Mackey Marketing Group Weblog

January 14, 2011

In defense of Versus. I’m a reluctant advocate.

Recently, an article appeared in a respected auto racing publication that unfairly, I believe, contended that the IndyCar’s television package was an albatross around the series neck. They indicated that the rating numbers were taking IndyCar in their words, “into oblivion.” I wrote a letter in response.

While you indicate that you are one of Indy Car’s staunchest critics of their television package, I seem on the other hand, to be one of their more reluctant advocates. This is not because I feel particularly oriented to being a cheering section for the Versus television package, but rather I’m one who subscribes to the idea that the television package is not the source of Indy Car’s basic problems. On the contrary, Indy Car seems to be addressing a number of issues of importance and the momentum of positive developments signals a change that brightens the prospects of 2011 and beyond. I believe in many ways, the television package will “fix itself” based upon the popularity of the series and not the other way around. Television won’t fix, can’t fix, IndyCar’s decline in popularity. ONLY IndyCar can do that.
Your recent article is I believe, a bit off track. Here’s why.
First, let me warn you that in one of my earlier lives, I was a salesman of television time for a local ABC television outlet. That is important to know because it gave me a quality understanding of ratings and more importantly, extensive experience in interpreting, some might say, spinning, the rating numbers in ways that served the best interests of the television station. I understood then, better than most, the meaning of television ratings and shares. I can “interpret” with the best of ’em.
Here another way to look at things – and as a former “salesman” of TV time, let me make some contrary observations and spin, I mean, interpret them in a way I would if I was selling Indy Car spot advertising:
– In the all important prime time, Versus is the number 3 sports cable network! Behind ESPN and ESPN2.
– Versus has a HIGHER prime time viewership average than Speed Channel!
– Versus has higher prime time viewership average than Speed, NFL Network, NBA TV, Golf Channel or MLB Network!
– Since 2007, Versus has GROWN nearly 20% in prime time. In that same time period, ESPN2 has actually lost nearly 4% of prime time viewership.
– Versus has grown faster since 2007 than ESPN (18%) or ESPN2 (-4%). Versus has grown 19%!
With numbers like these, how can you say that Versus is taking IndyCar into oblivion! It’s all in the interpretation! Yes, I know, I’ve cherry picked the numbers a bit, but that’s the point. Ratings are very susceptible to “spin” and to negatively “cherry pick” rating numbers is equally misleading. Ratings are very often “spin”, how else could we have so many #1 programs?!
I still believe that Versus is an adequate television broadcaster for IndyCar. More than this, they can be a strong partner who will promote and devote real focus on IndyCar as it reflects a “prime” sports property for the network. IndyCar can receive CONSISTENT attention and have regular and attractive time slots to broadcast the events and support programming. IndyCar needs fans and the fans are the ones who primarily tune into television coverage. Without fans, you will not now or ever achieve the kind of ratings growth needed that would allow IndyCar to grow beyond the relative modest audience size of Versus. Period.


