320: Accelerating the Digital Transformation of F1 and Motorsport
The Motorsport Network is the world’s biggest motorsport and automotive media network – featuring major titles including Motorsport.com, Autosport.com, and Motor1.com. But what captured both my attention and imagination was learning about the recent Formula 1 global fan survey in 15 languages and receiving fan feedback from 194 countries.
I recently spoke to Real Madrid football club about how they became the first sporting brand to reach 100 million likes on Facebook. The NFL also went through a digital redesign a few years ago too, but I wanted to find out how the digital transformation is revolutionizing the world of F1 Racing and why Formula 1 is going digital.
The Motorsport Network has experienced rapid growth in the past two years to become the world’s largest independent automotive and motorsport-related digital platform connecting hundreds of millions of people that love motorsport and cars.
As the world’s largest motorsport media organization, we are ideally positioned to help with this key market intelligence. We’ve made sets of data available to the teams and the fans and also used an even more comprehensive portion of the research to help in planning our products and content that we are making available throughout various online brands.
Colin Smith, CEO, Motorsport Network is a digital media and marketing executive with over twelve years of experience in digital sports media strategy, digital team management, and digital product/business development; as well as twenty years overall working in sports & entertainment media. Successfully managed the build, launch and strategic direction of three new digital media businesses for Raycom Sports/Raycom Media, the Atlantic Coast Conference and NASCAR.
At Motorsport Network, we not only want to provide that content to the already engaged fan, but we want to help grow and engage new audiences in both existing and new regions of the world.
With monthly page views now reaching 172 million across their network, it’s great to see Colin Smith and his teams taking F1 and the world of motorsport on a digital transformation journey.
Neil Hughes: Welcome back to the tech blog writer podcast. There’s nowhere to hide from the digital transformation of everything at the moment, and I’m especially interested in how every industry is being completely transformed and how consumers’ expectation levels are forcing businesses to create new roads forward.
Regular listeners will know, I recently spoke with Real Madrid about how they have responded to this digital transformation and how they became the first sporting brand to reach 100 million fans on Facebook, but today I wanted to see how tech and digital is revolutionizing another sport, motorsport to be exact.
So invited the Motor Sport Network C.E.O, Collin Smith onto the show today, and for those that don’t know the motorsport network, it’s the world’s biggest motorsport and automotive media network, featuring major titles including motorsport.com, autosport.com and moto1.com.
Essentially, motorsport is the source for all racing content. Would that be F1, Indycar, Nascar, MotoGP and Jordan’s touring rally and so much more. So it’s time for me to be beam is all the way to Miami so we can speak with Motorsport Network C.E.O
So a big warm welcome to the show Colin. Can you tell the listeners a little about who you are and what you do?
Colin Smith: Yeah. I’m Colin Smith. I’m the CEO of motorsport network. I have been in this current role for two and a half months, so still very much getting my feet wet, across all of our different brands and properties but I came to motorsport network from Nascar here in the states, where I spent the last five years running the digital business for the racing series there.
Neil: Now what’s captured both my attention and imagination was letting how you conducted a Formula 1 global fan survey in 15 different languages and essentially receiving fan feedback from 194 countries. Can you tell me about that global survey and the reasons behind it and also what it revealed.
Colin: Yeah, sure. So, to understand the global fan survey, I think it makes sense to kind of take a step back and look at what motorsport network essentially tries to accomplish on a daily basis and what we do is we have a global news desk with really global touch points from a motorsports perspective with boots on the ground in a variety of different countries over 80 countries at the end of the day and those editors, those global editors, keep this news desk, up running 24/7.
So at any given point in time, through the localized groups that we have across the country covering motorsports, we can tap into to that global news desk and again, it’s done in local languages. It’s not just translation and that’s what powers motorsport network really, really at its core is that global news desk in the interaction with the fans who are all, as you can imagine, very passionate about the sport itself.
So the interactions that we have with the fans and the audience that we’ve created through that motorsport network platform really allows us to go in and have a little bit more of a unique relationship with fans at the local level than a lot of other groups that we’ll just have a global edition that’s maybe done in English and so what we’ve done is we’ve presented that capability to F1. We did it back in 2015, and said, hey, listen, we have access to the fans. You want information from the fans. Why don’t we put together a global fan survey. We’ll build the platform that supports it and we’ll do it in the localized languages of all the different countries that we’re in. Let’s get a third party to validate it and we did Nielsen sports who certainly is one of the best, and it was very, very successful in 2015.
