Speech as a Fan Favorite

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As the team with the worst record in the National Basketball Association (NBA) this season, the Memphis Grizzlies have been having difficulty getting fans to come out to support the team. Ticket sales for home games at the new $250 million, 18,100-seat FedEx Forum have been down this year, the team's sixth season in Memphis. The team turned to voice technology to help put bodies in the seats, and the effort paid off in a big way.

The team, which had a record of 12-37 at press time, has been attracting fewer than 16,000 people per game this season, far fewer than in the last three seasons when the team was a playoff contender.

With most other marketing efforts exhausted, the team turned to Vontoo, a permission-based outbound marketing provider based in Indianapolis, to deliver a prerecorded voice message featuring a player inviting fans to the game. The call contained the voice of rookie sensation and 20-year-old guard Rudy Gay, the team's top pick in the 2006 NBA draft and the league's Rookie of the Month for November. The call went out on Monday, Nov. 13, to 6,000 people— taken from an internal database of fans who had previously bought tickets.

In the message, Gay invited fans to the home game on Friday, Nov. 17. The team was offering free Rudy Gay jerseys for the first 3,000 fans through the gate and a special "Two for $22" ticket price to coincide with Gay's jersey number, 22.

"The game had good give-aways, but it wasn't selling as well as we would have liked," admits Dennis O'Connor, the Grizzlies' vice president of ticket sales and services.

Because of that one call, an extra 1,500 fans attended the game, yielding an additional $33,000 in ticket sales. It cost the team $650 (based on Vontoo's on-demand pricing model of 10 cents a minute for the calls) to make and deliver the recording. Gay recorded the message in a matter of minutes through a link on Vontoo's Web site and the team then uploaded a list of names and numbers to call and a desired call delivery time.

"We were very pleased with Vontoo and the results they delivered. For a couple hundred bucks, that's a great return," O'Connor says.

The calls started going out at 10 a.m. and all 6,000 prospects were called by the early afternoon. "There's no way our sales people could have gotten to them all that fast," O'Connor says. "And it's a lot easier to sell tickets when you're getting a message from a player than from a marketing director. How often do you get a personal message from an NBA player?"

The Vontoo service provides an option at the end of the call for customers to opt out of future promotional calls from the team, and there was a very low optout percentage, O'Connor says. Additionally, there was a high call completion rate—meaning that the message was delivered to either a person or an answering machine, and most people who got the calls listened all the way through. "People listened to the message and liked what Rudy had to say. Some of our fans have complained that they didn't get a call from Rudy.

"Using a player's voice was the key," he adds. "The message boards lit up with fans telling us how much they loved getting a phone call from Rudy. It was a real boost to the fans. There was even a bonus: some fans were so thrilled to get a call from an NBA player that they forwarded the Rudy Gay message to their friends."

Based on the success of that campaign, the Grizzlies went back to Vontoo in late December after they fired head coach Mike Fratello, who started the season with a 6-24 record. The team named Tony Barone Sr. as its interim head coach on Dec. 28, and within days Barone was in the office recording a message for Vontoo to reassure season ticket holders and thank them for their past support of the team. In his message, which was delivered to 2,000 fans, Barone spoke of his excitement at being named coach and expressed his desire to turn things around for the struggling sports franchise.

"There was no sales message tied to it. We just wanted to re-energize our season ticket holders and show that the Grizzlies value them," O'Connor says. "We wanted to get the message out to the fans in a way that would show Tony's enthusiasm."

Though it's hard to say that the Barone message had anything to do with it, O'Connor says the team started to turn things around right afterward. "We actually had a good winning stretch, and game attendance improved right after the holidays," he states.

The Vontoo service could allow the Grizzlies to conclude the messages with a way for customers to instantly buy tickets—either by transferring the call to a ticket agent or to TicketMaster, but the team did not use that option in its previous two messages. That is likely to change for future calls.

The team plans to use Vontoo for additional promotions, probably to run after the NBA All-Star Game in mid-February.

"We're always looking for new and creative ways to sell tickets," O'Connor says. "For the first couple of years in Memphis, the building was brand new, and that drew people. Now we're past the honeymoon phase and we need to be more creative."

Officials at Vontoo have been equally pleased with the results of their campaign with the Grizzlies. "Based on the success of this campaign, you don't need to be a marketing genius to see that it's something that the Grizzlies should be doing," says John Wechsler, president and chief operating officer of Vontoo. "It's certainly working for them. The fans love the messages."

Wechsler says that several other sports franchises, in the NBA and other major sports leagues, have since contacted the company to help them with similar promotions. For him, it makes perfect sense.

This kind of outbound marketing "is more personal than an email or piece of direct mail. Using a player's voice, you can really pick up on his enthusiasm. And fans love to receive messages from someone they admire," he says.

Vontoo counts among its current customers everything from small church groups to large, big-box retailers. Of them all, sports teams might have the easiest time getting to people with a direct marketing message.

"A sports team doesn't have to fish for customers. They can work off their season or group ticket sales lists," Wechsler says.

That also helps teams get around current restrictions on the use of prerecorded marketing messages over the phone. Among the government regulations with which direct marketers have to contend is the four-year-old "Do Not Call" list that limits outbound marketing to a pool of customers who either have not yet signed up for the list or who have an existing business relationship with the company.

In the case of the Grizzlies, call targets "are people who have previously made ticket purchases with us, so they are current customers," O'Connor says.

And it's more direct. If they've previously attended games, they're already fans.

"Not everyone has access to email, and people don't read junk mail, but everyone today has a phone. Because of the ubiquity of cell phones, this can be really special," Wechsler says.


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