Formula 1 may ultimately be all about the show come race day, but for those with even a passing interest in the sport beyond a Sunday afternoon will know the debate on how to improve and modernise it continues to occupy the creative (and not-so-creative) minds of its disparate group of directors and lead actors.
Whether it's the world's economic crisis, the declining television audience in key markets, the drop in sponsorship revenues and the ongoing financial troubles of the smaller teams, each pose questions remain difficult to answer when vested interests stop clear decisions being made.
However, is there another, more immediate, question that F1's rule-makers should ask themselves before attempting to 'revolutionise' the sport with spectacular cars, new rules or more powerful engines: What if the show is already good and we are just promoting it the wrong way?
The sheer breadth, impact and – crucially - potential of social media, whether it is Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine or others, may be a fairly 'new' phenomenon, but it is one that has been harnessed quickly and with remarkable effect across various industries, offering an vast untapped audience and massive commercial reach.
And yet Formula One Management to date has made little, if any, attempt to harness it… and if it doesn't soon it could be on course for the biggest mistake in the sport's history.
Fired for a tweet
F1's reluctance to embrace the 'interweb thingy' is succinctly exampled by the rise – and removal – of Stephane Samson, former social media guru and Group Brand Director at Lotus F1. The team accumulated a loyal band of followers for its irreverent, quirky and refreshingly informal tweets that showed at least one outfit in the paddock had a sense of humour.
However, one man's humour is another man's PR disaster and Samson was forced to leave the team last year over a series of tweets regarded as “gross misconduct”, namely one which supported gay athletes at the Winter Olympic in the year of the inaugural Russian Grand Prix and the infamous “rabbit” tweet sent after Kimi Raikkonen's announcement he was departing from Enstone to join Ferrari.
Paradoxically, it was his open and active way of interacting with the fans that made Lotus' communication a success, as all specialised researches showed. However, his controversial management of the team's Twitter feeds was still just scratching the surface of what social media channels can surely offer Formula One, not that FOM was particularly interested in hearing him out.
“At my time at Lotus, I approached FOM to do a lot of things on Twitter, even to help them raise the awareness of the sport”, the Swiss journalist tells. “To give you an example, we had built an amazing prototype steering wheel which allowed the driver, by pressing a button during the race, to send a picture straightaway on Twitter.
“The system was working: it weighed only 85 grams, so it wasn't affecting performance at all, and the drivers were OK to use it. But obviously, as there was a live element to it, so we had to ask FOM's permission. Their answer was 'no', because, up until now, FOM must have seen social media as something they were not clearly understanding.
“It was a big shame for us, because it would have benefitted Lotus and their sponsors, but first of all F1 as a whole, since they would have been officially the first sport to tweet live from the pitch”.
Other sports have already shown how effective a tool social media is, not least because of its versatility, which allows sports to blaze a trail and promote the best bits quickly and broadly. The English football Premier League, for example, has close to 30 million Facebook followers and all of its video content reached thousands and thousands of likes in a few hours. American NBA basketball championship has already gained 13.2 million subscriptions on its very active Twitter page born in February 2009.
It's not as though motorsport as a whole is adverse to dripping its toe into the waters of social media, with series' such as the FIA WEC developing an impressive real-time app which is updated with videos of crashes or highlights so far whilst the race is ongoing, while Formula E has introduced the novel – if gimmicky – fan boost that allows fans to vote via Twitter who receives a 'push to pass' during races.
However, this just serves to prove how increasingly archaic F1 is becoming in its strategy and how it is turning off potential new investors who are actively looking for effective social media integration when deciding whether to offer its cash.
“When a team representative goes to a potential sponsor with his deck, he always tells F1 is the third sport in the world after the Olympics and the football World Cup,” Samson adds. “I think FOM has realised that a gap was starting to be built in terms of digital activation between those sports in two areas: what the organizers themselves are offering to the fans and what the sponsors are allowed to do.
“My agency has worked with Coca Cola at the football World Cup and they were allowed to travel all around the world with the trophy. This is something F1 could easily do every year. It's getting increasingly difficult to find money in F1 and if you are a big company willing to spend 15 million a year in a sport, what you can get in other sports, especially on digital, is a million miles away from F1's restrictions.”
A step into the unknown
An inherent fear of lowering the value of television rights, which remains FOM's main source of revenue, is arguably the primary reason why Bernie Ecclestone has ignored social media calls. However, experts insist that greater sharing on the Internet and distributing visually appealing clips from the events actually has the potential to promote its output on television.
“The real issue we have is the attention span of the younger generation compared to the length of a race,” says James Dunford, Director at motorsport digital marketing agency 5G Creative. “For a 15-years-old, it's really challenging to sit and watch a F1 race for 90 minutes, with no break in the middle and periods of around 15 laps when nothing happens. That's where social media can be so powerful. What you can do is put very quick clips of the amusing things that happen, which can be produced at a relatively cheap cost: just a couple of people and a laptop with video editing abilities.”
The opportunities offered by new media channels like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube at no extra expense are almost endless. “We are not saying they should upload the entire race onto YouTube as soon as it's finished,” Dunford explains, “just 7-seconds teaser clips on Facebook and Twitter. If the race is happening and there's been a big incident, you could actively use that to increase the viewership of the race at that moment. If you upload the video, it goes viral and suddenly the casual fans are going to turn the television on. Moreover, you can tag videos by location, adding the SKY or BBC logo in the UK or RTL for the German market. And you can even monetise it, by selling sponsorships for every clip, and this extra revenue can be shared with TV networks in each market”.
However, Ecclestone remains unconvinced – or unwilling to listen – to what is on offer. In a recent interview to Asia's Campaign magazine, the usually savvy 84-year-old supremo gave a rather telling insight into his vision for F1, one that doesn't include a digital overhaul or, apparently, tomorrow's audience.
Indeed, Ecclestone claimed F1 doesn't need to entice younger people because they have no money to spend on the sport's sponsors' products. “Young kids will see the Rolex brand, but are they going to go and buy one? They can't afford it”, Ecclestone answered. “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”.
Yet while Ecclestone was quick to use sponsors of F1 itself as an example, it ignores the fact that team can't afford to be so selective when it comes to attracting backers that want promotion beyond a logo on an end-plate or side-pod. Regardless, sponsors don't appear to share his view that it is pointless targeting a young audience.
“The key target for most of Lotus' sponsors were 18-to-35-years-old, who were following F1 with a TV screen and probably a laptop or a tablet,” Stephane Samson reveals. “These were the people we were talking to, trying to bring new audience to F1. Bernie thinks the money is with the older generation, who should be kept happy, and he probably thinks they don't know anything about social media. But my grandfather is 83 and he is sending me emails”.
“Have you noticed the massive blank spaces on McLaren-Honda's livery during the latest testing?”, James Dunford goes on. “That, to me, says: if our sport was really cool and people were really interested in it, we could attract younger brands. This might not entirely solve the teams' financial struggle, but could get F1 out of the rut it's stuck in, aiming just for higher-end, specific brands, which have been there for a while.
“Red Bull is an example of a young brand which has done really well in the sport: they are alone responsible for a substantial chunk of our audience and this has been rewarding for them. The older audience is going to disappear, and it's the younger audience which will become the older audience of tomorrow. It's much harder to influence someone when they are older than it is when they are younger.”
Is Bernie still the right guy?
It should be pointed out that FOM hasn't entirely dismissed the notion of social media, but progress remains slow in its efforts to engage younger audience.
“F1 needs the younger generation to make sure it doesn't die out”, says Marco Nazzari, Managing Director for Italy at Repucom, an international market research and strategic consultancy company. “FOM realised its needs to communicate to the F1 audience through modern ways like social media, that are growing not only among the young people. This approach is an indispensable choice”.
In fact, now working in the London office of the commercial rightholder is a dedicated social media team of eight people, led by Digital Media Manager Marissa Pace. They have increased the visibility of the @F1 official Twitter feed, they are currently rebuilding Formula1.com website and they have announced they will carry on through to YouTube and Facebook in the future.
However, is it too many projects for such a small working group? “They should dedicate more of the team's time into community management of their social channels”, is the opinion of Amy Byard, PR and Social Media Account Manager at UK's UMPF agency. “At the moment, they're broadcasting content but not starting conversation: it's all one way as it stands.”
“FOM is the commercial rightholder, so their Twitter feed will be always very much press release-like,” Samson reckons. “It would be very difficult to make something fun, because of what they represent. But they could open the door to the right people who could promote the sport in a friendlier way. Maybe push on the charity side, organize competitions and win tickets: that could be an angle.”
Rather than the actual size of FOM's social media team, the biggest problem on that regard are the restrictive guidelines given by Bernie Ecclestone. FOM's boss still seems convinced the social media boom won't last and admitted he let his company move their first steps into Twitter only “because people have been breaking my balls about social media”.
“I think it took Bernie a while to realise the potential of social media”, Samson agrees. “He saw this as a trend which would disappear as quickly as it had appeared. And he was fearing that, through social media, he was giving away something he could ask people to pay for, either fans or sponsors. Now teams and sponsors are convincing him it doesn't work that way, and instead there is something to be made in this area. He might have found something to finance the social media side of F1 and he might have understood the potential in terms of brand awareness and commercial possibilities. So he is trying to catch up, even if it might be a bit late.”
Whether a man in his eighties will ever be able to fully understand what the latest technologies mean for the younger generation remains to be seen, but Daniel McLaren, Managing Director at Cast Digital agency, doubts it
“Bernie never got how social media can benefit F1 and never will. From his interviews it is obvious he has been persuaded grudgingly to start to look at it now and has given his team the 2015 season to prove themselves. As long as he allows and to some extend embraces it - as much as he ever could - then they will benefit. His role extends much further than being digitally savvy but I'm sure there are many fans out there who would be happy to see someone else take his position”.
He is a man used to receiving – and brushing off – criticism, but having played his cards right on so many occasions, dismissing the digital revolution threatens to wrong foot him.
“If Bernie is not going to embrace it, he should just pass onto someone else who can really lead the way with it”, James Dunford concludes. “At some point, however it happens, he's going to step down from the head of F1 and at some point in the future social media is going to become a big part of F1. It's not like it's going to go away, but the longer you leave it, the harder it becomes to build an audience.”
By Fabrizio Corgnati