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Volume 23 No. 24
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Learfield engineering migration to digital in college space

Kansas State University’s ballyhooed sellout streak of 33 straight games was in jeopardy just a few weeks before the 2017 season. The school had increased ticket prices and a soft opener against Central Arkansas left the Wildcats with hundreds of tickets to move.

“Having sold out so many games in a row, we had not done a lot of advertising and marketing on football,” said Scott Garrett, K-State’s chief revenue officer. “But going into the fall, we needed to make a stronger push in August and September.”

The Wildcats budgeted $50,000 in marketing dollars for football, the most since Garrett arrived in Manhattan in 2010. But instead of using the traditional mix of advertising — radio, cable TV, print, outdoor and digital — K-State put almost all of the resources into a marketing plan relying on digital and social.

The first $10,000 spent returned nearly $100,000 in ticket revenue, which could be directly traced to the digital campaign and helped the Wildcats keep their sellout streak going — it stood at 36 games going into last weekend’s home contest against TCU.

Kansas State used digital and social channels to keep its football sellout streak alive.
“We were able to get some early games sold out that we were nervous about,” Garrett said.

The migration to digital marketing has been going on for years, but in recent months Learfield, the collegiate multimedia giant, has sought to accelerate the trend.

In the last three years, as Learfield was acquiring more than a dozen companies to build its college empire, one acquisition that flew under the radar was Mogo Interactive, a California-based digital marketing shop that works with Google and Facebook, among others, to help brands drive their business.

The typical Mogo client was much more likely to be a theater or performing arts center than a sports entity. But the one thing they have in common is the need to broaden their audience and sell tickets.

Marc Jenkins, Learfield’s COO, is the executive charged with integrating newly acquired companies like Mogo into the Learfield ecosystem. The most obvious connection points for Mogo were Sidearm, the website provider, and Paciolan, the ticketing software. Both Sidearm and Paciolan are the dominant players in their space.

The idea was that Mogo’s technology could identify potential ticket buyers that K-State might have been missing, either through their online habits, their location or their past purchases. For example, fans who go to K-State’s official website, managed by Sidearm, could be targeted with advertising that sends them to the ticket-buying page run by Paciolan.

The three companies, all acquired by Learfield since 2014, connect the dots in ways Learfield couldn’t before.

“The way we looked at it, we were putting the pieces together to create a fan engagement platform,” said Jenkins, the former NASCAR executive who joined Learfield in 2014. “The pro teams have all the pieces and a university does not, so what we’ve tried to do with these acquisitions, most of which have been outside the core business of multimedia rights, is plug in the pieces.”

Colorado and Kansas State are among a growing number of athletic departments that are using the full service of digital marketing tactics offered from Mogo, Sidearm Sports and Paciolan. In all, 12 schools have signed on with all three vendors. Many more work with two of the three.

One question that’s come up since Learfield and IMG College signed their merger papers, however, is whether schools outside of the Learfield portfolio will be able to tap into these services. Learfield says yes.

Michigan State, for example, uses CBS Interactive to manage its website and Fox Sports for its multimedia rights, but the Spartans also are working with Paciolan and Mogo.

Schools that work with Paciolan’s chief rival, Ticketmaster, also will be able to access Mogo’s services, which essentially enable the schools to cast a much wider net in their search for ticket buyers and then target them with ads on websites or social media, like Facebook. Once those prospects — more specifically, their devices, whether it’s a phone, laptop or tablet — are identified, they are targeted and retargeted with ticket-buying offers.

It’s a tactic not uncommon in the e-commerce world, but schools say that Mogo’s real-time data return and dashboard tells them immediately what’s working and what’s not. If a banner ad is not resulting in ticket purchases, but ads in the Facebook news feed are driving sales, that real-time data enables schools to adjust.

“We’re three months into it and I feel like we’re a lot more sophisticated in our marketing,” said Matt Biggers, chief marketer at Colorado.

The Buffaloes have spent $30,000 with Mogo advertising for football and have seen a return of 11-to-1, Biggers said.

“It’s past a trend,” Biggers said of the pivot to digital. “This is how we reach and market to people. They’re living on their phone and now we have a lot more control over our ability to reach them.”