Motor Trend’s 360-degree digital approach: social, events, content, programmatic

The track manager at Willow Springs Raceway was on edge. The course, designed by Motor Trend’s editors, was more aggressive than he was comfortable with. That the magazine and its advertiser, BF Goodrich Tires, were giving 56 amateur drivers the reins to some high-horsepower automobiles, like the 2016 Ford Raptor and the Mustang GT, just amped up the anxiety level that much more.

“The vendor wanted us to be more conservative, but we wanted to really push the limits,” said David Sonsky, the marketing director running the Motor Trend event. “You can’t invite people to prove they’re ‘Driver Enough,’ then put all kinds of restrictions on them.”

Motor Trend holds some 15 tentpole events a year. Like most publisher events, they are editorially independent, created at scale and easily packaged for sponsorships. The format is predictable, repeatable and reliably monetized. In other words, they are safe. Custom events, like this one, are anything but.

There are no safety rails. Not for Motor Trend or its parent, TEN: The Enthusiast Network, both of which are betting the trust of Motor Trend’s 19-million-strong audience on it. Not for the brand, which is putting its faith in a new kind of marketing partner. And, today, not for the participants. That’s kind of the point.

BF Goodrich’s “Are you driver enough?” challenge, produced by Motor Trend and TEN, is meant to test its amateur drivers and Goodrich’s performance tires. The event team selected six skilled amateurs based on videos that showed off their talents behind the wheel, then awarded them an all-expenses paid trip to the Rosamond, CA event. Fifty others signed up and made the trip themselves. All of them knew their stuff.

The client trusted Motor Trend and TEN to know its stuff too. Run-up to the event included social calls to action to inspire sign-ups. The final lap would include distribution of assets across client channels and TEN’s network of publishing brands, with its reach of 149 million readers cross-platform.

Make it worth their while, and yours
Motor Trend and its sister brands host their fair share of experiential events tied to tentpoles (over 50 across all of TEN’s publishing brands), but the group also produces up to four custom events a year, including some like this. TEN won the chance to stage the event after it pitched several concepts in response to a 2014 RFP.

Then it spent eight months executing the event, from soliciting participants to distributing the content. The two-day event itself required a 15-person production crew: five publishing-side executives, eight brand and agency-side executives, a venue crew and two professional drivers.

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But the event wouldn’t do any good for Motor Trend or TEN if it weren’t just as much a signature for the publisher as it was to the client: “Our approach is to develop collaborations, brand extensions that enhance the relationship with our audience,” said Ryan Payne, SVP of marketing, TEN. “When we truly provide our audience with something of value, and the partner helped make that possible, everyone wins.”

Editors go in the driver’s seat
Brands and media agencies are looking for partners that aren’t just capable of custom event production, but that also exhibit deep knowledge of their audience.

BF Goodrich is already heavily involved in experiential marketing, with a year-round presence at events like the Lucas Oil Offroad and Mazda Cup racing series. The “Are you driver enough?” custom event was a way to get shoulder-to-shoulder with a particular segment of its consumer base: those capable of putting BF Goodrich’s performance tires to heavy use.

“It needed to be a real challenge to our consumer,” said Jordan Bertrand, digital communications manager at BF Goodrich parent, Michelin. Real enthusiasts would expect a damn good hands-on test of the tires’ performance.

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When selling a vertical audience segment, many publishers go data-first, particularly when it comes to banner advertising. For custom events, TEN Media relies just as heavily on its knowledgeable staff to connect with enthusiasts. For the BF Goodrich event, Motor Trend’s Ed Loh and Four Wheeler Network’s Rick Pewe played a key role in making sure the track met enthusiasts’ high expectations. “Editorial input really helped lay the track out and determine which vehicles would be best suited,” Sonsky said.

The marketing team, too, is expected to bring an authentic perspective. Sonsky himself is a dedicated off-roader. “We’ve got a garage full of internal combustion vehicles [at TEN Media HQ], so we’re usually playing in some way or another, whether it’s on-road or off-road or something with high horsepower.”

All drivers got professional instruction and a chance behind the wheel with a professional driver riding shotgun.

“I could feel it in my heart,” said Bertrand, who took an off-road lap herself. “It was thrilling, heart pumping. It’s exciting to have such confidence in the tire.”

From social to programmatic: Make your mileage count
BF Goodrich and TEN created four videos and a host of micro-cuts for the campaign. The campaign and its multimedia assets will bow today across TEN’s network of auto-related properties, including Motor Trend, as well as across its social media platforms– especially the more visually-oriented ones, like Instagram and Facebook.

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And yet the company is careful not to “flood the platform.” “It’s walking a fine line of engagement and keeping the audience looking for more, rather than having them shut off,” said Payne.

Rather than accruing impressive campaign stats by re-serving the same content to the same audience, TEN works with clients to build lookalike profiles off its own first-party data, then finds enthusiasts programmatically in the wider digital world.

Attribution-wise, the event will be hard to measure, Bertrand conceded: “What we want to do is make our consumer aware of these new tires and hopefully bring them into their consideration set.” But the event itself seemed effective, she said.

“They loved every second and came out of it saying, ‘This tire could go along with my fleet of Mustangs or Camaros.’ We won over a lot of people that day.”

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