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News Plus 16 May 2022 - 5 min read

AFL tech chief’s mission to build blueprint for centralised-decentralised club martech model; $5m shared stack powering clubs; Brisbane Lions setting footy CX benchmark

By Paul McIntyre & Brendan Coyne

Rob Pickering: "A rising tide floats all boats. We're not putting this tool in and walking away. As we continue to invest and build new capability for one club, that capability goes across seven clubs – and others in the future."

AFL tech chief Rob Pickering is building a blueprint for shared martech and resource, creating a hub and spoke model across the code and seven clubs – so far – in a bid to drive engagement and personalised customer experience across a million members. He says $5m-plus investment is more efficient than clubs going it alone, and it's starting to deliver, with clubs feeding back to power phase two.

What you need to know:

  • The AFL has built a marketing automation stack from scratch – and rolled it out to seven clubs as a shared service model, going from vendor selection to live in six months to make the start of the season.
  • The centralised-decentralised model is powering CX and personalisation to more than a million club members, alongside integration into ticketing and events, and driving comms for the AFL's schools and communities development team.
  • Part way through the season, the $5million-plus set up is already driving efficiencies, according to GM for Technology/CTO Rob Pickering, and shared martech services presents better value than the clubs all investing in their own stack.
  • The next stage is to deliver personalised CX for members on game day, so the experience begins "before they leave the house".
  • Western Bulldogs, Brisbane Lions, Gold Coast Suns, GWS Giants, Port Adelaide, Geelong and St Kilda are all in. Pickering aims to make the stack and its results "so compelling the other clubs want to adopt it".
  • The AFL now has two full time martech leads overseeing development – with more to come. "We are not putting in this tool and walking away." – Rob Pickering.

We are not putting in this tool and walking away. So as we continue to invest and improve the platform, and build new capability for one club, that capability goes across seven clubs – and others in the future ... to bring members closer to the game.

Rob Pickering, GM of Technology, AFL

Rebuild on the run

Growing up in Aubrey, Rob Pickering came late to AFL. But his wife is a “mad Carlton fan,” he admitted. “So just by nature of not having conflict in the house, I have Carlton as a team”.  Now he’s bidding to drive better engagement with all AFL fans, powering personalised CX via centralised marketing automation via Salesforce and Mulesoft, a stack built from scratch over the last year, with specialist capability brought in-house.

So far, seven clubs have joined the “first release” of the shared services model – Western Bulldogs, Brisbane Lions, Gold Coast Suns, GWS Giants, Port Adelaide, Geelong and St Kilda.

Speaking from the sidelines of the Salesforce World Tour, Pickering told Mi3 more clubs were interested in joining the first phase, but an aggressive rollout schedule – vendor selection in April to go live in November – was “pretty quick for one organisation”, let alone seven clubs and the game’s governing body.

“We knew what those clubs had [in their CRM and martech stacks] and how they were set up,” whereas other clubs had built out different systems and capabilities over the years. “So we didn’t want to take that on in the first tranche,” said Pickering. “We had some pretty aggressive timeframes, because we have a membership year. That meant if we didn’t go live in November, we wouldn’t go live until probably the following November. So we had to carve that down.”

Some of the clubs “have made tremendous investments in CRM and marketing capability in their own right” over the last five-to-seven years, said Pickering.

“They saw the need to do what we are now doing and had the financial means to do so,” he added. “They may choose to stay with that investment. I hold a view that over time we will get more clubs than we have today, but ultimately that is a matter for the clubs themselves. It's my job to make that offering so compelling that they want to adopt into it.”

What it’s delivering

The rollout kicked off with the AFL’s development team, which delivers programmes into schools and communities, “from under fives to Masters”, in a bid to drive “timely comms into those communities and build out a better way of managing all of the concurrent programmes we had underway,” said Pickering. “More timely communications is the big one. How do people know what’s going on at a time that’s suited to them in a form they’re looking forward to?”

The second iteration was a new CRM and marketing automation tool that enables targeted messaging, plus an events module and integration with Ticketmaster.

Pickering said the aim was always to “keep it simple … minimum product, but not minimum viable product,” so that clubs and the AFL would quickly “see the benefits and so we can continue to invest in that platform”.

In the six months since launch, “we've really been investing in building out that platform further – new use cases, more capability, more functionality to deliver more timely marketing communications out to our fans and our members so they can better engage with the game”. 

