Enablement, not engagement

In November I was asked to give a talk on Fan Engagement at the Etihad Stadium for the Sports Analytics Europe football conference. I was speaking alongside the Scottish FA and Belgian FA so focused my talk around three things I felt large associations should be doing when it comes to engagement. Here’s a summary of what I shared, along with the slides.

What's engagement anyway?

Speaking on ‘engagement’ was a great topic for me as I have a real gripe with the word. In recent years, I’ve heard engagement used interchangeably across the sports industry to mean a million different things. Often it’s a vague marketing buzzword that litters meetings and briefs and rarely helps anyone to zoom in on specific problems and outcomes. Engagement typically ends up leading people down a path of vanity metrics – seeing likes, follows, RTs and impressions as end-measures of success.

Enablement, not engagement

I encouraged the audience to shift their language towards the word ‘enablement’. When we start to talk about enablement, our focus switches to real world outcomes for real people. We ask healthy questions like ‘how will this help people?’ and ‘what do we want them to do?’. It steers customer experience changes and product development cycles towards real world outcomes and sanity metrics – focusing on how to cause and measure positive real world change for real people.

As an example of measuring the right outcomes, I shared some recent work we’ve undertaken for the RFU, explaining how our UX-focused approach had helped us focus on enabling and measuring real world outcomes that are directly aligned to the KPIs in England Rugby’s core strategy around the Rugby World Cup.

People, not just data

Next up, I shared some thoughts on closing the gap between big data and real people. Big data, much like engagement, is an obsession in sport that in recent years has dominated the narrative around customer insight.

Big data is great, but it’s only half the data that is available when we’re making decisions. Speaking to real people, observing their behaviours and understanding their motivations is a crucial first hand resource that adds colour and light to the insights available from other datasets. I encouraged the audience to recognise the value of combining a big data approach with human observation, explaining that where data shows us the ’what’, observing real people can tell us the ‘why’. By combining big data with ethnography and anthropology, we can start to learn not only from broad data trends and segmentations but from individual fans, ground staff and first line club employees.

Experiences, not technology

Lastly, I challenged the audience to shift their thinking around technology and ensure that their focus was always on the experiences that new technology can enable. Showing a series of drawings from 1900 which predicted how life might look in the year 2000, I highlighted how the artist had made predictions based on every experience we know becoming mechanised; orchestras had been replaced with robots and tailors and barbers were replaced with machines. In the modern day, where the big change is digitisation, not mechanisation, there’s a danger that we fall into a similar trap as the artist – seeing every human experience as one which will eventually be changed wholesale by new technology.


As responsible practitioners in sport, we want to be enabling fans to have better technology experiences, not just more experiences of new technology. Posing the question ‘what experience does it enable?’ is the most helpful question we can ask when assessing the utility of tech. To round off, I shared how through our work with Hilton we have shifted the thinking around hotel wifi from being an IT project, to a guest experience enabler; delivering meaningful utility, not just connectivity.

At the Etihad, the overall theme of ‘fan enablement’ over ‘fan engagement’ really resonated with many of the senior stakeholders in the room. For fan ‘engagement’ to improve, it’s crucial that opinion matures beyond vanity metrics. Associations and leagues must begin to properly identify the real world outcomes they want to enable in their strategies and then apply the tools and techniques needed to build the right products and services that enable those experiences for fans.

You can view my full talk keynote below or click here to view it with notes.