1. FC Köln: Digital marketing as a medium-sized company

A new CRM system, virtual and augumented reality, content marketing, investing in startups and eSports: We're talking about soccer.

1. FC Köln: Digitales Marketing als Mittelständler
Frank Sahler, Leiter Marketing, Vertrieb & Merchandising beim 1. FC Köln

Since six years, Frank Sahler is Head of Marketing, Sales & Merchandising at 1. FC Köln, the local Bundesliga soccer club. While the professionals kickers are currently aiming for a promotion to the first division of the league, GmbH & Co. KgaA runs an exeptional operation in digital marketing. The company views itself as a medium-sized firm, with several advantages and a few disadvantages.


Since when has the topic of digital marketing been on the agenda for 1. FC Köln?

Things got going around six years ago, and it’s been increasing year after year ever since. Our approach to digital marketing is not just to simplify a few internal and external processes, but perhaps to offer one or the other on top of these as well. Our philosophy in this setting is always a proactive one. With solid results. We experiment a lot, learn new things and think about what makes ultimate sense for the fans, the partners and the club. After all, five years ago, we were the first team in the league to introduce digital ticketing. Today, our fans can pay not just with cash or their bank card, but directly from the app.


What are some of the other topics upcoming for the FC?

We recently introduced Salesforce and single sign-on to improve our services to fans. Investments like these may be unusual for a team in the second division, but for us they point the way to the future. This also holds true for experiments in the field of virtual reality, such as the virtual museum to mark the club’s 70th birthday.

Several months ago, 1. FC Köln joined the global SPIN Accelerator network in an effort to support young startups in areas of interest to us. We are already testing several examples of this, such as DigiFood or Kiss my score. The DigiFood range is easy to explain: During the game, you can use the app to order food and drinks; the order is paid for straight away and delivered to your seats. There’s no more need to stand in line or miss any of the game.

We also joined Daimler AG and invested in SK Gaming, the Cologne-based eSports company, as a way of increasing our focus on the topic. This is about new business models.


That doesn’t sound like it came from a club…

Well, we’re more than a club. We do business as a medium-sized company and have a brand far larger than that. We don’t have to turn customers into fans the way many sectors are currently trying to do. We’ve got the fans. We also have a near-abundance of content for all channels. Sometimes it’s hard to decide where and how we bring something to bear. Our product is emotional per se. This sets us apart from the classic brand manufacturers in the FMCG or retail sector.


What is it like working with sponsors and partners today?

Very closely coordinated and very varied. No two sponsorship packages are alike these days. A great deal has been done in terms of content and digital marketing. There are an array of opportunities we can offer them here – whether joint dissemination of content or branded content.


As medium-sized companies of the kind they now consider themselves to be, the approach they have to take today is different from the one they took many years ago. That’s true for employers too, isn’t it?

That’s definitely the case. You don’t necessarily have to be a fan of 1. FC Köln to do a good job here – but it helps. What is crucial are the qualifications. It usually works out well. Generally speaking, we’re growing in many departments in the club. It’s occasionally challenging to be able to fill the required positions in terms of quality. That’s because if you want to work in a soccer club, you have to bring not just the necessary expertise and skills but lots of empathy and passion, too.


How can you plan for the future in the field of digital marketing? Where do you look for inspiration?

You do look to other countries and different sports, but of course you also look to the other industries in order to keep learning. Cooperation among the clubs in the German Bundesliga works well. There are lots of joint working groups devoted to our topics. Our advantage is that we are very competitive with one another in sports, otherwise we don’t consider ourselves to be in competition with each other. In sponsorship sometimes, but not at all in merchandising or ticketing. A Borussia Mönchengladbach fan is not going to become an 1. FC Köln fan.

Where eSports are concerned, we look to see what the people’s interests are. Maybe we’ll be able to welcome them to the stadium someday. “Platform strategy” or other buzzwords are mentioned at our meetings, too. The world is spinning fast, digitalization is growing ever-faster, and what’s “in” today might be “out” tomorrow. We want to be right there, learning and benefiting from it – without losing sight of why we do everything we do. And that is to provide the framework for successful soccer that thrills the fans.