Have you ever tried to promote an event but got to the day and you didn’t get anywhere near the number of people you were hoping for?

I have – and it feels terrible.

Equally, when you get it right and you get loads of people to an event, it’s a great feeling and energises you for the next one.

But how do you get more people to your events? The answer is marketing.

In this guide, we’re going to have a look at what marketing is and explore some of the main concepts that will allow you to start marketing your club and its events better. I’ll also share a couple of stories – one of a horrendous failure and another of a resounding success – both of which I achieved without even realising why one had succeeded and the other failed. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about marketing, especially in community rugby club contexts and write guides to help rugby clubs like yours grow their business.

What you’ll learn:

  • What is marketing – not a dictionary or an overly technical definition but a practical definition that helps you to naturally understand what marketing is and why it’s important
  • Why you need marketing and what can happen if you don’t market
  • Why marketing doesn’t have to be complicated & why all marketing is not created equal
    Some small first steps you can take in marketing


What is marketing?

One of the first questions we have to answer is what marketing actually is. If you ask ten different people, you might get ten different answers – advertising, sales, promotion, PR (public relations), social media, website etc. All of these are parts of marketing, but they don’t really explain what marketing is. We’re also not really interested in a dictionary definition – we want a definition that can help us to quickly understand what marketing is and why it’s important to us as rugby club people.

Marketing is the plan that you use to get people to find out about you and then eventually like and trust you enough to buy from you.

Within that is several separate steps:

  1. Get people to find out about you
  2. Get people to like and trust you
  3. These people buy from you


Most people see marketing as the first point only – getting people to find out about you. But that leaves out a hugely important part of getting them to actually become customers. I can think of a ton of businesses that I’m aware of, but that I don’t purchase from. That’s not to say that having a good reputation isn’t important, just that marketing is about generating business. For a rugby club, this might be new players paying membership, or supporters buying tickets or buying drinks at the bar – all important revenue drivers for a community club. Marketing is the plan we use to take people through these steps.

To give an analogy, marketing is like our tactical game plan on the pitch. In a game plan, we have a clear overarching goal – to win the game by scoring more points than the opposition – but there are multiple ways that we can achieve this. For example, a team could focus more heavily on its backs to score points out wide, or it could focus on its forwards and score points through the middle – just like a business could spend more time on social media than email. Let’s say we focused on our backline – we might win some games with some super slick backs moves, but if we’re not getting good quality ball then our chances of winning regularly start to decline.

Marketing is therefore about generating consistent results over a longer period and therefore needs several elements. You can definitely achieve some success with just a single marketing tactic (and I would add that a single marketing tactic done well is better than zero marketing tactics!) but it’s much harder to generate long-term success. It can also suffer from diminishing returns – just like in a game of rugby, if we only have one way to attack then we become easy to defend. An example would be marketing only through Facebook and not having a website. It’s great but after a while, you’ve found everyone on Facebook who’s interested in your club. But when someone types “rugby in your town” into Google, then your club doesn’t show up high in the results because you have no website.

Before we get into some examples, I want to point out that not all marketing is created equal. Some forms of marketing will generate better results than others. I’ve got two stories below from when I first started out in marketing rugby club activities that highlight this discrepancy. So I also want you to think of marketing as a way to achieve a goal – these will generally be your business goals. For example, let’s say you’re trying to build a 2nd or 3rd team. You’ll need around 15-20 players (possibly a bit less to get started, but let’s go with it). Your marketing goal will therefore be to attract 15-20 players to your club. Once you’ve got a goal in mind, you can start to plan!


Why do I even need marketing?

A number of years ago, I was trying to organise more “community” style events for my local rugby club at which I was volunteering. There were two main parts to this – one was to raise additional income through hosting things like rugby camps for kids in school holidays and then the intention was to use the funds raised to pay people to do rugby outreach, so things like going into local schools for taster sessions.

One of the ideas we had was a touch rugby tournament over the summer – the idea was you could sign up as a team (aimed at companies) or as an individual and we’d put people into teams to play. The intention was that it would be over a number of weeks and there was a cost attached to it – think it was about £10-20 per player for the 8 weeks.

At the time, armed with little to no marketing knowledge, I did what I thought I was supposed to do – I put it up on the website, I put it on social media and then waited for the players to roll in. I held a meeting with a few volunteers who were going to help out with refereeing. The first night came along, everything was in place, all the equipment ready. The start time came and I had one person show up. Another turned up five minutes late. No one else showed.

At the time, I remember being disappointed, but I also kind of felt like it was “just the way it is” and that it just meant that people didn’t really want to play touch over the summer. Can you imagine coming to that conclusion? As though rugby players wouldn’t want to play a bit of touch over the summer, maybe have a few beers afterwards. In truth, there was some ego protection in there – my mind told me it was just the way it was to protect me from the idea that I could have done better. For what it’s worth, we’ve since created several touch rugby initiatives – we have two regular club nights for touch rugby (one week we had around fifty players over the two nights) and ran a touch tournament over multiple weekends during lockdown, so the idea that people don’t want to play touch rugby in a social setting has hopefully been clearly debunked.

Let’s get back to the first tournament though – why didn’t it work?

The truth is that, although your club is important to you (and rightly so!), the vast majority of people don’t even know you exist. If you want to attract new people, there has to be the corresponding effort to find them and bring them.

