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Every company today wants an army of rabid fans. But while having a passionate community of customers is a fantasy for many brands, that’s not the case for NASCAR. One of the most popular sports in the world, NASCAR has a fan base that’s both dedicated and vocal.

But NASCAR’s passionate fan community doesn’t exist by accident. The company has created a fan intelligence and engagement strategy that helps turn casual fans into fanatics.

At the 2017 Customer Intelligence Summit, Brooks Deaton, senior director of consumer insights at NASCAR, will share how the company built a world-class fan intelligence ecosystem that drives better decision-making. In a recent Q&A, Brooks shared a preview of his session and revealed how it’s like to work in consumer insights at one of the world’s most revered brands.

Prior to joining NASCAR, you managed consumer insights at Denny’s. What are some of the biggest differences between working for a sports and entertainment company and for a food service company?

One of the coolest things coming to NASCAR from Denny's is seeing how visceral, passionate and emotionally attached fans are to a favorite driver or team, and how much that passion dictates their moods.

While Denny's is functional in nature, and lots of consumers love the brand, my experience there pales in comparison to how sports fans get behind NASCAR. Being a fan is a part of a person’s identity. Fans rally together and become friends because they like the same driver or team. NASCAR impacts millions of fans across the world by influencing what they do on a weekly basis.

Given how passionate NASCAR fans are, do you find that there’s more pressure to make sure you’re delivering the experience they want?

Definitely. NASCAR fans are vocal. When things don't go their way, we hear about it.

If you’re a NASCAR fan and your favorite driver has a bad race or a bad season, you're not leaving them. Some fans prefer NASCAR drivers over members of their family. That's how deeply connected they are to the sport. Being a fan heightens the stakes.

Part of my role in consumer insights is to ensure we’re reflecting the emotion NASCAR fans have in our decision-making. It requires going beyond numbers and data, and conveying the rawness of our fans’ love and feelings about the league.

"Part of my role in consumer insights is to ensure we’re reflecting the emotion NASCAR fans have in our decision-making."

The force that drives that fanatic sentiment matters a lot to both NASCAR as the governing body and NASCAR as a sports property. Many Fortune 500 companies partner with NASCAR because of our fans’ attachment, and those brands use our platform as a vehicle to emotionally connect with fans. Having a passionate fan base and being able to connect fans to brands is a powerful combination.

Your session at the Customer Intelligence Summit will explore strategies for building a world-class customer intelligence ecosystem. From your point of view, what are some of the elements of a customer intelligence program that’s truly world-class?

First of all, a world-class customer intelligence ecosystem needs to be customer- or fan-centric. You have to invest in having engaging and dynamic conversations with your fans.

"A world-class customer intelligence ecosystem needs to be customer- or fan-centric."

At NASCAR, our primary goal is to give a voice to our fans and the 25,000 members of our insight community. We want fans to know that we take them into consideration in everything we do. NASCAR is dedicated to understanding what the fans want and giving them the best possible experience.

We realize that sports are a part of a fan's DNA. As a research function, we want to unpack our fans’ identity. What elements attract fans to a specific driver? How else are their lives impacted by their fandom in the sport? Answering these questions helps us understand our fans as people, including their attitudes and motivations.

Personally, I love the psychological angle of learning what makes our fans tick, and then figuring out its benefits to the league. How can we make them connect NASCAR with different elements of their daily life? That’s the challenge that drives us to build a world-class community and insights-driven tool.

It sounds like having a customer- or fan-centric culture is a big part of creating a world-class customer intelligence ecosystem.

Culture is definitely an important foundation. You need to have the right culture and mentality before you make technology decisions. All the work we do is rooted in using the consumer lens to understand how to optimize their experience.

Every company does consumer research. From a consumer standpoint, they're either going to be filling out a survey, or they're going to be sharing an experience. There's a fine line in how companies should approach that fan or that consumer with surveys. You want to make activities engaging so fans don't feel like they're taking just another survey.

"The bigger goal is to create a culture where fans or consumers know that they are giving feedback that impacts the business."

The bigger goal is to create a culture where fans or consumers know that they are giving feedback that impacts the business. Many market research methodologies prioritize data over deeper relationship with fans and consumers, and that’s a missed opportunity. When you can understand the emotion of your consumers and tell a story around that feeling, that’s very powerful.

From a technology perspective, what does it take to create a world-class customer intelligence ecosystem?

At NASCAR, creating a best-in-class customer intelligence program started with the decision to take what has traditionally been result-driven analytics (behavioral, TV, social media analytics, and digital analytics) and tie that to market research. Integrating these two approaches enables us to more holistically understand fan motivations and attitudes.

Collaboration with our team and outside partners is critical. The Vision Critical platform has been a big part of that. Our customer intelligence program is still a work in progress. But it does start with a powerful tool like Sparq, where we can do innovative consumer research work through integrations and where we can truly deepen our understanding of fan behavior.

You’ve been at NASCAR for more than 3 years now. In your role there, what are some of the most surprising things you’ve learned about NASCAR fans?

It really surprised me how passionate NASCAR fans are. I was aware how loyal NASCAR fans are to companies that sponsor the sport, but I quickly learned that they are truly dedicated. They take great pride in being a NASCAR fan, and that dedication influences their behaviors. We see from all of our partners how their involvement with NASCAR reaches an audience that so deeply cares about the sport and those involved.

It’s also surprising how much NASCAR fans are changing. Many of them engage with our content in so many different ways now. They're asking us for platforms that allow them to tune into NASCAR on the go. We're trying to be in more places so they can find us at their convenience. Even ten years ago, television was very limited. There wasn't such a thing as cord cutting. You didn't have as many options. Today, fans access our content from different channels. Our job is to keep up—and a world-class fan intelligence ecosystem helps us understand how to deliver the experiences our fans expect from us.

Which books have had the most impact on your career?

Start with Why by Simon Sinek, Stand Out by Marcus Buckingham. Anything Malcolm Gladwell.

Our thanks to Brooks for sharing his time with us. 

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