Engage to Retain: Loyalty Program Design for Fan Engagement vs. Consumer Engagement
29 March 2023
Scott Harrison

Loyalty programs are an increasingly popular way for brands and organisations to engage, stimulate behaviours and drive loyalty.

However, not all loyalty programs are created equal and the success of a loyalty program often depends on two initial principles. Firstly, how well a company understands its customer base, and then secondly, how well the program is designed to engage different types of customers.

This article explores the differences between fan engagement and consumer engagement, including the psychology, and how these differences can impact the overall design of a loyalty program and the types of rewards.

Fan engagement versus consumer engagement: how do the two compare?

Fan engagement refers to the level of emotional and psychological attachment between a fan and their favourite sporting club or team, which is often driven by a sense of community and belonging. 

In contrast, consumer engagement refers to the level of interaction and participation between a customer and a brand or organisation, which is often driven by practical considerations such as convenience, price, and quality.

One distinct difference between sports fans and general consumers is the inherent affinity and loyalty which fans demonstrate towards their favourite team and players. Whilst not all sport fans are equally passionate and fanatical, this natural emotional affiliation distinguishes the fan in a way that is not present for consumers in most sectors (or at least, as prevalent). After all, how many grocery shoppers sing in collective euphoria as they make their way through the aisles of their local Whole Foods, Lidl or Coles?

The Psychology of Fan Engagement versus Consumer Engagement

In the context of fan engagement versus consumer engagement, understanding the differences in psychology is key to designing a successful loyalty program.

The psychology of the fan

Several sport fan studies have suggested that not all fans are motivated by the same factors (Samra and Wos 2014; Bernthal and Graham 2003; Wann, Melnick, Russell and Pease 2001; Quick 2000). Some attend games regularly, others attend on special occasions. Some display their fandom by watching every game from home via TV or streaming services, others engage online via social media and sporting. Some fans can be motivated by their family and social background, others by the spectacle itself. Sometimes, fan loyalty increases with worsening team performance (Bristow and Sebastion 2001).

Understanding and targeting the motivations of different fan and spectator groups is crucial. This comprehensive knowledge enables for loyalty marketers and program operators to develop effective engagement activities and communications that meet the unique needs of each group.

Combining insights from academic research and industry experience, fans’ motivations for loyalty can be distilled down into three guiding principles: identity, emotion, and social connections. Loyalty programs that tap into these factors can create a sense of community and belonging among fans.

Identity: Fans inherently see themselves as a part of a larger community, united by their support for a particular team. This sense of identity is often strengthened by shared experiences, such as attending games or interacting with other fans. As a result, loyalty programs that tap into this sense of identity by offering exclusive access to team events or merchandise can be highly effective.

Emotion: Fans often have a strong emotional attachment to their team, which can be influenced by factors such as team success, player personalities, and game atmosphere. Loyalty programs that tap into this emotional attachment by offering unique experiences, such as meet-and-greets with players or behind-the-scenes access to team facilities, can be highly effective in strengthening fan engagement.

Social connections: Social connections and a sense of community are also critical components of fan engagement. Fans often feel a strong connection to other fans who share their passion and support for a team or organisation. This connection is rooted in social identity theory, which posits that individuals derive a sense of self from their membership in social groups. Loyalty programs that facilitate these interactions by offering exclusive forums, governance or events where fans can connect with one another can be highly effective in building fan engagement.

The psychology of the consumer

In contrast, consumer psychology is primarily driven by utilitarian factors such as product quality, price and convenience. Consumers are often focused on the value proposition of the product or service, seeking to maximise the benefits they receive for the price they pay. They may also be influenced by factors such as convenience, availability or reputation.

In terms of loyalty programs, consumers are primarily motivated by tangible benefits such as discounts and free products.  For some brands, hedonic benefits such as status and privilege-based benefits can also play a significant role.

Research by Yi and Jeon (2003) found that consumers are more likely to engage with a loyalty program if the rewards are easily attainable and offer a clear value proposition. Additionally, Shelper (2020) put forward substantial evidence to suggest ongoing engagement and stimulation activities are an essential element of best-practice loyalty programs. Engaged customers are more likely to make repeat purchases, recommend the brand to others, provide feedback and defend the brand against negative feedback. Therefore, consumer brands can build loyalty by providing multiple engagement layers such as gamification, user-generated content, or status tiers that recognise and reward customers for their engagement.

