“I gotta tell you,” says Amir Zonozi, president and co-founder of Zoomph,“I feel like the Nascar team doesn't get enough credit for how savvy they are with their audience analytics. A lot of teams are doing measurement very well, not a lot of organisations and rights holders are doing audience analytics to the degree that they are.”
Zonozi is chatting to SportsPro over Zoom from his home in Reston and it is clear his admiration for what the North American stock car racing series is doing goes beyond the normal platitudes of a partner.
For those who are not close observers of Nascar’s reorientation in the last couple of years Zonozi’s statement might come as a surprise. Nascar has always been strongly associated with the American south, but of late the series has been trying to broaden its appeal.
In 2020 there was a landmark moment for Nascar when it banned the highly controversial Confederate Flag from its races. After that the series also saw its Nascar Cup team ownership diversify with National Basketball Association (NBA) icon Michael Jordan co-founding 23XI Racing and bringing in the top-level series’ only African-American driver, Bubba Wallace, to be the front man. Pitbull, the American-Latinx rapper, also became a team co-owner in January this year, acquiring a stake in Trackhouse Racing.
NBA icon Michael Jordan has become a Nascar team owner
While these might be the headlines that signal Nascar’s new direction, the changes behind the scenes have been just as, if not more, significant and are being informed by a highly data-led approach.
There has been a research arm at Nascar for seven years, but in late 2018, under the guidance of chief executive Jim France, executive vice chair Lesa Kennedy and president Steve Phelps, the series kicked off Project Horsepower. That was an initiative where data was utilised extensively to better understand markers where the series could get return on investment to preserve its viewership.
“We've always had the data, I think it became more of an emphasis on needing to learn and implement what the data says versus measuring what's happened in the past,” says Brooks Deaton, managing director of Nascar’s research and insights division.
“That fundamental switch at the core of everything is fan interest. If we can't get someone interested, then obviously we're not going to produce metrics that are going to move the needle. Even just that thought switched the culture here in the embodiment of what data and insights means and how we can learn and make decisions from it.”
If we can't get someone interested, then obviously we're not going to produce metrics that are going to move the needle.
Nascar has been actively trying to recruit more Gen Z and Millenial fans
Nascar’s data gathering process is deep and draws from a number of different sources. Among the platforms at the series’ disposal are Zoomph, Nielsen, Meltwater, Conviva, Qualtrics, Adobe and fan council partner Alida, as well as its own custom research tools. Deaton’s team of data scientists bring those databases together to analyse not just all angles on Nascar’s drivers, but insights into its fans as well.
The series’ stars are analysed on their social media engagement, merchandise sales, performance on the track, brand tracker perceptions, and even on how their driving style, personality and presence is perceived by avid Nascar followers.
With fans, Nascar is monitoring transactional trails and what stage they are at in the customer journey in order to ensure that communication is not only smart but also efficient.
The overarching strategy is about creating composite scores that look across the industry and use internal benchmarking. There is daily data reporting at all levels of the business and constant discussion on how Nascar can get smarter. Deaton credits Nascar’s leadership for creating a culture that makes decisions based on data and insights. He says that approach has helped Nascar remain stable through the pandemic where others have seen declines.
One area viewed as “critical”, according to Deaton, is social media. It is a medium that forms a key pillar of Nascar’s strategy to attract new fans, which is where Zoomph comes into the equation.
“Really [Zoomph is used] for that social profiling and understanding – a way to measure if our efforts are appearing to move the needle,” explains Deaton.
“We're really bullish on interest, as everyone is, but we also look at relevance and prioritisation as metrics that we want to continue to move the needle as we widen the net.”
Zoomph started working with Nascar in mid-2019, initially measuring partner social content and fan sentiment. Zonozi says that Nascar tested Zoomph’s platforms to “extremes” – something the analytics firm encourages from all partners – in order to ensure the accuracy of the data and understand the change in sentiment metrics over time. Once the formal partnership was agreed, Zoomph was tasked with tracking Nascar’s entire social ecosystem – drivers, teams, brands, as well as the series itself – for engagement metrics, audience sentiment and follower profiles.
