Grab That Fan And Hold On!

Oh, that empowered customer! Woe be to the brand that doesn't listen to him, her, them. The empowered customer — however defined, and I guess that depends on who is doing the defining — can provide serious insight with deep history. Yes, tapping in to your stalkers can pay dividends. 

NASCAR, which has been doing so for six years, talked about its fan community program last week during a teleconference, sharing the virtual podium with Vancouver-based Vision Critical, who created the sport's 12,000-member NASCAR Fan Council

Chris Bondarenko, VP business development over at the consumer intelligence firm, said empowered customers should have the tools and opportunities to share their opinion and influence the brand. 

"Regardless of industry all organizations are feeling the effects of the empowered customer. There is explosion of media options and opportunity in how content is consumed and how they are following and tracking sports." True enough. 

Brian Moyer, managing director, market and media research at NASCAR, said Vision Critical's assist was, well, critical, because NASCAR is inherently a collaborative sport involving racetrack drivers, team owners, sponsors, media partners, automakers Chevy, Ford and Toyota, and fans. He said NASCAR launched the Fan Council it in 2008 as a platform to give them "A seat at table." I understand: Big Data is like too much milk in a bowl of cereal. At some point you've wasted the cereal, the milk and the bowl. The fan council concept is, if nothing else, an improvement on soggy cereal. It’s ongoing conversations with a real people the value of whose insight increases with time — or as NASCAR’s understanding of that fan increases. 

It also lets marketers do things a lot faster, via short surveys of three to five questions. As Moyer put it in the teleconference last week, "We were getting bogged in slow, traditional research. It just wasn't nimble enough for us."

I spoke to Vision Critical founder, president and chief product officer Andrew Reid, who says the company runs its cloud-based turnkey customer intelligence systems for some 500 brands, involving online communities ranging from 5,000 to 50,000 members. "When you join we have to make sure you are real, fit the demographic profile, and you are who you say you are. And when we go out and ask questions of fans, we are getting the whole iceberg — including an historical profile of that person — not just the tip, which is what you get with surveys. That makes it longitudinal, as you can understand how attitudes change over time.” 

NASCAR has used the council to help get a reality check on events that happen on the track, such as at Talladega raceway in fall 2009, when Carl Edwards crashed within jogging distance of the finish line. "By traditional metrics, that race was highest-rated race of that day," said Moyer. "And it was very well attended. There were discussion around what happened, but without proprietary metrics we couldn't have corrected what happened. The panel made a big difference." 

He said the company used NASCAR Fan Council data and meshed it with technology data to make a mid-season change to go back to a rear spoiler on race cars versus the “wing” type spoiler. And NASCAR used its Fan Council to validate a new idea on how to line cars up on the track to restart a race after a hiccup. Now, cars lined up in two rows. "The NASCAR Fan Council platform helped to accelerate and amplify the thinking. 

Can brands partnering with NASCAR, like Coke, Sunoco, HP, Goodyear use the community to get their own insights? Moyer says they can, though one imagines it must be a bit of a 'take-a-number' situation. "We are enabling them to tap into us. The phone rings much more frequently now. In many cases this is the right tool to answer their questions."

The only problem is avoiding the temptation to be as enamored of the fans as they are of you. It’s a tactical mistake, because perspective must involve insight beyond the passionate few, or many. I mean, maybe they’re all crazy. 

Says Reid, “I’m not going to say that for every question you should always use the community. Our customers run parallel tests to make sure they aren’t getting super-biased opinions. But what we have found is that your biggest fans are always your biggest critics.” 

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