NASCAR's journey into digital and the customer experience

How the racing platform has leveraged digital to enhance racing fan experience and media engagement

Many sports get their start from participants practicing their abilities to outperform each other. But digging into the origins of NASCAR racing in the late 1940s reveals a sport born not just from the technical and driving capabilities of participants in outrunning each other, but also in evading the local law enforcement as well.

“It was the days when people were running bootlegging operations and transporting alcohol without being caught,” NSACAR's managing director for information technology, Steve Worling, said. “And whoever could get there the fastest was making the most amount of money.”

Since then the sport has grown and now sanctions well over 1,000 stock car races across ten different series at hundreds of tracks in seven countries. And of course it has also gone legit.

But when the Global Financial Crisis hit late in the last decade, NASCAR found it needed to significantly reinvent its marketing activities for the 21st century.

According to Worling, NASCAR felt the impact of the GFC more keenly than some of its sporting rivals. “Our fans will drive in from across the US, often for a four or five day weekend,” Worling said. “So we were hit a little harder, because we compete against the traditional US sports, but then we also compete against the vacation destinations like Disney and cruises.”

Speaking at the Customer Experience Tech Fest held in Melbourne by The Eventful Group in late July, Worling described how NASCAR commissioned a comprehensive assessment of the sport, examining it from every angle over a 10 month period.

One of the key findings was that the fans’ affiliation to the sport today was significantly different to that from the 40s and 50s.

“A lot of that had to do with the engagement of how we were trying to market to those new fans,” Worling said. “So changing that meant changing our focus to the digital landscape and making sure we could engage our fans the way they wanted.”

Around the same time NASCAR’s CEO Brian France challenged his team to create a unique platform for the organisation.

“So for a company that is 67 years old and focused on racing, how do you become innovative leaders in technology? That was really interesting challenge for us. He really wanted us to become innovation leaders.”

One of the first steps was the creation of a new integrated marketing communications (IMC) organisation that would help bringing together traditional, digital and social media marketing. The result is NASCAR’s Fan and Media Engagement Canter, a facility where members of the IMC team, as well as NASCAR industry stakeholders, can get updates in real time on how various campaigns and activities are performing across all channels.

Creation of the Fan and Media Engagement Center saw NASCAR partnering with HP to utilise its interactive media command centre and analytics engine. Data across all channels is fed into Hadoop and then onto HP’s IDOL search technology for entity extraction, categorisation and sentiment analysis. Reports are generated through Vertica.

Today NASCAR is tracking the performance of almost more than 700 online accounts relating to the sport, its drivers, tracks and sponsors, as well as 1700 keywords and phrases.

“We can bring all of this data in, stitch it together in real time, and it gives us a single pane of glass,” Worling added. “And coming out of that is a wealth of data that we can look at. We are able to drill into that in real time to see is being talked about and why.”

With millions tuning in via the live broadcast, Worling says NASCAR is now able to provide much better information to its sponsors of how their campaigns are performing.

“As they activate and do a promotion at a race track we can drill in and give them real time data into what fans are doing,” he added.

Worling says the work that NASCAR has done to create its Fan and Media Engagement Center is now the envy of other US sporting codes.

“Everybody is listening socially – I think that’s pretty easy,” Worling said. “But the fact we are able to tie in digital media and traditional media as well to have a full single pane of glass on the conversation is something that is unique to us.”

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