It was the biggest basketball game of the year - the Drake Women's Basketball team was poised to clinch the MVC regular season title over in-state rival Northern Iowa on a cold February Friday night at the Knapp Center in Des Moines. A program-record 6,456 fans were crammed into the raucous arena for the heavyweight tilt. Our team went all out to pack the place - and it worked. The city of Des Moines came out. And so did close to a thousand students, in large part thanks to the promise of free pizza for the first 200 of them.
Back then, I worked in the ticket office full-time and then once the games started, I picked up the microphone and served as the on-court emcee to hype up the crowd. I was an entertainer - getting people off their feet during the "YMCA", having fun with contestants during on-court promotions, shooting t-shirts into the rafters with a slingshot, you get the idea. Well, with this game being so busy, I was strapped for time getting from the ticket office down to the court for the first media timeout when our first on-court promotion was scheduled. Really no big deal, because I've done so many that I could honestly do it in my sleep. But, I missed the chance to check in with our marketing team on how our pregame promotions went - specifically with the student pizza giveaway. What happened next nearly led to my figurative dismissal from the campus.
It was a simple activation - two cheerleaders join me at center court with a fresh pizza from our pizza sponsor and I engage the fans in a "Loudest Fan Contest". I go section to section and get the crowd into it, usually looking for a group of kids wearing Drake gear. It's the point of the promotion, right? Get the crowd into it, spoil some kids with some pizza to hopefully create some life-time customer value. Well, as I'm going through the motions, the roof is about to blow. The fans are into it. I narrow it down between the student section and an area packed with kids. As time is running out, I have in the back of my head that the students had access to free pizza as part of the pre-game promotion so to me, I knew I was going with the group of kids on the other side of the arena - a no-brainer. And that's exactly what I did, but never in a million years did I anticipate the insanity that ensued. Boo's from the student section reigned on high as I walked off the court and the buzzer to resume play sounded. What was just a venue filled with cheers for the home team had turned on a dime.
With a confused look on my face, I walked over to my colleague and casually remarked "what are they so upset about? 200 of them got pizza right before this!". She looked at me with a worried smile and said "well, the pizzas aren't here yet". My jaw hit the floor. Students, who had been enticed to attend with a promise of free pizza, had not received the value they were promoted. I felt like I had snagged candy from a baby. Here we are in the biggest game of the year and I've turned the home student section against me. And this all could have been prevented if I had checked in on the promotion before going out there.
As the game went on, the dust settled and the Bulldogs took control of the game. The students were in it, but each time I made my way onto the court for another on-court promotion, I was met with some (deserved) jeers. Then, during the last media timeout, I found my moment of absolution. 20 fresh pies arrived after our team furiously worked with our pizza provider throughout the game. As I walked towards the student-section following the conclusion of our last in-game activation, I jokingly reminded them about not giving them the ONE pizza back in the first quarter. Some started to boo, others rolled their eyes. I took a pause and said "well...", as they stared at me with perplexed interest. "I've got TWENTY fresh pizzas for you to thank you for your support and attendance tonight. Who wants one!?". The place erupted. Our team was up and on their way to their first outright conference title in more than 15 years and the crowd was into it. And selfishly, I was "saved". I've never been so thankful for pizza in my life.
So why share this story? Here's the takeaway - follow up on your promotions and don't assume you hit the mark with your consumers right after you launch. Effective marketing is a process and requires us to fine-tune things throughout. Lucky for me, I was saved by the bell and a fast delivery driver. While your promotion might not consist of 20 large cheese pizzas and an entire student section booing at you, ensuring that your campaign is reaching your consumers the way you intended will save you a big headache later. And always make time to check-in with your team, no matter how busy you are. Make the time and it'll save you from potentially shooting yourself in the foot later on. That's what teammates are for - to support each other!