Business challenge

To drive investment and participation in the sport, the Rugby Football Union aims to boost fan engagement on the digital channel. How could the RFU tailor its outreach to fans’ unique preferences?


The RFU uses a centralized customer relationship management platform and analytics-driven digital marketing solutions to personalize its messages based on a 360-degree view of each fan’s preferences.



reach, communicate and engage rugby’s stakeholders across England


personalized, tailored communications to the right audience at the right time


ticket sales for lower-profile matches, enabling re-investment in the sport

Business challenge story

Targeting nationwide growth

The Rugby Football Union aims to make rugby England's strongest sport—and the organization has set a four-year strategy to drive investment in grassroots community rugby and support elite performance of the England teams.

Joanna Manning-Cooper, Director of Digital, Marketing and Communications at the Rugby Football Union, explains: “Customer and stakeholder engagement is a crucial strategic focus for the RFU. Whether it’s selling out Twickenham Stadium for England Rugby events or building support for rugby programs in local communities, we aim to encourage more players, more supporters and more volunteers to get involved in and enjoy the sport.

“We see our customer relationship management [CRM] system as a key enabler of our strategy, and we use our data and marketing capability to reach out to a broad range of different stakeholders across the game—from administrators and participants in local rugby clubs to corporate and hospitality clients who attend match day experiences.”

With so many different audience profiles, the RFU knew that personalizing its outreach was crucial to inspire fans to engage—but in the past, identifying the unique preferences of each of its fans was a difficult task.

“One of the toughest challenges we faced was that information about our customers was distributed across many separate systems,” Manning-Cooper continues. “As a result, we didn’t have a complete picture of each individual based on their interactions with all the different parts of our organization. For example, we couldn’t see if a fan was a regular matchday attendee at Twickenham, a participant of a local club and also a subscriber to our newsletter—information that would help us understand their unique interests and tailor the content of our messages.”

She continues: “Our siloed approach also made it difficult to ensure that we were communicating in a consistent way, and there was always the risk of overwhelming customers by sending multiple updates in the space of a few hours.

“We were confident that enhancing our digital marketing capabilities would help us cultivate stronger fan engagement. We looked for a way to deepen our understanding of the audience, their current engagement with rugby and how best to reach them.”

By continuing our close collaboration with IBM, we’re in an excellent position to strengthen the sport of rugby and bring more people into the game.

Joanna Manning-Cooper, Director of Digital, Marketing and Communications, Rugby Football Union

Transformation story

Personalized content gets fans engaged

To achieve the goal, the RFU created a centralized repository for CRM data based on IBM Db2® databases and IBM InfoSphere® Information Server. The integration platform enables the organization to collate, cleanse and merge fan data from eight separate databases, including information on grassroots participation, website registrations, ticket sales and customer contact registered in the organization’s Microsoft Dynamics CRM platform.

To segment its CRM data and reach out to fans with personalized messages, the RFU deployed an analytics-driven marketing platform based on IBM Campaign, IBM Watson® Campaign Automation and IBM SPSS® Modeler. The solution offers the RFU a 360-degree view of each fan’s individual behaviors and preferences based on their interactions across all its channels.

Tom Lister, Head of Customer Strategy and CRM at the RFU explains: “We had a complex challenge to solve—and one of the biggest benefits of using IBM solutions throughout the stack is the ease of integration. IBM InfoSphere Information Server connects seamlessly with IBM Campaign, which in turn connects seamlessly with IBM Watson Campaign Automation—reducing the need for manual effort in our digital marketing workflows. We continue to work and refine this process.”

After working with the RFU to build the business case for the project, IBM helped the organization transition to the new approach to digital engagement.

Manning-Cooper recalls: “Our previous CEO had worked with IBM in a previous role at The Championships, Wimbledon, and was a key sponsor from the start of the project. It was clear to all of us from the outset that the IBM team understood the demands of high-profile sporting events and environments, and we were impressed with the depth of their insight.

“IBM held deep-dive stakeholder workshops to understand our goals around customer engagement, and set quarterly targets for incremental revenues to help ensure the work was delivering the anticipated value.”

The RFU has created an in-house digital marketing function that empowers every part of the organization to reach out to fans with compelling, consistent messages.

“We feel IBM is widely regarded as a global leader in digital marketing, and our success in deploying targeted campaigns at scale has definitely backed up that reputation,” says Lister. “Our customer insight manager uses IBM SPSS to perform propensity modeling on our CRM data, which helps us to identify the segments of our audience who are most like to respond to a given campaign.