Designing a Loyalty Program for Fan Engagement

When designing a loyalty program for fan engagement, it is crucial to focus on building a sense of community and fostering a sense of belonging. Sporting fans are driven by their sense of team identity, emotional attachment, and social connections, so loyalty programs that leverage these factors can help increase engagement and loyalty.

One example of a successful loyalty program for sporting fan engagement is the Boston Red Sox with Red Sox Rewards. This program offers fans exclusive access to content and experiences, as well as opportunities to provide feedback and input. Members can earn points by attending matches, making purchases, renewing season tickets and interacting with the team. These points can then be redeemed for rewards such as merchandise, memorabilia and money-can’t-buy experiences like meeting the players. By offering exclusive access to highly desirable and difficult-to-obtain rewards tailored specifically to the team’s fans, the program creates a sense of exclusivity and reinforces a fans connection with the team.

Designing a Loyalty Program for Consumer Engagement

When designing a loyalty program for consumer engagement, it is important to focus on providing tangible benefits that offer a clear value proposition. This can include discounts, free products, or other perks that are easily attainable and provide a practical benefit to the consumer.

Sephora’s Beauty Insider program in the United States is a great example of a successful loyalty program for consumer engagement. The program offers a range of benefits such as discounts, free products, and early access to sales. One key aspect of the program is the element of choice – members can choose which rewards they want and when, allowing them to tailor their experience to their own preferences. Sephora has also made the program simple to join, understand and engage with easy to understand, join and earn rewards, with frequent and relevant communications about new promotions, rewards and earn opportunities. By focusing on tangible benefits and ease of participation, Sephora’s Beauty Insider program has been successful in engaging consumers and building loyalty.

Design to meet the end goal

When designing a loyalty program for fan engagement, it is important to focus on building a sense of community and offering rewards that are exclusive and difficult to obtain elsewhere. When designing a loyalty program for consumer engagement, it is important to focus on providing tangible benefits that offer a clear value proposition and are easy to obtain.

By tailoring loyalty program design to the needs and motivations of different types of groups, brands can create a program that truly drives the desired behaviours that they are trying to achieve.


Samra, D., and Wos, P., 2014, Consumer in Sports: Fan Typology Analysis. Journal of Intercultural Management, vol. 6, no. 4, pp. 263-288.

Bernthal, M. J., & Graham, P. J., 2003, The Effect of Sport Setting on Fan Attendance Motivation: The Case of Minor League Vs. Collegiate Baseball. Journal of Sport Behavior, vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 223–239.

Wann, D.L., Melnick, M.J., Russell, G.W. & Pease, D.G., 2001, Sports fans: The psychology and social impact of spectators. Routledge.

Quick, S., 2000, Contemporary sport consumers: some implications of linking fan typology with key spectator variables, Sport Marketing Quarterly, vol. 9, no. 3, pp. 149-156

Bristow, D.N., and Sebastian R.J., 2001, Holy Cow! Wait ‘til next year! A Closer Look at the Brand Loyalty of Chicago Cubs Baseball Fans. Journal of Consumer Marketing, vol. 18, no. 3, pp. 256-275.

Yi, Y. & Jeon, H., 2003, Effects of loyalty programs on value perception, program loyalty, and brand loyalty. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 31(3), 229-240.

Shelper, P., 2020, Loyalty Programs: The Complete Guide. Loyalty & Reward Co.

<a href="https://loyaltyrewardco.com/author/scott/" target="_self">Scott Harrison</a>

Scott Harrison

Based in New York, Scott Harrison is a Principal Consultant at Loyalty & Reward Co, the leading loyalty consulting firm. Loyalty & Reward Co design, implement, and operate loyalty programs for global brands. Scott is a customer experience and digital marketing specialist with extensive experience in loyalty, CX, member engagement and lifecycle marketing. He has worked with world leading brands including Australian Venue Co, McDonald’s, Schneider Electric, UEFA and Visa. Scott co-created the book Loyalty Programs: The Complete Guide, the most comprehensive book on loyalty program theory and practice available. He also regularly writes and presents on loyalty, gamification and the application of Web3 on engagement.

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