August 26, 2010

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August 18, 2010

The “great” button caper

Sometimes simple things drive home deeper lessons. Such is the case for the “great” button giveaway at the Mid Ohio Sports Car Course. The track was hosting the Indy Car Series and one of my clients was debuting in the series at this event.
His name is Francesco Dracone from Turin, Italy and unless you are a serious student of open wheel racing, you’ve probably never heard of him. Francesco comes to Indy Cars via the Euro F3000 series, a car of similar speed and power to Indy Cars and, in my humble opinion, a better looking and undeniably, better sounding, race car.
Faced with the prospect that virtually no one in the USA has ever heard of Francesco, I wanted to devise a way to introduce him to the Indy Car crowd. With a modest budget, I use the term “budget” loosely here, I wanted to come up with something that would generate some awareness without costing a bundle. I came up with the idea of producing some buttons with Francesco’s name on them. But to emphasize his Italian nationality, and the fact that Francesco always greets and says goodbye with a cheerful “Ciao”, I added the Ciao word to the button. The “Ciao! Francesco!” button was born.
francesco button
I packed the 1000 (!) buttons into my suitcase and took off for Lexington, Ohio to join Francesco in the experience of his Indy Car debut. It’s always exciting to be part of this kind of event and Francesco was very excited about competing in the Indy Car series driving for Conquest Racing. He had never been to Mid Ohio, never raced in the USA, never competed in Indy Cars and never driven at an event that sported this level of fan support and packed grandstands. It was going to be exciting.
Going to an event often means an assortment of marketing and publicity objectives, and here at Mid-Ohio among these were to be my button duties! So here I am, armed with my 1000 buttons and I arrive to meet with Francesco at the track. Now, to be sure, the button idea was mine and while Francesco was supportive of the idea, I wanted the button giveaway to be successful and not fall on its face from lack of interest. I mean, after all, it’s only a button! I brought with me a sign we had made up, saying “Free! Please Take One!” along with a small container to hold the buttons. So I went about looking for a convenient spot to display the buttons. At first, that wasn’t easy. There were no tables around, and the paddock area at Mid-Ohio is a bit cramped and there is not the usual paddock space normally found at an Indy Car event. With no place to put the buttons, the first inclination that this might not work crossed my mind.
Ever an entrepreneur, I devised a small table, made out of a flat discarded shipping cardboard box and placed it over an unused trash container. Voila! A table. The “table” was placed directly next to the garage that housed Francesco’s Indy Car. Now things were beginning to look a bit brighter. Now, I’m ready. I put out my hastily constructed table, placed the buttons and sign on the table and moved away to see what the reaction was going to be for my buttons.
Not much. A few people would come up to the table, read the sign, maybe even more than once, and stare at the table of buttons. But many wouldn’t take one! They just looked at them! Some people grabbed one or even two and walked away. I reminded myself that these were just buttons, not something people would necessarily be too excited about! But I had a 1000 of these things! I didn’t want to take them home with me! At this rate, I had a multiple season stock of buttons!
It was getting close to lunch time and the crowd in the paddock area was at its peak. Thousands of fans were strolling through the paddock looking at the Indy Cars. The area was packed with fans. If these things didn’t go now, they would never go.
So, I took a chance.
I grabbed the button box and from the paddock, began to hand them out like a carnival salesman!
“Get your free Francesco Dracone buttons here! Free buttons from Francesco” I said in a reasonably loud and enthusiastic voice. I started to add a bit of “sales” pitch to my efforts. “Free Francesco buttons here. We’re welcoming Francesco Dracone to Indy Cars. This is his first Indy Car race. Welcome Francesco with a free button!”
The change was instantaneous!
I would estimate that 95% of the people who passed by me took a button. Before long, there was a bit of a feeding frenzy for a free button. I couldn’t give them out fast enough! Obviously, kids loved them and parents liked them too! Some people stopped to ask me about Francesco; “Where is he from?” “This is his first race? That’s cool!” The fans were very supportive of the idea of welcoming Francesco. “Where is he?” was a common question. “He’s over there by the car,” I responded. When it was a female who asked me, the response often was, “He’s so cute! I’ll wear his button anytime!”
In the course of about an hour or two, I managed to give away most of the buttons. My voice was beginning to give out and I was getting a bit tired of it, so I stopped. While I had managed to give away most of the buttons, I was relieved to find that many fans didn’t just pack them away. “Ciao! Francesco!” buttons were easy to spot on fans all over the paddock area. The fans wore them on their shirts, their hats, on their backpack, camera bags, everywhere. Fans asked me if they could get Francesco’s autograph and several trips to the Conquest transporter to grab a few of Francesco’s autograph cards were in order.
As I neared the end of my bag of buttons, and as the race itself neared, I returned the button container to my improvised table and left the remaining buttons for the fans to grab on their way through the paddock. When I returned after the race, they were all gone. Every single one of them.
The lesson learned here is really a very old and basic one. When it comes to promotion, you can’t take too passive of an approach to it. I was reminded that I can’t rely on the fans to take the initiative and grab a button. No, that was my job! It was up to me to “promote” the idea of the button and create some excitement surrounding my effort. The fans were eager to respond and enthusiastic in their support but taking the initiative was not part of their role.
If you’re promoting someone, something, some event, just remember my button lesson. You must take the lead and push the idea yourself. If the message is heard, the response from the fans is fantastic. Racing fans are legendary for their support and enthusiasm toward this sport. Sometimes, we just need to hand them, one at a time, a reason to cheer.
Thanks to Francesco and to Conquest Racing for allowing me to hand out the buttons without too much distraction to them from the job at hand.
For the record, Francesco had a great race. His goal for the event was to race as competitively as he could but without getting taken out of the race with on track contact with another car. He raced strongly and continually lapped the track faster as the race wore on. He finished in 22nd spot of 27 starters, one position behind Danica Patrick. Francesco’s 1:10.5 second lap during the middle stage of the race was his fastest lap of the weekend and more than 1.5 seconds faster than his qualifying pace. It was a very successful first race and the first of what we all are working on to be many more Indy Car races in the future.
Thanks for reading.

Francesco Dracone

November 24, 2008

“Why the Versus/IRL television agreement is a good move”

I have read numerous negative stories regarding the recent IRL television agreement with Versus cable network. While I am not a stalwart supporter of IRL (I was in the CART camp of supporters), I do believe that the direction and the philosophy regarding this choice to be on target. Without inside knowledge to the “deal”, I can only go on what’s been published. Allow me to share some contrarian input on why I believe the IRL television agreement with Versus is an overall positive.

