Formula One is meant to be the pinnacle of motorsport and is up there only with the Olympics and the Football World Cup in terms of both global spectacle and global audience – at least that’s how the sport has tended to market itself. But the audience share has declined in recent years, and while the trend did stop in 2016, the fact remains the TV audience has dropped by a third since 2008, from around 600 million to 400 million.
Why has this happened?
It is difficult to say precisely, some might point the finger at the cars themselves, with the quieter turbo-charged V6 engines – introduced in 2014 – not exactly popular, while the push to Pay TV and away from free-to-view has also undoubtedly been a factor. Both are valid points, but there are lots of other reasons too, including the sports failure to really take advantage of digital marketing. In fact on this front it has been notoriously slow and behind other sports, ironic when you consider F1 bills itself on being cutting edge.
Under former ring-master Bernie Ecclestone the sport was never really switched on to social media and the way it can help it connect with its audience and increase engagement amongst its fan base.
Rewind to November 2014 and Ecclestone famously – or should that be infamously – told Campaign Asia-Pacific in an exclusive interview that social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook were “nonsense”.
“I’m not interested in tweeting, Facebook or whatever this nonsense is. I tried to find out but in any case I’m too old fashioned. I couldn’t see any value in it…” Ecclestone told the publication. Cue his comments about preferring to target rich 70-year-olds with “plenty of cash” as opposed to young kids that don’t have the money to buy a Rolex… We paraphrase here, but that’s what made most of the headlines and is what most people remember.
His attitude did change somewhat in subsequent years, from being cold on social media to more lukewarm, and when F1 concluded its “global partnership” with Heineken last June, he conceded the arrival might help “wake him up a bit” to it.
Ecclestone, however, never got the chance to really show if he would or could finally “wake-up” to social media and with Liberty Media taking over ownership of the sport – agreeing to pay CVC $8 billion (around £6 billion) for it last September, a deal signed off in January – the ringmaster was eased out. Chase Carey was appointed CEO and chairman, while Ross Brawn and Sean Bratches were brought in respectively as motor sports managing director and commercial operations managing director. The dictatorship of Ecclestone had been replaced by a triumvirate. Bratches, former executive vice president of sales and marketing at ESPN, was charged with transforming F1’s digital strategy, and in March he said there was an “extraordinary opportunity to detonate the fan experience in a very positive way”.
He also revealed he had had lunch with Hamilton to see how he could help the Briton build on his massive social media following – with 4.7 million followers on both Twitter and Instagram, at the time of writing.
“Lewis has this kind of inalienable relationship with fans across the globe that transcends sport, that goes to celebrity,” Bratches told Autosport. “But we are not giving him the tools to perform from a social media standpoint with equivalent global rock stars. We want to help him. We talked about this and we are 100 percent aligned in terms of where we are going from a social media standpoint in terms of its importance and how we can work together.”
So, what has Liberty Media done since taking control of F1? Here we take a look at some of the strategies it has already adopted…
Teams and drivers unshackled: Freedom!
Back in February 2017, ahead of the first pre-season test, came news that the sport was to relax its social media rules for drivers and teams. It was subsequently extended to race weekends for any content recorded on handheld devices. It meant more use of Facebook Live feeds, more Instagram stores from within the paddock and more Snapchats. There were certain restrictions and in April Hamilton was told to remove from Instagram an on-board clip of his pole lap ahead of that Sunday’s Chinese Grand Prix as it conflicted with the interests of various broadcasters. But still a quick look at the key social media accounts of the top teams and driver shows how vital this was – and is – for the sport with the tables below showing a simple comparison of 2015 to now.
*2015 stats correct as of September 2015 (based on information compiled by Sky Sports F1)
**2017 stats correct as of August 27 2017
The growth on Instagram is probably the most dramatic – although across the board it has only gone one way, with the top-three teams increasing their combined reach on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram over the last 2 years from 22.82m to 33.43m – an approximate increase of 45%. It is the same with the drivers as well with the overall combined total for the three most popular drivers jumping from 15.02m to 24.14m – an approximate increase of 60%, although Hamilton’s popularity is clear. No social media presence for Sebastian Vettel or Kimi Raikkonen does not help the sport either, while Button is now McLaren’s third / reserve driver, but still has a bigger following than the likes of Sergio Perez, Felipe Massa, Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen – the next most popular drivers.
