Introducing The Revolution’s Love Doctor

I don’t much like Mark Willis.

It makes no difference to me that his New England Revolution rebranding effort and his recent post about “The Revs in the Age of Mutual Love” are good. Really good. (Though, just in case, perhaps you should go check them out.)

Now, please don’t misunderstand, I’ve not met him or spoken to him and only recently found his work online. And he’s done no obvious wrong to me. But that “Mutual Love” post was, well, an assault on my blogger dignity and identity. So something had to be said.

You see, way back in my first post for 2012, I acknowledged a lingering, unfinished blog entry about what the New England Revolution could be doing differently. That post never really came together, and I ended up taking bits and pieces of it and using them in other posts.

All fine, except the crux of where I was in many ways similar to the excellent “Mutual Love” post by Mr. Willis, rendering me and my meandering thoughts all but obsolete. So no, I don’t much like him and his massive exploitation of my habits of procrastination, even if done in a compelling, thoughtful and clever way.

Yet, as I re-read his interesting article, I found a glimmer of hope. A question, in fact, that Mr. Willis asked, but maybe didn’t fully answer. A poignant, “that’s exactly it” type question.

“Who’s in Charge of Thinking Like a Fan?”

You see, my never-published diatribe was started just after the Revolution announced its “sweeping” (ahem) organizational changes. But I longed for more. Yes, we could argue the validity of who was promoted and to what position, but the time for that has long passed.

What I was found missing was a net-new position. One that would have essentially answered the question – especially as it relates to both fan interaction, and the team’s marketing success (or lack thereof) – “who’s in charge of thinking like a fan?”

I imagined a role that would sound a lot like: VP of Marketing and Fan Engagement. In my mind, this person would lead all marketing, communications and fan engagement efforts, and assume responsibility for the current marketing and communications staff. I see this person as a new hire from outside the organization offering an injection of new blood, new thinking and new enthusiasm. I see this person as living, breathing and promoting the Revolution experience.

This position wasn’t announced, of course, and there are any number of reasons why it won’t be any time soon. Cost might be one. Others could be that the Revolution might be a bit too smart, and loyal, for its own good.

For instance, Brian Bilello is clearly a very smart guy and he may be thinking he can offer hands-on marketing leadership on his own. And maybe he can. But, given the challenges that surround the team on and off the field after what was a dreadful 2011, I’d hope he’d reconsider. There’s much to do elsewhere to right this ship, and he best not spread himself too thin.

So another person would be needed, and some of this new hire’s long task list would be somewhat obvious, things like:

  • Develop a consistent, repeatable and compelling vision for the team that translates “Front Office Speak” into something fans (and the media) can rally behind. Train every staff member on it.
  • Review all advertising, marketing and branding efforts for consistency, passion and relevance in today’s MLS world, and beyond. (Saying that the team is spending money (3rd highest in league?) can no longer be seen as a positive without corresponding results.)
  • Define and initiate co-marketing efforts with team sponsor United Healthcare. This could be both in-kind collaborations or specific net-new investments that drive toward both organizations’ goals, and would go a long way to increasing the Revolution brand credibility.
  • Construct media engagement efforts, potentially finding inventive ways to pivot off of the Patriots’ ridiculous leverage in the local market.
  • Etc., Etc., Etc.

This new person needs to have the desire to quickly become credible to the soccer community. However, I have the unpopular opinion that a long-history in the game is beneficial, but not mandatory. What’s mandatory is the ability to properly market the product of New England Revolution soccer. Yes, having the ability to speak to the soccer cognoscenti would be nice, but comes second to having proven marketing chops. Besides, what those soccer lovers will find credible are marketing efforts that prove their love of the team is being reciprocated, not placated.

Just as important, given the organization currently in place, would be augmenting the marketing skills with an engaging personality. This team needs someone who can credibly empathize, energize and relate to fans. Today, many of the most die-hard Revolution fans today feel talked-at, marketed-at and nearly scoffed-at from the smarter-than-thou team management. And having met much of the team leadership at one point or another, I’m not at all convinced that the Front Office actually feels this way or intends to send this message. But it is often the message that is accidentaly delivered.

Media too needs this empathy and enthusiasm. Most local media struggle to differentiate a free kick from a penalty kick, and might hide under a desk if they needed to describe the passive-offside rule or MLS roster restrictions while live on camera. This person needs to be a trusted advocate and advisor to these potential media allies.

