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'Skate to the Puck'
Tuesday, June 17, 2014 - by Mike Tanner, USTA Executive Vice President and CEO

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I’ve been in this chair for more than five years now, and during that time, no issue has generated more discussion, both positive and negative, than the USTA’s decision to launch its social media initiative last year.   

Actually, that’s not entirely true. The recent debate over television funding similarly evoked passionate opinions, many of which were expressed via the very same social media platforms that the Association is seeking to leverage.

How’s that for irony?

But that’s not to say that the new school of social media and the old school of traditional broadcasts can’t intersect. They can and they do. Recently, we saw first-hand evidence of that.

In late May, Converseon, the award-winning social media consultancy that has been working with the USTA, produced a simple, one-minute, 40-second video titled “This Is Harness Racing.” The spot was done using the same team that has done extensive work for U.S. Soccer, the Olympics and the Kentucky Derby for Panasonic. “This Is Harness Racing” is bold, colorful, well-voiced, and exciting. It looks big-league. It’s also old school, since making a promotional video has been done for decades.

Converseon and the USTA put it on Facebook and the new Harness Racing Fan Zone site, and also on our YouTube channel. And we blasted it out via our Twitter feed. The results were beyond what we could have imagined. In less than one week, we reached more than 700,000 consumers on Facebook alone, and generated more than 4,147 likes, comments, and shares. “Shares” means that viewers felt strongly enough about the video to send it to other friends and followers who might not have had the chance to see it themselves, which is exactly what we hope to gain from social media.  

Moreover, the video itself had been played more than 42,000 times within that first week of distribution, and that’s just from our Facebook and the Harness Racing FanZone pages. That doesn’t include the many racetracks that are now featuring it as part of their in-house and simulcast broadcasts. For them, we also offered a 30-second spot that would more easily fit within the confines of traditional broadcast.

From a creative standpoint, the results were outstanding, with a flood of positive Facebook comments and e-mails from people throughout the industry. And it was financially practical, costing about 35 cents per video play and roughly two cents per impression. Since production and media costs already have been spent and thus are established, those per-view numbers will continue to decrease as more and more folks watch “This Is Harness Racing.”  

In no way should any of this be misconstrued as a belief that all we need to do is cut a few slick videos, put them on Facebook, and then watch legions of fans stream into racetrack parking lots and start pumping dollars through the windows. (Although I really wish that was the case. How cool would that be?) I have a friend with a deep knowledge of the sport and investment in the game and he remains skeptical about our social media approach. “Show me, Mike,” he says, “one new bettor or owner that has come into the game because of this campaign.”

I think that’s a valid question, but not the right one – at least not right now. A better one would be to ask how many people are being exposed to harness racing that previously have not been. At this stage, it’s all about driving awareness. The next step is to produce content that will stimulate interest and engagement. Ideally, that translates into a desire to actually become a fan, a bettor or an owner, or preferably all three.       

The Harness Racing FanZone and “This Is Harness Racing” video are at the top of the conversion funnel. Over time, we’ll work to convert people more deeply into fans and bettors and owners. But there’s a tremendous amount of work to do in order to get to that point. New content must be developed, our product must improve and be held to the highest standards, and we must connect with both new and existing fans in a way that we’ve never done before. That will take everyone in the industry to accomplish, not just the USTA. That’s what’s at the heart of the Harness Racing Social Ambassador program. It all ties together.

The best marketing approaches tie old media with new. The Jockey Club does this well with their “America’s Best Racing” telecasts, which combine with their social media presence and roving, off-the-bus brand ambassadors. On our side of the racing fence, you’ll see this cross-media attack in conjunction with the Little Brown Jug broadcast, which will be supplemented with a marketing tie-in to Fazoli’s, the Italian restaurant chain. The presence that harness racing will get from that company’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, which will feature a “pick the winner of the Jug” contest and relevant hashtag, not to mention in-store exposure, makes that deal a winner. The USTA is proud to be a sponsor of this effort, and we’ll be leveraging our assets to drive awareness as best as we can, too.   

The same week that “This Is Harness Racing” came out, I read a Business Insider article that focused upon the time and planning that is involved in a successful social campaign. One sentence jumped out at me: “It’s just so instinctual to check Facebook and Twitter in the morning and see what the news is,” explained one (presumably) 20-something manager of the agency’s project team.  “We don’t read newspapers anymore, or even turn on the TV.”

When I read that, I was reminded of another quote, this one from retired hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky. To paraphrase, Gretzky said that a good hockey player plays where the puck is, but that a great one plays where the puck is going to be.  

We need to lace up our skates.

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The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.