After we had the foundation set and the baseline set, we were able to go back in 2017 with a little bit more of a interaction with F1 in helping us promote the fact that they’re doing this, getting some of their other partners involved and we really had a very, just an unbelievable turnout of fans who wanted to participate in the survey and obviously motorsport fans are some of the most passionate fans in the world. They’re going to take the time to fill out the survey and have their voices heard and they did.
So the survey itself was over, you know, 15 minutes from the time you started to the time you finished and that in and of itself would be normally a huge barrier of entry but you’re right, we had about 150,000 total analyze reports that were filled out completely. We had another 50,000 that were almost filled out completely and I think we had over 190 countries with that survey. People participated from 190 different countries.
So the power to do that and to get those insights and to get that information directly from the fans was as you can imagine, very, very valuable and it wasn’t, it was valuable for us because we help create the interaction. It was valuable for F1 because they got the insights and then they were able to obviously merchandise those insights with their partners and with their stakeholders to really get a good sense of the health of the industry and the health of the sport and the beauty of it was is that 2017 had some really nice favorable insights as opposed to 2015. So you can actually start to create that foundational baseline of growth. Okay, here we were in 15, here’s where we are in 17, here all the good things that are happening here are some things that still need work and let’s get ready for what we’re going to do in 2019 as well.
So it was a very successful partnership. We’re looking to replicate this across other series as well. We already have two that have signed up to do something for a similar to this in 2018. So yeah, so we think this could be a really valuable tool for the motorsport industry moving forward.
Neil: Well, what strikes me about this as you cast that net of engagement far and wide and then it shows how passionate your fans are to actually spend that 15 minutes actually filling in a survey because I think most of us listening, I’ve never filled out a 15-minute survey in entire life. So to get somebody to do that and in their droves is fantastic but was there anything in the survey that, the results of that survey that took you by surprise?
Collin: You know, what, I don’t think really anything took us by surprise., you know, sitting on the sidelines, Formula 1, especially over the last six months had put, has put a lot of time and effort into creating better, you know, interactions with the fans and really opening up, you know, fans and partners’ ability to activate a across, you know, all the different business lines of F1, especially, the race weekend itself.
So you got that sense when you looked at the survey results that fans, not only appreciated that, but we’re starting to be slowly impacted by that as well. So there was a lot more, and then for the racing action itself, as you can imagine, a big section of the survey was about the racing action itself and I think a couple years ago there was a majority, well, not a majority, but I would say a nice sizeable group that, were not necessarily pleased with the racing that they were seeing, you know, on the circuit and that has that has certainly turned a corner when you take a look at the 2017 results.
So they’ve posted a lot of these results, a lot of these results are online right now for those that are listening that have interest, you can see some of the results that have been, that had been published and it’s a nice, it’s a good feeling. It’s a good feeling to see the sport heading in that direction. It’s a good feeling to see that the new ownership of F1 is trying to make a difference and I think people that we’ve talked to, fan stakeholders and the like do feel very positive about the direction that, that things are heading in right now.
Neil: Now motorsport.tv already reaches 31 million homes in 42 different countries throughout Europe via cable and satellite and showcases more than 125 different motor racing championships but viewing habits are changing and cable cutters are turning their back on those expensive cable packages in favor of the likes of Apple TV, Hulu and YouTube. How are you addressing that changing viewing habits and where users expect what they want. What across a plethora of devices to hand really, isn’t it?
Collin: Yes. Well, there’s no question the world is changing and when it comes to how fans are consuming content. If you haven’t noticed that then you certainly haven’t been paying attention in anybody who’s, in the media space right now is doing everything they can to, to understand the impact that, that this is going to have today on their business, but also over the next three to five years.
We try not to even look past three years anymore. I mean three years used to be the old five year business plan, really a year and a half now to us is the five year business plan because the world is changing so quickly and so rapidly but for us to your point, motorsport network owns a TV network called motor sport TV based out of France and powers about 30 plus million homes primarily across Europe and we’re continuing to expand our reach of that network but at the same time we also know that many, many people are.
I wouldn’t say they’re abandoning their television set, and certainly when you talk about racing and sporting events, you know, having that big screen TV experiences are always going to be paramount to everything else but you now have multiple different scenarios where people want access to content and access to live events, no matter where they are and obviously what device they’re on.
So we have pivoted a little bit and have just launched a very soft launch in Beta right now, motorsport.tv, which is our direct to consumer opportunity that anybody can sign up for and a for a low, low monthly fee, get access to all the content that we would normally be showing on motorsport TV as well as all the different content that we’re creating, you know, behind the scenes whether it shows we’re programming or access to other types of magazine style shows that we’re creating but as you can imagine, the technical capabilities that one needs to not only power television network but then power a direct to consumer experience across all those devices you mentioned is very significant.
