitter and Facebook going forward?  Does the team have a policy on players using Twitter?

BB: In terms of Twitter and other social media tools, we’re going to continue to use them to update fans on the team, website content and events and give fans some snippets from behind the scenes. For me personally, it is a great way of getting real-time updates on soccer news as I follow all the relevant writers so when Kyle McCarthy or Grant Wahl post an article, I can see it right away. I also like the ability to be able to reach out to fans directly when they have questions about the team.

We don’t yet have any formal policies as they pertain to Facebook and Twitter with players. They are individuals and are, of course, free to do whatever they like, but we are in the process of creating suggested usage guidelines to help them navigate social media. That being said, we continually emphasize that commenting on Twitter or Facebook is the practically same as making an on-the-record statement to a reporter, so they need to be careful as to what they post or say.

FB: With respect to ticket promotions, last year the Revs used Groupon to sell more than 2,500 tickets to the Revs/Seattle game.  Do you anticipate using Groupon in 2011?  Is it possible to identify how many purchasers of that opportunity will become repeat visitors to Revs games? Does the team view that promotion as a success?  Should fans expect other game day promotions in 2011?

BB: We’re certainly looking to work with Groupon again in 2011 but we’re have to be careful not to devalue our tickets through vehicles like this. As a one-off, it’s nice to be able to give fans a free t-shirt or other value-added amenity, but I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to just start throwing such significant discounts out on a regular basis. There is no direct method of tracking GroupOn purchasers since they are fairly protective of their lists. (After all, that list is their business.) However, we used other incentives in the stadium that night to encourage them to sign up for our newsletter, so could communicate with them directly about the team and upcoming games. That promotion was certainly a success and we are looking at more promotions in 2011.

FB: What is the Revs rate of season ticket renewal for 2011?  Will the team announce its final season ticket numbers at some point during the season? What do the Revs offer as season ticket incentives?

BB: At this point we are at 82% with about two months to go in the process. Given past results, that will likely put us among the top 2-3 teams in the league for renewal percentage. That’s also off of a base that is essentially the median for the league.

We really try to provide our Season Ticket Holders the best service and benefits in the league, and this year especially they have rewarded us by coming back strong. Given our performance on the field last year, the success with our Season Ticket Holders renewals really speaks to the hard work done by our customer service team throughout the year. We offer a long list of benefits, including several exclusive STH events with owners, players and coaches, a dedicated parking lot, early stadium entry, discounts on additional tickets and pre-sale opportunities to events at Gillette Stadium (international soccer games, concerts, Patriots games, etc.), not to mention a great discount on their Revolution tickets versus face value. Ultimately, I look at our renewal success this year as a leap of faith by our Season Ticket Holders that we’re going to be better on the field.  Now it is our job to reward them for that faith.

FB: Finally, Commissioner Garber announced in November that a number of teams will announce jersey sponsors for 2011.  The Revs are one of the few remaining teams that have never had a jersey sponsor.  Do you view that as a lost revenue opportunity over the past few years?  Do you anticipate the Revs joining the list of teams with a jersey sponsor in 2011?

BB: Yes, it is a lost opportunity for us and we need to get a partnership finalized. We were very close this off-season, but it didn’t happen. We’re still in talks with a number of companies, but hard to put a timeline on it right now.

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Promotions, Promtions Promotions

As we do every so often, we thought we would take a look around MLS for ticket promotions offered for upcoming games.  As always, please feel free to send us promotions that we don’t mention.  In Colorado, the Rapids are promoting a “Lads Night Out” for their upcoming match against San Jose.  The package includes two tickets, two beers and two beanies for $49.00.  The game is the last league home game for the Rapids for three weeks.

In New England, the Revs are continuing their tradition of not offering single game promotions.  Instead, the Revs are pushing a four game mini plan that includes reduced price tickets to four games, a Revs long sleeve T-shirt for$68.  The Revs are also combining the deal with in stadium food vouchers.  The Revs are offering these deals simultaneously, yet it appears that they are somewhat in conflict. The Revs have avoided single game promotions this season and instead have focused on four and six game plans.

