Why Formula 1‘s slow take on social media is one too many chicanes on track to the sport’s successful future.
Romain Grosjean may not be the most salient Formula 1 driver on the grid, he doesn’t have hipster qualities as Hamilton does and he doesn’t have a championship under his belt like Alonso or Raikkonen. But despite a lack of star qualities, the Frenchman is a likeable and accessible character who enjoys the support of a faithful fan base around the world. On Facebook, he counts as much as 220,000 followers who were delighted when the Haas F1 driver used the new live video function to allow his fans to sneak a peek of the team’s filming day in Barcelona. Too rare are opportunities to catch a glimpse from behind the scenes of one of the most popular sports in the world, and apparently, they shall remain so. Grosjean was promptly asked to remove the videos – which received more than one million views – despite them not showing any confidential information or precarious insights. But FOM isn’t so concerned with confidentiality as it is with the protection and monetisation of Formula 1’s precious commercial rights.
Free content makes no money, at least not in Bernie Ecclestone’s view. But the Formula 1 veteran is not alone in taking a conservative approach. While many high ranked figures of the sport essentially know that social media is a thing out there, they tend to believe it is more a question of free and effective fan engagement than a measure with much financial value. They are fundamentally wrong. The sports industry is probably one of the industries that have been impacted most by the introduction and use of social media.
In this digital age and time the physical absence of fans does not mean that they don’t exist or aren’t interested, aren’t following.
Twitter users love three types of content: humour, celebrities and sport. Top Gear’s former script writer Richard Porter aka Sniff Petrol strikes the chord. He has not only helped yours truly to overcome some of the worst stretches of Formula 1 monotony, but also serves as a primary race commentary for nearly 70,000 Twitter followers each race weekend. Even the most unspectacular and eventless Formula 1 race is still worth following if you have something to share with like-minded people. In fact, this is the entire truth behind social media: it gives fans a sense of belonging, of watching and doing something together, similar to what it has once meant to go and spend a weekend at a race track with your pals. You meet kindred spirits, exchange thoughts and questions, and – most importantly – have a good laugh. Now that the grandstands in Formula 1 are becoming more and more empty and broadcasting figures are equally bleak, we tend to believe that fans have lost interest for the sport.
In this digital age and time the physical absence of fans does not mean that they don’t exist or aren’t interested, aren’t following. However, they have moved from overpriced trackside seats and unimaginative TV shows to other means of communication, because they seek a different perspective and more access and interaction. Assessing Formula 1’s popularity by ticket sales and TV audience figures is perhaps giving wrong indications. In turn, the exclusion of social media in FOM’s marketing and sales strategy also means leaving a major source of additional income untouched. Contrary to Ecclestone’s belief, extending the rights to the use in social media would bear a significant commercial opportunity. The new communication channels are not only helping to invite and attach young fans to the sport and its brands, there is also an unlimited amount of opportunities for old and new sponsors to become involved with one-off or long-term campaigns and increase awareness for their products.
Formula E evidently got the memo. With a lot less restrictive take on rights, a very proactive, open communication strategy and a clear focus on social media, the electric series has been targeting the digital generation from its inception. And Alejandro Agag, Formula E’s “Bernie”, has a very important role in the process. The Formula E community may be small, especially when compared to the one in Formula 1, but their attachment to the sport and their level of engagement seems to be much higher judged upon the interactions and dynamics on platforms such as Twitter and Periscope. Having introduced the FanBoost, which is giving fans an opportunity to have an virtual impact on the outcome of a race, and many other social media campaigns, Formula E recognises its fans’ desire to share their love for the sport and be part of a community that works without being dependant on live attendance. Most importantly though, Formula E’s rights holders respect the sponsorship and sales potential that lies in this dynamic. Rights packages and marketing deals have been redesigned successfully for the use in social media, particularly in the area of exclusive and lighthearted content.
In a time and age of smartphones and hyper-connected individuals and communities, the non-use of these channels seems not only very reactionary, but indeed is also detrimental to the sport’s future. It’s impossible to educate fans into returning to the race track and back in front of a TV by forbidding them any other access to the sport. But it is easy to make them stay away from Formula 1 altogether.