You can chase after customers, clients, patients or students like everyone else.
Or you can build fans.
Jesse and Emily Cole spent months chasing customers after buying an independent-league ball club and the keys to a 1920s ballpark in Savannah, Georgia. It didn’t go well.
“We worked tirelessly to connect with the community,” says Cole. “We marketed the team through newspaper and radio ads and posted on social media. No one was interested. The city’s message was unmistakable: no baseball team had ever made it in Savannah before. Why should we be any different?”
Cole says it was a fair question and one they couldn’t answer. “Because we weren’t any different. We were acting like everyone else. We were advertising and marketing and selling by the normal rules.”
They started doing the opposite of normal when the money ran out five months before opening day. Cole and his wife drained their savings, sold their home and slept on air mattresses in a rented duplex.
This is when the team adopted the mission of Fans First, Entertain Always. They let a fan name the team the Savannah Bananas. They switched to general admission tickets that cost $15 and included all-you-can-eat-concessions. Advertising was pulled from the 1920s ballpark. The team went on social media to introduce the Banana Nanas, sports’ first senior citizen dance team and went into a local school to unveil their mascot Split, the Prince of Potassium.
“Attention beats marketing,” says Cole. “We’d finally cracked the code on how to get the city’s attention. Savannah had dismissed all their previous teams for being just like most baseball teams – long, slow and boring. We couldn’t go after Savannah’s hearts until we had their eyes and ears. Eventually, that attention led to ticket sales, which led to our first sellout. And then our second. And then our third.”
And the rest is history. The club now has 50,000 people on a wait list to buy tickets. More than 1,000 ball players reached out to join the team this year. And they’re selling millions of dollars worth of merchandise to fans around the world.
“Every innovation, every new idea, everything we do starts and ends with the fans. First, we ask is it fans first? Then, after we do it, we ask again, was that fans first?”
What works for the Savannah Bananas can work for any business or organization, says Cole.
His tried and true Fans First Way has five Es:
“Eliminating friction is about putting yourself in your fans’ shoes and looking at every possible pain point, every possible frustration, every possible policy that slows things down, heats up tempers and punishes fans,” says Cole. Pay particular attention to microfrictions. Cole and the front office crew take turns being an undercover fan at every game and then report back on what could be improved from the moment fans arrive to when they head home (staff holding umbrellas and walking fans to their cars during downpours is a nice touch).
Entertain always. “Every business is in the entertainment business. If you are not entertaining your customers, you won’t have customers to entertain.” Or heed this advice from Walt Disney. “I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something than educate people and hope they were entertained.”
Experiment constantly. “Everything is about the experience. A lot of companies don’t try new things. They do the same thing over and over again. That creates boredom.”
Engage deeply. “Human connection is everything. It’s not about the number of followers, ticket sales or customers through the doors. It’s about engaging deeply. If you want fans to be there for you when you need them, then your job is to be there for them always.”
Empower action. “If you want to empower action in your team, start by changing the mindset of your organization. Instead of focusing on failure, focus on what you’re trying to do.
The Fans First Way comes with one not-so-small cavaet. If you’re the boss of your business or the leader of your organization, you must be the first and biggest fanatical superfan of your employees and customers. There’s a reason why Cole’s at the ballpark for every game in a yellow tux and putting on a show.
“When you care for your people, they’ll care for your fans, and your fans will take care of your bottom line,” says Cole.
I’ve reviewed more than 600 business books over the past 23 years. Fans First is one of the best. So buy it, read it and then find ways to put fans first and entertain always.
Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books since 1999.