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Tim Duncan, Sports Illustrated and the Perils of Broad Segmentation

Ryan McNally
by: Ryan McNally (@RyanMcNally39)
21 April 2013

Despite their recent rash of injuries, I’m feeling cautiously optimistic about my beloved San Antonio Spurs as the NBA playoffs approach. The team’s defense has risen to No. 3 in the league, and Tim Duncan is playing at his highest level in years.

In fact, the team’s stellar 58-24 record, second best in the Western conference, has been nearly enough to wash away the memory of last season’s two lowlights: the Spurs’ devastating loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference finals, and the day I received my March 16, 2012 Sports Illustrated (SI) in the mail and saw Jabari Parker staring back at me (below left) rather than Duncan:

Sports Illustrated Covers of Tim Duncan and Jabari Parker

Now, I have nothing against Parker, who seems like a perfectly pleasant young man (aside from signing with Duke rather than my alma mater, Wake Forest). But prior to receiving my issue, I had read on Spurs message boards that Duncan would be fronting  Sports Illustrated’s cover for the first time in five years, so the switch felt as deflating as a Kevin Durant three-pointer. How in the name of Manu Ginobili had this happened?

I was a victim of broad segmentation.

They’d sent the Jabari Parker cover to certain parts of the country, and the Tim Duncan cover to others. Based on my geographical location (Georgia), the magazine assumed I wouldn’t be interested in the Duncan cover.

Big mistake.

Of course, Sports Illustrated (whose customer service department quickly rectified the situation by sending a replacement issue) is far from alone in this regard. Many companies employ various sorts of broad segmentation based on geography, gender, income and other demographics in an effort to deliver more engaging content than a generic mass mailing would. But with consumers having more access than ever to exactly the types of content they want, this type of broad segmentation is in many cases no longer enough.

Fortunately, today’s advances in marketing technology make it easier than ever to deliver highly individualized content. Here are three ways SI might have dug deeper in its content distribution efforts – and how you might apply the lessons to your digital marketing initiatives:

1) Ask about preferences. I’m sure there are many other subscribers out there whose sports team affiliations don’t match their geographies. A simple message directing me to a preference center where I could update my favorite teams and sports could have helped ensure that I received the Duncan cover.

The marketing takeaway: Every person is different. Create a preference center that enables contacts to tell you what they’re interested in, and invite them to visit it in your welcome email. And don’t let those preferences rot on the vine — periodically invite contacts to revisit it during your relationship.

2) Capture targeted behaviors. Not only is Sports Illustrated my go-to source for offline sports reading, but is typically the first website I visit for my daily sports fix. Since I check the Spurs recap and box score for just about every game, SI could have used a little behavioral Web tracking to increase its understanding of my favorite teams.

The marketing takeaway: How your customers and prospects interact with you speaks volumes about their interests. Capture these actions and use them to deliver more relevant content, either by inserting behavior-driven dynamic content in your messages or by routing contacts down certain messaging tracks driven by their actions (or both).

3) Embrace scoring. SI also could have set up scoring rules so that, for example, each time I visited the Spurs page on its site, 10 points were added to my “Spurs” score. Reaching a score of 100, for instance, might then trigger its marketing platform to add me to a special Spurs content track, or prompt a triggered email asking if I’d like to visit a preference center and select “Spurs” as my favorite NBA team.

The marketing takeaway: Scoring is about more than driving leads. As Silverpop’s Bryan Brown outlined in a recent post, it can also be used to power loyalty programs, identify subscribers who are in danger of going inactive, help you run fun “gaming” promotions, and much more.

So, what steps are you taking to connect with customers at a more 1:1 level? Segmentation definitely has its place in the marketing toolbox, but if broad segmentation is as personalized as you get, it may be time to incorporate more individualized, behavior-driven content into your messaging stream.

As for the NBA playoffs, I’ll be pulling hard for a Spurs trip to the Finals. And if Duncan happens to make the cover of Sports Illustrated again, here’s hoping I get luckier this time around.

Related Resources:

1) Blog: “Why You Shouldn’t Do What Apple Does (Just This Once)

2) Video: “The New Preference Center

3) White Paper: “7 Digital Marketing Strategies Made Better Through an Integrated Platform


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