F1 suffering in social media black hole

Social Media

Let's start by stating the obvious: Bernie Ecclestone is a very smart man.

After all, you don't go from being a second-hand car salesman to a billionaire sporting mogul without being incredibly astute.

However, he also says things like this: “I think the change that is currently taking place is very shortlived, as these social media people are starting to think it is not as good as they thought.”

When asked if he planned on engaging with F1 fans via social media, he responded: “No. We're commercial.”

This view stands in opposition to every other company in the world. We live in an age where you can write a letter of complaint to British Gas on their Facebook page, and social media campaigns raise millions for charity. The thought that the person in charge of F1 doesn't think the sport needs social media is not just worrying - it's downright disturbing.

Looking at F1's official social media outlets, they have a newswire Twitter feed with 833,000 followers and no official Facebook page or YouTube channel.

That's it. One of the biggest, richest, most exciting sports in the world, and their social media footprint is a Twitter account which is little more than an old-school RSS feed.

The teams fare a little better individually. Christian Horner mentioned Red Bull Racing having “eight million” social media fans in his Austrian press conference, though it's not clear where he got his figures from as their Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube numbers are around half that.

Ferrari mentioned “12 million” but, again, this is a vast exaggeration: their Facebook page has 2.8m likes and the Twitter feed 812,000 followers. It smells awfully like they're all fluffing their figures.

But what does this all mean? Well, when you put it into a global perspective, NASCAR have 4.2m Facebook likes and 1.5m Twitter followers, and the Premier League has 4.2m Twitter followers and nearly 21m Facebook likes. Even the WWE lay the smackdown on F1 in terms of social media, with their 4.4m Twitter followers and 20m Facebook likes.

The point of this is that the sporting audience is out there, ready and willing to be engaged with, but F1 is simply not making the effort.

Again, with the big teams each having a few million online fans, they're doing good jobs. The numbers are growing too, with Mercedes boss Toto Wolff saying his team get “more than 50,000 new likes on our Facebook site” on good days.

However, nothing they do will compensate for F1's global lack of a central online presence. Ferrari may have a few million social media fans, but they'll never mention anything Mercedes-related to their followers and vice versa. This is the crux of the matter: by leaving social media engagement to third parties, you lose control of the big picture.

“The most important thing about Formula One, which we should not forget, is the entertainment,” said Franz Tost, the Toro Rosso team principal. He's right, and in F1 it's the stories that play out on the track which create most of the entertainment.

Seeing F1 cars drive is intrinsically exciting, and high-drama moments such as close racing and crashes are hugely entertaining, but it's the narratives which keep us there week in and week out.

Think of the interest F1 could have drummed up at the Austrian Grand Prix with a strong social network presence after the Williams duo of Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas locked out the front row. Instead of relying on independent reports, F1 could have gone into overdrive:

“Check listings and tune in at 13:00 BST/14:00 CEST/08:00 EST for #MERCvsWIL” or “Can Williams hold on to win on Sunday? Let us know using #F1Yes or #F1No”.

With a good online presence they could have made sure that in the 23 hours between qualifying ending and the race starting, every fan who cared enough to click a 'Follow' button knew what the story on Sunday afternoon was; F1 would have taken control of its own fate and put the narrative out there, inviting the world in to watch.

No matter what Bernie says, social media is not a flash in the pan. Whether it be the current powerhouse social networks or new ones yet to be imagined, they are how a vast percentage of F1's audience consumes its news and gathers information.

If broadcasters and journalists are filling fans' heads up with naysaying about engine noise, cost cutting, uncompetitiveness, and so forth, then that is all F1's audience will see of the sport – the bad. But by taking control of their online presence through social media, the conversation will become two-way again, and show F1 fans the amazing good it has.

Toto Wolff recently said that F1 needs to “stop talking ourselves down.” But this isn't a case of F1 talking itself down. It's just that without forging itself an online presence, there is nobody there to talk F1 up.