The pandemic has made daily normal life a thing of the past, but the silver lining for brands has been being forced to intimately know their customers and do so by walking directly in their shoes. Additionally, major events have nearly all gone virtual, and everyone is struggling to understand what 1:1 looks like in the new normal, let alone if we will all ever again enjoy the roar of the crowd, or the thrill of live events as we once knew them.
For all these reasons, I wanted to speak to someone with an unbeatable understanding of how to adapt in real-time and do so on a live stage, with the whole world watching. I recently sat down with Atul Khosla, Chief Development and Brand Officer of the Super Bowl LV champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Atul is a former engineer who has combined his love of technology and data, with a passion for sports, to reimagine what fan engagement looks like in our modern times. Following is a recap of our conversation:
Billee Howard: 2020 was a milestone year for everyone, but for you it was extra special in a good way because of the Super Bowl win. Congrats by the way! I’m interested in hearing from you on key things that the team did related to leadership to ensure that the brand was as winning as the team?
Atul Khosla: We signed Tom Brady a year ago, and that changed the entire culture of the organization. Winning the Super Bowl in front of our fans was an incredible experience. The message we had from our ownership amidst the pandemic was very clear – It always has to be first and foremost about the safety of the players, staff and our fans. That is the guiding principle, and with that in mind ,now go and figure out a smart way to open the stadium and give our fans an opportunity to see this epic season.
A decade from now when people look back at COVID, they will remember how we treated them. Our leadership set the tone that this is a family and everyone was clearly treated as such. Our players, our staff and our fans. I would say that was a critical unifying message of loyalty that was sent throughout the organization.
The second important message was really around flexibility. It was about communicating and understanding that the only constant right now is going to be change. We’re going to have to adjust five times a week and then five more times on Sunday before the game kicks off. I would say we had a strong directive for our staff to have the mindset that you have to grind through the change in order to innovate, adapt and grow.
Howard: You mentioned to me that you were rated number one in customer experience and number one in in-game entertainment in the league last year, which is certainly a nice complement to both the Super Bowl victory and everything you just said. Can you share some best practices related to CX that others can keep in mind?
Khosla: We’ve had a dedicated customer service program for many years and have been number one in the league seven out of the last nine years. It’s really been a been a cornerstone of how we approach our work and starts with a mindset that every moment we’re going to have with a fan is an opportunity to make a difference.
It was even more important this past year. People were nervous first coming in. We had to constantly ask ourselves: “How are we going to make sure they have a really good and safe experience?” We over trained and overstaffed. Most importantly, we put ourselves in the shoes of our fans around everything from driving into the stadium, to feeling safe at the concession stands. We did a couple of soft openings where we had our staff and family going through the various experiences and collected real-time insight. We were able to make adjustments because we simulated direct fan feedback. Anything can look good in a PowerPoint, but when you walk the stadium, you see what works and what doesn’t. We also launched an A.I. tool in our app to get some really good insight on the type of questions that were on the minds of our fans. Walking in our fans’ shoes, literally and figuratively, was critical to our understanding the fan journey and what we needed to do, to ultimately be successful.
Howard: You are an engineer by trade and I’m a data geek. A lot of what you just spoke about is certainly related to insights at a very high level. That said, what’s happening now is that data is reaching a crossroads where it must be used in the right way to make people want to opt-in to become a part of richer experiences, like you just described. What are some thoughts that people should keep in mind as they sharpen their acquisition strategies related to data?
Khosla: We are trying to approach this with a hypothesis that data exists everywhere.. The more you’re able to open your thinking on where you can capture it, the more you will find opportunities. So, for example, we went to digital ticketing, which was a change for some of our fans. As a result, what we realized is you have extraordinary visibility into how the ticket gets moved around. If you invite your friend to the game, historically you may have just handed them the ticket, but now you’re forwarding it to them.
I, now as a marketer, have the ability to learn more about this potential new fan that came to the game. They haven’t opted into any of our other communication yet, but, at least I know that this is a person who is interested in going to a game, so we can then start to develop ways to engage with them. I feel like data acquisition is second to fan engagement. We are really taking a look at who is watching our content online and then retargeting them, as opposed to straight away going and asking for their information.
Let’s use content to deepen engagement and then leverage it to capture further insights about our fans. Let’s engage you with merchandise. Let’s engage you with a sweepstakes. All these mechanisms allow us to build a level of comfort and trust with fans and create a better experience for them. .
Howard: Everybody has really had to step away from milestone events and I’m just curious if there was a big game day moment that could be illustrative to people as others are still contemplating what best practices look like around signature events as the pandemic ensues.
Khosla: I don’t know if there was a single thing. I think what I would say is it built up to the Super Bowl, meaning we learned along the journey. At first, we didn’t have any fans in our pre-season games. We actually learned a lot during that time because we sent our staff to the stadium and went through the systems to give feedback on what didn’t work. We really learned as we went along and made the adjustments needed via critical attention to detail and paying extreme attention to crafting a superior CX that accommodated for the environment we were operating in. This is where the walk before you run approach does help. I really can’t stress that enough.
You also must open yourself up to hearing fresh perspectives from others, not just a sample of one. Even if you are convinced you are saying something correctly, I can assure you half your fan base does not think the same way as you do. That iterative and open process is what drove learning for us and what really helped us execute a good Super Bowl. We succeeded because of our ability to change and put ourselves directly in our fans’ shoes. I believe any brand can benefit from that type of thinking.