February 24, 2014

NASCAR knows more about Twitter than you do

Dale Junior Joins Twitter

Dale Jr. joins Twitter.

Yesterday’s six-hour rain delay of the Daytona 500 could have been a huge letdown for NASCAR fans. Instead, they spent the afternoon joking with their favorite drivers, getting updates on track conditions from race officials, and having a “fireside chat” with at least one driver (Clint Bowyer), who told track reporters that he was having “a lot of fun” with his Twitter followers until his PR team “shut him down” (Hey, sometimes we have to be the party poopers!). After the race, fans celebrated the long-awaited launch of race winner Dale Earnhardt  Jr.’s Twitter account, which he promised he would do if he won. Nine hours later, he already had 355,000 followers (and growing).

Clint Bowyer passes the time with fans.

Clint Bowyer passes the time with fans.

The rain-delay Twitter party was just the latest win for NASCAR on the social media platform. More so than any other major sports league, NASCAR understands the real appeal of Twitter — its ability to grant fans instant, intimate access to its hottest commodity — the drivers. It also understands that to be successful on social media, you need to be honest, authentic, and open, no matter how scary that might be.

NASCAR’s Twitter success is due largely to the trust it places in its athletes, and its hands-off approach to managing them on Twitter. Unlike other professional sports leagues, NASCAR allows — even encourages — its drivers to tweet, right up until “game time,” the moment the driver gets in the car. In a November 2012 interview with ESPN, NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp said, “We encourage our drivers to participate in social media. We feel we have the most liberal social media policy in all of sports, and the access we provide is the best in all of sports.”

It wasn’t always this way. But everything changed at the 2012 Daytona 500. When a race car crashed into a safety vehicle, igniting a fire and halting the race for two hours, driver Brad Keselowski passed the time by tweeting pictures and his thoughts on the delay. Two hours later, he had tripled his number of followers, and helped non-race fans see NASCAR as more trendy and fun, and less Ricky Bobby.

A few months after that race, NASCAR became the first professional sports league to sign an official partnership with Twitter. The largest initiative was the launch of a platform that collected tweets from drivers, media and fans that allowed even faster engagement on the site. NASCAR also made Twitter a real marketing priority, painting drivers’ Twitter handles on the cars, hosting Twitter-only contests and race day “tweetups,” and allowing fans to tweet questions to race analysts during pre- and post-game programming. NASCAR has repeatedly said it wants to be “a leader” in the social media realm, and has taken every step to do so. The strategy has paid off for fans, who now enjoy unprecedented levels of access to their favorite drivers, but also for NASCAR itself. Almost two years after signing that deal, NASCAR’s official account has tripled its following, and the sport is attracting a whole new, younger fan base.

Trust your employees to represent you.

Trust your employees to represent you.

NASCAR has shown that Twitter’s winning formula is a simple one that can be duplicated by both large and small brands: namely, trust your employees to represent you, and let your customers see behind the curtain to make them feel part of the experience. Sure, it might be scary. But it can also lead you straight to victory lane.