How INDYCAR Uses Social Media to Engage with Fans Worldwide
It’s again the month of May, and while those words have a very special meaning to race fans around the world, nowhere is it more special than to the fans of the Indianapolis 500, America’s most prestigious motor race.
This year is particularly special, as the 2016 500 marks the 100th running of the storied race. And now more than ever, the Digital Media team at INDYCAR is using social media to bring fans closer to the action, and to help evangelize drivers, teams, and sponsors to ensure the long-term success of the sport.
I recently sat down with Brian Simpson, Digital Media and Photo Operations Manager at INDYCAR to talk a bit about how his team accomplishes these goals.
How did INDYCAR get started with social media?
INDYCAR was well ahead of the curve when it comes to social media. The mass migration to social really started first with our teams. They led the charge on providing behind-the-scenes access to our fans.
— IndyCar Series (@IndyCar) May 27, 2016
Following our drivers and teams in those early days of social really gave fans the opportunity to experience the sport from a unique insider’s perspective, and it was something that many sports weren’t tackling just yet.
How big is the team that contributes to your social channels?
Our team is small compared to many professional sports leagues. The digital team consists of myself, the Manager of Digital/Social Media & Photo Operations, a Social Media Strategist, and our Digital Media Producer. Between the three of us, we spend a lot of time creating content, monitoring channels, and, most importantly, measuring our results.
One of the biggest challenges in social is employee advocacy. How do you get drivers, owners, and teams new to social media excited about it?
We’re lucky in our sport that our drivers and teams are very active and genuinely enjoy interacting with fans. We really pride ourselves on being a very accessible sport.
— Conor Daly (@ConorDaly22) May 26, 2016
From our side of things, we try to be sure that we’re constantly arming our drivers and teams with quality content to post from their channels. So we’re creating videos for them, providing them a photo library to choose from, and alerting them to content featuring their team or driver on our website.
A video posted by IndyCar Series (@indycar) on
This makes the “work” of social media quite a bit easier for them. They’re competitive people, so the easiest way to keep them all engaged and excited is to showcase that their activity is growing their brand. We utilize Simply Measured’s services to do that. Every week on Monday morning, the drivers and teams receive a report for each of their channels to inform them of what is working and what isn’t, so they can be more effective.
How connected is the digital team with the rest of the teams at INDYCAR?
We’re very connected with almost every facet of our company. It’s our job to tell the story of our sport, so we spend a lot of time in competition and operations meetings learning about developments with the cars and rules.
The information in those meetings is what drives our content strategy. We’re obviously working hand-in-hand with the Marketing and PR teams to make sure what we’re posting is reinforcing our brand pillars and helping to push forward the Verizon INDYCAR Series.
How many pieces of content does the team create each month?
It varies from month to month, but we’re creating content for our website, the Verizon INYC Mobile Application, and social media.
Across all of our channels, that ends up being hundreds of pieces of content. We’re publishing everything from session recaps to brand videos like our #INDYRIVALS series.
Just how crazy is the month of May for the team?
People inside INDYCAR often refer to the month of May as the year of May. It’s a long month with long hours. It’s the biggest race in the world and a total privilege to be a part of it, but the month does require quite a bit of patience and flexibility.
With as many sessions as we have across the entire event, the storylines are constantly evolving, and we’re always bouncing from content piece to content piece to be sure we’re providing a good experience for fans not on site.
In addition to the Indy 500, how does the team follow the Verizon INDYCAR series and drivers around the world?
We’re on the road a lot! For instance, Monday after the Indianapolis 500 we’ll have a photo shoot with the winner, the banquet that night, and then we’ll head to New York City for the winner’s tour. We’ll be in NYC for about two days and then we’ll head straight from there to Detroit for the next weekend’s race.
It does require a lot of communication with the teams and drivers to be sure we’re helping them and staying on top of what is going on. Drivers will be all over the country doing media appearances, sponsor events, and tests, and we want to be sure we’re highlighting all of that. We can’t be in all those places at the same time, so we rely on a lot of cell phone pictures from PR reps and drivers to be sure we’re telling the story.
What is your favorite piece of digital content the team has created?
That’s a tough one. In 2011, we did a piece called “Anatomy of a Pit Stop,” and it was one of the most trafficked pieces of content we’ve ever created. Fans could interact with a graphic to see a pit stop from the point of view of the crew member.
Unfortunately, that interactive piece didn’t make it over during a website transition. In regards to this year, I’m really proud of what we’re doing with video. Our Digital Media Producer is working non-stop to create some really visually stunning content. Our “Anticipation” video and “Legends” videos are two of the best the series has ever done, in my opinion. We have some more “hype reel”-type content coming out this month that I’m sure will be big hits.
