Analysis: Why social media was the only winner from Brazilian GP

Fernando Alonso, a deck chair and a hashtag is all it took to make social media explode during the Brazilian Grand Prix, showing the potential of a tool Formula 1 has yet to unlock, says Jonathan Noble.

Who would have thought that one of the more memorable images of a billion-dollar sport like Formula 1 would be of a man sat on a deck chair?

For if Bernie Ecclestone ever needed any evidence to grasp the value and potential that social media can deliver, then it came by the bucket load at Interlagos last weekend.

On a weekend when F1 let itself down with a misjudgement about how to treat the tribute to the victims of the Paris terrorist attacks, and an awfully dull race, it was the fans who got it spot on when a shot of Alonso went viral to give us what will most likely be our online event of the year.

Sat there, soaking up the sun as he sat at the side of the track after yet another Honda failure, Alonso probably had little idea that his five minutes of relaxation would help make him the most talked about driver of the weekend.

Genius Hashtag

The ball started rolling from the Twitter account McMike, after it posted a doctored shot of Alonso sitting on the beach rather than by his stranded car. 

Within minutes, #placesalonsowouldratherbe was getting some traction, and images were rapidly flying their way around the internet. On the beach, in the jungle, on the moon, in the Mercedes garage, at the Last Supper, at a WEC race, on the Titanic. Alonso was everywhere.

It became the talk of the paddock as people huddled around mobile phones to laugh at yet another genius creation.

Alonso himself joined in the fun ahead of his regular Saturday afternoon media briefing, and by the time he had arrived at the track on Sunday morning, his team had prepared a special 'best of' picture board for him.

The hashtag went truly global. A quick scan of social media analytics tools suggests that there were 12,000 posts just on Twitter on the Saturday referencing it. Since then, estimates suggest that the reach has been 7.25 million people, with 7.5 million impressions.

The figures themselves are impressive, but perhaps what is best about it is that this was a genuine social media event: and not just a viral campaign concocted by well-tongued marketing-hipsters after a long session sipping on chai lattes.

It got people talking. It got people laughing. It got people engaged in F1 long after the television cameras had stopped rolling at Interlagos. And that is exactly what social media should be doing.

Show me the money

Ecclestone's reluctance to embrace social media is well known, and is based on the simple basis that there is no way for him to make a quick buck from it.

Television companies pay him money for exclusive rights, circuits pay him money to host races, sponsors pay him money to get their logos track side – but Twitter, Facebook et al pay him nothing. (Although I will point out again, that is down to the failure of F1's chiefs to monetise what they are doing on these platform because countless American sports make profit).

Yet despite a softening of his opposition to social media this year – with there at least now an F1 YouTube channel and some limited video action on Twitter – Ecclestone is still not convinced about the merits of doing much on social media.

When I spoke to him in Belgium about F1 beginning to catch up with the world, he said: "I'd like to know, as we are doing this, has it been successful or not? I am told it is. So we will wait and see.

"Unfortunately we cannot get any figures. We just don't know. I am sure it is doing good things. If not we will stop it."

Tomorrow's buyers

What needs to be grasped though is that social media is about long-term investment. It's about building an engaged audience who chat, share and talk about F1, so that they then tune in the television to see what all the fuss is about. (Although if they had done so on Sunday, they might wish never to again... but that is a totally separate discussion point.)

This week marks 12 months on from Ecclestone's famous comments to Campaign Asia-Pacific about him not caring about the younger generation, as he stated he preferred to try to sell stuff to the older people who can buy it.

"Young kids will see the Rolex brand, but are they going to go and buy one? They can't afford it," he said. "Or our other sponsor, UBS - these kids don't care about banking. They haven't got enough money to put in the bloody banks anyway.

"That's what I think. I don't know why people want to get to the so-called 'young generation'. Why do they want to do that? Is it to sell them something? Most of these kids haven't got any money.

"I'd rather get to the 70-year-old guy who's got plenty of cash. So, there's no point trying to reach these kids because they won't buy any of the products here and if marketers are aiming at this audience, then maybe they should advertise with Disney."

But companies don't think such short-termist like that any more. Luxury car brands and watch companies know that if they can capture the interest from youngsters, then they will be setting in stone their purchasers of the future.

It's why Mercedes was originally so open to the idea of a tie-up with youth brand Red Bull, why too Tag Heuer has switched camps to throw its backing behind the energy drinks team.

A social media push is about targeting long-term engagement. It's about opening the eyes of Generation Smartphone. So every time they click open an app or check their social posts, F1 is there shouting at them, urging them to click, to enjoy, to share and to contribute.

If you don't do that, they will never care about what takes place on track on Sunday afternoons.

So to McMike (whoever you are), and everyone else who played a part in stealing the internet last weekend with a man on a deckchair, I salute you.

You're the reason F1 can have a bright future.

Be part of something big

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About this article
Series Formula 1
Event Brazilian GP
Track Interlagos
Drivers Fernando Alonso
Article type Analysis