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6 Things the NFL's Focus on 'Fan Engagement' Can Teach Small Business Every fall, football is seemingly everywhere, right? See any similarity to the ubiquity of Starbucks cafes?

By John Rampton Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


If you're like 65 percent of Americans, you're a fan of pro football. Which means you already have your fantasy team drafted and your jersey ready for when your team takes the field this season.

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How has the National Football League managed to make football America's favorite sport? One major reason is the League's ability to keep fans engaged -- a strength businesses should pay attention to. In fact, businesses can strengthen their own "fan engagement" by taking the following six lessons from the NFL playbook.

1. The product is accessible.

No matter where you live in the world, as long as you have Internet access, you can spend every Sunday watching your favorite NFL team. That is something the League has worked on for decades. As far back as 1939, the first televised NFL game broadcast featured the Philadelphia Eagles vs. the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field. That was just the beginning of the NFL making its product super-accessible to fans.

Over the years, the NFL has made the product even more accessible by putting players' names on jerseys, playing games on Monday nights (when people are home), building larger stadiums to accommodate demand, launching its own network and giving fans additional content, like the legendary NFL Films series.

Businesses like Starbucks understand this accessibility focus. You can now find a Starbucks on every street corner -- not literally, of course, but it seems that way. Further, you can find a Starbucks in commercial locations like Target or take home your favorite Starbucks ready-made-drinks.

2. Fans are invited to be a part of the team.

If you're a Seattle Seahawks fan, you already know you're part of the team as the "12th man." The 12s are what the Seahawks call their fans, and it's become such a huge part of the team's identity that the number was actually retired in 1984; today, a number 12 flag is raised before every home game. The result? The Seahawks' stadium is one of the loudest in the world and has even literally made the earth shake.

Just like NFL fans, your customers want to feel like they're part of the team. Let their voices be heard by asking for and sharing reviews and embracing user-generated content. For example, every month, eyeglasses manufacturer Warby Parker shares its favorite photos of customers wearing its glasses on its official Instagram account.

Related: Grow Your Brand by Creating an Alter Ego

3. The brand embraces social media.

The NFL is known for its strong social media presence. In fact, every team in the league has a Facebook, Twitter and Instagram account to provide fans with up-to-date news and engage them by highlighting specific fans, giving them a chance to win prizes like team memorabilia. Teams like the New York Jets and New Orleans Saints have even used Snapchat to reveal their schedules and create stories for the upcoming season. The Eagles have used Snapchat to unveil new products and show locker footage.

Not only does the NFL embrace social media, it's not afraid to experiment with the latest trends.

Brands know they have to leverage social media but that media still has to give customers something they care about -- whether it's information or entertainment. Burberry is a clothing line best known for its trench coats. So it makes sense that the company would launch the #BurberryWeather campaign. The campaign shares images of various cities, providing the current weather for each one.

4. The game works to stay fresh.

The NFL frequently updates the game to keep it interesting and appealing. Back in 1912, for example, touchdowns went from four points to six points. In 1965, the NFL and AFL merged to add more excitement to the game and grow its fanbase; the Super Bowl was launched two years later. Other innovations have included the introduction of Wild Card teams, modifications to overtime rules and the frenzy free agency creates every March when the new season begins.

Apple is one more example of a brand that keeps updating its products. Every year it releases a new operating system with new features to enhance the user experience. That's why you have to keep purchasing a new iPhone every other year. Recently, the brand embraced the popularity of streaming music by unleashing Apple Radio.

5. Fan experience is constantly improved.

Whether you stay home or go to your local stadium, the NFL is always looking for ways to improve your fan experience. If you go to a game, giant screens give you a better glimpse of the on-field action. Apps tell you how long restroom lines are. Stadiums such as Denver's Sports Authority Field, New England's Gillette Stadium and San Francisco's Levi's Stadium provide WiFi access so fans can update their social media accounts or check out their fantasy teams.

For fans at home, the NFL offers NFL Red Zone, showing all the scoring plays of every game currently in play. It's every fantasy owner's dream come true.

Businesses, too, need to keep their customers' needs front and center. That can entail the use of social media to address customer-service questions, analytics, a mobile-friendly website that loads quickly, or the availability of value through content. Whole Foods is a brand that uses these tools effectively. Its website contains recipes, instructional videos and dedicated pages for specific stores so you can discover information specific to your area's store.

6. Partnerships are key.

To expand its brand, the NFL has struck up several lucrative partnerships throughout the years. EA Sports, video game developer for Madden NFL, has an exclusive deal with the League to bring football excitement to video game players. The NFL also has partnership deals with DirecTV, Twitter, Google and Verizon to make it easier for fans to follow the latest news and watch their favorite teams while on the go.

The League doesn't rely just on corporate partnerships. Its socially based partnerships give back to the community. And so it's teamed with the EPA, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association and the Joyful Heart Foundation to better the lives of its fans.

Partnerships are a great way to open up new markets and create a positive brand image. Uber's partnering with Spotify allows passengers to create and listen to their own playlists during their Uber ride. Pampers and UNICEF have had a successful partnership, where Pampers donations to UNICEF help pay for tetanus shots in the developing world.

On any given Sunday

Sorry to any Jacksonville Jaguars fans out there, but do any of us expect the team to make it to the Super Bowl this year? Probably not. But, consider this: Did anyone expect the Jets to defeat the Colts in Super Bowl III or the Giants to end the Patriots' perfect season at Super Bowl XLII?

It's not just the major upsets either. It's about witnessing a one-handed catch, a stunning overtime victory or a player breaking a record. No matter what the projections or expectations, anything can happen in the course of a season. That is why fans keep coming back week after week, season after season.

Businesses can similarly surprise and delight their customers. MasterCard has surprised a customer with an intimate Justin Timberlake concert. Zappos has ordered a pizza for a hungry customer: Whether businesses do something thoughtful, reward loyal customers with a simple thanks or give away free products, they -- like the NFL -- need to keep fans at the edge of delight and deliver something unexpected.

Related: Effective Marketing Appeals to Emotions Instead of Reason

John Rampton

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® VIP

Entrepreneur and Connector

John Rampton is an entrepreneur, investor and startup enthusiast. He is the founder of the calendar productivity tool Calendar.

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