Courses connect via tech with their best customers

New NGF research tells intriguing tech story

A decade ago, as the general population voraciously adopted new technologies to serve their personal and professional interests, pundits wondered how long it would take the tradition-bound – some would say “analog” – game of golf to do the same in a world gone totally digital.

But signs soon appeared that the sport and the industry could – and would – adapt. In 2011, a report on golf and technology published by the National Golf Foundation spotlighted those indicators, and now seven years later the NGF is out with new research comparing then and now.

“This new data—and what we know from working with our GolfNow business partners—puts things in a much different light,” says Mike Hendrix. “Instead of asking if technology has passed them by, we should really ask, ‘Where would course operators be without technology?’”

In his role as Vice President of GolfNow Business Services, Hendrix dug into the NGF’s new findings with interest. While the entire 12-page study would surely prove enlightening to the progressive operators who use services like GolfNow Plus, several points in particular seem to stand out. Before getting into those, a summary of the report shows us a picture of an activity that’s traditional – even pastoral – yet the full experience that now includes a wide array of touch points that share in the modern-day digital magic.

Society as a whole continues to be shaped by emerging technology, and golf is no different

According to the report, “Society as a whole continues to be shaped by emerging technology, and golf is no different.” True enough, but that doesn’t happen on its own—courses need a full trove of technological tools and lots of support from specialized companies and vendors.

For Hendrix, the passage in NGF’s research that truly jumped out was this: “While there is wide variety in how golfers use and interact with technology, making purchases or seeking assistance in the decision-making process is the most common activity.”

The most basic purchase of all is the booking of a tee time, which for Hendrix points straight to the all-important booking engine. “The utmost care and attention should be given to any course’s choice of a booking engine, due to the impact it will have on the buyer’s satisfaction,” he asserts. “If a golf course has tee times for sale, they should all be available online and through many different channels. If it’s easier for a golfer to use one APP with millions of tee times for sale like GolfNow, the golfer will do it.”

When the selling of tee times moved online in a major way, downward pressure on pricing was what people talked about the most. But as technology has become a greater part of the golf experience, the actual dollars and cents it costs to play has become only one aspect of “price.” Meanwhile, ease of booking (or difficulty) has come into play. “Yes, pricing is and will be important,” comments Hendrix, “but the convenience factor associated with buying a tee time is the top concern for the golfer. If the experience is not easy and fast, the course may lose points during the all-important post-round online review.

To his point, reviews and other sharing on social media have grown quickly of late. According to the study, their importance “is up drastically from the NGF’s technology study in 2011,” for the core golfers who participated this time. “Online reputation is critical for businesses and more than half of those surveyed by the NGF say they regularly read ratings and reviews from other consumers.”

As should be the case in any industry that is taking tech seriously, the marketplace is providing course operators with support in the vital area of online reputation. Every GolfNow Plus specialist devotes their training, time and energy to closely monitoring and reply-writing on review sites, whether it be Golf Advisor, Yelp, Facebook, Google or elsewhere.

“Managing online reviews about the golf course has become as important as keeping the parking lot clean and the bunkers maintained,” believes Hendrix. “To be great at it, you need to craft each reply to a review so the reader believes your heart is in it. The reply to the review is written just as much for the “reviewer” as it is for all the other anonymous golfers who read reviews but choose not to join the conversation.”

Within the NGF study there are sections referring to composites of various key age demographics. Survey data describing Millennials is particularly interesting to any tech-conscious course operator. For that golfer, the data shows, “texting is how he primarily communicates, so he needs his smartphone nearby.” Hendrix has tracked the use of texting in golf commerce as closely as anyone, and recommends highly that courses become fully functional with it as a means of connecting and selling.

“As sellers it is our responsibility to find low-friction to no-friction ways to sell to consumers, via text platforms,” he says. “Our company offers a text platform for the purposes of commerce and communication, and more and more golf courses are using this service and winning with Millennials and others.”

A composite Millennial in the report, referred to as “Brandon,” was described as someone who “likes to bring technology onto the golf course, so there’s a good chance you’ll find him sending text messages or listening to music while playing.” To Hendrix this represents an intriguing opportunity to invest in pleasing any “Brandon” whose loyalty is coveted.

“The first few golf courses in each market to outfit their property with edge-to-edge wifi are going to win more customers, assuming they do a good job of telling the story,” he says. “Comcast Business Services offers options to help golf courses achieve edge-to-edge wifi, and while this is expensive, operators should be requesting pricing and thinking about ways to adjust budgets and prepare for the future.”

“We must be great email communicators,” Mike Hendrix

The report also offered a composite Gen-X customer, tagged as “Tom,” who represents the tech and social-media preferences of golfers mainly in their 40s. This individual has a badge-of-honor attitude toward his favorite pastime, according to the report, which states: “He’s not embarrassed to be ‘Tom the golfer.’ Quite the contrary, he’s proud to share pictures and video of his golf experiences online.” This data point gives rise to advice from Hendrix about helping “Tom” publicize the course’s brand. “Understanding your consumer is essential when chasing ‘free’ Likes and Hearts and Favs,” Hendrix advises. “If Gen-X member ‘Tom’ likes to take pictures and tell people he’s playing golf, make it easy for him. Create scenery on the golf course with obvious click appeal and use signage throughout his experience to remind ‘Tom’ to share his day with his friends.”

One final point about core golfers and their use of tech jumped out from the survey, which involves good old email. Perhaps a bit surprisingly, a full 79 percent of respondents said email was their “preferred method of connecting with golf businesses.” This is another marketing pathway well supported by GolfNow Plus specialists, and one that operators themselves can work to great effect with the right techniques.

“If email is our consumer’s preferred method of connecting with us, we must be great email communicators,” Hendrix says plainly. “Creating successful subject lines and determining best day and time to send, by individual golfer, should be a high priority. Great copywriting and graphics will help you be great in the eyes of the golfer.”

The NGF report is a snapshot of where we are now, with trend-line comparisons to how things stood in years past. As with any data set of this type, the advantage lies in using it to manage your present business but, at the same time, glimpse the future and plan for more tech-driven success in the years ahead.

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