golf loyalty and the customer experience
Customer Experience

Golf Loyalty has Holes

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But it doesn’t have to remain in the bunker.

All across America, vast deserts are forming. Where there was once life, passion, excitement, now there is simply emptiness. These are forgotten, lonely places, but they are not the consequence of some post-apocalyptic cataclysm or insidious natural disaster. The sands that cover their expanse are finely raked and manicured, and instead of wild grasses scattered by the winds, emerald green lawns cost posh clubhouses hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

There’s no question about it – the golf industry simply isn’t what it used to be. And if there was any industry which could benefit from a stern application of the fundamental principles driving great loyalty, it would be golf. The current state of loyalty strategy in the world of sports is dynamic, with a multiplicity of practitioners leaping to take advantage of raw emotions and deeply entrenched values to build their brands. The Toronto Raptors, scoring their first NBA title earlier this summer, had successfully managed to maintain a steady legion of loyal fans throughout years of winless anticipation. With the right approach, golf vendors, brands, even the concept of the game itself could experience a significant resurgence – but not without a deep understanding of the factors precipitating its decline.

Flashback to 2005: at the height of Tiger Woods’ popularity, a booming US economy, and in the last throes of an era pre-dating the constant immersion of digital technologies as we know them today, golf fandom soared. There were 30 million golfers hitting the links seasonally, and the industry contributed to a total economic impact of $76 billion. The story that’s now been unfolding for the past few years is a very different one, with an ending that remains uncertain, leaving vendors scrambling for solutions. Countless golf courses are shuttering their doors – nearly 1,000 in the past ten years – as consumers are seeking other forms of leisure to while away the hours. Golf is expensive, and with so many cheaper forms of entertainment available, doling out big bucks for a round of 18 is becoming less and less attractive. Further, golf proficiency requires years of dedicated practice, and today’s cultural orientation towards instant gratification means that the long-term commitment to a frustratingly difficult hobby just doesn’t jive.

golf loyalty
The golf industry could benefit from a stern application of the principles driving great loyalty.

Has the epitaph for this storied industry truly been set in stone? Or could the deployment of salient loyalty strategies restore golf’s once celebrated legacy? Sometimes the world just has a way of moving on. But perhaps the allure of whacking a small white ball around a field for hours upon endless hours might have more contemporary relevance than some pundits may believe.

Here are a few ways the focus on loyalty principles could get the game back on track:

Streamline The Experience

Any loyalty marketer worth his salt understands that today’s consumers are on a fast track to quick value and digestible entertainment. For a game that has historically required hours of commitment to enjoy, permanent deviation from a format that has been historically resistant to change might be inevitable. In fact, many vendors have already seen successes with strategies to make the game easier and faster for customers:

  • The United States Golf Association (USGA) has embarked on a campaign called PLAY9, positioning the benefits of a quick 9-hole round to time-crunched golfers.
  • To ease the perennially daunting challenge of getting that tiny white ball into a tiny white cup, many golf courses have experimented with simply making the holes larger.
  • There has been a surge of golf-related activities that compete with playing a full regulation-length round; franchises such as TopGolf offer fun, social experiences, modernized with exciting gameplay, year-round facility access, and a multitude of food options.

There’s no question that these solutions are not your grandfather’s round of golf, but in order for golf to survive, modernizing the fundamental format of the game may be a much needed first step into uncharted waters.

Also Read: Gen Z is Taking Retailers Back to School

Make It Digital

This is a no brainer: there’s simply no excuse not to create immersive digital worlds to enhance the experience for modern golf participants. And yet, there has been much resistance in the golf world to facilitating valuable mobile interactions. Golf is a game stymied with deep traditions, and this has been a large culprit in golf’s downfall. In fact, it was only two years ago that the PGA Tour finally amended a longstanding rule to allow cell phone use such as photo and video taking during tournament rounds.

An important factor is that digital appeal has significant bearing on the future of millennials in the sport. Millennials have contributed to the largest plummet in golf participation; decline in the number of players between the ages of 18-34 has reached 30% over the past 20 years. Golf no longer has the luxury of occupying a disconnected reality, and vendors must seek opportunities to enhance the customer experience with digital technologies.

Diversify The Business

When Nike Golf Shop opened at famed Canadian golf course Angus Glen, it was deemed a first-of-its kind initiative; a premium retail outlet featuring not only golf equipment and accessories, but the latest in fashion and clothing to appeal to a wide diversity of customers. “One of our strategic goals is to create a separation in the golf market and be the most innovative and premium brand at the retail level,” said Tyler Keenan, director of marketing at Nike Golf. “We want to inspire the consumer through product innovation, assortments and a premium destination to shop our entire product line.”

The result was a fruitful realization of a symbiotic relationship between a golf course and an enamoured brand; amidst a turbulent time for golf in the GTA, Angus Glen has managed to stay afloat. The property activates other tangential products to fully diversify its offerings, including weddings, first-class dining, and corporate events, ensuring that customers will continue to have reasons to engage.  

Tie It Together With Valuable, Personalized Experiences

The strategy that cinched Nike Golf Shop’s success was through an omni-channel marketing activation that not only bridged digital platforms with physical spaces, but offered personalized customer experiences and added value at every step. While every loyalty marketer understands the need to ingrain these principles and enact solutions tailored to their brands and audiences, the practice is easier said than done. And the holy grail of marketing remains a personalized omni-channel approach with a strong foundation in data.

Nike Golf Shop’s strategy began with targeted Instagram ads that fed off customer location and internet browsing behaviours. Local customers in the Toronto area expressing interest in golf would see an Instagram invitation to play a free round at Angus Glen for themselves and a friend; all they needed to do was register on an RSVP waiting list with their email address. They would receive an email notification with details on their tee time, and ongoing marketing collateral from Nike in the form of eBlasted deals and offers.

Customers, upon arriving to Angus Glen for their round, would be greeted by Nike staff and directed to a personalized locker room experience, complete with a locker embossed with their name, free towels and hats, and various Nike samples to try during the round and the option to buy upon event conclusion – including shoes tailor-fit to their exact foot size. Every customer had 30 minutes of driving range time with a golf coach on-hand to assist with swing tips and playing feedback; every customer had food and beverages delivered to them throughout the day. Upon conclusion of the round, customers were directed back into the Nike Golf Shop store with an additional $25-off merchandise voucher. Naturally, most customers purchased items; more importantly, the entire event was deeply ingrained into their minds, building deep equity and positive associations for Nike and Angus Glen.

It is these kinds of unique experiences that draw people back into brand universes and create unforgettable touchpoints. What wins is marketing that leverages the best of what digital can offer; marketing that provides a reason for people to engage and enjoy themselves on-premise; and of course, marketing that actually offers value for customers, instead of bombarding them with redundant messages amidst an increasingly cluttered landscape.

If golf is to survive, it must understand the true needs of a rapidly changing customer landscape…and respond swiftly, before it’s too late.

Lanndon Lindsay covers loyalty strategy for The Wise Marketer.

Golf Loyalty has Holes
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