This weekend saw the long-awaited return of Formula 1 to the U.S. The Circuit of the Americas, located in my hometown of Austin, TX, played host to record crowds. As only the second “purpose built” Formula 1 facility in the U.S., the expectations – and visibility – were high. Formula 1 is one of the most watched sporting events on the planet. With a global audience estimated at 500 million people annually, the U.S. Grand Prix and the Circuit of the Americas were sure to gain notice, and the social web would be a big part of it.
The event was an opportunity to highlight not only F1, the U.S. Grand Prix, and the Circuit of the Americas, but also Austin itself. What followed was a tightly orchestrated and superbly executed event. The entire event played out globally, not only on major broadcast media but on the social web. Nearly every fan had some sort of Internet-connected device. That meant that everything that happened – from the original announcement of the plans to the inaugural race – would be shared widely.
For starters, the staff at the Circuit of the Americas covered the basics. Facebook, Twitter, and other social channels were set up and used. Along with TV, these “social reach” channels provided the basis for early supporters and detractors of the project to publicly make their cases. To the credit of the Circuit of the Americas team, the supporters ultimately prevailed as the combination of closed meetings and social commentary played out. Throughout the race weekend itself fans connected with each other in motorsports and lifestyle online social communities as well as mainstream social channels to share pictures and experiences.
And here’s where the rubber met the road, so to speak. Austin had been gearing up for months for the event. A not insignificant part of this included logistical and infrastructure preparations. As would be expected, there was “negative speculation” on how “awful” the event was going to be with regard to getting into and out of the facility.
Ahead of the event, the staff was specifically trained on being nice and being prepared. On knowing the correct answers to the kinds of questions likely to be asked, in whatever language they happened to be asked in. I talked with representatives of Stadium People (which provides support staff for large events) and they noted the training and specific attention that had gone into making the event talk-worthy for the right reasons. That’s smart planning when considering the impact of the social web of events like this.
This preparation was critical, and showed a key awareness of social media. As the number of race attendees would be large, so would the required number of event staffers. Given the little issues that were to crop up, this meant there would be a steady stream of touchpoint interactions, fed onto the social web. If you’ve ever tried to clean up a mess on Twitter after the fact, you know it’s infinitely easier to avoid making the mess in the first place. That’s the strategy that the Circuit of the Americas team chose.
Here’s an example: arriving at the track on Saturday morning, two members of our party realized that they had brought their Sunday tickets to the track. We live about an hour from the track, and hearts sank as we realized this meant that at least part of Saturday’s event would be missed. I suggested that we simply go to the ticket office and explain what happened. So that’s what we did. When we arrived at the ticket office, we explained what happened, and our agent Jennifer simply smiled, asked for ID, and issued two replacement tickets for Saturday on the spot. No charge, all in less than two minutes. Jennifer didn’t have to ask a manager because she was empowered to do what was necessary to delight a customer. And now you’re reading about it. That’s how social works.
It didn’t stop there. Traffic, which had been expected to be heavy, had been planned for. Searching Twitter, the positive comments absolutely outweighed the negatives. Consider this, from Matt Hovis (@matthewhovis): “Another killer day at #cota #f1. Easy in, easy out with a full house. Where is the nightmare traffic we were promised?” Or this one, from Corbin Casteel (@CorbinCasteel): “Easy parking and loading on buses downtown. 25 mins bus ride, zero traffic. Impressive people moving. Nice work #F1Austin #COTA.”
None of this came about by accident. For example, when we arrived at the free shuttle and parking on Friday morning there was a bit of a traffic issue. To get a sense of the scale, note that about 500 buses were hired from local school districts to provide service to and from the track. Seeing the delay in parking the first morning, the gates for parking were opened an hour earlier the following morning. Not the following year or after some committee had conducted a review. The next day it was fixed, and the conversation changed on the social web to reflect it. The event had in place a near real-time feedback system and the organizational flexibility to change what needed to be changed.
Here was my favorite tweet because it proved, again, that your customers actually do understand your business and provide clues as to how you can purposely delight them. From J.F. Musial (@jfmusial) comes: “Impressions so far of #COTA: No traffic issues. Track looks amazing. Facilities are superb. Staff organized. Teams happy. Great work.” Clearly, the staff gets direct credit for being organized, something they took the time to ensure would be the case.
But it goes even further: given Austin’s longstanding social media focus, the entire city supported the social effort. From the City of Austin came a retweet of Police Chief Art Acevedo that showed how supporting officials were themselves connecting via social and ensuring a successful event. “RT @artacevedo: Just left #F1 at #COTA. Traffic was very light. Very proud of our collective efforts. First responders, fans & community…”
Friday evening, watching the event coverage on SPEED, F1 commentator David Hobbs (himself a former racer) noted how friendly everyone was, how well-organized the event was, and how much this both mattered and was appreciated as the start of the next generation of Formula 1 in the U.S. Again, at the root was not a marketing campaign but a deliberate strategy that ensured “success” at each customer touchpoint.
Oddly, if there was a “negative” it was connectivity to the social web! If you’ve been to Austin’s SXSW Interactive Festival you know the story here. The irony is that the social web can impact a lot of things…assuming that it can be accessed. With 100,000 people uploading photos and videos, that access went away. Looking at my NetBase Workbench Monday morning, the term “wifi” for this event was most often associated with “4Gspeed” and “suck.” Hopefully the organizers will step in here: the event merchandise, food, and beverage sales were all negatively impacted as credit card processing flatlined and everyone went to “Cash Only.” Long lines and a damper on race fan incremental purchases translates directly into a case for real, fiscal ROI for the promoters associated with getting the network services right.
All in all, a great event and a ton of positive social commentary generated for the Circuit of the Americas and for Austin as a permanent host city. And once again, a lesson in how to set up for a social event: put the basics in place and simultaneously ensure customer delight at every touchpoint. The social web – and the collective power of 100,000 real-life passionate fans – will take care of the rest.
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