Arsenal wants to speed up its digital innovation

It is easy to think that a Premier League club like Arsenal has figured out everything when it comes to ideas for innovation concerning the fans. But Arsenal themselves were a bit more critical. Using Innovation Lab, the club from London wants to break new ground.

The 6 finalists from the Arsenal Innovation Lab

A year ago, Arsenal Management felt that there were new possibilities yet to be discovered. That was precisely the reason for launching a unique project called Arsenal Innovation Lab. Anyone who thought they had a brilliant idea could report it to this lab. As many as 250 people have registered. They all thought they could make a difference. In addition to diehard Arsenal fans, there were digital start-ups and several foreign companies. Three out of the six finalists ultimately came from the USA, Israel, and France.

After the first selection round, 22 projects remained. All these projects got the opportunity to pitch their ideas. They were judged based on their idea, the feasibility and above all the financial potential of the innovation. The latter received extra attention because ‘football media company’ Arsenal was looking for innovations that could grow their revenue stream. ‘Leading the way, involving fans and making money’, was the credo of the Innovation Lab. The intention was clear: finding new ways to deploy existing solutions. From the 22 projects, only the six with the highest potential were chosen. The chosen ones had ten weeks to further develop their project. The Innovation Lab had all the elements of a real Hackathon. The Hackathon comes from the software industry and is now being used more and more to create innovations under high pressure.

Next big thing

Last week, the final six projects were presented to an Arsenal board and some external guests. I had the pleasure to be there at the invitation of Arsenal. Also, several investors and venture capitalists who were naturally curious about the 'next big thing in sports' were present. Arsenal had left all options open, whether it was teaming up with all six projects or rejecting them all. As such, the tension on stage was quite high during the pitches.

Before we discuss the projects one by one, here is a brief overall analysis of the six projects. If you make it to the last six in a contest of this calibre, your project has something special. What stood out was that the projects didn't showcase any completely new innovations per se, but rather focussed on the applicability of existing technology and the economic return. That, of course, is a lesson of the present time. We have enough technology at our disposal, now the time of profitable utilisation comes.

Fishing where the fish is

The project that stood out most in terms of innovative technology was ‘plug-in e-commerce’ from London start-up I Like That. The technology allows publishers (which can also be a club or an association) to link pictures and videos directly to an e-commerce offer. The moment the consumer clicks on something in the picture, a pop-up of immediately appears with the option to buy the product. Very smart because e-commerce can now come to the user without them having to go to a separate environment. Furthermore, product providers can distribute their products in numerous decentralised locations. It is literally 'fishing where the fish is'. For Arsenal—a club whose pictures are seen worldwide—it is a great opportunity to boost the sales of their merchandise, their shirts and shorts. This plug-in technology is also very suitable for sites that provide information about products. So make sure to keep an eye on it!

Data-centric business

Two out of the six projects focused on data. Not surprising, of course, because we are on the eve of a breakthrough in the field of behavioural data. More than 40 sports organisations and sponsors in the Dutch market are currently investing in this development as well. Both data-teams were working on developments concerning artificial intelligence.

One of the teams was named KonnecTo. This Tel Aviv fully focussed on Nigerian Arsenal fans. The aim was not so much about identifying Arsenal fans but rather to find out their other brand preferences. This would allow Arsenal to contact those brands to finance further activations in the Nigerian market. If this project succeeds, it will be easy for Arsenal to duplicate it to other foreign markets with enough Arsenal fans. The monetisation of fans from far away could be an interesting financial approach. Very interesting and exciting indeed. It is also nice to know that some clubs in the Netherlands are also pursuing a similar strategy.

Amazing engagement, the second data-team, focused on the concept of hyper-personalisation. This is possible through the complete data unification of all data sources. AI technology is mainly used to enrich the data even more and to link more and more influencing factors to the total influx of data. A new dataset would be, for example, a sentiment analysis carried out on a news report about Arsenal. Is Arsenal transfer news received in a positive, negative or neutral way? All this data is then used to hyper-personalise the fans. That should, in turn, lead to higher conversion rates on commercial transactions by fans. The endpoint of this approach is called fan prediction. The thing separating this project from others is the eye for detail. It is also good to note that in recent years, many Dutch sports organisations have invested heavily in this field.

Mobile as a service

Let's go to the next team: WoraPay, a company with a mobile payment solution. It might not sound like anything special, but Worapay is easily deployable in stadiums and at events. Research has shown that 38% of event-goers/stadium visitors want to use mobile payment. That is still a minority, but the numbers are rapidly rising. Since the system is provided by the club or stadium, it is much easier to link it to club loyalty programs. Ordering and pick-up locations can also be built into the app. WoraPay might not be doing something entirely new (payment technology), but everything is designed to serve the fan. This aspect was interesting enough for Arsenal to select the project for the finals. By the way, the investors behind Worapay are Mastercard and Lloyds.

Augmented experience

And of course, there was a team that had an augmented reality project. There were undoubtedly more among the 250 registrations, but the choice fell on Aireal from Dallas. Aireal develops so-called geospatial augmented reality and offers the possibility to give fans new experiences through their mobile phones. Fans can use the AR app to, for example, watch an Emirates plane take off in the stadium. Another option is having a large virtual screen in front of the grandstand playing highlights. A real augmented experience. Fans who have never entered the stadium can also use the app to see themselves with, for example, a club trophy or their favourite player. Everything can be imported into the AR app, be it the weather or some statistics. This is a great opportunity for Arsenal to involve every fan all the more, be it inside or outside of the stadium, and to link it to the club's loyalty program. For now, AR just looks amusing, but with the increasing innovation in the field of AR, serious revenue models could emerge in the long term.

The helping chatbot

The last innovator in this exceptional list of companies is BotNation. BotNation fits in perfectly with Arsenal's vision. It is a company that has found a distinctive commercial application of existing technology (a chatbot). In this case, the chatbot was developed to give the users a better online experience in the webshop.

The interest of Arsenal Management has certainly been piqued by the ambition to increase the conversion rate of customers in the Arsenal webshop from an average of 3.5% to 10%. A tripling of your webshop revenue equals to a lot of money. The chatbot would be used as a sales assistant in the webshop. A good example is that you can put create a personalised shirt with the help of the chatbot. This way, the purchasing process becomes much more fun when compared to filling in all kinds of specifications by themselves. Of course, all data from the conversations with the chatbot are collected in the database. For example, to make product recommendations. It is a system that cuts both ways.

It is neat to see how many possibilities Arsenal has discovered by carrying out this unique process. The Hackathon approach in the form of a contest is a model that could also be picked up by parties in the Dutch market. Arsenal hasn't announced yet who they will choose to work with, but Arsenal's Director of Business Strategy James Murray confided in me that they certainly want to develop a business relationship with three parties. I have a suspicion that I know which three parties these are and that certain things have already been calculated. After all, Arsenal is not just a football club but also a media and entertainment company. Given the investors present, the other finalists should not have to worry either. There are still so many possibilities in the sport. Dutch associations, clubs and sponsors need to follow this. Some of these innovations could be brought to the Dutch market. Arsenal has gracefully kicked off a game that has only just begun.