Business

From the Tar Heels to the Hurricanes, teams turn to Raleigh startup for fan engagement

Sports teams across the Triangle are turning to a Raleigh-based startup to improve game day experiences for fans.

From the National Hockey League’s Carolina Hurricanes to UNC-Chapel Hill’s football team, Epifany has inked partnerships with multiple local teams to provide real-time feedback and data about their fans through its surveying platform.

The platform is just a little more than a year old, but the company has been working on it for years.

Co-founded and led by Jim Zidar, the startup was spun out of the ashes of another startup.

In 2012, Zidar started the company Get Stealz, a customer loyalty platform, that raised a couple million dollars in capital along the way. But, the company pivoted toward its new Epifany platform in the past year, seeing it as a better opportunity in the long run than Stealz. (The Stealz app officially shut down in June.)

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Jim Zidar, co-founder and CEO of the Raleigh-based startup Epifany. Courtesy of Epifany

The company’s platform can embed within team apps or be used through email to send out unique surveys to collect feedback and data from people coming to games. When used through an app, like the NHL app, Epifany can send push notifications to fans in certain sections, or, through location technology, help flag a certain section of the stadium if fans are expressing dissatisfaction with the food or service there.

The surveys themselves can be flexible, asking yes-or-no questions or even changing what set of questions are asked depending on a fan’s response.

The Hurricanes said they have liked using open-ended questions because they often highlight ideas or areas of concern the team hadn’t thought to ask about.

“These teams all want to ask 25 questions, but we have to keep it to five or six top,” Zidar said, noting that the attention span of survey respondents is very short.

“It has to take 60 or 90 seconds,” he said. “We’re trying to make it as easy as calling an Uber or a Lyft, so you don’t feel like you are doing the survey.”

It’s the relationship with the Hurricanes that has been pivotal for the young company.

Epifany started working with the hockey team this spring — right before it made its playoff run. Wade Minter, the voice of the Hurricanes’ PA system and an active member of Raleigh’s tech ecosystem, introduced Zidar to the team.

“It was such a fortuitous time to launch because the Canes went on this crazy winning spree,” Zidar said.

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Canes fans give the team a standing ovation as time runs out in the third period of the Boston Bruins’ 4-0 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes in game four of the Eastern Conference finals at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Thursday, May 16, 2019. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

For years, the Hurricanes had struggled with sagging attendance, but with a new owner at the helm the team began looking for ways to improve game day experience. When the team returned to winning ways, fans surged back to the PNC Arena, with Epifany ready to monitor how their experience went.

“A platform like Epifany enables us to communicate and receive feedback in real time with our fans,” Mike Forman, vice president of marketing and brand strategy for the Hurricanes, said in an email. “Epifany allows us to craft simple, focused questions that reach our fans directly, either through push notifications for subscribers to our app or via email to those in our database.”

Forman said Epifany allows the company to hone different messages each game — so the team can alternate between receiving feedback on things like food and beverages to what ticket packages are popular or just finding out what player is most popular. Teams often pair prizes or incentives with the survey to boost responses.

An example of one insight the team has gleaned through the app is around its food and beverage offerings. After listening to feedback through Epifany — which can number in the hundreds to thousands of responses per game — the team decided to slim down its food options to focus on quality and expand some options on the 300 level of the arena so fans missed less game time running to get food.

This season, PDQ, the popular chicken restaurant, now has a new location on the 300 level. A grab-and-go convenience store was also added.

But the real benefit to using Epifany, Forman said, was simply getting a better understanding of who attended games.

“[We] did not have a great way to collect data on guests of ticket buyers,” he said. “Now, by providing incentives like jerseys or tickets to an upcoming game as prizes, we have patrons filling out these surveys who are completely new to our database, which allows us to learn more about everyone who’s in the building and engage with them in a way to try to get them to come out to more Hurricanes games.”

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Tar Heel fans get close to the field to watch North Carolina’s open football practice in Kenan Stadium on Monday August 19, 2019 in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Epifany has a pipeline of potential clients, Zidar said, though he wasn’t ready to disclose them. But the company did just start working with UNC and Duke athletics this football season.

Epifany was used, in part, to help determine what alcohol UNC started selling at its games for the first time.

The company also works with several restaurants and gyms, like some McDonald’s franchises and 02 Fitness.

The partnerships are translating to real growth for the small 12-person team based out of HQ Raleigh. The company hopes to complete a $5 million round of funding by the end of the year, which it hopes to use to grow its headcount, especially on the sales side.

This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate

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Zachery Eanes is the Innovate Raleigh reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He covers technology, startups and main street businesses, biotechnology, and education issues related to those areas.
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