Are you a marketer, but don’t follow sports? Too bad, because understanding fandom can inform almost all of our work. This understanding isn’t derived from analytics, however, which are certainly vital and indispensable. Instead, I’m referring to the constantly changing, often raw and multifaceted narratives of sports that can hold even casual fans in their grip for a time. While developing a fan base may be inherently different than building a customer base, there are nonetheless lessons that can benefit marketers.

  • Your brand is a stew. Sports fans forgive, tolerate and forget, and there’s strength in that. They do this because they’ve already been given something, a curious brand stew containing fallibility, vulnerability, accountability, respectability, and so on. Sure, our favorite teams and players regularly move between these “states of being” – we’re disappointed as often as we’re delighted – but that’s all part of the balance that makes us fans. What’s in your brand’s stew? Is it really all about how you’re “first, best or only” and hollow monikers such as leading this or innovative that?
  • Consistency is great, but game scripts change. The best coaches start each game with a plan. Fans know this, but they also expect that adjustments will be made as the game changes. In fact they anticipate and often welcome it. Adversity is a strong narrative element, and even some disappointment is healthy from time to time, at least from a fan’s perspective. The trick play didn’t work, the relief pitcher was ineffective or we shouldn’t have taken that timeout. Once those mistakes occur, however, fans will inevitably put them back into the overall narrative – they are woven back into the whole cloth. Are you trying too hard to conceal what may actually be valuable to your true fans?
  • We are all people. Fans are fickle, but forgiving. That’s because we also see ourselves in athletes and teams, mistakes and all. The most beloved athletes (not necessarily the most well-paid or accomplished) show many facets. They struggle, persevere, give back, say funny things, ask for donations and share their softer sides. They are people, just like us, albeit with a special skillset we’ll never have. Do the fans of your brand like your people in the same way? What are you doing, if anything, to build up “real” affinity?

If you don’t follow sports as a true fan of a team or teams, you’ve likely read the bullets above and are finding it hard to see anything but risks. Spotlighting disappointment, acknowledging mistakes and embracing the “less polished” sides of your people can’t be a smart strategy. But it can be, especially if you acknowledge that brands no longer “control” the narratives surrounding them – fans do that. And while they may undress your hero from time to time and be critical of parts of your brand’s journey, having the freedom to criticize and cajole only makes them love you more. They don’t really know where you end and they begin – that’s what being a fan is all about.

So what can you take away from this? Look at the stories you tell across owned, earned and paid media. How authentic are your stories? Would they encourage a customer/prospect to treat you as a true fan would – as an extension of themselves? Are you reflecting them or spinning well-positioned fiction?

As you think through your content calendar for 2016 (you should already be doing this), ask yourself these questions: do all my story topics sound the same, is everything too good to be true (and messaged) and do these stories make my people seem as wooden as Pinocchio? If the answers are yes, yes and yes, think like a fan instead. Tailor your content to them and who they really want you (or their team) to be – because without them you have no story anyway.

Scott Bauman is Greenough’s Executive Vice President. Follow him on twitter: @sbauman