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Pittsburgh Penguins Use E-Mails to Score With Fans

The National Hockey League's Pittsburgh Penguins are using e-mail marketing to build its first database of fans.

Since January, the organization has collected 11,000 fan e-mail addresses at its pittsburghpenguins.com Web site. Each week it garners 600 to 900 new names.

“We started with a base-level e-mail to get some information out to fans,” said Stephen Wayhart, vice president of marketing at eToll Inc., Pittsburgh, the Penguins' interactive marketing ASP.

“Basically you walk before you run in marketing, so e-mail is the first phase of the campaign,” Wayhart said. “The second phase of it would be a survey. The third phase we have talked about is tying it into some award platform.”

For now, the e-mails' call-to-action is to drive hockey fan traffic to the Penguins' site. Relaunched in December, the site offers team news, tickets, newsletters, chat rooms and a store.

“Problem is, we don't know anything about our fans,” Wayhart said. “We're out there with a Web site, it's great, everything. Okay, what do we do now?”

Mike Lee, vice president of properties at Penguins owner Lemieux Group L.P., said.

“I think it's a matter certainly of identifying the people that we have because I don't know if the guy that comes to our site is the season ticket holder,” Lee said. “Because, quite frankly, you have to pay more attention to him or someone that's going to affect your overseas television ratings.”

Besides, targeted e-mails also allow possibilities for fan referrals and therefore more sign-ups, as well as cross-sell opportunities with the Penguins' partners.

“The brand retention is seen in many different ways,” Lee said. “One of the intangibles is broadcast rights. Obviously, the bigger our fan base, the more money you're going to get on our broadcast deals. Currently, we make $9 million a year in local television rights revenue, which is one of the highest in the NHL.”

The hope is that ultimately e-mails will decrease marketing spending. At the same time, the one-to-one communications will aim to strengthen loyalty to the team, convincing fans to buy tickets for games or purchase gear.

Last year, the Penguins organization budgeted $2 million for all advertising and marketing. This covered expenses generated from game handouts, television and radio spots, trade barter and promotions.

This, of course, pales in comparison with the $34 million-plus paid in player salaries each year — more than half the Penguins' operating budget.

Still, Lee wants to “eliminate our advertising budget,” he said. “We want to do completely targeted marketing to our users based on our database and the information we're able to compile.

“So, we're sending them the e-mail for whatever news we have,” he said. “We're sending them a 30-second audio spot instead of just broadcast or radio spots where you buy your time and play the spots.”

EToll's Wayhart agreed with that strategy.

“At the end of the day,” Wayhart said, “it's still 17,148 people they need to put into the seats at the arena. Again, it's 17,148, but it's real money on TV, radio and there's some waste out there. … Really what it comes down to is lowering cost per acquisition and increasing customer retention.”

Neither Lee nor Wayhart would disclose the current acquisition costs.

Lee, however, is categorical that the database of fan names, big or small, is meant only for the Penguins' eyes.

“What we don't want to do is sell them [to third parties],” Lee said. “These names are golden to us. And with eToll we're going to continue to gather information in a fan-friendly basis. We're not trying to beat them over the head to figure out who these guys are.”

Around the start of the next season, in the fall, the Penguins will think of probing e-mail recipients for further information.

“We realize we need more information, so we're being patient,” Lee said. “We're going to use surveys in a tactful manner to get them to volunteer the information for us for whatever value we think we can give them.”

Survey incentives could range from sweepstakes to game jerseys that cannot be found in stores, equipment used in games or even a seat in the broadcaster's booth during a game.

As with marketing for a product or service, e-mails sent on behalf of the Penguins are tied to events. Indeed, sports marketing online and offline has an air of unpredictability, depending on the outcome of the game.

“We have to do what the fan wants,” Lee said. “If we just lost two games and we're sending an e-mail, no one's going to read about it. If we win a big game, we're going to see a lot of e-mails, so it's event-specific because, again, our goal is to continue following the emotional ties to the game.”

The Penquins are currently playing the New Jersey Devils in the National Hockey League playoffs

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