Finally, Chivas continues its single game promotional effort by offering a Family Pack for their August 14, 2010 match.  The package includes a ticket, hat and hot dog for $15 per person.

MLS Charity Week: The Revs

Last week we took at look at various American soccer charity efforts especially those in Haiti. The charitable efforts of professional sports leagues and teams are typically overlooked by their fans, yet they are an important component of the community outreach programs in which almost all leagues are involved.  In addition to providing a way to give back to the community, local charitable efforts often provide teams with an outstanding opportunity to connect with fans and potential fans. This week we will focus on the charitable efforts of the American Soccer Community.  We have interviewed league representatives from MLS and WPS and individual teams to find out how soccer “gives back”.  Monday, we chatted with MLS Executive Vice President JoAnn Neale who overseas MLS W.O.R.K.S., the charitable arm of MLS. Yesterday, we spoke with WPS Director of Communications Robert Penner about the womens’ league’s charitable efforts.

Today we take a look at charitable efforts at the team level, and our focus is the New England Revolution.  Revs Director of Communications Lizz Summers was kind enough to share a few words about the Revs’ good works.  Ms. Summers joined the Revs in 2006 after three seasons as the director of media relations at the University of Texas.  In her current role, Ms. Summers, who holds both an undergraduate and MBA from Boston College, oversees team media relations, public relations, corporate communications and new media activities.  In addition to directing the New England Revolution Charitable Foundation, Ms. Summers also directs the club’s other community relations efforts.  Thanks to Ms. Summers for answering our questions about the Revs’ charitable efforts.

Footiebusiness.com: The Revs are involved in charitable and community activity through the New England Revolution Charitable Foundation.  What is the goal of this group and what are the programs that the Foundation is trying to reach?  How is it determined what charities the Foundation assists?

Lizz Summers: The New England Revolution Charitable Foundation was actually founded very recently, in 2007, with a mission to assist New England-based charitable and community-based organizations, specifically those involved in education, family and health-related areas. Additionally, assisting programming involving and supporting youth soccer was also a priority. For the first few years, most of this support came through in-kind donations, although we’ve also made monetary donations to a select number of organizations. The Foundation’s mission statement has been the backbone for the team’s evolving community relations initiatives, too, so we have a consistent theme between the two entities.

Now that the Foundation has been going for several seasons, we’re taking a deeper look at the impact it’s had in several areas, and we’re re-examining its focus and mission statement. Being a sports team, we have tremendous ambassadors both on the field and off who can speak to a variety of health and wellness topics, more so in some respects than education and family. In 2010, we’re beginning the process of re-focusing the Foundation’s efforts, and extending the health and wellness theme to not only youth programming, but also adult programming to further involve our supporters. Between the Foundation’s growing involvement, its increasing fund raising activities and some of the team’s new community relations initiatives, we’re looking to increase our ability to help  charitable organizations with more monetary support as we head into the future.
FB: Many MLS fans are familiar with MLS W.O.R.K.S.  Do the Revs participate in such league-wide charitable efforts, or does the team focus on its own local charities and organizations?

LS: We do get involved with several of the MLS W.O.R.K.S. initiatives, and will have some deeper involvement in 2010 in some programs. The great thing about the MLS W.O.R.K.S. set-up is that teams can opt-in to most of the programs if they compliment the team’s efforts. Some teams may have conflicts either with local ties or sponsors and they’re unable to participate in some programming, but can incorporate other programs. We’re becoming more active in the league’s overall efforts as we continue to refine what our goals are in the community.
FB: Are the charitable efforts of the Revs separate and distinct from those of the New England Patriots and Kraft Sports?  Is there a company wide charitable philosophy that is consistent through all aspects of Revs/Pats?

LS: Where the Kraft family owns and operates two professional sports teams, as well as other sports and entertainment operations, there is certainly some crossover between the two teams. We also share a lot of best practices, especially us leaning on the Pats staff for advice and guidance since they have so much experience through national NFL programs, as well as their own. We’re actually looking to launch a program this year that we’re modifying from something the Patriots have done in the past, but tying it back to a health and wellness theme. The big thing that the Revs are now trying to do is create community and charitable opportunities where our fans and supporters can join us in giving back or lending a hand – hand-in-hand with the team. The great thing about the soccer community is that it’s a very close-knit group, especially in each city. We’re developing programs and opportunities that we hope our supporters will connect with, and that together with us – players, staff – we can make a greater difference.

