It’s tough to argue with the publicity Lotus sponsor EMC attracted after more than 11 million people and counting downloaded a YouTube video of a team truck jumping a Formula One car.
Well, unless you’re F1 ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone, whose stance on these things leaves him unconvinced that there’s any real value in Twitter, Facebook and the like.
“What does social media do? It doesn’t make any money for a start,” Ecclestone told Forbes in December.
“I have been looking at this Twitter thing and I can’t see anything on there except [Mercedes F1 team boss] Toto Wolff and one of my daughters. How does that help Formula One?”
Ironically, with his combative style, blunt manner, and controversial opinions, the diminutive F1 boss is undoubtedly one Twitter login away from millions of social media followers.
Despite his misgivings, the sport Ecclestone runs made its first foray into social media late last year, adding Twitter hashtags to its F1 television feed and asking fans “to join the conversation,” beginning with the September Singapore Grand Prix. Billed as F1 embracing Twitter, the tepid hashtag move was more akin to the apprehensive hug kids give an eccentric, elderly aunt they see once a year.
As Ecclestone struggles to see value in Twitter, others in the paddock certainly do.
“Anything which shows the level of fan interaction that Twitter does is a good thing,” said Lotus F1 media communications manager Andy Stobart, whose team joined Twitter in 2009.
“We have our own voice, we say what we think. We enjoy this sport and want others to enjoy it too.”
Roughly 80 per cent of Mercedes’ social media audience is younger than 35 years old in a sport with an increasingly geriatric fan base.
“Those are serious, impressive figures and a reach that is, of course, commercially attractive for our sponsors,” said a Mercedes team spokesperson. “We embed ourselves like in-house journalists around the team, capturing what we think will interest passionate F1 fans. And they really respond to it.”
Meanwhile, there are eight people working on a strategy at Ecclestone’s Formula One Management (FOM) headquarters in London that led the sport’s commercial arm’s baby steps onto Twitter.
Although the official @F1 Twitter feed has more than 1.1-million followers and claimed 80-million impressions through its grand prix hashtag campaign, FOM’s social media team eschews the interactive approach adopted by the teams. While finding a reply to a fan is impossible, the same doesn’t go for tweets to get them to buy the sport’s official app.
The FOM plan also includes YouTube and Facebook, but all will come with an impenetrable wall built between “at track” and “on track” footage.
Unlike most other racing series, which use race clips to market their sport and appeal to younger viewers who consume content in bite-sized pieces and may never watch a race on TV, FOM’s social media channels won’t follow that lead. Instead, it will keep a tight grip on race footage and only show “behind the scenes” videos, such as driver interviews in the paddock.
“The whole point about this, I believe, is to encourage people to watch television,” Ecclestone said. “We need to keep our TV audience up and we need to help the promoters sell more tickets. That’s basically what we ought to do.”
A demonstration of how F1 lags behind just about every other sport when it comes to social media lies at the feet of a Canadian: motorsport fan Mark McArdle. The high-tech entrepreneur from of Waterloo, Ont., has single-handedly made F1 race director Charlie Whiting one of the most popular paddock figures on social media with a parody Twitter account, @charlie_whiting, that boasts more than 42,000 followers.
“Fake Charlie Whiting” has the approval of the real F1 race director, who invited McArdle to be a guest in the paddock at the 2012 Canadian Grand Prix after his cousin, Carlton Jefferis, saw the feed and pointed out the account to the real Whiting.
One area where Ecclestone and the teams might agree is measuring success, which can be difficult and often depends on what you want to do with social media.
“How long is a piece of string?” Stobart replied playfully when asked about metrics. “You can look at growth, interaction, appreciation and dedicate many hours looking at trends. We generally look at what we want to tell people about our sport in a way that our fans hopefully appreciate.”
That appreciation was never more apparent in the days following an incident at the Belgian Grand Prix that saw Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg hit teammate Lewis Hamilton’s rear tire, knocking the latter from of the race. As Mercedes and its two championship contending drivers became embroiled in a growing controversy, team boss Wolff insisted the team use Twitter to include fans in the conversation.
Mercedes waded into the sometimes acerbic debate to ask the fans for their opinions. Under a “Team Boss Thursday” hashtag, Mercedes polled fans on how the team should deal with its two drivers.
Wolff’s idea turned a potentially brand-damaging incident into a public relations coup.
Twitter fans were asked to “Retweet or Favourite” if they agreed that “team orders should be installed to prevent incidents on track” or that “free racing between teammates should be allowed at all times.” In the end, 92 per cent of the 5,000 fans who responded said that they wanted to see the teammates continue to race each other for the title.
And that was exactly what happened.
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