Zonozi explains: “So, for example, people that engaged in conversation around Daytona 500 – who are these people, and what are their other interests outside of Nascar? Where are the other opportunities where Nascar can stay relevant with this tangential fan? Where can they go to find other fans that might be fans of Nascar if they gave it a chance?”
Drawing on an analytics platform that tracks behaviour of more than 350 million profiles means that Zoomph does not have to rely on survey data to create digital footprints. While Zoomph’s database is anonymised, and built with privacy by design, it can track audience affinities. This is done through verbal and non-verbal digital behaviour, from words in bios, content author's share, who they follow, or don't follow to better understand what these people care about.
Banning the Confederate Flag was a landmark moment for Nascar
“Where this became really important was that moment when they banned the Confederate Flag,” says Zonozi. “When that moment happened, we could track the entire audience, before that conversation and their entire audience after the conversation.
“What's unique about this is we're taking a live conversation and identifying the people. We were able to see who came in and who came out. Through this conversation, we were able to see that once they made that ban, they were able to bring in more Gen Z and Millennials, more women, more people with diversity, there was more languages, more people of different countries.”
In order to facilitate this shift, Zoomph worked with Nascar to set up a custom dashboard using the analytics firm’s API which the stock car racing series can tweak and add new tracking points to. The two partners also hold regular meetings to go over any queries in detail and to allow Zoomph to take onboard feedback that it uses to inform platform upgrades.
Being informed of the interest of potential new fans is one thing, but Zoomph also offers insight on the kind of content that would resonate with target groups. By tracking what these potential new audiences engage with, Nascar can produce targeted output designed to expand the network of profiles being exposed to its content.
“They've really leaned hard into diversity, and they are seeing growth in viewership and in social conversation as a result of it,” says Zonozi.
“They're seeing an increase in Gen Z followers, we're seeing an increase of fans that are being exposed to Nascar for their first time, now converting into fans. Now they're growing in Gen Z and they're growing tremendously with new followers.
“It's the 'Field of Dreams' effect – if you build it, they will come. Well, Nascar is now architecting content that is optimised to resonate with this new fan group to help increase the chances for them to engage.”
A significant and growing part of Nascar’s social strategy is its influencer programme. This has changed markedly between what both Deaton and Zonozi describe as Nascar 1.0 and Nascar 2.0 post-flag ban. Again, Zoomph helps here by identifying subjects of interest that will resonate with certain potential fan sectors. The platform looks at influencers’ following and their interests to see alignments in that community. It means that rather than going after accounts with large followings who might not actually care about Nascar, the series can identify influencers who may not have a direct association but do have crossover appeal and are therefore more likely to see their posts resonate.
“So if we see an interest in motorsports, in Nascar, we're able to identify people that you typically might not have thought of as influencers, but they might hold the attention of people that have that,” explains Zonozi.
“It's a little bit of a different approach than most people think: ‘OK, people that create content around racing, those must be the influencers’. It doesn't necessarily have to be that, it's just about the people that might have an interest in this might be following certain individuals.”
Team owners like Latinx rapper Pitbull help broaden Nascar's appeal
“It's really finding associations around who we can work with at track or virtually around our events,” adds Deaton. “We saw the associations that we had, whether it's when Michael Jordan came on board, or Pitbull. We were able to analyse the audience around them to then find common links among our core set of fans with this new social audience that we had.
“The Daytona 500 is a perfect example where we lean into Luke Combs and Tyler Yaweh and really just find a convergence of different worlds and in different social audiences.”
Zonozi credits Nascar with a “really great job” at identifying influencers across these different categories that have that affinity adjacent to the audience that it is going after and – crucially – the opportunity to get those people into racing. So at the top, that is the likes of Jordan and Pitbull coming in at the ownership level, continuing a growing trend of celebrity stakeholders also seen in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) with Angel City or even Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney acquiring Welsh soccer club Wrexham.
Away from that, National Football League (NFL) star Alvin Kamara is an interesting example of the influencer programme in action. The New Orleans Saints running back started tweeting about Wallace’s stance on the Confederate Flag and his support for the Black Lives Matter movement last year. He was then invited to Homestead-Miami Speedway for the Dixie Vodka 400 and gifted a load of Wallace merchandise by Nascar licensing partner Checkered Flag Sports.
