Ask The CMO: What It’s Like To Be Head Marketer For The Detroit Pistons

Engagement Strategies


If you’ve been reading any of my posts lately, you know I’ve been talking about this shift from an era of mass marketing to an era where marketing messages are actually personalized for each and every consumer. An Era of Engagement Marketing. Brands can’t get away with shouting the same messages over and over on the same old channels; the relationship with the customer must be meaningful and specific.

To explore how some of today’s top CMOs are tackling this shift, Marketo teamed up with Mashable for the second installment of our “Ask the CMO” series, this time focusing on “Lessons Learned.” I thought there was no better way to kick off the series than exploring these topics with a Marketo customer, specifically with Charlie Metzger, CMO of the Detroit Pistons and Palace Sports & Entertainment. Charlie covers a lot of ground in his interview with Mashable, touching on everything from career advice to data-driven segmentation to the convergence of mass media and digital marketing to how you create loyal fans. Throughout it all, one thing’s for sure: the marketing world as we know it is undergoing a major transformation.

One thing I’ll call out before Charlie and Mashable take it away is how fascinating it is that a mass marketing-focused, consumer brand like the Pistons is rotating deeply into digital content-driven interaction with fans. The thinking behind it, as you’ll see, is that the more personal you get, the stronger your relationship with the individuals in your audience will be….and the more they will invest in you.

And that’s what this new era of marketing is all about. Read on—I guarantee you’ll learn something.

The following interview originally appeared on Mashable

It’s inarguable that Charlie Metzger, chief marketing and communications officer for the Detroit Pistons and parent company Palace Sports & Entertainment, has a pretty, pretty cool job. But, it’s not all fun and games (and dunks and free-throws). There are more challenges than one might think when it comes to engaging an NBA team’s devoted fan base, and at the same time, building it.

And this is a challenge Metzger is conquering head-on: The past two seasons, the three-time NBA world championship-winning team has tapped marketing technology to help drive a 90% season-ticket renewal rate, the best ever in the history of Palace Sports & Entertainment. This 2015-2016 season also managed to achieve this figure, a testament to Metzger’s emphasis on leveraging tech to drive more personalized relationships with fans, among other tactics.

Mashable caught up with Metzger, delving into the intricacies of pro sports marketing, from devising data-driven strategies to using tech to amplify the live experience, along with his predictions for the future. We started, however, with a look back, namely asking Metzger his top advice to his younger self.

Q&A with Charlie Metzger, CMO of the Detroit Pistons

1. If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self that pertains to your career in marketing, what would it be?

I would say work internationally as early as possible.

And why might that be?

First of all, that you learn so much more. It’s a global consumer world. And I think that if you can experience that when you’re early on in your career, it’s just going to set you up to be smarter, more well-rounded and more successful as you go forward.

2. What’s the most unexpectedly important skill from your past that you’ve found plays into your success?

Well, I’ll give you three, but I know you only asked for one. The first one is to ask questions. Two: Learn about everybody and everything. And then three, stay calm and stay confident.

And I think that most of that comes from playing sports, or even a road crew I worked on, believe it or not, in the summer. That was just a job that I needed to help make some money. You work with all sorts of different people from different walks of life, and, to be honest, it’s been one of those experiences that’s always kind of stuck with me. It was not what I wanted to do in my career, but when you ask questions, you learn. (This was in high school, by the way, so I didn’t even know what a career was.)

But, you know, if you just learn about people, about what they’re doing, what motivates them and where they’ve been, it really sets anybody up for future success. So, it might sound pretty basic, but asking questions and then learning about people and everything that you can in any of those early jobs that you have, or teams that you play on, is really important. Staying calm and staying confident carries throughout.

3. What are the three biggest trends you’re seeing in sports marketing today?

One: Customized content creation and distribution utilizing inside access (behind the scenes activities/stories with athletes and teams) to tell stories and build fan/brand communities

Two: Gamification/fantasy/fan interactions — in arena, online and gaming — continuing to extend sports into new outlets

Three: The continued convergence of broadcast and digital/mobile — live-streaming, inaudible beacons … all geared to bring fans live action on their terms.