What makes what you do on social unique?
We’ve really pushed to be on the cutting edge of live video. Our sport has a global audience, and through streaming we can reach all of those fans. Most recently, we dove headfirst into the Facebook Live API and have streamed all of our non-televised on-track content this May.
The response has been tremendous and our reach has increased exponentially.
Which platforms give you the most fan support?
It depends on the time of day! Typically, Facebook is where we see the most activity.
However, during races, Twitter is where the heartbeat of the event takes place.
— Matt Archuleta (@indy44) May 23, 2016
We’re publishing replays in real time to Twitter using SnappyTV, and the response is through the roof. Our fastest growth is happening on Instagram. We have a very strong photo team and our images really tell the story.
We’ve also been doing end-of-day highlight clips on Instagram that have been really popular.
How much of your reach is global?
Some of our most popular drivers are Brazilian, Colombian, Canadian, French, and British. Our reach is big in these countries.
In fact, since Juan Pablo Montoya joined the series, Colombia has ranked third on our traffic source list–the United States and Canada being first and second. On our Facebook page this month, we reached over 3.1 million people in Brazil!
How are you using live video to bring racing to people who can’t be at the track?
We stream all of our non-televised track activity on YouTube and have recently added Facebook Live to the arsenal.
Facebook Live has a 90-minute limit, so during May it’s a bit tough, as our sessions are sometimes six hours long. So we’ve taken to pushing “happy hour” (the last hour of track activity) to Facebook for fans to enjoy.
We also have a live video Facebook chat with each race’s Verizon P1 Award winner (fastest qualifier) and the race winner. This allows fans to get a one-on-one conversation going with the drivers. It’s been really neat to see how everybody has embraced it.
A couple weeks ago, after Simon Pagenaud won the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis, he actually didn’t want to stop answering fan questions during the chat! We ran out of time and he kept going. The same thing happened when we let Ed Carpenter Racing’s three drivers take over. The chat ended up lasting almost 40 minutes.
How do you translate fan feedback to use by the rest of the organization?
We are always listening. Whether it be in providing real-time feedback to a facility regarding complaints from fans or identifying areas where we need to clarify rules changes or developments with our product, we’re constantly paying attention to what the fans tell us. In the past year, we’ve made changes to our platforms and quickly reverted those based on fan feedback.
It’s our job to provide the best experience possible for the fans. If we’re not listening to what they want, we can’t make adjustments to ensure they’re consuming what we provide. That includes our on-track product. We review our social data on a minute-by-minute basis with our race data to see if there are moments, types of moves on track, certain types of racing, or incidents that drive spikes in social activity. Our hope is to identify what makes fans love our sport and create more of it.
Which social channels do you want to try next?
Snapchat is what we’re most interested in right now. Our drivers are very active, and the Indy 500 is going to be featured as a live story for the next three years.
We’re also working with their group on getting more of our races covered as live stories in our other markets. It’s an incredible platform and talks to a group of people that we need to reach. My only frustration with it is the lack of measurement involved. It’s tough to know if you’re really being successful. I hope that they’ll include more measurement for brands moving forward.
What’s the #1 thing you’ve learned from your experience doing social for INDYCAR?
That’s a tough one. I’d say patience and a better sense of humor. Social media is tough. There are people out there whose only persona online is to be snarky or negative. I’ve had to learn to laugh through some of the tough times.
Being a part of the event business means that you can plan for everything, or so you think. There’s always one thing that pops up unexpectedly and kind of knocks you back on your heels. I’ve had to learn to be patient and agile and stay solution-oriented when we have problems. If the web stream goes down during a session, you’ve got to keep calm and get through the troubleshooting. It’s technology. Things fail. You have to be ready to deal with the negativity and find a solution quickly without pulling out your hair.
There are few words to truly describe how I’m feeling right now. We rolled the dice and came through and made it happen. This is unbelievable; I have no doubt it’s going to change my life. But we did it, and I have to say a huge heartfelt thank you to everyone who has supported me – my incredible family, my amazing team, my phenomenal partners who have put so much belief in me, and every single person who has supported me to this point. Thank you. Photo: @indycar @andrettiautosport @napaknowhow @carlyletools @alaskacoffee @castrolusa @honda #indy500 #indy
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Matthew Knell is a social media and audience development strategist, digital marketer, web technologist, and community evangelist. His work includes a patented pay-per-click advertising system for About.com, the first social media strategies for JetBlue Airways, a social media platform for Viacom Media Networks, audience development strategies for CafeMom and enterprise social strategy for AOL. He currently serves as About.com's Vice President of Social Media and Platform Partnerships, where he manages enterprise social strategy and relationships with publisher platforms including Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter.