July 05, 2009

Twitter. NASCAR. Customers.

For the next two minutes, put aside your thoughts (positive or negative) about NASCAR, and think about how your business interacts with customers.

On Saturday night, NASCAR hosted a 400 mile race in Florida. Most of the three or four million Americans who witnessed the event did so on television.

A small number of individuals, maybe just a few hundred, maybe a few thousand, watched the race on television and interacted with each other on Twitter. Their participation influenced the broadcast.

NASCAR beat reporter Jenna Fryer (@JennaFryer) mentioned to her 1,088 followers that TNT (the cable channel broadcasting the race) was not interviewing drivers who were involved in an accident. Around the same time, NASCAR blogger John Daly (@JohnDaly) asked his 1,062 followers the same question.

It's a good thing they asked their question, because one of the television broadcast announcers is former driver Kyle Petty (@KylePetty). During the race, he monitors what people are saying on Twitter, and during commercials, he interacts with his audience. He told his 10,723 followers that his team was not interviewing the drivers because those cars were being repaired, or because the cars had re-entered the race.

He also told the viewing audience the same information. In fact, several times during the race, he mentioned that folks on Twitter had questions, and he answered their questions on live television.

NASCAR fans followed the action using the #nascar hashtag. In fact, NASCAR was one of the top ten trending topics Saturday evening on Twitter.

So you had the press, bloggers, and fans interacting with the broadcast team, shaping the direction of the broadcast. One broadcaster from another network (driver Kenny Wallace, @Kenny_Wallace) was honest enough to mention on Twitter that the race was boring. He as a vested interest in making the event seem exciting, but willingly shared the feelings many fans had.

Fans could also learn about their favorite drivers during the race.
  • Juan Pablo Montoya told what was happening prior to the race, his wife issued a few updates during the event (@jpmontoya).
  • Richard Petty Motorsports (@RPMotorsports) gave periodic updates about their drivers during the race, including adjustments that would be made during upcoming pit stops, and informed fans of the safety of its drivers after a terrible accident at the end of the race.
  • Joe Gibbs Racing (@joegibbsracing) shared information about its drivers during the race.
  • DeLana Harvick (@DelanaHarvick) lamented a season of bad luck for her husband, Kevin Harvick.
Fans also got to air their complaints, with numerous tweets about what appeared to be a fake caution flag with 15 laps to go that bunched up the field to create more drama. Fans openly encouraged TNT to show a camera angle that pictured the debris that caused the caution. No camera angles were revealed.

The point of this isn't to make NASCAR and its fans appear to be technological wizards or visionaries, or to tell you to watch the 400 mile race from Chicago next Sunday.

The point is to share how different industries are being changed because of audience participation. NASCAR television ratings are down this year, so you can't make the argument that this level of interaction improves ratings. And with only a few hundred or a few thousand individuals participating, we clearly see that there isn't a groundswell of interest, yet.

It seems to me that individuals benefit greatly from social media. But brands (in my opinion), at best, receive (at best) indirect benefits from a social media presence. You'd be hard pressed to name a business (not an individual) that generates more than 3% of their sales from social media. Use the comments section to list the companies that are generating sales that are a respectable percentage of net sales (and no, Dell doesn't count ... a couple million on a base of $60,000,000,000 is essentially zero).

So if you're trying to figure out how to use this stuff in a unique way, consider this example, courtesy of NASCAR. NASCAR isn't actually managing the social media process. Instead, folks with a vested interest in NASCAR (press, bloggers, drivers, teams, broadcasters, fans) create their own social media ecosystem around weekly events.

We have similar opportunities, opportunities that go beyond offering Twitter followers 20% off, or go beyond telling our Twitter followers what we ate for lunch. From a long-term standpoint, we're going to have to figure out how to acquire new customers outside of list rental and pay-per-click. This represents one long-term opportunity that needs to be tested.

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