4. Your background is in traditional advertising, and now you’re the head of marketing for a major sports and entertainment brand. How does the marketing you’re doing today differ from the marketing you did in your early days?

I was on the marketing side of Miller Brewing Company. And then, yes, I did go to McCann for 12 years. Here’s what I’d say to that: I think that ultimately, when you start to look at marketing there’s still three basic components, and the first is strategy creation. Whether it was 10 years ago, 20 years ago or 20 years from now, there’s still always going to have to be the creation of that strategy. Hopefully, it’s always going to be based upon consumer/fan insights. So, for the most part, that’s part one. And that hasn’t changed.

Parts two and three have changed 180°. Part two is that once you have that strategy; you’ve got to create a plan and a tactical execution to take that strategy and then deploy it and make it work. And then, part three is, obviously, measuring the results.

5. The Detroit metropolitan area is in Palace Sports and Entertainment’s DNA, but you also have fans around the country and world. How do you shape your marketing so it bridges hyperlocal and global fans, making everyone feel included?

I would say we are fortunate here that when you talk about the Pistons and also all of our three concert venues — the Palace, D.T. and Meadowbrook — they’re known on national scale. The reason, obviously, that the Pistons are is because we’ve won three NBA world championships, and we had the “bad boys” and the back-to-back Wallaces.

So, people are aware of us. For example, over 50% of our Facebook fans are outside of the U.S. We do have presence, certainly more presence here in Detroit, in Michigan, but we do because we’ve had success both on the sports and entertainment side. We have a global footprint.

But the short answer to that is that we market to our local fans first. We very much believe that if you think of them as your advocates and if you can create a brand, you create an experience. The fans are the ones that are going to be hopefully your biggest advocates and loyalists, and if you start inside that, they will share those stories. They will share their positive feelings. And obviously, with the power of the web and the power of social media, you’re able to share those stories more quickly. But you’ve got to find those advocates, and those advocates certainly do live close to home.

6. Speaking of fans, what would you say are your top three strategies for attracting new fans?

That’s a great question. We spend a lot of time on it. First, would be segmentation based upon their lifestyles. We use as much data as we can to understand and then segment. So, it could be business-people. It could be those that are more up-and-coming. It could be millennials. But ultimately, we segment based upon their lifestyle.

From there, we create products and packages that meet those lifestyle needs. So, we’re going to market to you differently than we’re going to market to maybe even one of your friends, or maybe somebody that’s a business associate of yours. The more that we can segment, the more we can create specific products and/or packages that meet those needs.

Then, I think it’s all about then building and developing those communities. Something hit me the other day when we were trying to simplify things: It’s that social leads to search, which leads to sales. If you think about that, and if you’re able to build your social community, you start to see people are searching about you. And eventually, that will lead to sales. It’s an interesting thing — segmenting those people, understanding their lifestyles, creating products.

And, a product could be even having them watch a video — it doesn’t have to be complicated, or even in an area that’s gonna necessarily create a transaction right now. But, if we understand you and what you’re interested in, we can create content that you’re interested in, whether you’re here at a concert or at a game. If you’re favorable to it, you forward that on. That leads to more people finding out about us — and then, eventually, that leads to sales.

7. From the ‘Bad Boys’ era to the more recent Wallace/Wallace championship run, the Pistons organization has a rich history. How do you ensure that fan enthusiasm transcends draft classes, trades and W-L records, which all affect your “product”?

The simple answer is a lot of hard work. In the world of sports, your teams have ebbs and flows, and I think that’s just the reality of it. But what you can do so that you don’t go too low — you always want to go as high as you can — is build loyalty. And, the way you build loyalty is to give fans the best value for their dollar in and out of arena.

So, a fan can come to a game. And, unfortunately, if the team doesn’t win, they may not leave as happy as if the team did win, but we’re building a game experience so that the two-and-a-half hours they’re spending with us in the arena (or online or watching at home) is tremendous.