We have always been a technology company, but every quarter that goes by we become more of a technology company because you have to have the resources, the infrastructure, and the technical expertise to support such a massive global offering. So yeah, so we’re excited about that potential. It’s a big, big part of our future growth plan and we’re very bullish on where we think we can take that.
Neil: So what kind of challenges and opportunities are you facing and embracing the rapidly changing digital marketplace to secure essentially that future expansion?
Collin: If the world would stop changing so quickly and give everybody, you know, in the world of sports and media and digital media break, that would be nice but I don’t think that’s going to happen, but you know, the technical challenges are certainly there and every time a new device comes out, every time a new distribution partnership opens up, you know, you want to make sure that you’ve got the technical capabilities to embrace that change in the marketplace but, you know, we still look at ourselves primarily as a global digital media operation.
That’s our bread and butter. Obviously, we’re covering motorsports at its core, but we have a big automotive presence and automotive enthusiast presence. So, you know, the challenges that we face today aren’t really that different from the challenges that we faced last year or really even the year before that. Yes, things are certainly changing quickly and rapidly but we feel pretty well positioned. We’ve been on a very aggressive growth path over the last two and a half years and every time we pick up a new acquisition, we’re really looking at that acquisition to make sure that it can help us from a technology perspective. It can help us from a distribution perspective. We certainly don’t want to acquire a company that is going to have old legacy technology that we have to spend a lot of time trying to upgrade or update.
So it’s a big part of what we’re doing moving forward is making sure that these new acquisitions and anything new that we are in the process of building or launching or a company that we’re partnering with certainly can help us in that area because there are lots of challenges as you can imagine with everything changing so quickly.
Neil: Absolutely. I mean, there’s a lot of talk this year about the digital transformation of almost everything. So when approaching the digitalization of F1, I mean providing rich content to your already engaged fans, how do you also approach how to grow and engage new digital audiences in both existing and new regions of the world? It’s quite a challenge I would imagine.
Collin: It is. It is and you know, luckily for us we’re firmly embedded in a lot of areas, across the globe, especially in emerging territories in obviously some more established territories that are already very much integrated with F1 and the F1 experience when F1 comes to their town but we, I think our broader challenge is we have a very significant print business today with Autosport magazine and if one racing and F1 racing is the only officially licensed print publication currently in the world.
We want to make sure that we continue to keep that business alive and growing in a very difficult environment and you know, there’s no secret that the print is becoming a tougher and tougher business to generate significant amounts of revenue on compared to where that business might have been, you know, five, six, seven, eight years ago.
So the good news is by having those print publications, we have incredible editors. We have incredible art directors and designers. We’re creating this content every day. Now our challenge is essentially how do we transform that from, not only a print environment but back into a digital environment because obviously having a nice big F1 racing magazine that you can, you can touch and feel and you know, have a different type of experience with transferring that over to your mobile phone, it may not be as impactful, especially when you look at, you know, the storytelling and the imagery and so on and so forth.
So the more content we have, the more time we spend on making sure that it is appropriately formatted and delivered to the fans the way that they are requesting it and I think our biggest challenge, which is also an opportunity is we have a lot of fans that are asking for that content in a variety of different ways, whether it’s on television, whether it’s on their phone, whether it’s either magazine but a great example of that is, you know, we do have a subscription product called the autosport plus, which is, you know, our, you know, deeper exclusive content offering in digital and that gives, you know, fans access for a monthly fee to content that really isn’t available anywhere else through some of the best writers on the planet that are following F1.
We’re going to continue to replicate models like that because we do have a nice audience that is interested in getting access to that content and they’re willing to pay for that great content, but it’s just a matter of us collectively looking out over all of our different businesses, seeing all the different content opportunities and then ultimately packaging it and delivering it in the most appropriate way for the fans as they’re asking for it.
Neil: You make it sound so easy.
Collin: Yeah, it’s simple, simple.
Neil: Now I originally spoke to Real Madrid football club and how they became the first sporting brand to reach, 100 million likes on Facebook and then I also look and see things like the NFL. They’ve recently gone through a digital redesign a few years ago too. Are you finding that the entire sport in industries taking digital incredibly serious now and also the power of social influences from their own sporting stores as well?
Collin: No question. In fact, you know, motorsports I would argue is probably one of the late arrivers, if not delayed arrivers, you know, to the party. One of the reasons why we feel we’re uniquely positioned and have a significant opportunity to grow is because quite frankly, motorsports was, was just a little late in embracing the digital transformation that was happening across all the sports and live events and entertainment options. So there’s no that every team, every league, every owner is looking into how do I create more engagement opportunities through the digital landscape with our fans.
