In some sense IndyCar owes its advanced Twitter acumen to an unusual role model: a seven-year-old English bulldog named Butler Blue II.
At the dawn of 2011, nearly every IndyCar team and driver has a Twitter presence. But back in 2008, Butler Blue, the mascot of Butler University in Indianapolis, was a social media pioneer, using Facebook and Twitter to reach out and build a brand.
Blue’s Best Online Trick
Since 60-pound English bulldogs (even those of advanced intellect as Blue) haven’t yet mastered digital devices, credit for Butler Blue’s Twitter account (@ButlerBlue2) really goes to his caretaker Michael Kaltenmark (@MSKaltenmark).
“We were having success in social media with Blue,” recalled Kaltenmark, full-time director of development for Butler who has also been Blue’s caretaker for nearly seven years. Kaltenmark handles Blue’s full schedule of appearances as Butler’s mascot. “I saw at Butler how you could sort of create your own conversation through these social media outlets. These were working out for Blue, creating Blue’s brand and personality and that was helping define the university for a lot of people.”
That’s the center of Twitter: conversations and community, two things that are becoming the holy grail of the burgeoning “social media.” Twitter, Facebook — the Internet in general — remove barriers of time and distance and create an unprecedented opportunity for people of similar preferences to interact. Like a million digital corner bars, coffee shops and club houses, social media expands the online universe of “communities” every day, with no end in sight.
When Kaltenmark started working part-time for Vision Racing in 2008, he met Vision’s full-time director of public relations, Pat Caporali (@PCaporali) who is now PR manager for FAZZT Racing (@FAZZT77).
Facebook as Gateway Digital Drug
“Michael started the Facebook page for Vision,” Caporali said. “We were using Facebook to let the friends and family of people on the team know what was going on on race weekends. Then we realized that friends and family are already fans, so why not invite more fans as well and make everybody kind of feel a part of it? Honestly, we really just did it because we wanted to share it with our friends and family and some of the fans and really didn’t think of it as a PR tool at the time.”
Caporali said the team initially leaped from a presence on Facebook — the undisputed king of social media with 500 million users worldwide — to a pioneering presence in the more geeky, digital-frontier world of Twitter to overcome the limitations of texting.
“Michael said ‘what about trying this on Twitter too on race weekends for updates?’” Caporali recalled. “I loved the idea because when I was with Ganassi PR I used to, during the race, have to text the group of sponsors and so forth in the suites to let them know what was going on in the race, like to let them know we were going to pit in two laps or whatever. But my list of who to text during the race was getting longer and longer and I had to cut and paste the phone numbers into each text and it was a very long process to text five to 15 people in the organization. But they loved it. The more I updated them the more they loved it.”
Sending what is essentially one text message to a limitless number of people quickly and easily is the heart of Twitter. The convergence of human adaptation to the world of text messaging and the incredible growth in use of Internet-enabled smart phones were the twin rocket boosters that put Twitter into orbit.
How Twitter Works
Twitter users sign up for a free account at Twitter.com and establish a “twitter handle” that always starts with “at” sign (@), for example @pressdog. It can be anything that’s not already taken — name, nickname, business name, whatever you want. Twitter users essentially broadcast messages, known as “tweets,” to a community made up of anyone who wants to receive their messages.
Messages are limited to 140 characters at a time. (There are 126 characters in the next sentence.) --> Since the character limit ensures no one will be reading or writing a novel, it helps add to Twitter’s speed of communication.
Once users have an account, they can “follow” other users. Tweets from whomever you follow appear in the “twitter stream” (usually presented graphically as column of messages) on your computer or smart phone.
If any of Twitter’s 106 million users tweet something with your handle in it, it also shows up in your Twitter stream as “@mentions.”
For example, if anyone on Twitter anywhere in the world tweets “@pressdog is ridiculous” that message will show up in my stream. Twitter also lets two people who follow each other send private, direct messages to each other that only sender and receiver can read.
Twitter gives all users the power to prevent anyone from following them and block Tweets from any individual, limiting the opportunities for spamming and harassing messages. There are also ways to report suspected spammers.
Twitter Takes the Green Flag in IndyCar
Like everything in racing, Twitter in IndyCar started with a test. “We did a (on-track car) test at the end of 2008, so we decided to turn that test into a Twitter test as well,” Caporali said. “More than anything, I felt like I was texting to Michael because he couldn’t come to the test. Honestly we just went with it. I was texting Michael and anyone else who wanted to know what was going on could just sort of tune in, so to speak (by following Caporalli who tweeted using @VisionRacing). Then it just took off from there.”
While Facebook is a broad application that lends itself to creating a repository of user-created photos, video, links to web content and personal “status updates” geared at friends and family, Twitter is uniquely suited for a more niche audience, people -- often complete strangers -- who share a common interest, whether that’s racing, hunting, dancing, photography or whatever.
Caporali and Kaltenmark quickly understood that Twitter gave them the means to create a community of people who were passionate about IndyCar. “We realized it was a direct link to fans,” Caporali said, “especially during races, since we were never on TV (due to their mid-pack status most races), which was so annoying that the only way we could get information out to friends and family and fans was by tweeting and then posting our post-race reports on Facebook.”
Insatiable Appetite for Tweets
Direct-from-the-source information seasoned with Caporali and Kaltenmark’s personality and sense of humor caught on with fans. Followers seemed to have an insatiable appetite for behind-the-scenes and on-the-fly instantaneous information that Twitter is ideal for delivering.
“I was worried about maybe over-saturating our followers with tweets, and that just never happened,” said Kaltenmark. “The more we tweeted the more they wanted so it was kind of surprising in that sense. But that’s indicative of the IndyCar fan. They love this stuff. They eat it up. They want more of it. “
Besides feeding fan’s frenzied demand for information, Kaltenmark said this geeky conduit also helped Vision redefine its brand.
“What we found was we completely changed the team’s image and perception,” said Kaltenmark. “We went from being kind of a Tony (George)-funded team to being the true underdog worth following, worth rooting for.”
The height of Vision’s tweeting came at Kentucky in 2009, when their driver Ed Carpenter (@edcarpenter20) and Penske’s Ryan Briscoe (@RyanBriscoe6) went the last dozen or so laps two-wide for the win. Carpenter ended up second by a few feet.
“During that race, what we were thinking and what we were feeling and were getting so much feedback from fans in the stands and at home, I think that’s the most fun I’ve ever had with what was going on on the track and off the track, and feeling everybody else’s excitement,” Caporali said. “You know that people are tuning in on TV but when you actually hear from them in that manner on Twitter and Facebook it was so cool.”
A Tool for Brand Transformation
Even though sponsorship woes put Vision into hibernation at the end of 2010, Kaltenmark credits Twitter for a remarkable image turn around. “Without social media and these platforms, I wonder what the perception of Vision Racing would be,” he said. “I think it would still be somewhat negative, and that would be unfortunate, because of the great people who were employed there and the great people at the helm like the George family and Ed (Carpenter), these are really great people and I’m afraid that word wouldn’t have gotten out if we didn’t have those outlets through social media.”
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