Meet the man responsible for the Volvo Ocean Race digital strategy
The first instalment of a two-part article on Jordi Neves - Volvo Ocean Race chief digital officer.
Heading up the IT department in a small to medium sized business might not be what people immediately conjure up when fantasizing about their dream job. But for Jordi Neves – the chief digital officer at the Volvo Ocean Race - rather than simply making sure the email works, the Microsoft Office licences don’t expire and the network doesn’t get infiltrated by Russian hackers, his role puts him in the driving seat when it comes to connecting the on the water action with the race’s millions of fans across the globe.
When I spoke to Neves earlier this year he had just returned from a masters course in digital innovation & transformation at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (aka MIT), where he had been rubbing shoulders with some heavyweight global corporate leaders and picking the brains of top staff at the likes of Google, Facebook and other major digital industry players.
Neves, who after a four-year stint with the America’s Cup has been with the VOR for the last two editions as its Technology Director, organised the six week MIT course for his own personal advancement but says it plays neatly into his new role which as well as technology sees him in charge of communications and marketing.
“MIT was a great experience and as you might imagine you make great contacts when you get involved with an organisation like that. I visited Google and we spent quite a lot of time with Facebook and even had Mark Zuckerberg come by one afternoon.
“I was a little bit of a strange fish in the pot because the others were mainly CEOs and people working for organisations like the United Nations and then there was I working for this yacht race. People obviously recognised the Volvo name but I think they consequently perceived the race itself as something gigantic.”
The communications strategy for the last Volvo Ocean Race themed it as the ‘Human Edition’ and ambitiously hoped to draw in a significant new fan base from outside its core sailing audience. While the strategy had some sporadic successes along the way, many believe it served alienate a large proportion of the core sailing fans along the way.
Now Neves plans to return the race to its sailing roots and to grow its fan base from the inside out and he is banking on the core sailing fans to act as as advocates and ambassadors to help him grow his audience organically.
“My perception is that the race is not a consumer product like an iPhone, so we need to make sure we don’t make the mistake we made in the last race where we tried to have a very consumer oriented approach.
“Our ‘product’ is a sailing event and that is what attracts people to us. Is it complex and very difficult concept to explain? Yes, it can be, but that is also part of the appeal as well. Often when new people get engaged with the race or with sailing in general it is because it is complex and a bit challenging. Once they get fully engaged they realise that the race and the sport are very much more than what you can appreciate from the outside.”
Understanding the challenges that the race faces is a good start but Neves acknowledges the task has always been the same for the Volvo Ocean Race and other premiere sailing properties. What is different now, he says, is the technology and tools available to help explain away the complexity and help people comprehend and appreciate the intricacies of the race and the wider sport of sailing.
“To do that we need to focus on the sailing audience to help more and more people understand what the race and sailing is all about. We will try to build on the adventure angle of the race. After all, we are not an inshore race but an offshore race that has an adventure component to it which we think will attract people.”
Neves is unequivocal that his primary audience to market the race to is the existing legions of sailing fans whose all-consuming passion for the race brims over in the comments section on any and every VOR social media post.
Previously the race has put huge store by the size of its social media following and spent money to boost its fan base above a few arbitrary targets during the last edition. Almost one and a quarter million people like the race on Facebook with 120,000 on Instagram and almost 76,000 on Twitter.
These are big numbers which you might imagine must enable some exponential growth through a bit of clever marketing spend across these three platforms?
Neves doesn’t think so. Not yet anyhow. According to what he learned and tested-out during his time at Facebook and MIT the race still has a ways to go to reach a big enough following to create a snowball effect.
“We discovered when we were going through the Facebook algorithm that you need a minimum critical mass – i.e. a minimum number of fans. That critical mass is very high and in our case is too high.
“We worked out that we would need a following of around two million at the very least before it would be worth investing in the social media to create a snowball effect that would drive exponential growth.
“We have to abandon the idea that we can suddenly buy success or buy awareness. Instead, the key is to work on our engagement with our existing community and slowly but surely build out from there.”
Neves cites Lego as a case study to support this strategy.
“They became a huge retail success by recognising that their old consumers were their best brand ambassadors. That’s who they focused on promoting to – the people who were already Lego customers. They discovered that by using that core community and social networks you can generate a significant multiplying effect. Obviously you still need to spend some money and create amazing content, but that is how you transform awareness into buyers.”
[Main image: Francisco Vignale/MAPFRE/Volvo Ocean Race]