Analysis: F1 "alone" in social media stance, say experts

While Formula 1 has often innovated with its television coverage, how it has dealt with the opportunities afforded by social media has been a different thing altogether.

For too long, Bernie Ecclestone did not believe that anything needed to be done on Twitter, Facebook or YouTube, for there was no instant money to be made.

F1's stance has changed a bit over the past 12 months though, and much more effort is now being made in trying to engage audiences, with pictures, the odd video, polls and traffic drivers to the official F1 site.

But what it does is just a fraction of what other sports are doing, which have fully embraced the opportunities offered by social media.

There are instant highlight videos, sponsored promotion campaigns, fan contests, hashtag campaigns, features and exclusive access. 

Building the fanbase

The gulf between how American sports in particular have boosted their popularity through that type of fan engagement was thrown into the open this week during presentations from leading figures from Twitter and Facebook at a McLaren-hosted #thinkdigital event.

As Dara Nasr, managing director of Twitter UK, said when asked about whether F1's reluctance to fully embrace social media opportunities was an approach mirrored by other sports, or was unique, he said: "Yes, F1 is pretty much alone as a sport.

"If you look at some of the most valuable sports, like NFL, they have been doing it for a few years. Then there is also the Premiership, the Rugby World Cup, Tennis – pretty much any major sport does it.

"I am not one to talk about the intricacies of the deals that F1 has with TV companies, I cannot comment on that, but it is one of the minority in not doing it [social media] properly.

"When people are watching F1, more than 80 percent of them are tweeting about it. So the potential to innovate here with the audience you automatically have is huge."

F1 behind NASCAR

The stats seem to bear out about how F1 is not connecting with as many fans as other sports. F1's current Twitter account has 1.7 million followers – slightly less than NASCAR (2.1 million), which does not have the global TV reach of grand prix racing.

But it's when you compare it to those sports that have fully pushed on with social media to expand their audience, then it puts F1's place in context.

NFL, which does all it can to deliver content on social media platforms, has 14.5 million followers. The NBA has 18.2 million followers. Even MLB has 5.3 million followers.

It's off the back of such huge followings that these sports are able to deliver clever, well-funded sponsorship promotions, having long ago accepted that getting content out to a wider audience (Twitter has 320 million active users a month) is a great way to drive traffic and interest that may well spur people to tune in to the television later on. Video content is of course king.

Facebook growth

The embracing of the Twitter audience is shared on Facebook too, where many sports have woken up to the opportunities afforded by its 1 billion users. 

Don't forget there are also 900 million on WhatsApp, 700 million on Facebook Messenger and 400 million on Instagram.

Sports that have embraced the platform well know of the opportunities for targeted content, where football fans from a particular club are pushed with footage and articles tailored solely from the team they support.

How much opportunity is there for F1 chiefs to know that they can send out content specifically targeted at engaging a Kimi Raikkonen or a Fernando Alonso fan, that will deliver the very message they want?

Jennifer Louis, head of Global Creative Strategy at Facebook and Instagram, believes that F1 should not view delivering content on social media as competition to fans watching it on television. 

It's about complementing the action, and allowing the fans to get more involved and more passionate about the sport.

Second screen chance

"There is a huge opportunity for them [F1] to do a lot more across the board, because it is a really passionate audience," she told Motorsport.com.

"I know from our perspective on Facebook and Instagram, we can help identify people by passion as well as demographics, so we think it is a massive opportunity to be doing some really exciting stuff with motor racing. You can tap into those passions – and deliver things that those fans really love."

But how does she feel F1 should balance the need to protect the value of television rights – which is a main income driver for Ecclestone – against being so open on social media that you end up giving your content away?

"Football deals with this issue a lot," she said. "We deal with Sky Sports and obviously people pay to have Sky Sports, so they don't want to give their footage all away from free – because otherwise why would you pay?

"But it is looking at the balance of showing people what is the value of paying for that service. So it is about giving them the right content, and the right amount of content, at the key times, so their consideration for purchasing the service, or renewing the service, really makes sense.

"It is not like you have to do all of one or all of the other. But it is definitely finding that balance, and showing the value of that content."

The Rugby World Cup had similar rights issues to that which F1 faces, with certain content blacked out for 72 hours. But that merely prompted more innovative social media campaigns.

"Sometimes it is about alternative content," she added. "It's creating companion content to that which you are going to see on television.

"It is something that we have had a lot of success with. So, what do I create that feels like it is part of this event, but not replicating what they are seeing on another platform?"

Teams pushing hard

F1 teams are certainly doing all they can on social media, within the tight confines of right restrictions (especially not being able to use any film footage from races).

McLaren's recent concept car, the 8-bit computer game video it released before the Japanese Grand Prix and the Back to the Future virals it produced before the start of the season are all good examples of a team generating engagement with an audience outside of straight television channels.

Success there could suggest that actually F1 is doing fine on social media – and just look at how #placesalonsowouldratherbe captured the imagination of fans worldwide.

For McLaren, the fact that image went so viral – even if the ultimate message was not so positive – was a great example of where teams can target campaigns in the future.

McLaren group head of digital Rob Bloom said: "Everyone is a director now, and that [the Alonso viral] is a case in point. Who would have known that the photoshopping skills out there could be utilised so effectively in a short burst of time? And some of them were quite good.

"Ultimately the message beneath it was not one that we wanted to support, but it did show the culture of the world we are living in now – of people getting involved and spending some serious time photoshopping some things together.

"And you know what? Ultimately there are some lessons to be taken from it in terms of user-generated content. And we might take that on board one day and use it for one of our own campaigns."

But it is clear from both Twitter and Facebook that what is being done on social media now is just the tip of the Iceberg. 

Both Facebook and Twitter agree: there are such big opportunities for F1 still out there going begging.

Be part of something big

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Series Formula 1
Article type Analysis
Tags bernie ecclestone, facebook, social media, twitter