How do I continue to, you know, embrace technology to make their live event experience better or they’re at home viewing experience better with complimentary products. There’s just no question, in fact, there are armies of people now that are just specifically focused on digital and social fan engagement.
When I was at Nascar, we built up an entire team from scratch. We had about three people when we started and by the time I left we had close to 100 and they were completely focused on building out the best digital properties we could, creating the most social awareness that we could create, measuring the impact that all of these different channels and opportunities have on the business and on the fans and that is happening, I guarantee you across, like I said, every league, every series, every team, everybody is trying to figure this out and it’s, it’s difficult because it changes so quickly.
A fans habits can change very quickly and you know, you can’t just sit in your chair and pout about it because things are changing, you know, you’ve got to get the business aligned and ready to, to try to serve those needs and it can be very time-consuming. It can be very expensive, but the payoff at the end of the day to create that direct connection with these fans is worth all the time and the resources that you have to put against it.
Neil: You’re so right there and I think you do have to watch everything so closely and know when to pivot and when to change but I think I read recently that you noticed a movement to aggregate technology and content onto a single platform to address that consumer pain around the time and effort required to go between sources all the time. I mean, do you think that removing any friction points and making things as simple as possible is really the secret source of any digital strategy?
Collin: Yes. Removing any barriers of entry, especially when you’re asking for a consumer of years, you know, to dig into their pocketbook and, and present you with their hard earned money, you know, you have to make it frictionless. You have to make it easy as possible and today it’s even doubly challenging because not only is the expectation it is going to be painless for them, but not only it’s going to be painless, but it’s going to be personalized and it’s going to be optimized for them because you can’t give them something that, is only available to them on a certain platform or a certain device.
So there’s no question removing any barrier of entry is going to benefit, you know, the end user experience. That’s an obvious statement, but there’s so many little things inside that process as well that you have to keep an eye on because any pain point that you cause in this day and age, I mean when you can pull out your phone and order almost anything that you can even imagine on the internet these days, you know, and there are some companies that are spending millions and millions and millions of dollars to, you know, make that process as smooth and as painless as possible and being able to check out, you know, on any device with any payment platform.
I mean this is just the norm these days, this is the standard. These are table stakes. So when you transfer someone from that experience, you know, let’s say it’s an Amazon type of experience, you can only imagine how much money they’re putting against, that customer checkout experience and then you create something similar. The expectation is the same. They don’t care if you’re a motorsport network or Amazon or E-bay, doesn’t matter. They want that same really, really smooth a transaction, and if you don’t provide that to them, you know, maybe you get one more shot to get it right, but, if you don’t, if you don’t find that sweet spot for them, you’re going to lose them. They’re going to stick around maybe through the transaction, but you might not get them back or if you make it difficult every month, they’re certainly going to drop out of that process.
So absolutely figuring that out is super, super important for any type of transactional business these days.
Neil: So I’ve got to ask what’s next for the most support network? I mean, what can F1 fans expect and how will they service continue to evolve over the next three years or maybe next year at all because we can’t look at it further beyond that really.
Collin: Well, I tell you what, we have been on a pretty massive global expansion these days and we’ve acquired 29 companies in the last two and a half years and we are going to continue to identify opportunities that fit nicely into our current existing portfolio of brands but we’re also looking to open up some new areas that we aren’t currently in today, so maybe something around Esports for instance. So we will continue to identify all opportunities in the motorsports in automotive space, to continue to grow the platform that we currently have today but at the end of the day, we want it simple, we just want to dominate, you know, the global motorsports marketplace can’t be, it can’t be that hard, right?
Neil: You would think so but you made a great point a few moments ago about everybody’s experience now because really you could get a date on tinder and uber ride to a restaurant to have a table that you booked on open table or from your phone or within two or three swipes. Like you say, that’s people’s expectation now and they carry that with them everywhere.
Well, before I let you go, can I just ask you to put the listeners in the direction of the website and the best way where they can reach out to you guys?
Collin: Yes, motorsport network.com and then if you’re on one of our other platforms like motorsport.com, which probably most people listening are familiar with, there’s a couple of different ways that you can interact with us directly from the website. We love hearing from the fans. We love hearing about new ideas, opportunities. So, please reach out to us there.
Neil: I always say at the end of every show that technology works best when it brings people together but what I love about what you guys have done is if you’ve used technology to bring your passionate fans together so then you can enhance the experience for them, which is incredibly forward thinking. A lot of people could learn a lot from that. So a big thank you for coming on today.
Collin: Well, thank you very much for having me. We were big fans and we’re also big fans of motorsport as you can tell and I appreciate you having me on and a love to answer any questions from you or the fans later on. So just let me know.