Correction to This Article
A May 26 Sports article about marketing trends misidentified a public relations agency and the name of its annual report that quantifies trust in institutions, companies, and sources of information. Edelman public relations produces the Edelman Trust Barometer.

NASCAR's New Marketing Strategy Is the Latest Buzz

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 26, 2007

CONCORD, N.C., May 25 -- It has never been difficult to figure out what NASCAR fans think about a particular driver. In the 1970s they bestowed Richard Petty with the nickname, "The King." Last month they hurled beer bottles at Jeff Gordon for eclipsing the late Dale Earnhardt's record of 76 victories.

But for those seeking a more nuanced take on the sentiments of NASCAR Nation, a Charlotte-based sports marketing company has devised a new method that incorporates the increasingly influential, yet often elusive, world of cyberspace.

It's known as Buzz Manager, and it's a Web-based research tool that trolls sports blogs, message boards, podcasts, YouTube and similar sources, capturing relevant chatter on behalf of a client -- whether a racecar driver, corporate sponsor or sports league. That information is analyzed for content and impact and then translated into a Buzz Rating -- a single number on a scale of 1 to 10 -- that's presented much like an oil-temperature gauge on a dashboard. With one glance, a driver can tell if he's connecting with fans on a given day or in a given week and, if so, whether fans like what he represents or don't.

"It's online word of mouth, and the value of listening to it is amazing," says Kathleen Hessert, president of Sports Media Challenge, who developed the tool for application to all sports.

No sport is more dependent on corporate sponsors than NASCAR. And with sponsorship of a front-running NASCAR team costing $15 million to $20 million a year, those sponsors want and expect a return on their investment.

Among the traditional methods of measuring that return is contracting with a research firm that puts a stopwatch to every NASCAR broadcast and times how many seconds a sponsor's name or logo appears on camera or is mentioned on-air. That is then translated to a dollar-value of TV exposure. While meaningful, it doesn't tell the full story, given the online explosion of information and opinion.

Hessert's effort to quantify and analyze chatter around the virtual sports watercooler illustrates the latest paradigm shift in the field of marketing -- not just as it relates to sports, but any product or politician, for that matter. That shift, spurred by the explosion of consumer-generated information on the Internet, is explained through such catch phrases as the "Me2 Revolution," "word-of-mouth marketing" and "Mom-fluencies."

The essential finding, reported in the 2007 Edema Trust Barometer issued by the Edema public relations agency, was that people are relying more on the opinions of their peers -- rather than traditional authorities, such as business, government and the media -- when making decisions in the marketplace.

Today's car-buyer, for example, might not bother reading reviews in automotive magazines. Instead he might ask friends and neighbors about their experience or scour online blogs, Wikipedia and any other site where similar people share anecdotes that trigger rebuttals and affirmation.

In Hessert's view, all of this relates to sports marketing. Women account for 40 percent of NASCAR fans. They also account for most ticket buyers.

Among those who have used Hessert's service are ESPN, to evaluate last season's launch of "Monday Night Football"; the NBA, who used it to take fans' pulse on a range of issues, including Kobe Bryant's 81-point game; and NASCAR's 2004 rookie of the year Kasey Kahne.

Sports Business Daily uses Buzz Manager to track hot sports topics, including sentiments on Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s announcement that he was leaving his family race team at season's end.

In Kahne's case, Hessert's research conducted in early 2006 showed a healthy amount of Web-based chatter about the young driver -- perhaps due in part to Allstate's light-hearted series of TV commercials in which a carload of teenage girls shriek, swoon and crash into something every time they see him. But after Hessert and her research team analyzed the buzz, Kahne wasn't necessarily wild about the findings.

"What people were talking about, largely girls and women, were, 'Oh, he's so great-looking! I love Kasey Kahne!' " she said.

It's nothing to complain about -- particularly an athlete in a sport in which image plays an increasing role in success, conceivably swaying a corporation to sponsor you or not. So Kahne turned his focus to letting people know there's more to him than his looks -- talking about the sprint-car team he owns and his role on the President's Council on Service and Civic Participation.

"It used to be that a decal on a car or a helmet was great exposure because TV was capturing that," Hessert says. "As NASCAR has matured, so has its need for sponsors. And if they're going to continue to grow, sponsors have to know what's resonating with fans and what isn't."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company