FB: How is it determined which players attend certain charitable events?  Are players contractually obligated to participate in community/charity events?

LS: In the past, players have agreed to make a certain number of charitable or community appearances a year on behalf of the team, but we have never pushed players to participate if they don’t want to. Every year, we have some players who are more civic-minded than others, or who just enjoy being active in the community and they seek out opportunities to get involved. We’ve even helped a players connect and get involved with agencies and groups that they have an affinity to outside of the team’s work. Usually, we’ve tried to balance the appearances and rotate all the opportunities around, especially ones that fall in the afternoons or on weekends when the guys are looking to spend time with their families. For some higher-profile events, we’ll offer it up to the team to see who wants to participate.

Great stuff from the Revs and Ms. Summers.  Soccer is indeed a tight community and it is great to see players and teams acting as such valuable ambassodors for the sport.

Interview with New England Revolution COO Brian Bilello

 revsPrior to the start of the 2009 season, the New England Revolution announced the “Defend the Fort” campaign as part of a drive to target “traditional” supporters.  In combination with the introduction of the Rev’s Girls and new online content, the new campaign is part of League-wide effort to replicate the energy evident in Toronto, the Nordecke and other passionate supporter areas.  Brian Bilello, the Revolution COO, is the architect of the new campaign.  He was kind enough to answer a few questions from footiebusiness.com about the Revs’ marketing efforts for 2009.

Footiebusiness.com: The Revs have debuted the “Defend the Fort” campaign this year.  What are the components of the campaign?  What is the team doing to market the new campaign?


Brian Bilello: The primary reasoning behind the Defend the Fort campaign is to grow the number of season tickets in The Fort, our supporters section. While we’ll do as much as we can to grow the supporters section in general, we feel that season ticket growth is the key because those fans are the most passionate, most involved and have the biggest stake in the game, so to speak. So we didn’t want it to be where people are coming two, three or four games and sitting in that section, but rather growing a base of fans who are here every single week. That will drive the energy in the building.

There are a number of elements to the campaign. The primary one is the $200 supporters seat, which is less expensive than any other seat in the building. We actually lowered the price of the season tickets for folks in The Fort. However, we didn’t adjust any of the prices for the other tickets we have – the individual tickets or the 4-packs. Those are still the same pricing structure so an individual ticket in The Fort is still the same price as a Category III ticket, as are the 4-packs. But if you purchase a season ticket, you save $100, which is an incentive to a lot of people.

We have defendthefort.net, which is also a big piece of it. The main site is still in development – although a portion of it is live now – and there will be more to come. Included in that site are our Fort-related ticket offers and videos and we’re looking at some social networking components. It’s also the home of the Rev Girls’ activities. That group is really out there going out after the hard-core soccer fans and pushing them back to defendthefort.net.

We’ve also done TV spots, radio spots and online advertising, and all of those things are targeted at the more hard-core, young adult soccer supporters. We also have radio, TV, print and online advertising that’s aimed at the general market, but the Defend the Fort campaign is specifically targeted. When we advertise on boston.com, you’ll see a Revolution Soccer ad, but when we advertise on Big Soccer, it’ll be a Defend the Fort ad.


FB: The Revs seem to be targeting more “traditional” soccer supporters this year.  Do you believe this represents a change from prior marketing efforts, and if so, what is the impetus for the change?

BB: We really took a hard look at it a few years ago, and ever since I’ve been involved with the team beginning in 2006, it’s been an area that I’ve wanted to take the team. For the last three seasons, we’ve been trying to target the “traditional” fan more and more. It hasn’t been something we’ve flipped a switch on, but it’s a piece of our business we’re trying to add back in because we feel these are the fans who really support the team. Those are the fans who are most engaged. Those are the fans who are going to drive the performance of the team. Because they’re engaged, they care; they wanted to read about the team; they care about the results. They’re not just here to come to one or two games a year, but are here to really get behind the team and support the team. We recognized that those fans are the ones who have the greatest everyday interaction with the team and we really want to interact with them at a greater level, and show that we’re here to please them, both on and off the field.

