(408) 220-4680

We all know someone who’s an ardent fan of a sports team. They can tell you the history of the team, describe every player, and recount every big play. They stick with the organization through thick and thin, through good seasons and bad. Wouldn’t it be great if your company could inspire that kind of devotion?

It can, says Lee Elias, author of Think Like A Fan: Invest in Your Fans So They Invest in You.

“That loyalty can be recreated with a business,” Lee told me, during a recent interview on my radio show, iLead: The Leadership Connection. “The way you do that is to create a mission — a message or a goal set — that people can relate to.”

Lee’s approach is rooted in sports marketing and management: how can teams build their fan base and fill arena seats? The key is to invite people to become more than spectators — to include them in the conversation. “You need to speak with your audience, not at your audience,” Lee said. “That’s a mistake a lot of advertisers still make today. When companies learn how to really speak with people, whether digitally or in real life, it gets a dramatically different response.”

The first time Lee used this tactic was with the Peterborough Phantoms, an ice hockey team in the United Kingdom. “I wouldn’t say it was a failing organization,” Lee said, “but their attendance was down, the team was not very good.

“I was invited to speak with them, and they asked me, how are we going to bring people into this building? I remember there was a game going on, and I pointed out the window to the fans — only about two to three hundred people — and I said, there’s your answer right there.

“And they said, what do you mean? They can’t stand us right now, we’re so bad.

“I said, if they’re talking about you, even if it’s negative, it means they’re passionate about you. And we just need to turn that passion into a power that’s going to invite people to attend games.”

Over the course of the next six months, Lee helped the team reinvent their brand through social media and other digital platforms. By the end of the season, the venue was at full capacity every night. Incidentally, the team is currently in first place.

Leveraging social media

“People are so diehard into their sports teams that they can do no wrong,” Lee said. “So we started to sprinkle a little bit of that into our marketing and create the idea that these are not your consumers. They’re not even your customers. These are fans of your brand. When you start to talk like that, everything starts to grow dramatically.

“We say to them, please talk to us on social media, feel free to email us, we want to hear back from you. We create things for people to share. We ask them to tag their friends.

“The conversation today online is not from me to you. It’s from you to me to companies, back to me. It’s all over the place. That’s a luxury we’re afforded with in the digital age. I think a lot of companies are afraid of that. Things have dramatically changed in the course of just a decade, and they continue to change all the time.”

Today it might be Facebook and Instagram. Tomorrow it might be something new altogether. The hardest thing right now is keeping up with the trends. “You need to be willing to do away with old methods of communication if they’re not popular or relevant anymore,” Lee said.

“There’s always an audience for what you do, and tapping into that is the first step,” he told me. “That involves going online and finding groups and other places where your audience exists. Once you’ve established that, just be yourself and go out there. Share your thoughts on where your business is going, where your industry is going.”

‘There’s no such thing as good publicity’

Gone are the days when marketing was based on varnishing a company’s image. “We’re living in an era now where we have unlimited access to information,” Lee said. “So if someone wants to find out if you’re telling the truth, it’s very easy to do. There’s always someone who is looking to find a ‘gotcha’ moment.”

“I would say, tell people the truth. If you mess up and it gets out there, explain the situation. Be authentic. Because what I find is that people perceive that as much better than a company that lies and ignores it.”

Not surprisingly, businesses tend to prefer to read good things about themselves online. But Lee claims negative reviews are actually more important than the good ones.

“I’m sure you’ve had the experience of trying a new restaurant and going to the online reviews,” he said. “You’re probably not going to just look at the good reviews. You’re going to go right to the bad reviews.

“If someone writes that the food was horrendous, it’s so important for the restaurant to go online and write, we’re sorry you had a bad experience, please come in and speak with us and let us know how we can do better. People will perceive that the person had a bad time, but at least the company’s trying to do something. If you have bad reviews that you don’t respond to, well, consumers are going to trust other consumers.

“At the end of the day, all publicity is there for you,” Lee said. “It’s all an opportunity. Don’t shrug off your negative reviews — that’s an opportunity for you to connect with your audience.”

Working with millennials

They’ve been called the “entitlement generation” and accused of having short attention spans. While some of that criticism may be accurate, Lee believes, the millennials also show great entrepreneurial spirit. “They’re not afraid to just go for something,” he said.

“I was raised to have a tremendous amount of respect for people ahead of me, and that’s something I’d like to see echoed a little bit more in this generation. But what they’re doing, creating businesses, writing books, whatever they want to do — that’s really changing the game.

“I can understand how for a business owner who’s been around for 30, 40, 50 years, that can be terrifying. It can come across as a threat at first glance.”

But older generations should embrace the group coming up, Lee said. “I think if they work together, if you mix the experience with the energy, a lot of great things can happen.”

How to build a winning culture

“To be a leader doesn’t mean you know more or that you’re better than,” Lee said. “Being a leader means you’re leading other people. And clear, concise communication, two-way communication, not just one way, is important to making that succeed.”

It all comes back to the sports-fan metaphor. “If you’re not speaking with the people you’re leading, why would they follow you? If you don’t inspire your employees to believe in your goals and your mission, how are you going to inspire anybody outside of your organization?”

One of Lee’s personal rules is that he never begins a conversation by talking about business. “It’s, Hey, how are you doing? How are your kids? If they’re having problems, I might not even go into business that day. You can create a situation where people understand that you’re the leader, but still have a relationship with those people.”

Lee’s next book, to be published later this year, is titled WIN: What Every Team Needs to Know to Create a Championship Culture. It will focus on how to build a winning environment in sports teams and within your business.

“There are three things you must have in order to be a championship-caliber team or organization,” Lee told me. “The first two everybody knows — tactics and talent. But a lot of coaches don’t realize there’s a third thing that’s just as important as the other two. And that’s to create a team bond. To create a family atmosphere in which every person in that locker room believes in each other. They have an understanding of how to communicate, they have an identity, they have a foundation, they know what they’re playing for.

“If you don’t establish this, you simply will not win.”