“For example, if we have an upcoming club rugby match, we can identify members of our audience who live within a commutable distance of Twickenham Stadium and have shown an interest in related content on our digital platforms. This means we can target the right customers and not ‘over-sell’ to fans that might not be interested in that event.

“After we’ve passed the data into IBM Campaign to refine the segments, our campaign manager uses IBM Watson Campaign Automation to build, personalize and send a tailored email inviting them to book their seats for the match. While the campaign is running, we feed performance metrics from IBM Watson Campaign Automation, such as open, click-through and conversion rates, back into IBM Campaign for analysis. This creates a virtuous circle that enables us to identify areas for improvement and refine future campaigns.”

Results story

Playing to sold-out crowds

With a single view of each fan’s unique preferences at the heart of its communications strategy, the RFU is achieving its goal of driving engagement with the sport.

“Without a doubt, our single view of the customer has changed our approach to marketing,” comments Manning-Cooper. “In the past, we had to spend significant amounts on paid media and market research agencies—but today, we can deliver the majority of these capabilities to the business ourselves.

“We now understand more about who our fans are, how they transact with us, their roles at grassroots level and the preferences they have for different types of content and offers. This insight allows us to personalize our marketing and reach audiences with the right message at the right time. Better still, our IBM solutions enable us to rapidly execute and track the results of our campaigns, and learn from the results.”

By identifying the optimal audience for each opportunity, the RFU is boosting ticket sales for key events in its sporting calendar—helping to boost revenues and increase its ability to re-invest in developing the sport.

“We were recently briefed by one of our departments to help drive ticket sales for a lower-profile event that doesn’t usually sell out,” explains Lister. “By identifying fans with low, medium and high propensity to purchase a ticket, we developed a tailored campaign for each audience.

“We sent fewer and less frequent updates to fans with lower scores, and more information to those we predicted would be most interested, which enabled us to keep all our fans informed without overloading them with information. The strategy was extremely effective, and we sold over 50,000 tickets, an increase of 50 percent.”

Relevant content is also helping the RFU to achieve substantial increases in revenues for other matches, as well as merchandise and memberships. The organization is now measuring significant increase in email open rates on average, and customers that have interacted with an email campaigns are 43 percent more likely to transact with the RFU—either by buying tickets or merchandise

“The England Rugby Club is a free and paid digital membership program that delivers the best of England Rugby content, offers and partner messaging to fans, while making them feel like they’re part of a bigger community of rugby supporters,” says Lister. “We have an active focus on database growth and a series of nurturing program aims to increase both engagement and commercial conversion.

“We deliver a regular email correspondence, interspersed with tailored offers relevant to each fan, and the reaction from our audience has been extremely positive. We’ve increased membership driven an increase in the number of sold-out matches and boosted merchandise sales through email by 150 percent.”

With deeper insight into fan participation with grassroots rugby, the RFU can offer coordinated support to local clubs across the country.

“Previously, our initiatives to support grassroots rugby were largely ad hoc and depended heavily on support from third parties,” says Lister. “Now, we can engage participants with content tailored to their specific role within the game—whether they’re a player, coach, referee or administrator. This insight helps us enhance our customers’ rugby experiences, and offer better support in managing their local clubs. Driving these activities ourselves delivers valuable savings that we can re-invest in developing the sport.”

Based on the success of its work with IBM, the RFU is already planning ways to enhance its approach to fan engagement.

“We want to stay at the leading edge of digital marketing, and we see that artificial intelligence [AI] technologies could play an important role for the RFU in the coming years,” adds Manning-Cooper. “We are aware of Watson as a strategic focus for IBM and are interested to explore the benefits to rugby—particularly around real-time personalization on our website.”

She concludes: “Our ability to inspire and engage our audience is crucial to the continued success of the RFU and England Rugby—and our IBM solutions are helping us achieve just that. By continuing our close collaboration with IBM, we’re in an excellent position to strengthen the sport of rugby and bring more people into the game.”

RFU logo

Rugby Football Union

Founded in London, England in 1871, and headquartered in Twickenham, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) is the governing body of the English rugby union. Employing 600 people and supporting more than 60,000 volunteers, the RFU has a strategic objective to invest in English rugby clubs, the England national rugby union team and rugby in schools.

Solution components

  • Data Integration & Replication
  • IBM Watson Campaign Automation
  • IBM Watson Content Hub
  • M&E: Customer Sales and Service Transformation
  • Marketing Platforms: Campaign Management
  • WCE Watson Marketing and Commerce
  • Watson Studio & Modeler

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