February 28, 2008, 12:00 AM

The team’s the thing when marketing to hockey fans, NHL.com concludes

Capturing a fan’s favorite team has become a priority for managers of the e-commerce site of the National Hockey League. Fans are 50% more likely to respond when marketing messages focus on their team.

Hockey’s a team game, and that goes for marketing to National Hockey League fans, as well, say NHL.com executives.

They have been on a campaign for the past several months to capture information about more fans, including the fan’s favorite team. “That data point is the most critical thing you can have,” says Perry Cooper, vice president of NHL Direct and database marketing for the National Hockey League. “There’s a natural segmentation of hockey fans. They’re not price-sensitive, but it’s a very emotional buy.” Fans are at least 50% more likely to respond when marketing messages focus on their team, Cooper says. “We have seen lifts as high as 300%,” he adds.

The first thing Cooper did after taking the job with the NHL six months ago was conduct what he calls a “touchpoint audit,” scrutinizing all the interactions with fans to maximize the collection of critical data, such as name, e-mail address and team loyalty. He looked at registration pages on the web site to see if opt-in language could be cut from 50 words to 30. On a drop-down menu asking for favorite team, he made sure “undecided” was the last choice, not the first, to increase the number of fans naming a team.

The league has also been negotiating with companies that sponsor the NHL, such as Canadian bank Scotiabank and automobile manufacturer Dodge, to share information about customers who come to them through NHL-related marketing. Obtaining that information has meant a league commitment to ensure that customer information is used properly, including not being made available to companies that compete with the sponsors.

All these steps have resulted in the league growing its customer database by 40% over a year ago, Cooper says. Soon to come: a kiosk in the league store in its New York headquarters will allow visitors to shop on the web site, providing another opportunity for the league to capture customer information.

NHL.com does not disclose its sales, but Cooper says they are up 35% over last year, and the conversion rate is up 23%. Cooper says most of those increases come from an improved product configurator introduced on the site last summer that makes it easier for customers to add a name and number to a team jersey, and to see what the jersey will look like. Team jerseys account for 40% of the site’s sales.

Another marketing innovation has been using the league’s most recent print catalog to show the web pages fans can use to configure and buy jerseys and to promote the fact that fans can go online and buy a jersey from any team, with any name and number. “We’re designing the catalog such that we’re showing the web pages and exactly what the experience is going to be online,” Cooper says.

More improvements are planned for the web site before the next season starts in October, says Joslin Warren, director of e-commerce. NHL.com will streamline checkout and enhance site search to make it easier for visitors to narrow down their choices. “We’ve noticed even with our most popular item, jerseys, people have a hard time finding what they’re looking for,” Warren says. “We’re putting in parametric search and navigation for next season. Because we have so many jersey styles, customers get overwhelmed and they abandon.”

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