Do television shows usually seem like marketing tactics to you? Sure, you’ll see advertisements depending on where you watch. Reality TV has a reputation as a place otherwise unknown actors or entertainment business hopefuls can go to market themselves, but what if the program itself was the advertisement? What if the entire underlying approach to a television program was to market a product?

Netflix’s Formula 1: Drive to Survive is precisely that. Pitched to Netflix by F1’s former Managing Director of Operations, Drive to Survive is entertaining and immensely popular, but it’s also a great example of content marketing done to perfection.

What is content marketing?

The Content Marketing Institute defines content as:

“A strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.”

The dictionary definition is a bit simpler:

A type of marketing that involves the creation and sharing of online material (such as videos, blogs, and social media posts) that does not explicitly promote a brand but is intended to stimulate interest in its products or services.

Why Formula 1 needed to think differently about marketing

Admittedly, I have bias. As a Formula 1 fan, my first instinct is to argue that it was fine the way it was. But being a fan was also a huge hassle.

Being a sport where races take place all across the world, Formula 1 races occur at all different times of the day. There was a time (not long before Drive to Survive) when, as a Canadian, watching a race meant adding the complete TSN package to your cable subscription, finding it on TSN 2 (or 3… or 4) and either watching it at 3 AM or setting your DVR to record and hoping nothing screwed up. That’s not mentioning the qualifiers, practice sessions, pit talks, and all the other content available through Sky (or whichever company TSN was licensing from) that TSN would only air sporadically.

There was no F1 app. And you couldn’t watch races on the TSN app. This wasn’t 20 years ago. It was five. Still, it feels like an experience that should be ancient history.

On top of that, for a sport that is so dangerous, F1 can be very slow. Races last hours, and much of the action occurs in the first 2-3 laps, during pit stops, and in the last 2-3 laps. Once you “get it,” it’s incredible, and all you want to do is get up on Sunday morning and burn through 6+ hours of race content.

But all of this made it relatively inaccessible. Unless you know someone who loves Formula 1 (my father-in-law and a friend of mine both do, so being convinced was easy), it’s probably tough to convince you that the effort to find it, let alone sit through hours and hours of it, is going to be worth it.

As Lewis Hamilton, 7-time F1 World Champion said some years ago:

“It’s really a matter of getting the car in front of people. Once you hear it and see it, feel the noise—then maybe they’ll turn out for a race.”

How do you do that when most countries see one live race a year?

Enter Formula 1: Drive to Survive

Liberty Media purchased Formula One Group in January 2017, and it wasn’t long after that Sean Bratches, F1’s former Managing Director of Operations, started pitching an idea “that was going to show Formula 1 in a completely different light and introduce it to a completely different fan.”

Formula 1: Drive to Survive was filmed the following year, covering the 2018 season, and premiered in March 2019.

Since then, Drive to Survive has won multiple awards, increased viewership of Formula 1 by over 50% in the US year over year, and occupied the top spot for most-watched shows on Netflix with each new season release.

It’s a great show. It has the same flaws a lot of reality TV has (not all of it is as “true” to reality as you might like) but overall, it’s entertaining and has brought new fans into a sport that had an aging and declining fanbase.

But this isn’t a blog about Formula 1 or Drive to Survive; it’s a blog about content marketing, so how does it all tie together?

What you can learn about content marketing from Formula 1: Drive to Survive

It’s fair to wonder what you can learn about content marketing from Drive to Survive. After all, creating great content to drive interest in a high-level sport already watched by millions feels like cheating. It’s a little different than creating content to drive interest in a law firm, a restaurant, or a pest control company, for example. But approaching it with a similar mindset is what matters.

Create great content

This seems obvious, but it’s important enough to mention. Creating content for the sake of content is a waste of your effort; all you’re doing is asking your audience to waste their time. Instead, create content with purpose and strategy behind it. Make it valuable, whether entertaining or informative or both, to your audience.

I’ve come up with a handy acronym, AEVAA, that I try to apply to any content I create (who doesn’t love a good acronym?). AEVAA stands for Accurate, Engaging, Valuable, Actionable, Accessible content.

  • Accurate: Content should contain information that is correct and reliable.
  • Engaging: Content should draw your audience in and make them want to stay.
  • Valuable: Content should give something to your audience of value, whether it’s entertainment, information, or other.
  • Actionable: Content should contain something your audience can use or take with them and apply later.
  • Accessible: Content should be accessible to all and designed so that people of different abilities, backgrounds, education levels, etc., can enjoy it.

Of course, not all of these will apply to every piece of content, but this is just a guide to start from. A DIY how-to video on changing the oil in your car can get away with being less engaging, for example. Still, its accuracy, accessibility, and how actionable it is, are that much more important.

Create the content your audience wants, not the content you want to give them

Understanding your audience, what they want/need and how they best receive information is crucial to good content marketing.

With this understanding, you can approach content creation with confidence that the time you’re spending is worthwhile. You know what your audience needs, where they go looking for it, and you’re well equipped to deliver it.

Too often, the default is to skip this understanding or ignore it in favour of producing content you want to create or content you think is worth producing. Some people get caught up with the idea that marketing always needs to be advertising and treat organic social, blogs, or videos as just another way to advertise their product or service. In no uncertain terms, this is the wrong way to think. People can appreciate a good advertisement, but generally, people don’t like being advertised to. They certainly don’t like a piece of content pretending to be organic and valuable that quickly becomes a blatant advertisement.

Listen to your audience and give them what they want. Or, at the very least, ask yourself what you would like. Your audience is very likely comprised of people who are just like you.

Go to your desired audience, don’t expect them to come to you

“Meet them where they are” is both a mindset and an actual thing you need to do. Meeting your audience where they are means creating content for where they are in the buyer’s journey. It’s about matching their intentions, needs, receptiveness, etc.

But, meeting them where they are is also about platform choice. Put your resources into creating content for platforms your audience spends time with. This usually requires some level of audience research. Still, when you have options like blogs, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, television, newspaper, radio, events, etc., it’s wise to get to know the platforms your audience spends the most time with.

Because you can’t be everywhere at once, and, honestly, you shouldn’t try. I know that sometimes, it feels like a missed opportunity not to post something on Twitter, for example, but every platform that allows you to put content into the world has nuances for what works and what doesn’t. You’re better off focusing your energy on being excellent in one area instead of “just there” in every area.

Always remember to test, learn, and apply

Formula 1: Drive to Survive was a hit out of the gate and an immediate benefit to Formula 1. Maybe, whatever content marketing efforts you decide to pursue will be, too. But they might not be, and that’s okay.

Content marketing isn’t about getting it right the first time and seeing immediate results. It’s the long play. Often, it comes down to testing out content you think will resonate (ideally based on research and a content strategy), learning from what worked and what didn’t, and then applying those learnings to the next iteration.

It’s a chance to have fun, do something different than your day-to-day, and most importantly: connect with your audience. Good content marketing brings the type of people you want as your clients or customers closer to you. So long as you’ve identified who that is and are creating content of value for them, of course.

Gone are my days of trying to find F1 on TSN 2, 3, or 4 at some ungodly hour. Now it’s all mobile and Apple TV apps, reality shows, LEGO sets, and major Canadian gas-station promotions. Is it all because of the clever content marketing that was Drive to Survive? No. But the future looks brighter than ever for Formula 1. And it would be tough to deny that content marketing played an important part in it all.

“Take your protein pills and put your helmet on…” David Bowie // Space Oddity

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