Going live to thrive in digital advertising

What the recent popularity boom of Formula 1 can teach us about how we use data to engage with our audiences.

In the cut and thrust of the live sporting experience, it pays dividends to be able to use all the information at your disposal quickly and efficiently, says Simon Thorne, MD EMEA at Flashtalking by Mediaocean

For marketers, discussions about the leading edge of advertising strategy often focus on the global consumer brands with the deepest pockets. It’s where we expect to see the biggest campaigns, treated as a bellwether for the industry as a whole. 

New possibilities are opening up all the time in digital advertising, and it’s fascinating how the world of sports has adapted and evolved over recent years to match changing audience behaviours and expectations.

We can learn a lot from this. While retail and consumer goods brands are of course making innovative technological strides, they don’t have the real-time pressure of sports that digital is uniquely suited to. A product on sale, after all, will probably cost the same in the afternoon as it did in the morning – but the reality and emotional impact of a sporting fixture can change second-to-second.

New channels, new drivers

Before unpacking what it means for these brands that this digital sports advertising can be as nimble as the events it is wrapped around, though, we need to consider how the broader picture of sports consumption has shifted.

Formula 1 racing is an interesting case study here, precisely because its recent history has set an extraordinarily successful pace. Earlier this year, its governing body announced incredible year-on-year figures for its audience growth, with viewership for the season finale up 29 percent. Even more impressive were its social and digital figures, with followers up 40 percent and engagement up 75 percent.

It’s a story which shows how the sport has leveraged the always-on digital world to support its uniquely global reach. With races happening – and drivers coming – from all over the world, digital enables a conversation across continents.

At the same time, though, it’s a story about how the sport has successfully locked into the story aspect of what it offers: last year’s final race viewership came thanks to the dramatic (and ultimately controversial) showdown between its two top drivers. Likewise, it’s surely no coincidence that this audience spike has arrived in the wake of Netflix’s highly successful Formula 1: Drive To Survive documentary series.

Revving the opportunity

All of this adds up to a huge opportunity for advertisers – but also a highly challenging one.

This is a highly engaged audience that offers a distinctive chance to tap into their passionate attention; Formula 1, in fact, states that its social performance is responsible for it ‘outperforming other major sports in the digital arena’. Doing so, however, means operating across many markets, utilising many channels, and hitting the right audience with the right message at the right time, time and time again. 

This is something that F1 teams themselves have been investing in. Red Bull Racing, for example, debuted the season with a livestream that was syndicated to a wide range of influencers’ platforms, leading viewers towards the team’s wholly owned digital fan space.

Brands might not have direct access to a fanbase in the same way that teams do, but they should certainly be thinking in similarly nuanced terms when it comes to identifying and targeting the right audience with their campaigns.

The first step towards this is, of course, about finding that audience. The data made available to us is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to pinpointing people with the right interests and attitudes to be receptive to a particular campaign, and there is still much further to go for marketers in terms of building up the technology and skills that enable us to tap into those riches.

Perhaps even more important, however, is the need to rethink how creative work is designed and activated in light of this data. For all that we have adopted technology in the industry, the mental model of marketing that we have is still, for the most part, quite static. In particular, we still expect to see stages of creating and activating campaigns, with the former needing to be finalised before the latter can happen. When it comes to something like F1, where the story is constantly shifting, there is an opportunity to make the creative work more reactive, in the same way as many of us already A/B test our activations.

The lesson for marketers

Of course this is just one illustrative example of how digital is changing what’s possible for brand engagement. We could make similar observations across the landscape of sports, as both the sporting institutions themselves and the constellation of brands advertising around them find innovative ways to tap into the passions sports inspire.

Even beyond this, the direction of travel for advertising more broadly is likely to be towards more reactive, personal and contextually meaningful marketing messages: in internet-enabled lives, all parts of daily experience are part of an ever-shifting story, from things as mundane as the weather right through to the most profound scientific or cultural breakthroughs. All of this can (and should) influence what our marketing looks and sounds like.

One of the reasons why sports do inspire passion is that they place the drama of human life into a clear, constructed set of rules, enabling us to see more clearly the tensions and emotions at play between participants. Marketers today can look to sports in much the same way: as a testbed where we can learn to work more dynamically in an environment where the events people are interested in are always clear-cut.

From there, there’s a whole new world of responsiveness and personalisation to be opened up.