Cronulla Sharks chose the data-driven road to an NRL grand final victory

The Cronulla Sharks club's decision to focus on fans paid off, as it gave the NRL team a rich database to build out its customer engagement strategy and get the team on track for a 2016 victory.

In September 2016, the Sydney-based Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks rugby league team won its first grand final since entering the Australasian National Rugby League (NRL) competition back in 1967.

After almost 50 years in the competition, the Sharks had previously deprived its fans of a premiership, despite appearing in four grand finals. According to Scott Maxworthy, head of digital commercialisation at the Cronulla Sharks, this was a losing streak the club's fans took to heart.

With the Sharks the butt of almost every joke within the NRL after being awarded the wooden spoon for finishing last in 2014, Maxworthy said the club reassessed its focus.

"Our transition from 2014 to 2016 was all about people," Maxworthy explained. "At the end of the wooden spoon, there was a massive shakeup in management, we brought on a new CEO, and the first thing he did was ask people what the problem was."

Maxworthy then came in to help the Sharks develop a digital strategy.

"From a tech point of view, [it was] a simple strategy -- the customer experience, and targeting personalisation, which was fundamentally important," he said.

When it came to capturing the club's data and using it to drive the customer experience, Maxworthy explained that it was hard to filter out the noise, with so much information collected and so many vendors in the space.

"You can't do everything for everyone straight away, so we decided to focus on the things we could do in an organic type of development process," he said.

The Sharks implemented a data connection solution from Tealium, which Maxworthy explained is the conduit that sits underneath everything the club does to allow it to stitch customer data together across multiple platforms. It also employed marketing automation firm Marketo in a bid to personalise that customer experience focus.

With data collation tools and an automated marketing platform in place, Maxworthy explained that the next part of the process was to find one area of the business that he could pilot, choosing the club's membership base to start with.

"We get around 1.2 million website visitors, but our fan and member database is only 42,000, so there was a disconnect there," he said.

"What we wanted to do was identify people coming in, then put some lead scoring around those visitors to then feed to our telemarketing team to follow up membership.

"The net result of that was a 36 percent increase in membership revenue, 91 percent member retention, and a number one net promoter score for the NRL."

Cronulla is the only club in the premiership to own its stadium, giving the Sharks the ability to capture data from every customer touch point. With 12 home games on average each year and between 12,500 and 20,000 people in attendance at each game, Maxworthy explained that there was an abundance of data waiting to be captured.

Additionally, as the games are televised on both Australian and international television -- many free to air -- the club's reach extends out to those 350,000 to 1 million people watching through a screen.

As the Sharks club also has a lot of stakeholders, including the NRL, Telstra, Ticketek, Fox, and ING, Maxworthy said having the underlying data capture architecture allows it to integrate a multitude of valuable data feeds from those organisations as well.

For the Sharks, the return on investment for using Marketo was three months. Maxworthy said this gave him board approval to use the technology further.

With the grand final win under its belt, the Sharks built up a priceless batch of new data. The leagues club signed up more than 3,500 new members, which resulted in more rich data such as email addresses, phone numbers, addresses, and number of family members. What Maxworthy saw was a great data acquisition, not just membership growth.

The leagues club witnessed 13,500 fans through its doors after the win, spending AU$1.6 million on club merchandise -- equal to what the Sharks had previously sold in a year.

"The beauty of this was all of that customer data," Maxworthy said. "We were capturing all of that data, what they were buying, where they live, all being fed into our databases."

With all of this new, rich data, the Sharks will continue to focus on using Marketo to build out its "single customer view" strategy, which will see the club's commercial team leverage what the membership team learned during the process. Maxworthy also said the club's media will focus on production-type services and building content for new audiences.

Merchandising will utilise the Marketo technology to work on shopping cart abandonment, and the leagues club facility itself will use the automation platform to build loyalty programs in a bid to bolster its repeat customer base.

The club will also be leveraging its stadium touch points by developing a stadium map, which Maxworthy said will be personalised for individuals, and the Wi-Fi capacity of the stadium will also be increased.

"The best tools in tech are important, but the most important are people who are passionate and focused," Maxworthy reaffirmed.

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