Last July, one of the most emotional and historic stories unfolded at Royal Portrush Golf Club. The 148th Open Championship was being held in Northern Ireland – the first time golf’s oldest major championship had been held at the venue since 1951. As Northern Ireland’s own Shane Lowry hoisted the Claret Jug in front of his countryman, it was the culmination of hard work from The R&A after embarking on a digital transformation to The Open Championship’s website.

Karen Lyttle, Design and UX Manager for The Open and The R&A, presented on Day 1 of this year’s Sitecore Symposium in Orlando, Fla. She went through all the steps that it took to update the web experience using Sitecore for an organization that’s 265 years old.

But first, she started with some remarkable statistics for this year’s event at Royal Portrush, the first held after the new website went live. For the first time in the history of The Open, the event sold out of tickets, with 237,750 fans attending. The tournament also sold out in only six weeks after tickets went on sale.

TheOpen.com website saw 7 million users during the week of the championship, with an average session duration that was up 55.8% from the previous year.

Knowing where you want to go

Lyttle then shared the goals and strategy The R&A undertook along with their partner Delete Agency to reimagine the digital experience that had a mobile-first focus and design. It also needed to be a powerful marketing tool for the brand.

“One of the core objectives for the site was to have a more commercial focus, but also retaining that brand heritage we have for The Open,” Lyttle said. “We wanted to grow our digital audience and increase our engagement year-round. We referred to this internally as broadening the shoulders. And thirdly, we wanted to ensure we were building a website that had building blocks for the future.”

The strategy for the brand and commercial side of the site included creating a “brand” for each day of the tournament, which included the cut after Friday’s second round, and of course the final on Sunday when Lowry became the champion golfer of the year. They also branded the practice rounds, where fans, especially children, can get up close to the golfers and get autographs from their favorite players like Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy.

Lyttle then explained the decision to remove the organization’s ‘heritage’ section from the website, a bold decision when you consider they were also trying to retain the brand history. Instead, the event’s history was weaved throughout the site, rather than have its own dedicated space.

This led to Lesson Learned #1: make sure your stakeholders (as in this instance, your Director of Heritage) are aware of your bold decisions, but if you’ve done your research, you’ll have the data to back up your decision.

Next up was transforming the ticketing journey. As you might expect, The Open’s fan base skews to the older side, so they wanted to keep things simple, but they wanted to also increase the commercial options, like cross-selling and up-selling, which was new for The Open. The key was implementing it in a subtle, tasteful way.

The brand’s new look and feel was weaved throughout the site, featuring new colors, an emphasis on bringing the players more to the forefront, as well as imagery that would lend a sense of the on-course atmosphere.

Growing engagement year-round

One of the biggest goals The Open had was building excitement for the championship both pre- and post-event. This included information fans who were coming to the tournament would find valuable, as well as ‘behind the scenes’ or ‘inside the ropes’ content created during the championship that could be served up post-event.

Content about the upcoming championships for the next three years is helping to build excitement, especially for the 150th Open Championship that will be taking place in 2021 at The Old Course at St. Andrews, the oldest and most prestigious golf course in the world.

“It will be a massive celebration,” Lyttle said, “so the likes of being able to promote that years ahead was very important to us.”

Lesson #2 was to not to try and do too much and instead take a phased approach, while avoiding that well-used buzzword of launching with a Minimum Viable Product. The R&A is shifting their mentality internally, moving into future planning mode so they can think three years ahead and be proactive instead of reactive like they used to be. And this thinking had to be adopted not just with the digital team, but across the entire organization for it to work.

A mobile-first approach

Despite the best efforts from some within the organization to concentrate on the desktop experience, Lyttle said the digital team was focused on improving the mobile experience. Which leads to Lesson #3 – stand firm in your beliefs. And the results backed them up.

  • 52% of the audience uses a mobile device
  • 47% of tickets sales were on mobile
  • 55% more mobile page views
  • 22% drop in bounce rate
  • 126% increase in conversion from ticketing landing page to purchase confirmation page

As part of the ticketing process, The Open introduced a scarcity model to create a sense of urgency around the tournament. While some felt it was somewhat risky, the team worked hard to find the right balance visually on the website. The efforts were well worth it as more than 200,000 tickets were sold and 10% of the target goal for the entire championship was reached by 4 pm the first day tickets went on sale.

In fact, sales were so strong that calls started pouring in about getting on a waiting list, which didn’t exist. So, with the help of an agency, a waiting list was quickly put together for fans wanting to attend the tournament.

Over the last year, the digital team has done a lot of work synthesizing its customer data to build a better experience and get personalization on the site. The One Club, a digital membership program, was launched and allows users to get priority access to tickets and exclusive access to content, but it also allows data to be gathered about their users. This is the first in a series of steps to get a single view of their customers.

The R&A’s digital transformation for TheOpen.com website is a spectacular example that no matter how old your organization is, through some bold steps and taking some calculated and educated risks, the benefits for your customers and your business can be substantial. It’s no wonder The R&A, along with their partner Delete Agency, was named a winner of a 2019 Ultimate Sitecore Experience Award for the EMEA region.

To learn more about The R&A’s achievements, you can read the case study here.

Zarnaz Arlia is the Vice President of Corporate Marketing at Sitecore. Find her on LinkedIn.