This personality requirement is a hard qualification to quantify. It doesn’t necessarily show up on a resume. Like has been said about pornography, this is a quality that in the “I know it when I see it” genre. There’s a fairly fine line between being an engaging, inspiring and empathetic marketing leader and coming off as an overly-slick salesperson. But it’s a line that the team best not cross.

But skilled, yet aloof marketers – no matter how smart – are not what this team needs right now.

The team also doesn’t need a timid personality, because for this role to be successful, glass would need to be broken, assumptions challenged and a certain free reign promised, in order to try new ideas. Not all of which will be stunning successes. That creative leeway will be important, because this new person would also quickly become the VP of Tough Love.

What types of tough love?

First, he/she should insist on media/presentation training for Mike Burns, Brian Bilello and Jay Heaps, and be the one true voice of the front office until comfortable that the others are ready. Those three team leaders offer very different skills, but are all critical to getting an improved team image out to market.

Mike Burns may have the perfect qualifications for his role and have one of the best soccer brains in MLS. (Hey, it’s possible.) But his media and fan interactions have not portrayed him as a sympathetic figure and have not delivered a sense of his competence nor a consistently cogent view of where the team is headed. If success doesn’t come quick and his reputation is not shored up, he will continue to be an easy target for frustrated fans.

Brian Bilello does better with fans, but needs to realize that business as usual won’t work in terms of cryptic sharing and the inability to answer questions about the team’s style, goals and direction. Sure, player commentary needs to be closely guarded, but it’s time for some risk taking there as well. At the risk of giving too much away, the team needs to share as much information as they can to better show its level of activity (scouting) and some insight into the rationale for decisions that seem odd for us mere mortals (Perovic?, etc.) to comprehend.

An increased amount of Twitter correspondence has been a better start in 2012 for Bilello (though it has notably slowed after a strong start), but old habits die hard. For example, waiting weeks to mention that José Moreno’s contract wasn’t effective until March 1st, after fans had almost completely turned against the player, continues a streak of under-sharing with this key audience.

Jay Heaps is a bit of a media mystery at this point. He speaks well, is a fan favorite and people seem to genuinely hope for his success. That said, he’s also vastly inexperienced and in the honeymoon period of his appointment. The team should leverage him now, but ensure he’s prepared for communications when things aren’t so easy.

More tough love needs to be delivered to ownership.

This marketing leader needs to also tell his boss (presumptively Bilello) that the Krafts need to be seen as educated, active and visible owners – now. (Hopefully they are all of those things, but either way, appearances matter.) They need to be able to field questions about the team, its strategy and the choices that are being made. The conversation needs to be deeper than “we are planning for a Soccer Specific Stadium.”  One way to start, is to be visible at games in the stadium that the team does have. It’s not that hard really.

Frankly, the fact that the immensely successful Kraft family has been turned into anything but an asset for a New England team either speaks to their absolute disinterest or a dismal marketing failure. And personally, despite the relative lack of engagement and failings, I still struggle to believe they simply don’t care.

Is the team ready for someone to come in and tell management and ownership that they are part of the “product” and need to shape up? I would hope so.

And while not tough-love, there is some love to show the fans.

Better (extreme?) engagement on social media? The appearance of over-sharing (even if carefully orchestrated behind the scenes) about team plans? Worth a shot.

Why not involve the most vocal fans in “crowdsourcing” new promotional ideas. The best way to get the negativity out of the fan-base is to engage them in the marketing turnaround. Make them part of the solution. It’s hard to go on social media and half-wittedly slam something you are working to help create.

Heck, why not involve them in picking the new social media hashtag to replace #Revs? A contest anyone? (Sorry dear readers, that #Revs allusion could not be avoided…)

I could see this new VP pouring beers alongside the players at the newly announced Pub Tour, or drinking a pint with the fans – while jotting down their ideas. In fact, couldn’t there be a place for this person in The Fort? If it’s mutual love that’s needed, there are ways or providing it.

Yes, there’s work to be done and some ideas will be better than others.  But the team should get a person, leverage the new energy, give them some autonomy and power to say what needs to be said and promote this product.  Sure, new stadiums and new Designated Players could help.  But this product is marketable as-is.

So I guess I don’t need to detest this Mark Willis character after all. He may have “stolen” (yes, I am delusional) my completely stagnant, dust-laden, and largely under-developed idea in his extremely clever and thoughtful article, but he left me a crumb to dine on. And so I did.

Question: “Who’s in Charge of Thinking Like a Fan?”

Answer: The new VP of Market and Fan Engagement that the team should go find.

And in his discussion of Mutual Love that the fans so desperately deserve, he could also have wondered who would deliver the tough love the team so obviously needs.

The answer would be the same.

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