Fast cars and furious dataAugust 26, 2013: 9:24 AM ET
How NASCAR is using social listening technology to bolster its brand.
By Miles Raymer
FORTUNE -- Inside NASCAR's Charlotte, N.C., headquarters, on the eighth floor where its digital group is housed, is a 500-square-foot room packed with monitors that during races display not only the action on the track but the reactions from fans on social media networks. Other monitors show graphs offering real-time analysis of the deluge of tweets and Facebook posts that every one of its events inspires. The NASCAR Fan and Media Engagement Center represents one of the most sophisticated data mining operations in sports.
"Essentially what the Fan and Media Engagement Center is," says NASCAR Chief Marketing Officer Steve Phelps, "is a platform or a tool that allows us to take on what I'll broadly call big data." The Center was developed in conjunction with Hewlett-Packard (HPQ). "For us, our big data is fans -- through social media, things that are being blogged, traditional media, television -- and [the FMEC] takes all that massive amount of data and culls it down."
The ability to respond quickly in real time is crucial for an industry that's not only based on the premise of speed, but which boasts a massive audience -- around 75 million fans -- with a huge social media footprint. During this year's Daytona 500, HP executive vice-president of enterprise services Mike Nefkens estimates that they analyzed around 60,000 social media interactions per minute.
The FMEC, the result of a collaboration between HP and NASCAR that began in June 2012 (the company became NASCAR's official technology partner in June 2013, and a new ad campaign touting the partnership features footage of racing interspersed with analysts working in the center), has been operational since January.
It has already yielded results, such as one incident involving an incorrect graphic on a race broadcast in which NASCAR wanted to immediately react. "We thought the fan reaction was going to be way over the top and was going to dominate what was happening on social media, when in fact it wasn't -- it was about 1% of the dialogue," says Phelps. "We informed [the broadcasters] what went on and the fan reaction, and let the folks at SPEED and FOX respond themselves. If we had overreacted we probably would have just had this thing cycle on itself even more."
FMEC also allows NASCAR to collect data that's not time-sensitive but reflects its fans' opinions in the wild, without the formality of surveys. The company launched a new digital platform encompassing the NASCAR.com site and a number of mobile apps around the time that it also launched FMEC, and has made at least nine major revisions to it since, based on data the center has collected. And when partner Chevrolet (GM) unveiled its 2014 Chevrolet SS production model at Daytona, NASCAR was able to give the company immediate feedback.
With so much data being pumped into social networks around the clock, the biggest practical problem is separating the signal from the noise. "We've got a system that we've put together that goes out and monitors and analyzes this unstructured data," Nefkens says, "and is able to pick up patterns around keywords, around phrases, etc., to bring patterns together." Out of the tens of thousands of pieces of data FMEC may be analyzing per minute, Nefkens says, a keyword appearing in half a percent of them is enough for the filters to bring it to the top of the list.
Of course, public sentiment about data mining has been trending negatively since the NSA's domestic Internet monitoring programs have been made public. Phelps believes that won't have any bearing on the FMEC project, though. "Our fans are the most loyal fans in sports, and they love to be heard. If there are things they do that influence the product, that influence the way they engage with the sport, they want us to listen. I believe that the fans are very interested in having us understand the direction that they would like to see the sport go in."