Kamara was again in attendance at the 2021 Daytona 500, posting continuously about Nascar, and topped off that trip by agreeing to become a sponsor for Ryan Vargas’ number six car in the second-tier Xfinity Series. Kamara contributed to Nascar growing its audience with a crossover interest in the NFL by more than 43 per cent between the 2020 season opener and this year’s Daytona 500.
I’ve also discovered that I could have my own racing team… Stay tuned @NASCAR ��— Alvin Kamara (@A_kamara6) February 15, 2021
Zoomph analysis | Social value: US$16,559 | Engagement rate: 1.42 per cent
“It doesn't matter where these influencers are coming from,” says Zonozi. “We're quickly able to look at their followers and we can ask: ‘Am I hitting that same group?’
“If I take the Nascar audience and I take Alvin Kamara and I draw an overlap circle, what is that unique reach? Are we hitting the same audience? Are we hitting new people that we haven't been exposed to?
“So we can play with that in very exciting ways. We can say, ‘let's find areas where we haven't been’, or we can go into areas we know we've been successful and bring those people in as well. So they can get creative.
“This approach could work not just in Nascar, it could work for movies, right? You bring in the Rock, Kevin Hart, and Jack Black. A lot of the recent movies that they've been doing, they're looking at influencers based on asking: ‘Is this an audience that we've already been in front of? Or is this a new audience that we'd have to integrate?’”
DAYTONA 500 TIME LETS GET IT pic.twitter.com/T8jKD8HhlK— timthetatman�� (@timthetatman) February 14, 2021
Zoomph analysis | Social value: US$88,320 | Engagement rate: 1.36 per cent
Nascar is now tracking multiple different campaigns and focusing on these different types of influencers such as gamers, athletes from other sports or content creators.
“What's really exciting is that they're doing it on so many different levels,” continues Zonozi. “Usually we see a lot of rights holders focus on one segment and sort of experiment with that. But Nascar is doing it multiple different ways.
“Because they have Zoomph to standardise results back to see who's making the biggest impact, they're able to identify which segment is working and say: ‘These content creators are giving us a better sort of engagement with Gen Z than maybe some of these other initiatives.’
“So it just gives them a single plain view to identify all these different campaigns and influencers that they're working with, all coming from different sort of segments and areas of influence. But the commonality is we're looking at their followers and what their followers are interested in.
“I said this during SportsPro Live last year: ‘Niches get riches’. What Nascar is doing is they're getting very niche with every influencer. So it's very personalised. It's not a one-shot sort of shotgun approach. They're going after these different segments, just with incredible detail and just monitoring that impact.”
Audience analytics has become Nacar's 'north star'
Now, in the second year of its partnership with Zoomph, audience analytics has become Nascar’s ‘north star’. Zoomph has tailored its reports for the series on that new fan profile that engaged with Nascar post-Confederate Flag ban. Zonozi’s team is working with Nascar to better articulate who it is interacting with by drawing on around 600 identifying data points, that even goes down to the type of device that content is being shared from.
“[Nascar is] constantly looking at us to help them look at this data in new ways,” says Zonozi. “They'll have questions on like: ‘What does this mean when it says they have an overlap affinity with 20 per cent or so and so?’ So can we help them by explaining what that means.”
“We're still early in the journey and learning,” says Deaton. “Social media doesn't stay consistent for very long. So it's an ever-evolving process. That's where we lean on the [Zoomph] partnership to be experts for us and kind of profile out what's going on from a sports standpoint.
“Then, from a Nascar standpoint, [it is] just [about] the changing dynamics of what we're seeing and it's really up to us to find areas of our business that are most important to dive deeper into.
“It’s probably selling [Zoomph] short saying it's just one part. It really opens up conversations for not just Nascar – and within the walls of Nascar – but everyone that threads into our industry to be more educated and informed through data on opportunities for us to grow the sport.”
As for Zonozi’s final words on working with Nascar, he says: “I think it's brilliant how the Nascar team approaches social like scientists, they are constantly rethinking what they hold true and adapting to the fans, instead of asking fans to adapt to them and that is why they have seen such a success when appealing to groups like Gen Z.
“Rights holders need to stop acting like event companies and start monetising like media companies – and that is why Nascar is so successful, they are a media company.”