Should Bernie buy Twitter?

Motor Racing – Formula One World Championship – Singapore Grand Prix – Practice Day – Singapore, Singapore

Bernie Ecclestone’s seeming dismissal of social media contrasts sharply with what other racing series, and major sports leagues, are doing with social media. We’ll have a look at how NASCAR monitors social media and the corresponding benefits.

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One of the attention-getting topics from this summer of Formula One was Bernie Ecclestone’s comments about social media from early June. At initial glance it seems Bernie is not much of a social media fan and suggests social media has no long-term value; he told Jonathan Noble from AUTOSPORT:

“But I think the change that is currently taking place (in falling television viewership) is very short-lived, as these social media people are starting to think it is not as good as they thought.”

When asked if he believed F1 needed to change its approach, and officially embrace social media as other sports have done, he said: “No. We’re commercial… If they find people to pay us [to do that] then I will be happy.”

While it can be risky to try to interpret other’s comments, Bernie appears to think that social media is partly to blame for lower TV viewership this season, but that will be a temporary phenomenon as the colour will soon fade from the bloom that is social media. Presumably, TV viewership levels will then recover.

Even the big players like Twitter have not worked out how to monetise it, but it is just a matter of time before we do that.

Bernie also is not in a rush to expand Formula One’s social media activities until revenue can be derived from that work.

A month after these comments, Toto Wolff expressed his point of view that social media should not be left on the back burner just because it is not driving income at this time:

“Sure the [social media] model does not work yet as you cannot monetise it, but I can tell each of my sponsors that the audience seeing his logo is growing even though TV figures are down.

“Even the big players like Twitter have not worked out how to monetise it, but it is just a matter of time before we do that.”

Numerous other sports have grabbed social media by the neck and are finding ways to use it to their advantage. European and American football leagues, the National Basketball Association (USA), and even other motorsport series are virtual marketing machines thanks to social media. These sports have taken the initiative to make a commitment to social media and engage their fans, which then leads to a self-perpetuating cycle of interest and involvement.

So what is NASCAR, home of “old school” stock car racing, doing with social media? Lesson one is to banish any idea that NASCAR’s marketing program and work in social media is comparable to a ’41 Ford. NASCAR is serious and as capable as any multinational corporation, about taking advantage of social media.

Like Formula One, NASCAR in recent years has faced a drop in ticket sales and TV viewership. One of the steps that NASCAR took was to launch its Fan and Media Engagement Center (FMEC) in January 2013. This control room concept with 13 high-definition 47-inch screens is not limited to social media engagement and monitoring; NASCAR CEO Brian France stated:

“We believe this tool has the potential to be the best of its kind in sports – the first ever to combine not only social but also traditional and broadcast media analysis. We’ll be able to use this to help our industry and business partners and better connect with NASCAR fans across the world.”

NASCAR wants to know what its fans are thinking, what attracts or excites them, what they need and what they want. Steve Phelps, NASCAR’s chief marketing officer, said, “…technology helps us turn millions of tweets, posts and stories into real-time business insights that help NASCAR win with our fans.” Social media data is captured and analyzed by the FMEC, offering new insights to NASCAR, teams and sponsors.

The FMEC is staffed through regular business hours during the week and on evenings when special events or announcements take place. The centre is of course also staffed on race weekends. FMEC team members monitor Twitter and Facebook posts on a global basis. Customised software enables sifting and sorting of posts by hashtags.

NASCAR believes that more data leads to better analysis and insights – Sean Doherty, director of digital and social media engagements, said: “We use a metaphor that it’s like an empty swimming pool filling with data; and as you get more water in the pool, you will be able to dive deeper on analysis and insight.”

A race at Bristol Motor Speedway, a short track venue in Tennessee, generated nearly 34,000 social media mentions during the 10 hours before the race. During the race, social traffic increased to more than 70,000 mentions.

FMEC staff watch social activity and respond to questions during the events. The work doesn’t stop there though, as data has to be analyzed, insights arrived at, and a report generated within a few days of the race. The report compares activity for a given race against season averages and tracks social sentiments about incidents and the quality of the race.

NASCAR’s Steve Phelps believes this data will provide a stronger understanding of “the narrative around the sport” and help NASCAR “understand what fans are saying and what they believe is important.”

It is important to keep in mind that a serious commitment to social media does not guarantee a successful program. A successful media program is dependent on having an exciting product that draws in fans and viewers. Close racing, uncertainty and battles to the end of the season will inspire fans to follow and participate in social media. Lacking that close competition, fans won’t have as much to get excited about – and they won’t pay as much attention to social media about the sport.

So a base requirement of Formula One is to provide an exciting and engaging sport for people to follow. Historically, Formula One has done that, with a fan base that is one of the largest in the world. Leaving aside the complaints about 2014’s new regulations, there has been close racing between Rosberg and Hamilton, Ricciardo’s rise to the front has been great to see, and there has been excellent work by Bottas, Magnussen and Kvyat. Seems like these positive stories can provide a stable foundation for a successful social media program. Throw in a few controversies and you certainly have a winning recipe for engaging fans.

The payoff to engaging in social media a la NASCAR is more of a medium- to long-term bet. But there is a very good chance of generating more revenue through a committed, engaged and larger fan base. The path may not be obvious, but hopefully Formula One won’t miss a good opportunity to strengthen the sport. After all, Formula One is supposed to be all about technology and innovation.

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