Speedway effort decodes Nascar fans

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When Josh Linkler was a little boy he loved the decoder rings that he tugged, sticky with caramel, out of the Cracker Jacks box. As an adult, he's graduated to a high-tech version of those rings. His company, ePrize, produces decoder technology that businesses use to drive customers to their Web sites.

The Michigan International Speedway, Farmington Hills, Mich., is using Mr. Linkler's e-decoder for a contest designed mainly to get Nascar fans to tell the Speedway all about themselves so it can expand its advertiser base. Selling tickets is a secondary goal.

"Our main objective is to learn more about our customers," said Keith Karbo, director-marketing for the Speedway. Each time a consumer uses the decoder, he's asked to answer a question about his interests.

Two months into the game, 26,000 contestants have registered to play, out of 1 million decoders distributed. And Mr. Karbo is already rolling out a couple of follow-up promotions based on the data he's gathered.

The decoder is embedded in a square playing piece slightly bigger than a credit card, emblazoned with the words: "Race to Win. Grand Prize $10,000 cash." When the cardholder goes to the contest Web site, mispeedway.com, and hold up a little porthole-shaped window to the contest area, they are able to de-scramble a message onscreen and see if they've won.

People can play every day for a chance to win between March 1 and Aug. 1. Trying their hand at a trivia game on the site can earn them additional chances to play. They can also get a bonus play if they pass an online form onto five friends.

The first time players visit the site, they must register by providing their name, address, e-mail, age range and gender. Each time they return, they must answer a question about themselves to play. There are 150 demographic and lifestyle questions, including inquiries about their feelings on auto racing, Nascar and the Speedway. But consumers are also asked about specific interests and shopping preferences such as: "Do you like to camp?" and "If you like to camp, where do you shop for your camping gear?" and "Do you shop at Cabella's?"

Other questions relating to the player's interests and hobbies will be used to reach potential advertisers. "If we know that a race fan likes to fish, then one way to reach that fan is to use outdoor media," Mr. Karbo said. "If we have data on that, we can approach fishing-related companies and ask them to become sponsors."

Mr. Karbo said he is targeting large regional marketers in Detroit, Grand Rapids and Toledo, such as Gordon Food Services and Gladiator Garage Works (part of Whirlpool Corp.) to become corporate sponsors. The Speedway currently has 43 corporate sponsors. Half are regional sponsors.

"The information we get back this year will help us go to our sponsors next year and let them influence the questions," Mr. Karbo said.

Based on the data he has already collected, Mr. Karbo is preparing a segmented e-mail blast.

One transmittal will go to contest players who indicated that they are motor sport fans and would like to receive information about Nascar races.

Those who said they like to camp will get a specific message about camping and a nudge to spend an entire weekend at the Speedway. (There are three summer weekends during which at least two races occur.)

targeted ads

Another batch of e-mails will reach those who said that they've previously attended a race, encouraging them to bring a friend along and visit the hospitality booth. The direct mail renewal brochure that drops in September after the race season is over, will also be segmented based on the data gathered.

"You almost can't go into a retail store today without having to fill out some kind of a reply card," said Markus Mullarkey, VP-outbound media at Internet portal CNET Networks. "It's very creative to use a decoder card to drive offline customers online. But the most powerful thing you can know about your customers is what they are interested in today. If you know that, it's actionable."

But in this age of privacy sensitivity, why are these consumers willing to reveal so much about themselves?

"It's about value," Mr. Linkler said. "If you want consumers to speak to you and provide you information, you have to give them something to get them to react."

The e-decoder game pieces are mailed in ticket-order envelopes, and are also distributed at the Speedway's advertiser retail outlets and with movie tickets at the Henry Ford Imax Theatre at an amusement park complex in Dearborn, Mich. The Michigan Pepsi Bottlers truck drivers are also handing them out to retailers to stack on their cashier counters.

Mr. Karbo knows Nascar fans earn between $30,000 and $50,000 and are about evenly split male/female. Most have access to a PC, at least at work. But if he knows the specific attributes of the Michigan-area motor sports fan, he can attract regional advertisers who haven't yet been paying attention.

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