F1 it seems has woken up to something much of the rest of the world did long ago. That is the importance of finding out what your public thinks. Most noticeably the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association in recent days took the initiative to release a high-profile fans’ survey, and the take-up must have been good too judging by the regularity with which the server went down in the opening 24 hours…
I’m someone who in addition to my F1 meanderings has ten years’ experience of working professionally in market research, so I’d like to think I can offer a few insights on this recent move.
The first thing to say is that this awakening of the sport to market research is a welcome one. Any responsible organisation seeks to find out the views of its customers. It has many benefits, including that it can shift decision-makers who wouldn’t ordinarily be shifted – one of the biggest challenges in this game. But research is a bit like mimicking Sean Connery in that it’s something that most of us think we can do but not that many can do it well. There are considerations that must be borne in mind. I’ll outline a few.
Firstly, research is not an end in itself. It also will not provide you with answers on a plate. Anyone can gather data; it’s being able to use the data so to help improve things that is the tricky part. And the vital part.
Governance is about making tough choices and this applies to the research that informs it. Be wary of offering ‘free lunches’ (‘Do you want quicker cars? More excitement?’) – everyone will support them and they won’t tell you much practically. Make sure flipsides are presented. Make people prioritise. Questions that force people to choose between more than one competing option are often valuable.
Adding to this point it’s not that uncommon for individuals to hold contradictory views simultaneously (you may recall The Simpsons scene where children were asked what they wanted from Itchy and Scratchy cartoons: “So you want a realistic down-to-earth show that’s completely off the wall and swarming with magic robots?”). Judging by what I read on internet forums and the like internally contradictory views on the preferred F1 future may even be probable.
Another auxiliary consideration is that you should not confine yourself to this one survey. Use all of the data out there, for example television companies who cover the sport can tell you what works and not. Other sports and media/technology platform organisations probably have useful stuff too. Data doesn’t have to be only quantitative either – try to get more in-depth insights by talking to fans in focus groups or similar. Joe Saward made a good point too that those who don’t watch F1 perhaps are the most important group of all to include as their views will help understanding of how to grow the sport’s fan-base.
The Importance of Leadership
Which brings us to the bottom line. Research should not be done in lieu of decision-making. It is there to aid decision-making. To inform it but not necessarily to dictate it. Ultimately decisions – including those tough choices I mentioned – still have to be made. The best solutions might not even always be in line with what your public is after (lest you fall into the same trap as Yes, Minister’s Jim Hacker: “I am the people’s leader, so I must follow them”). The fans’ wants might not be doable for a number of reasons. They might not even be wise. In those cases, where you can’t or won’t act in accordance with the public’s view say so and explain why.
The ultimate bottom line is that leadership must still be shown. Leaders can still have vision. And they must take an informed view, then act upon it, and then defend it. And it’s the lack of this which got F1 into its bind more than anything else.