Participating in a class last weekend with the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (better known as d.school) and the NHL’s San Jose Sharks confirmed once again that content is king. The three-day class, Testing at Scale: The Sports Fan Experience, sought insights into what Sharks fans want.
The 10 of us in the class – including d.school instructor and sports marketing maven Ward Bullard and Sharks marketers Whitney Hallock and Stacy McGranor – fanned out to meet fans in and around SAP Center. Armed with little more than Sharks trivia quiz cards, we engaged hundreds of fans, whose opinions varied widely:
“Of course, ticket prices matter.”
“Not so much. Bottom line is I need to be in the arena.”
“More interactive TV would be great to help me understand the rules of hockey.”
“Nah, I’d rather just have my friend explain it to me.”
“Organized tailgating would be cool!”
“Maybe, as long as I am in my seat when the players skate out of the Shark’s mouth.”
Regardless of the opinions they shared on their cards and in conversation, fan behavior revealed an underlying, near-universal truth about what Sharks fans want: touch-points with Sharks content.
For example, before Friday night’s game against the Colorado Avalanche, some classmates set up shop at a table in the concourse. In less time than it takes to serve a cross-checking penalty, visitors could enter a drawing for a Sharks-logoed drink cooler/barbecue toolkit ($100 value) by filling out a trivia quiz card, complete with contact info and answers to market research questions.
We tried a few different hooks with passersby:
“Would you be willing to take a survey?” incited many departures at slapshot speed.
“Enter to win this Sharks cooler!” slowed some folks long enough to accept a card.
“Test your Sharks trivia skills” earned instant interest, cards grabbed, filled out on the spot, and conversations that could have continued until now.
Groups of Sharks bro’s launched into competition mode, while female fans collaborated with each other on the quiz. Seeing a past player’s name listed as a multiple-choice answer, complete strangers reminisced about whatever memory that name elicited and got people talking about the Sharks’ Cow Palace days.
To speed through-put and increase card completion, we reminded people that this was a random drawing and the accuracy of their answers would not affect their chance to win the prize. Nevertheless they persisted pursuing the right answers, searching online and even using their phone for “lifeline” calls to their friends. Clearly, the chance to talk Sharks hockey mattered more than the $100 prize.
With all cards filled a half hour before puck drop, our class reconvened in our suite. We kept an eye on the game and the rest of our attention on outstanding presentations and conversations with Sharks President Jonathan Becher, VP Sales and Service John Castro, and Douglas Murray, a former Sharks player and co-founder of the Sharks Alumni Foundation. (Pro tip: In a Sharks suite, order the ice cream and churro dessert.)
All left the suite happy after a 4-3 Sharks win, and our class met on Saturday afternoon for a four-hour debrief of Friday’s work and to brainstorm ideas for “Testing at Scale” around Sunday’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks.
We decided to split into two squads. One studied the in-arena behavior and preferences of fans attending their first-ever Sharks game. The other, which blessedly included me, hit the neighborhood bars to assess appetites and attitudes around the out-of-arena pre-game experience. Questions concerned tailgating, interactive TV, where they liked to hang out in and around SAP Center…anything that could enhance their game-day engagement.
My bar was The Brit, where I was supposed to remain stationed through the first period so I could compare answers between patrons who left for the game and those who remained behind. This time, the ticket for admission to personal space was either the trivia card or a set of Sharks stickers and temporary tattoos. Again, the intangible of interacting with content proved more enticing than an actual gift.
Hustling among hundreds of fans to distribute and collect cards while also conversing, I had the sudden sensation of swimming in a sea of teal. But a half hour before puck drop, the crowd thinned out, and I was just about to do the same.
When the game started, four people, none in teal, remained at The Brit. Where I could not hear myself think 15 minutes earlier, now I could practically hear other people thinking. That sudden silence resounded with the reminder that for all the experiences available to a fan, the game is still the thing.
Back in the suite midway through the first period, I met up with Doug Bentz, the Sharks’ VP, Marketing and Digital, and summarized my observations: there is only minor interest in relatively major enhancements the Sharks could offer, but it may be better not to distract fans from consuming content.