Does anyone remember that movie, Field of Dreams? Kevin Costner’s character, with his “build it and they will come” has a lot to answer for in terms of marketing. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, some people still believe that the quote is a valid marketing strategy. I’m here to tell you it’s a lie, for two reasons. The first is that the quote is actually “build it and HE will come” (watch the movie if you don’t believe me!). Secondly, people will only come when they know about you and then like you and trust you enough to actually buy from you – even if the purchase is free! Because even a free touch tournament is a demand on someone’s time, so it has to be something they want to do.


Why marketing doesn’t have to be complicated

So I told you a story of how I planned a touch tournament that was, to put it delicately, less successful than I had hoped. Around the same time, as part of the same initiative, the other main activity was holiday camps. Now, although I did a similarly small amount of marketing for this one as the touch tournament mentioned above, I did one extra thing which made all the difference (remember I said that not all marketing is created equal?).

The holiday camp was aimed at kids in the minis age range, so around 6-11 years old. It was a two-day camp and we offered the option for a single day or both days at a slight discount. For our first camp we had around twenty kids doing both days and about six more on each day for a single day. It was a roaring success, both in terms of the kids’ enjoyment but also financially – not only were we able to pay the coaches for their time but we were also able to put some money towards the outreach programmes we wanted to run.

So this one extra thing that I did for marketing… I emailed the coaches of the minis age groups to tell them about it and asked them to share it with the parents of their age group. It’s hard to tell for sure because we had no way of measuring, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if 100% of our customers had come through that one email.

So why was one email enough to create the difference between success and failure? Let’s loop back to our marketing steps:

  1. Get people to find out about you
  2. Get people to like and trust you
  3. These people buy from you

Although I didn’t really understand why it had worked so well at the time, now I understand that our email was targeted. We had emailed it to people who were very invested in the club (people who like and trust us) and we told them exactly what it was (so they could find out about our product) and even put a link to the online booking form in the email (to make it easy for them to buy from us).

A Facebook post isn’t very targeted – yes it goes to people who have “liked” your page, but because of the nature of Facebook, this message can get missed. So a post about our camp may have got in front of the right people, but only if lots of parents had liked the page and only if they happened to see the post and only if they happened to see it at the right time for them to book. By emailing the coaches, we unwittingly ensured that the message would get directly to the right people, since the coaches had up to date contact information and actually saw the players each week! It was also a product that people were very interested in – not only did the kids already play rugby, but working parents will generally look for activities for their kids to do over school holidays.

Some small first steps you can take in marketing

As volunteers, our time is precious and so we want to focus on key activities that generate the best return for us. I mentioned earlier about marketing activities not all being equal, so our goal for our first steps is to find one of those activities that gives us a big return for a small effort. We won’t be able to rely on these forever, but for a first step, it’s a great place to look.

If we go back to my rugby camp – it was one email that essentially generated all of the business. It worked so well because it was targeted – the product was put right in front of the people who most needed it, and we also managed to skip over the steps of getting people to find out about us and like us and trust us (although in reality, we didn’t skip these steps, they just had already taken place).

So let’s explore how you can apply this to something at your club – perhaps an upcoming event.

Question 1 – What is your goal?

With our camp, we worked out that we needed around 12 players to make it viable. Because we’d aimed for ages 6-11, we knew exactly which age groups we needed to send the email to. It would have been less useful to send the same email to, say, our Vice Presidents, because the chances of them having kids or grandkids in the right age range was much lower. Not all marketing is equal. If you know who you want to get to your event, it’s going to be easier to identify those people.

Question 2 – Who already knows, likes and trusts you?

For most clubs, this is going to be your existing membership. For our camp, it was the parents of those age groups. If you’re putting on a beer festival, then you might not want many kids there!

Sometimes though, your goal will require people from outside the membership – for example, if you’re looking for new players. In this case, you can use your existing membership to help promote your message. If you’re running a recruitment event, your main form of marketing might be to get your existing players to bring a friend. These friends might not already like you and trust you, but they will like and trust their friend, your player. This means any recommendation from your player will carry extra weight. If you have a minis section, you could also see if any parents want to start (or restart) playing.

Focusing on people who already like and trust you means you can skip the first two steps and proceed straight to the “get them to buy from you” step.

Question 3 – What’s the best way to get your message to those people?

If you’re running an event for existing members, an email might be enough, or several emails (spaced out over a period of time) if it’s an event with a particularly high price. This email should let them know why it’s going to be so good – if it’s a social event, you could talk about the entertainment, the atmosphere and the social connections.

If you’re recruiting new players, it might be enough to drop a message in your team chat with the date of the recruitment event and tell your existing players to bring a mate. You might want to follow this up a couple of times ahead of the event since players can be forgetful.

In both cases, you also want to think about timing – it’s no use saying “event tonight, come along!” Give enough time for people to plan – for most things like recruitment events, two weeks is a realistic minimum, with four-six weeks being even better. Keep reminding people about the event in the build-up.

If you can work out the answers to these questions, you’ve got a good chance of making your event more successful without a huge load of effort.

In some ways, marketing is as simple as working out “who would want this?” and then putting it in front of those people. If you can keep doing that consistently, then you’re going to do really well.


My name is Phil and I’ve been involved in rugby for as long as I can remember. I played both codes of rugby, union for Hove and league for the now-defunct Sussex Merlins. Visit my website – http://grassrootsrugbygrowth.com/

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