The data and insight behind Penrith Panthers' new-look customer loyalty program

Head of marketing and customer loyalty partner share how they used customer insight to develop engagement strategies and a new-look loyalty proposition

The launch of Panthers Group's new-look customer loyalty program isn’t just a reflection of the venue owner’s enhanced investment into communications and engagement; it’s also proven a catalyst in aligning internal teams.

Panthers Group head of marketing, Megan Bowen, told CMO the group’s executive team was aware its loyalty program wasn’t delivering on potential, and that there was an internal skills gap around making the changes necessary to further success.

“What we knew was the majority of executives had inherited the loyalty program, and along with that, the negative impressions some members had aligned with it,” she said. “That was because of past changes made to benefits, which were not received positively by some members. So some would complain, the changes would be reversed, but then those member tiers were not actually spending. So we needed some help.”

Panthers’ loyalty program is about seven years old and based around a point-based currency, ‘Panthers Points’, which can be earned and redeemed across its venues. This includes the main Penrith venue, as well as Bathurst, Port Macquarie, Wallacia, North Richmond and Glenbrook. Membership to the program is $5 per year. The program has 124,000 members and runs separately to the Penrith NRL team, which has its own membership program with 20,000 fans.

Despite having a solid customer base, Panthers had seen churn across certain customer segments. And while there had been a loyalty manager in place, the role had changed and no one had direct responsibility for the program. Negative feedback also meant many employees were reluctant to own the program and led to cultural challenges. 

Backing change with customer insight

The group brought in customer engagement and loyalty consultancy, Ellipsis & Co, to help with the program’s repositioning and relaunch. Managing partner, Tim Tyler, said the first step was conducting research to identify challenges.

“Any changes needed to be numbers driven and based on the way customers behave, which is a lot more important than the small group of customers complaining. The latter aren’t necessarily the ones who deserve the best out of the program,” he said. “So rather than listen to unsolicited complaints, we were systematic about it.

“We had a good slice and dice of behavioural data on how customers had behaved in the program in the last 3-4 years, who was benefitting the most, who was taking advantage and what types of customers were highly engaged.”

Ellipsis then interviewed all stakeholders at Panthers with an emphasis on frontline staff. This was followed by customer research, bringing different groups together based on segments to find out what they wanted from the program and what was and wasn’t working. As the program is tiered, there’s a natural segmentation based on frequency of program participation, attendance and other factors, Tyler said.

“We knew the top two tiers were the ones primarily responsible for revenue. But there were a lot of three-star members that hadn't earned their tier,” Bowen continued. “These customers were the most vocal about changes as well. Ellipsis recommended where we needed to chop and change. It was nice to have that provisional suggestion behind us, as it gave the group more confidence to execute, knowing our approach was very data and research driven.”

The result is the launch of a new-look program on 1 September to coincide with the annual renewals period. Not only are members being rewarded more, there’s a much stronger back-end component and communications support, Bowen said.

Members can now earn Panther Points anywhere in the venues, which can then be redeemed on food and beverage, football game attendance and membership, experiences, gaming and more.

“It’s a loyalty currency that’s very fungible in the venues and used like cash,” Tyler said. “The stronger the commitment and higher up the tiers, the more benefits those customers get from the loyalty program. In addition to that, there are special areas in the clubs for high status members, special member events, free attendance at events, things like free golf rounds, and other privileges.”

In the future, all menus across sites will display both the dollar amount and an equivalent cost in Panthers Points. “We’re putting a very strong value on points so there’s a strong incentive to earn more points,” Bowen said.  

“It’s about rewarding customers for their behaviour, not only based on what they’re doing now, but also moving them through different areas of the venues they might not be as exposed to, the promotions and incentives.”

Overhauling communications

Alongside the program repositioning, Panthers Group has significantly invested into back-end technology system, including the adoption of Salesforce Marketing Cloud. Previously, activities were restricted to what it could do with its legacy IGT Advantage gaming database.

The priority now is to work on building better marketing communications around how and what members can do in the program, as well as based on their respective customer segment. Communications and offers will also be tailored to every venue.

One of the first of these is a formal on-boarding program for new members. Tyler said this is designed to inform members early about the benefits and answer any obvious questions proactively.

“This means new members interested in the program have lower hurdles to get engage because what they need to know is pushed to them proactively and they’re pulled into program,” he said. “There’s also the valuable gift of points when you sign-up.”

Another area of focus has been looking the drop-off points when people churn from the program, such as the gap between sign-up and visitation, and the likelihood of return. Ellipsis is also hoping with engagement and incentives to bring them back into the venue to lift the chances of engagement and longer loyalty.  

“We didn’t have the capacity to pull the data insights, so every one of these was a gold nugget,” Bowen commented. “Finally, we could make changes based upon data. That’s very exciting.”

While churn actually wasn’t that high, what could be seen from the data was that money being directed to segments that weren't loyal to the venues. “If we eliminate a small percentage of that, our membership numbers will grow substantially. We didn’t see any of that,” Bowen said.

Tyler agreed the “average hid the detail”. “Overall loyalty was good, but there was a segment of customers who had quite high churn rates. Investment in these customers early is an opportunity in these kinds of programs,” he said.

The data process itself was relatively straightforward. “It’s just the data sat in multiple places, which is why it was very difficult to routinely pull these insights,” Tyler added. “Our first job was just pulling customer data and putting it into a single analytics place. Having done that, generally with loyalty program it’s all about reliability.

“The customers want to know what the value proposition is and that it will be reliably delivered. Those elements at Panthers was there already - the ability to earn points, redeem them and get your balance. It’s just they weren’t communicated well. The major challenge was communications.”

Off the back of the work, Panthers has appointed a resource dedicated to communications for the group.

“We’re a leisure destination and we’re looking to change the personality of our communications and showcase this through copy, the way we speak to members – and that takes a certain skillset,” Bowen said, adding further investment is likely to be needed in this area long-term.

One of the best things to come out of the exercise is that everyone across the business has bought into the benefits, Bowen said.

“Prior to the program launch, no one had bought into the benefits, as they kept changing with customer complaints,” she added. “It’s given us all the reach to not just include this in the venues, but also Panthers stadium, where you can also earn points by swiping your card, then use points at the next home game. We’re really trying to integrate this everywhere in the venues, plus the stadium, shops and more.

“That had been one of our challenges previously, because we weren’t working as one group.”

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