Making more of what you have got
In unison with giving the teams and drivers more freedom, the sport itself has also sought to broaden the audience for its own online platforms. This has been achieved in a number of ways including:
Video content – and clips
F1 use to restrict heavily the use of any video content online with then boss Ecclestone concerned about its potential impact on the sport’s lucrative deals with broadcasters around the world. Liberty Media, however, has taken a different tact and a quick look at F1’s official YouTube channel illustrates how this has been achieved with more videos now available for free, such as ‘F1 Classics Onboards’ bringing alive the achievements of the likes of F1 greats Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and Alain Prost. All 23 videos currently here been added since March.
There have also been clips of other moments that have been a big talking point and they have been exploited on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the official Formula One site too, as the two examples show below:
— Formula 1 (@F1) June 10, 2017
Another notable improvement has been in terms of engagement, with a Driver of the Day vote now taking place during each grand prix – although to be fair this first happened in 2016 under Ecclestone.
Still it is something that has continued, with other notable votes now taking place, including on Twitter with re-tweets, for example, to gauge the ‘Best off-track moments’ of the season so far during F1’s summer break, as well as ‘4 of the best ‘great escapes’ – embedded below…
COMING UP: 4 of the best ‘great escapes’ from the 2017 #F1 season so far 😳
Which one was your favourite? RT that clip to vote 📱
— Formula 1 (@F1) August 17, 2017
1 – GREAT ESCAPES:
— Formula 1 (@F1) August 17, 2017
Expansion and new ventures
Formula One is now looking to increase its digital marketing by expanding into new areas as well. For example, F1 confirmed a new partnership with Snapchat prior to last month’s British Grand Prix. It will see F1 exploit the ‘Discover’ part of the app with fans able to submit pictures and videos that are then collated into a story in a bid to capture the ‘atmosphere and excitement’ at selected events during the rest of 2017.
It is still early days, but it is clear from this what the trend is – although the importance of Facebook should not be forgotten as it is bigger than Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp combined. Indeed Facebook has 2.1 billion active users – up 17% on last year – with 1.15 billion using their mobile daily to access it in December 2016 and the official Formula One page itself has 3.6 million likes. Snapchat though is a good way to target younger people, as Frank Arthofer, who was named Formula 1’s Head of Digital and New Business in May, pointed out when the deal was announced.
“This is the first step towards expanding our social media strategy. Right from the start, we have said we want to work with partners to bring fans closer to the amazing show that is Formula 1, an incredible mix of technology and individual talent – and Snap fits that bill…” he said. “Snap’s platform is one of the most popular among ‘millennials,’ a sector we are particularly keen on attracting, as it represents the future of our sport.”
The subsequent move into esports with the launch of the Formula 1 Esports Series to “uncover the best virtual F1 driver’ is another step to widen the sport’s appeal.
It is still very early days for Liberty Media, but Formula One’s digital presence is now growing and it is apparently “the fastest growing sports brand on social media”.
“One of the objectives we set ourselves at the start of the season was to broaden the audience for Formula 1 on our online platforms,” Athofer told Motorsport Week.com. “The figures from the first part of the championship are very encouraging. We have increased the content on offer and fan engagement has been incredible. It means we are on the right path and, at the moment, Formula 1 is the fastest growing sports brand on social media. This is the type of success that this sport deserves.”
Indeed as of now – August 27 2017 – F1 has over 600,000 subscribers on YouTube – up from around 325,000 at the start of the year (a 185 per cent increase), while Instragam has similarly grown, up to 3.2 million followers, and similar to Twitter (3.08 million), and the official F1 Facebook page, as already mentioned, has 3.6 million likes.
It is clear there is more digital avenues the sport can explore and exploit, from live streaming to VR and AR – especially useful for trackside fans to keep them informed.
Carey has also recently admitted the sport is investigating bringing out its own 4K OTT (‘over the top’ – over the internet) digital platform – although there is a need to balance various “conflicting goals” in terms of current agreements with broadcasters. The specifics are still under wraps, but Carey knows the importance of digital marketing and being mobile.
“It’s more and more heading to various forms of digital platforms… [and] I think there’s no question that there will be a lot more ways content will continue to be offered to consumers that I think will benefit consumers on both ends of that,” he said recently.
Bratches has also stated on the record that the sports need to reimagine itself: “We’re going to burn the incumbency to the ground. We’re going to be in the vanguard of the digital experience and be very fan-focused…”
In short, Formula One is now very keen on exploiting digital marketing and the coming months and years will see further steps being taken.
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