How new golf course marketing technologies are helping operators build stronger customer relationships and generate revenues.
By Wendy Post. An excerpt from Connect, a supplement to Golf Business Magazine
The years of ‘if you build it, they will come,’ have long passed. Not too long ago, the market for golf courses in North America appeared well-positioned for continuing strong growth. But a glut of new courses constructed in recent years, combined with better, more professional management, has flattened the once-burgeoning golf course market. The result is that it has never been more difficult for golf course operators to attract new and repeat customers.
It would be one thing if the challenge of golf course marketing was simply a matter of promoting one’s course to an eager market. Yet, as many golf course operators point out, more golfers exit the industry each year than enter. Golf, after all, is a demanding game. It requires patience and commitment, not to mention increasing amounts of money to play. And with growing family demands, fewer people are inclined to spend a majority of their weekend on a golf course.
Despite these socio-economic challenges, the good news is that many operators are finding ways to differentiate their services and grow their revenues in an otherwise stagnant market. Some operators are learning that today’s online technologies, such as email and customer relationship management (CRM) tools, afford unprecedented opportunities to build vital relationships with customers. Others are finding that online marketing programs, when employed as part of a larger strategy for delivering a quality customer experience, are powerful instruments for differentiating courses.
The truth is, the market has changed and operators must change with it. To beat the competition and keep up with customer expectations, it is essential to evolve your course marketing strategies.
Getting to Know Your Customers
If the same old tactics no longer work as well as they once did, what are the keys to successful golf course marketing? And what is the role of online technology in a marketing strategy? Mark Burris of Burris, a branded marketing communications company based in Greensboro, N.C., explains that the goal of any traditional or online marketing program is to communicate messages that will appeal to groups of golfers who share common preferences and comprise a target market. Based on his experience, the “more sophisticated operators will target specific messages to specific golfers.”
To deliver such targeted, specific messages, an operator first needs to know who his ideal markets are and how they should be communicated with. “You’re trying to develop the right message, with the right frequency, to an interested audience,” says Jim Koppenhaver, president of Pellucid Corp., a Buffalo Grove, Ill.-based research and marketing firm. “And you can’t do any of that unless you understand who is playing your course and what brings them there.”
The golf industry “does a good job of welcoming [customers] once they walk in the door… but the problem is we do a terrible job of understanding who they are when they’re sitting in their homes and getting them from their house to our door,” Koppenhaver adds.
To understand customers and market effectively to them, more and more golf course operators are using customer relationship management tools to collect information needed to shape targeted messages. Building a qualified database of customers enables golf course operators to avoid the pitfalls of so-called ‘shot-gun marketing’ versus marketing directly to consumers who have already golfed at your course, visited your website, or simply expressed an interest in your product or services. An experienced golf management software provider can help operators by integrating customer relationship management and email systems to create a database with relevant, accurate customer data.
Building the Largest Database
Once a golf course operator understands the target market, the next step is figuring out how to communicate most effectively. Increasingly, operators are opting for email.
“A lot of operators are working to build their own [email] database so they can communicate” with their golfers, explains Burris, whose firm has represented a number of golf courses and resorts. Recognizing the value of a name, golf course operators will “do anything to capture that email address,” from providing discounted tee times to buying an ad in a golf magazine.
Capturing email addresses takes an investment of time and money. An effective email marketing program includes buying addresses, developing messages, and setting up a system for measuring results. It’s a process that Burris says operators often are surprised to find is “not free.” Fortunately, industry vendors, such as ACTIVE Network, offer golf course technology that includes CRM tools within their tee sheet reservations software, helping operators track the preferences of their customers. Using these tools, operators can develop compelling email messages that promote more sales and ultimately a return on investment. Technology vendors also may provide their customers with access to databases of golfers and other sports enthusiasts that are larger and more targeted than the lists operators keep on their customers, promoting greater market reach.
Email campaigns also can be an adjunct to other online marketing strategies. An increasing number of operators are learning that allowing golfers to book tee times on their website will attract new business by offering flexibility and convenience. And an operator looking to bring in more business can provide discounts and other promotions via email blasts targeted to price-conscious customers.
Keeping Costs Down, Driving Revenues Up
Online marketing programs, such as email marketing campaigns, may present challenges but they are proving to be far more cost-effective than traditional media. According to Koppenhaver, “Among our clients… on average we’re seeing about a 7 percent increase in rounds, about a 12 percent increase in revenue, and about an 11 percent [increase] in unique customers.” With those types of numbers, it is perhaps surprising that the industry has been slow to adopt technology, when compared to other industries.
“Quite frankly, I’d be amazed if more than a quarter of the golf courses out there are employing any form of golf course marketing,” says Koppenhaver. “It’s not a great report card, but it does give us a big opportunity to improve.” The irony is that implementing an effective online marketing program simply requires partnering with a reputable vendor who has a track record of using its golf software systems and/or golf course marketing technology to help courses achieve their marketing goals.
Designing the Customer Experience
Shaping the overall customer experience is another opportunity for improvement. With new golfers harder to attract, creating favorable experiences, such as through networking and social events that appeal to specific target markets, can help bring in business.
Mark Schmitz, principal and creative director for ZD Studios, a visual and culture design company based in Madison, Wis., takes the idea of creating a favorable experience one step further in his consultations with course operators. He argues that the most successful golf course marketers make “a dramatic connection with the rounds of golf and the story they are telling” about how their course fits in the “lore of the game.”
Schmitz cites an example of one operator who recreated four holes inspired by famous golf courses. The course then set up video cameras at the four tees to create videotapes, which were provided to golfers after their round. The tactic, Schmitz contends, is a way to form an “emotional connection.”
In less abstract terms, Koppenhaver echoes Schmitz’s contention that successful operators need to market an experience, not just rounds. “The online marketing relationship works like a friendship. In the best of relationships, you don’t just hear from a friend when he wants something from you. You hear from him when he’s got something to say that he thinks you would find interesting and valuable.”
If marketing an emotionally-charged experience is essential to a successful golf course marketing program, why aren’t more operators doing it? Part of the reason might be that some operators have an “old school” approach to marketing. Schmitz also claims most operators are “tragically behind technologically” at creating experiences online that communicate golf’s unique values—such as sportsmanship, honor and respect—and their course’s particular appeal. As a result, they are missing out on opportunities to form relevant relationships with customers.
Schmitz believes that, while communicating news about discounts and other promotions to sell more rounds is important, the best way to form a long-term relationship with a customer is to build on prior experiences while teaching something new. For example, operators could provide golf tips via email from the golf pro to keep the “emotional connection alive.”
The Next Frontier
In some respects, golf course operators can be forgiven for being slow to adopt new golf course marketing approaches, particularly those based on online technologies. Golf, after all, is a sport, played outdoors, in small, solitary groups. It feels worlds away from computers, the Internet, and the cyber-chatter of online communities. Plus, many operators seem to have hidden behind the “traditions” of the game to avoid golf management software and technology as long as possible.
Yet, golf has certain characteristics that align well with social media. It is played by people who share a fervent appreciation for the game and the values it represents. Their interest in sharing a round with fellow golfers may also stem from larger social motivators, such as a desire to network. “Golf is a binding social thing,” says Koppenhaver. “You have a relationship with the people you play with and at the course where you play, and that relationship is different than the relationship you have with [people at] Office Max, for example. So we’re seeing more and more companies out there trying to find ways to amplify the social aspect of golf using online marketing tools.”
In the end, one thing is clear: online golf course marketing is here to stay. Golf course operators today can take advantage of a plethora of new technologies, from online tee times to email tools, to serve their customers and achieve their business goals.