The Funnel Sports Executives Need to Guide Their Acquisition Strategy

Acquisition Funnel


Sep 01, 2020


The Acquisition Funnel

Marketing teams are tasked with not only growing a team’s fanbase but growing customer lifetime value – keeping fans coming back. As a result, their efforts need to be divided between acquiring more fans and retaining the ones they already have. The bowtie model is a uniquely positioned marketing funnel that combines both these elements and can help marketers tag where fans are in their customer journeys. Organizations utilizing an acquisition funnel without a retention funnel find themselves in an endless spiral of searching for new fans, coaxing them through the sales funnel, only to be forgotten and have them churn. Incorporating key aspects of what is referred to as the bowtie funnel provides organizations with an increased opportunity to optimize for both growth and retention. 

In this two part series, we layout the bowtie funnel for acquisition and retention optimization. The front-end of the bowtie funnel appears to be a typical sales and marketing funnel where sports organizations make those important first interactions in order to acquire new fans and grow their fan universe. The back-end of the funnel, which we’ll dive into in part 2, is where organizations realize retention optimization resulting in increased customer lifetime value and engagement.

Here is what you need to know about each of the key stages of the front-end, or acquisition side, of the bowtie funnel.



This is the most broad and widely executed stage but is still relevant for all teams because its goal is to fill the front of the funnel. Awareness building still requires a basic understanding of your fans but segmentation and messaging can be more general and many times the data is still anonymized. Here, people are learning about who you are as a brand and what you offer. For sports organizations, general advertising about the upcoming season or playoffs can be considered in the awareness stage as can attendance at community events.

These days, every organization does at least some digital advertising to build awareness, with many organizations spending more on digital than traditional channels. Digital ad platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Google allow you to segment based on a multitude of demographic, interest, and behavioral characteristics that allow you to be more targeted. As such, one way we recommend to optimize digital spend is to use the fans you already know about (ones you know something about) and then build look-a-like audiences from there.

To quantify awareness building efforts, tracking views and click-throughs will identify what’s working and what isn’t. As friction points are identified, adjustments should be made to effectiveness.

Common friction points and solutions:

  • High viewership of an ad with a low click through rate indicates a misalignment between the audience and call to action. To correct this, reconsider the call to action or the audience you’re targeting.
  • High click-through rates but low conversion indicates a disconnect between the offer and the audience. Consider the steps or information you are asking someone to complete. Less is more in these initial interactions.


Grow their INTEREST

Once awareness is built and people begin to interact with your organization, it’s important to grow their level of interest by learning more about them. At this stage, our goal is to identify who these individuals are, so we can better understand how they’re interacting with us. Deanonymization becomes your desired outcome.

As you move people into this stage of the funnel, learning who they are on a one-to-one basis is important. Sharing content that encourages this discovery is imperative. Not everyone is ready to purchase tickets at this stage, so other opportunities to learn who they are, is likely more successful. Now interested, these individuals are more likely to sign up for newsletters, peruse the ticket page (but won’t always click on the buy tickets buttons yet), download a mobile app, follow your social accounts, etc. which provides countless opportunities to learn who they are. Lead generation campaigns are great ways to encourage people to share their information with you.

As you learn who these individuals are, it’s important to take the information they give you to start to provide them with more personalized and relevant content (we like to call this, data for good). For example, if John Smith signs up for a newsletter and always clicks on the link for on sale merchandise, he might be price conscious and it would be worthwhile to test targeting discount-related ads to him.

Every piece of content – from email newsletters to organic posts to paid social – should show the value of the experience you are putting in front of these specific audiences. Then, as marketers and digital strategists, it’s important to learn from those behaviours. What’s getting the most engagement? What behavior patterns are you starting to see? Where are people dropping off? The more you learn and the faster you pivot based on those learnings will allow you to uncover even more about different segments of fans and personalize at scale.


Some questions to ask as you learn more about the individuals you’re nurturing:

  •  Are they reading the emails and newsletters they are receiving?Was the call-to-action in my newsletter or in my digital ads effective?
  • Does my website landing page provide the information they are looking for?
  •  Where do they go after my landing page? What pages do they return to?
  •  What does their action on my website tell me about their intent to buy?
  • What stage of the purchase journey are they in based on behaviors?

The more sophisticated and technically resourced teams (whether internal resources or 3rd party partners like StellarAlgo) are using technology to further understand which platforms and messages resonate best for each audience. It’s all in the attempt to better personalize at scale, and understanding who your fans are. The better you can be at stitching fan data points together and resolving identities across both offline and online data sources, the better you can interpret where a fan is in their journey and what’s important to them.


Make it easy to CONVERT

Now that awareness is built and interest has grown, these individuals are now prospective fans. They’re now at the stage where they’re ready to convert (i.e. buy a ticket), and it’s up to teams to make it easy for them to do so. Those who spend time on the ticket page on your website and who tend to click links for more information or pricing are showing a high level of interest. Make it easy for them to follow through with a purchase.

Informative content and clear calls-to-action lead the prospective fan through the purchase journey. Distractions such as other ads or too many action options can prevent individuals from following through on the purchase. Identifying the path to purchase and being mindful of the steps involved in the purchase is important in creating an environment that leads to maximizing conversion and revenue. Abandoned carts or repeated visits to the ticket page without a purchase can indicate where there may be friction or confusion in the buyer’s journey.

Identifying patterns in purchase behavior shows where messaging should be adjusted. If your fans are regularly going to your online store and not making a purchase, evaluate the content and messaging on the previous page they interacted with. We recommend that landing pages be tailored to the segment you are marketing to with messaging that has resonated with similar known segments of existing fans before.


Key areas to evaluate for conversion:

  • Hand-raiser identification for rising engagement and deep-funnel engagement
  • Site-personalization to optimize individual fan engagement and conversion rates
  • Customer experience friction point identification and smoothing


Keep the ENGAGEMENT growing

Your new fan has identified themselves and made their purchase. The next step is to make sure they will experience the value they expect from that purchase. For fans new to your venue this can mean sharing some key information prior the game (automation triggers for new buyers works great here). Some messaging that is good to consider includes encouraging fans to show up 30min before the game in order to catch the pre-game show, information on where they can find parking and if there is public transportation near the venue, how to get to their seats or which gate to enter through, any special promotions in the venue that day, etc. Pregame emails can help set the expectation and let the new fan know that they matter to your organization.

Building engagement doesn’t stop after the last whistle. Post-game emails are also a great option for maintaining or increasing engagement (we talk more about the importance of those post-game emails here). Highlights from the game they attended can remind them of the excitement of being in-venue. Surveys included in post-game outreach may provide answers as to their experience at the event and likelihood to purchase again.


Most sales and marketing funnels would end here at the point where the purchase and experience had been fulfilled, regardless of the fact that a single purchase is not the end goal for any organization. Organizations that see consistent new growth are very proficient at  the front-end of the bowtie funnel, but sports and entertainment organizations in particular want loyal, lifetime fans. According to most models, only 5% to 30% of revenue comes from the initial sale, while 70% to 95% of the lifetime value comes after the point of the sale which means that we’re only halfway there. Building the kind of engagement that creates long-term fans requires that the initial excitement is further nurtured through retention efforts – for both individual game buyers and package accounts alike. We dive into the back-end of the bowtie funnel in our next blog post as we lay out the stages of retention optimization.


More fans.

Better Engagement.

Stellar Results.

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