And going back to segmentation, we also have a lot of people that are consistently here as business-to-business customers. They know that the value that they’re placing in their, quote, “membership” or partnership with us is helping them their build their business.

So, the last piece of that — and it might sound crazy, but it’s what you can control, particularly in those lean years — is being very active in the community and making sure that within the community we’re doing the right things with the right partners and giving back appropriately. When you’re doing those things, we believe this builds that relationship with our fans. Some will fall off the bandwagon — that’s natural. But if you’re doing it genuinely and you’re doing it consistently, we think that’s the key to keeping that loyalty.

8. You touched on this when we were talking about attracting new fans: Data obviously drives marketing in a ton of ways. So, how do you take data and bring it together to inform your marketing, if you have anything else to add on that point?

We have a very sophisticated data warehouse. For every marketer, every business now, this is the challenge, right. Like, okay, big data, you’ve got all sorts of stuff. But how do you make it actually what I call small data? How do you make that big data and turn it into actionable items?

There’s the technology side, which is making sure that all of your systems actually talk to each other. Then, step two is to make sure, in our case, that we have a data and analytics team that are constantly looking at all the data and looking for insights and trends so that we turn big data into small data and make it actionable.

9. In addition to marketing the team, you have to make sure the arena itself is an engaging – essentially retail – environment, via Wi-Fi, beacon tech, branding and more. How do you approach the management of both your conscious product (the team) and your subconscious product (the arena) and seamlessly weave marketing throughout?

The hard part is that you could go down 500 different paths trying to do this. Start with an overall vision, and our vision is to come together and thrill. That’s what we have posted everywhere across our organization: We wanna bring our fans together and thrill them.

So, once you start with an overall vision and work through that and get everybody connected internally, whether that’s our part-time employees that are in guest services, whether that’s the people that are operating our concessions stands — of they’re all on the same page about bringing people together and thrilling them, then it becomes more of an exercise in, “Okay, how are we doing it?” and measuring results.

As far as technology goes, we are data testers. We try new things all the time. And some things work, some things don’t. So, for example, we have beacons. We used beacons for an entire year, testing different messaging. The last thing that we wanna do when we bring our fans into an arena is bombard them with messages that they don’t want, so while you have the ability to do that, you have to make sure that your technology isn’t overriding the fan experience.

And we have old-fashioned mystery shoppers. We constantly test ourselves to make sure that we’re not over-engineering, but at the same time, we want to stay on the cutting edge. The only way to do that is to invest, and test it: Take it out of the board room or out of the conference room and put it live. Then, you’re able to understand, how it’s working or how it’s not working, and make decisions based upon real-time data and fan feedback.

10. How do you see it changing in the future, this relationship between marketing the team and the arena?

I think it’ll continue to converge. One of the things that we are seeing is customized content creation and distribution. I think you’re going to see more gameification and fantasy. For example, we’ve got a partnership with FanDuel. I think you’re going to see more and more convergence of activities where fans can feel almost as if they’re participating right along with the players.

But, I still think at the end of the day, one of the great things about sports and entertainment that will always be is that it’s live action. And— you know, the challenge for sports and entertainment marketers is to make sure that the experience fans get can’t be surpassed by being at home or somewhere else.

I think a human element will always be there. And that’s one thing that you can’t forget: We could talk for a long time about the value in people getting away from their second screen and being communal with other people. So, we want to make sure that when you walk into a concert or into a game, you’re feeling that energy. Then, obviously, that energy gets pushed through, whether it be via beacon, whether that be via your mobile device, whether that be something that you and I don’t even know about, whether it be in-seat, you know, ordering for drinks or food. But that ultimately, you are communing with other people physically.

Technology’s not gonna slow down. That’s for sure. But I think it’s just about making sure that you — particularly if you get people to come to arenas or to sporting events or to concerts — that their experience cannot be replicated outside of that. I think that puts even more pressure on experiential events inside arenas and stadiums, et cetera.

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