What can marketers learn from a rugby match?

Wimbledon and RFU Client Executive, IBM

So another set of QBE Autumn games has come to an end for England. After a frustrating start with near misses against the best two teams in the world (New Zealand, then South Africa), England managed to finish on a positive note after two wins against Samoa and Australia. Their results score card reads: won two, lost two; points for 103 points against 81.

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As any sports fan will tell you, that is only part of the story. Stuart Lancaster and his coaching team will now be dissecting every game, every play and every player to look at how they can improve as a team, and as individuals. A key component in that deliberation will be data: data from the players (who all wear GPS devices and heart rate monitors), video analysis, training performance data and match statistics analysis. A cornucopia of information to be sifted through to find patterns and insights that will provide an edge as they head into 2015 and the Rugby World Cup.

As Lancaster builds his team to take on the world in September he is also looking to build a connection with fans around the country: to engage them in supporting the team and to inspire them to get involved in the tournament and ultimately help grow the game of rugby. Understanding what your fans and customers are thinking is pretty important, as any chief marketing officer (CMO) will tell you.

To gain insight into this, IBM (official analytics provider to the RFU) carried out some social listening to find out who the fans’ top players were for each match. The idea was simple: use the statistics tracked during the game, social media buzz, pundits’ “man of the match” and post-match fan poll to determine a “most influential player.” The results are in the table below:

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So what does this tell us? Well, first let’s look at how the information was captured. The “most influential player” is a pure analytics view. The IBM TryTracker analytics look at key events in the match and allocate scores to events such as line breaks which carry weightings dependent on the players team position and scrum half. This is the pure numbers view of the match, like reading a quarterly sales report.

The social analysis was carried out during the match window including half time. Using Watson technologies, IBM listened for broad engagement using specific hashtags, player twitter handles and player names. Social sentiment analysis was also used to identify the positive (or negative) tone and then the top three England "social" men of the match were derived and ranked based on volume, rate of content posted and positive sentiment. Think of this as your real-time customer marketing analysis or a view of how the product or brand is being perceived right now.

The pundits’ man of the match was decided by Stuart Barnes, the Sky commentator and ex England player, so a man with great insight into the game—in business terms, your long standing territory sales lead. Due to his long involvement in the game he will see things others may miss, but he makes his decision based on what he sees in front of him not on data (in this case).

Based on all of these inputs a readers poll was then set up asking for the views of Telegraph Sports readers; think of this as your paid focus group for market research—insightful but a longer lead time to generate a response.

All of these tools are used every day by organizations and marketing functions around the UK. So what can we learn from the outcomes?

  • Put your social media analysis in context before making decisions: Look at the New Zealand game where Jonny May was the stand out winner. This came down to a moment of brilliance where he rounded two New Zealand defenders to score early on. However it was David Attwood’s performance in the line out and his awesome tackle count, just days after the birth of his first child, that topped the statistics view and readers poll. Don’t be blinded by noise but see it for what it is.
  • Head (internal analytics) and heart (social chatter) don’t always agree, but consider both: The pundits’ man of the match and statistics man of the match only aligned once in the final game where Ben Morgan scored two tries to help see off Australia. Even then, however, it was George Ford who topped the social conversation due to his consistent work throughout the match to keep the team moving. You will generate lots of buzz for headline grabbing activities but you need those consistent high performers to keep you moving forward in sport and in business, so don’t focus on one at the expense of another.
  • Sometimes your knowledgeable decision makers see things differently—ensure they have all the information to get the most value: In the Samoa match, Chris Robshaw’s tackle count of 22 (out of 131 for the whole team) saw him win the pundit man of the match. George Ford however topped the stats ranking, was second on the social analysis (where Robshaw didn’t get into the top three) and also won 67 percent of the poll vote. Having the view of senior decision makers is important, but if you want to connect with your customers you need to balance that with external data points.

As the opportunities for understanding your customers from listening to social media grows, so does the need for an understanding of how to maximize the value from those new insights. Real-time data can inform decisions and help you get closer to your clients. However you must judiciously blend the use of technology with awareness of both the power and pitfalls of using that data. As with any data in any organization, its power comes from the insights and analysis you apply to it, not in the raw material itself.

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