I’ve been a big fan of fantasy football for a number of years. Towards the end of this recently completed season, I was trying to make the fantasy playoffs in one of my leagues and needed a win to boost my chances. One of my players was the tight end for the Denver Broncos, whom I had high hopes for, as he had been playing well of late and was one of the best receivers on the team. Unfortunately, in that Week 12 game my player only scored 2 points. I lost the game, putting my season and playoff aspirations in jeopardy.
What happened? Why do I bring this up? Right before that Week 12 game was played, the Denver Broncos found themselves without a quarterback. Both the starting quarterback, Drew Lock, and the team’s two backup quarterbacks were all ruled ineligible to play due to possible COVID-19 exposure. As a result, a receiver from the Broncos’ practice squad, who only a few weeks prior had been working in sales, had to play perhaps the most difficult position in all of sports, against one of the best defenses in football, with less than 24 hours of preparation. Sound fun?
Needless to say, it’s been a strange year for sports, and perhaps an even stranger year for sports fans. There’s been canceled seasons and postponed games, empty and near-empty stadiums, seasons being played in quarantine “bubbles,” and a relative absence of the normally important home-field advantage. We’ve seen some of our favorite players have to go into quarantine, and watched as other players have even chosen to sit out an entire season just to stay safe.
For everyone involved in sports, this past year has clearly not been a normal one. There have been the numerous logistical challenges involved in keeping massively popular sports leagues operating during a global pandemic, and this has required some serious adjustments from both the leagues and the players themselves. But through it all, one thing hasn’t changed: sports fans’ passion for the games and the teams they have grown to love.
There’s something about sports that brings people together—the shared goals, the common focus, the joy and genuine love for the team. The loyalty to a particular franchise is not something that’s easily broken, which is why you’re far more likely to see a player switch teams than a sports fan. In large part, it’s this loyalty that creates an enduring sense of community among fans, allowing individuals from across the country and all over the world to share in a history of experiences together, forged from the triumphs and failures of their favorite teams.
This concept of developing a community of sports fans also serves as a great model for loyalty programs. Community loyalty programs are about earning rewards and “winning,” certainly, but the good ones also find a way to cultivate the community aspect among their participants. This is because these types of program tend to evoke stronger emotional brand connections than those whose primary focus is on financial incentives.
Fostering connections in community loyalty programs can be achieved in various ways. One example can be pulled from the group travel arena, in which a mobile app may not only provide shared knowledge and updates about what’s going on with a program, but also enable participants who download the app to engage with others and with the brand itself.
Another avenue for building community is gamification. Leaderboards and other “score-keeping” tactics bring in elements of fun competition and a sports mentality that have been shown to drive engagement in programs. Also, enhancing gamification strategies with centralized and open-ended communications platforms like forums and chats can provide additional opportunities for social- as well as business-related dialogues. By maintaining this level of dialogue among participants, we can also keep participants engaging with a community loyalty program.
Lastly, program rules’ structures can also be designed to promote loyalty and positive community behavior. For example, if a company operates across numerous national branches, you can structure a program with activities and rules that lead to interaction among these branches. In one such program we’ve run, branch managers and employees were encouraged—and in some cases incentivized—to post the current promotions they were running at their respective branches. These participants also took pictures of their shelves with the company’s products on them and uploaded these images to the central rewards platform for all to see. In addition to providing opportunities for participants to earn extra rewards, these sharing activities also helped to engender greater loyalty to the company brand and produced mindshare that endured far beyond the length of the program.
Despite everything that’s happened over the past year, those of us who love sports, who are fans of the game, continue to follow and support our teams. Maybe our team isn’t “real,” and our “sport” technically is more fantasy than reality. And maybe our team has to play without its best player, or maybe the home game has to be played in a bubble a thousand miles away from home. But still the loyalty remains, and so we’ll continue to watch the games and text our friends about them, to follow our teams along with the millions of others around the globe, because that’s what being a sports fan is really all about: enjoying a collective experience and engaging with a community of like-minded, like-hearted individuals.
Of course, there probably won’t be jerseys, stadiums, or cheering fans for a given loyalty program or the organization behind it. But by focusing on developing a sense of community among those who participate in it, we can infuse the program with a shared purpose based on social interactions, common goals, and, if we’re lucky, a sense of loyalty that’s reminiscent of a true sports fan.