The initial investment is “well north of $5m”, said Pickering, with ongoing annual costs of “under a million dollars”.

I hold a view that over time we will get more clubs than we have today, but ultimately that is a matter for the clubs themselves. It's my job to make that offering so compelling that they want to adopt into it.

Rob Pickering, GM for Technology, AFL

Kicking personalisation goals, Lions roar

With the season still in play, Pickering is reluctant to overstate early results. “It’s hard to attribute … I see positive early signals that members are liking the [personalised] communication and that this is cutting through in a way that it probably hasn’t before,” he said.

“But that doesn't mean that it wouldn't have otherwise, because the whole world is very different than it was two years ago. Everyone is hungry to get back to football.

“So I don't want to ascribe what is a good tool and good green shoots to the technology when it's a whole variety of reasons. But we are hearing strong anecdotal feedback that the communication quality is strong under this mutual [approach],” added Pickering.

“People are still getting to grips with some tools, but where it's in full use, it is significantly more operationally efficient than it was before.”

Pickering cites Brisbane Lions as one of the standouts in building out capability.

“They are doing all of their member marketing communications based out of Marketing Cloud and are having great success.

“They’ve got deeply personalised emails [that include tailored information] that previously required a whole lot of manual work … Some of the other clubs were also doing that kind of work, but it might take weeks instead of hours to manually cut together multiple different data sources, de-duplicate them and then send them out. So there are some really strong operational efficiencies at clubs.”

Clubs feeding the martech hub

The seven clubs are now helping to drive development of the AFL’s shared services model, according to Pickering.

“We’re able to give them the tools and technologies to help them do that in the way that they want to. Ultimately they will help us by saying ‘hey, we think this is a better way of doing it.’ It is not just a one-way feedback loop. We wanted to build a ‘communities best practice’ where clubs can share what works best for their members – because we are not really competing with each other,” said Pickering. “If you’re a Crows member, you’re unlikely to be a Carlton member giving away some sort of IP. It’s not like Coles and Woolworths.”

If we know that you have a ticket to the game, telling you that it’s quicker to go in via gate four because gate five is congested. Or maybe there’s a train outage, or a crash on the link road, so to plan around it. So that game day experience starts as you leave the house, not just when you get to the ground.

Rob Pickering, GM for Technology, AFL

Where it wants to go

Pickering sees the centralised approach ultimately delivering a couple of million personalised messages a week, with capability for media to be integrated by clubs that wish to take that approach.

But he said there are “no numbers” he’s being judged by. The overarching goal is to forge deeper bonds with fans throughout the year, and make “the experience” better for fans across the season – and ultimately on game day, in real-time.

“If we know that you have a ticket to the game, telling you that it’s quicker to go in via gate four because gate five is congested. Or maybe there’s a train outage, or a crash on the link road, so to plan around it. So that game day experience starts as you leave the house, not just when you get to the ground. With these tools … we are able to communicate with you in a really timely fashion, without a whole load of manual data exports, importing to another tool, creating an email and sending it out”, said Pickering.

“We're not quite there yet, that's what we're aiming for. But we've now got the tools that enable us to do that.”

Ahead of the NRL?

Asked how the AFL’s marketing automation capability compares with codes such as the NRL, Pickering admitted he is “not very close” to the NRL’s broader work.

“But what I would say is that I don't know the NRL is taking the approach that we have around building a shared service and capability to provide some of these technology services to clubs in a way that enables them to set up in the most efficient way,” said Pickering.

“If you think about that logically, seven clubs going to source their own CRM, build their own capability, trying to integrate all this data and provide their own support capability, their own development capability. That's not very efficient compared to offering that service centrally.

“So we're doing something that many other leagues are not. I see it as an advantage … if clubs had to do it themselves, they wouldn't be able to do so at the same level.”

Not walking away

Some of the seven clubs involved with the centralised approach are now “investing over and above [the shared services] and bringing in capabilities specifically to help themselves”, said Pickering.

“That is great, we want to see more of that and we think those investments have commensurate payback. Other clubs have said they are prepared to rely on the AFL, and we have built with that model in place,” he added.

“Our view is that a rising tide floats all boats. We are not putting in this tool and walking away. So as we continue to invest and improve the platform, and build new capability for one club, that capability goes across seven clubs – and others in the future ... to bring members closer to the game.”

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