  1. An underlying aspect that one needs to understand is that event marketing as a whole, and motorsports perhaps in particular, relies on the relationship between fan and sponsor to generate value. Motor racing has an extended enviable track record of doing this. As evidenced primarily by NASCAR, race fans have proven to be exceptionally and reliably brand loyal to sponsor products. Event marketing, including motorsports, sell their value based on this relationship and not solely on the size of the audience reached. The reason why this form of more intimate marketing rather than the more “traditional” mass marketing of the past is growing, is the relationship that is developed between sponsor and consumer. It’s why a sponsor sponsors a race car, why they sponsor concerts, festivals and just about anything where people gather for a particular interest.  Sponsors want to show this targeted audience that they share their particular passion and hope and believe this interactive relationship will result in greater product sales. It’s not primarily about “exposure,” it’s about relationships. There is no other leading reason for doing it.
  2. The other element that one needs to understand is that television exposure does not primarily beget fans, events do. I keep hearing about “exposure” generating fans and the need to get a racing series on television. While it may do so to some degree, the vast and more efficient means of generating fans is to get people to the races. Television numbers follow the trend of a series ability to attract fans. NASCAR? It has fans. Subsequently, a stronger television package because networks, sponsors and series all understand that fans (aka television audience) will watch – and buy sponsor product. Several years ago, I read a report that indicated that 30% of the television viewers (aka fans) who watched a NASCAR event on TV reported that they purchased a particular sponsor product, PURELY due to the motor racing sponsorship. That’s a heady number and mind-boggling influence over consumers. No wonder sponsors have gravitated to this form of motorsport success. If NASCAR is now losing viewers on television, it isn’t due to less “exposure” of the sport; it is due to NASCAR losing fans. If one understands that “viewers” of racing events on television are primarily “fans” and vice versa, then the ratings numbers generated and the corollary impact on sponsor influence begins to emerge clearly.
  3. That brings us to Versus. IRL did not choose to “buy” their way onto commercial network television, in my estimation, properly so. It would have cost millions to generate a modest television rating number because the IRL does not have sufficient FANS to instantly produce big numbers! And buying television time will not generate them economically enough to impact rating numbers. See CART.
  4. Some have suggested that IRL is losing sponsor interest due to the weak television deal and not the economy. I doubt this is true. I do believe the economy may be driving away prospective sponsors with or without Versus. It’s a difficult environment out there. However, my contrarian viewpoint is that motorsport marketing (and the event marketing industry as a whole) may be able to gain advantage among sponsor companies due to the increased value placed on the influential manner in which these audiences are reached. In today’s environment, advertisers may not desire to continue to throw enormous numbers of advertising dollars at a passive mass audience. They want response and event marketing is the place to find it. It does bode well for motor racing if sold from the proper perspective. But right now it is difficult time to find willing sponsors.
  5. I think we all can agree that the IRL is in a regrouping phase after the prolonged and difficult split. I believe the IRL must focus their energies on building event strengths and then take those strengths to further their television coverage. They already have built-in strength in the Indy 500, a pivotal starting point. I think we can agree that the primary force that race events have to attract people to races are the drivers. Rather than spending millions on weak network television numbers, it is better to spend money on generating interest in events. NASCAR has demonstrated this and built their series around generating driver stars. IRL also seems to understand that drivers drive fans to the races. Like her or not, they have Danica Patrick. They also have a growing list of marketable and popular names to build their fan base, including the important aspect of American drivers. While the whole grid should reflect an international element to build a scale of importance, the grid should have a measurable American presence. Names like Andretti, Rahal and others bode well for the IRL.
  6. Finally, the advantage of Versus. We all understand that the rating numbers generated by the Versus television network is likely to be smaller than one generated by a commercial network coverage. But if you’ve been listening, you know that size of the audience is not the only measurable element. The number of “fans” watching the coverage is also an important factor. Fans will search and find the television coverage whereas passive television viewers won’t. If the audience grows to significant numbers by Versus scale, then the IRL will be successful in generating new and loyal fans. Fans who purchase sponsor products. And sponsor product sales are what keep sponsors happy. It is just as important to demonstrate to perspective sponsors the growth of a fan base rather than relying on comparably weak network rating number from a passive audience of viewers.
  7. From the Versus perspective, IRL is a plum. It enables Versus to feature IRL and drive the IRL fans to watch the events on their network. By becoming a lead featured program of Versus, the IRL gains a marketing partner in helping to build fans and not just a broadcast outlet.

All in all, I feel that the Versus television deal is a good one. It has all the elements needed, promotes growth, enables greater focus on the IRL through features, expanded coverage and higher network priority. And the millions off dollars saved can be diverted to greater purpose.

All of us who view open wheel with high regard can help by supporting this growth period and redevelopment of the brand. The Versus TV deal may only be a first critical step, but I am confidant a step in the right direction.

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