We’re not eliminating our marketing to families or the youth soccer segment because they’re still important to us. We’re just adding a layer to our mix.


FB: How do you measure success with the new branding efforts?  Do you feel the team is meeting those goals?

BB: With the Defend the Fort campaign, we’re going to look at how many tickets we sell: season tickets, 4-packs, individual games and walk-ups. We’re closing on doubling the number of season tickets in The Fort right now, so I’d say we’ve already been successful. We could look at it and say we wanted to double our season ticket numbers there, but it’s a bit artificial. If we do 90 percent more, isn’t that good? If we do 110 percent more, isn’t that good? We’d like to get to double because it’s nice to say we’ve done it, but since we’re almost there, we can’t really say that was the milestone we were looking to hit. Then again, as of right now, we haven’t kicked a ball at home yet, so if we can look at 4-packs and walk-ups and see if they’re changing for the better, then we have an additional metric to judge our success on. But early returns are showing that the Defend the Fort campaign is working since we’ve doubled the number of season tickets in The Fort, so we’re hoping to continue that as the season goes on.

With the web site, we can see how many people are engaging; how many people are sending messages; how many people are going on, and so on. We have those stats and will continue to look at them and see how many people are engaging actively in the program.

 

FB: Although still in its infancy, Seattle is being trumpeted as a “model” franchise for purposes of marketing and fan outreach.  Are their any lessons that an established franchise like New England can take from Seattle’s efforts?

BB: There are certainly some things that Seattle will do that we’ll feel are great ideas and we may look to take on, but I would actually suggest it might be the other way around. Seattle should take lessons from the New Englands, D.C.s, Chicagos, Dallases, and Colorados of the world – those original and early-year teams – and where they were the first five years in this league and numbers they were bringing in, and then see what happened to lose some of those numbers that are now coming back. I think there is more of a lesson for them to learn in “How do we keep these people here,” “How do we make sure we fulfill the promise,” and from what I’ve seen from both Toronto and Seattle, they’re both well down that path. So if there is a lesson to learn, it’s one that would have helped us 15 years ago. Not that they’re not bad ideas – they’ve certainly been able to capture the interest and excitement in their market – but they’re really leveraging it well and can continue to drive it. But we’re past that initial curiosity and initial years of the Revs. People may say, “Well, Seattle has 22,000 season ticket holders. Can’t you get that next year?” That’s not going to happen, but we’re trying to move back closer to that. What they’ve done right would’ve helped us 15 years ago.

FB: Finally, with the season just underway and the home opener coming up, are there any other marketing/branding efforts (either inside or outside the stadium) that Revs” fans should be on the lookout for?

BB: You’ll see the atmosphere change in the stadium, especially from the additional energy from The Fort and supporters section. We’ve changed our music program a bit to be a bit more edgy, more modern. We’ve added some pump videos. You really can’t do anything in game to artificially create energy and get the crowd going, but pregame, we’ve brought more fun and engagement with the crowd. We have a pregame party program that we’ll roll out at a few games this year. There will be a band playing in a party zone next to the field, which will be located next to The Fort. Again, we’re targeting the younger crowd – they’re getting the pregame party and The Fort atmosphere in one, so we think that will be good. Those parties will be primarily marketing through our Rev Girls in bars and out at night, so we think that all ties together between the demographic, how they buy the tickets and what they experience when they get here. We’re adding some viewing parties – not every single game – but we are adding some to try to engage fans away from the stadium and get that interaction with the team up. We’re definitely being more aggressive in our advertising and making some spends in some places we might not have done before – in particular online in places like Facebook and the Google ad network to reach anyone in New England who’s on a soccer web page. Even things like social networking, which isn’t a traditional ad spend, but keeping Facebook and Twitter updated at all times so we’re relevant.