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Winning the Future
Tuesday, June 17, 2014 - By T.J. Burkett

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Hanging inside the USTA office is a square of paper, yellowed with age even though it’s encased in a frame. It reads: “Recognizing in the past few years many problems have confronted light harness horse racing concerning which there has been much discussion but little action may I have privilege including you on committee of fifty best friends of trotting...”

That telegram, sent from E. Roland Harriman in 1925, became the genesis of the U.S. Trotting Association. Eighty-nine years later, Rob Key, founder and CEO of Converseon, an award-winning social media consultancy based in New York City, is making a similar call for the “friends of harness racing” to band together to promote and market the sport.

This time, however, he’s calling for more than 50 friends, and he’s using a much more powerful and pervasive medium than the telegram.

“There are times in the past when leaders have subsumed themselves and have come together despite their differences for the greater good,” said Key. “I believe this is one of those times. I am trying to call our leaders to a higher nature—bury what’s unnecessary—and get back to what’s important.”

Founded in 2001, Converseon and its charismatic leader are looking to “skip a generation” and bring harness racing marketing and customer engagement to social media in an innovative, sustainable and collaborative way.

A Window Opens

Key, 47, has roots in harness racing (see "Paid His Dues"), but his first direct involvement in some time came when he was invited to speak at the 2013 Harness Racing Congress in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Appearing on a panel titled, “The revolution will not be televised: The explosion of social media into racing’s consciousness,” Key gave a presentation in which he “laid it out there, unvarnished.” He showed how pervasive social media was and inferred how harness racing could take advantage of new technologies that were largely unavailable even 10 years ago.

“We are now able to use the same tools that the major brands have and they are spending $100 million a year on marketing,” he said. “When technology changes so fundamentally, a window of opportunity opens.”

One person who saw a window of opportunity was USTA President Phil Langley, who was intrigued by the presentation and approached Key afterward.

“I think we have to do whatever we can do within our budget to promote harness racing,” said Langley. “The people in marketing seem to think social media is the way to go. All you have to do is look at the messages you get every day on your iPhone. It gets the word out there. I think it’s good. I think it’s interesting.”

Photo Illustration by Mark Hall
The USTA has partnered with Converseon to increase the presence of social media in harness racing.

That interest became a reality in August 2013 when the USTA retained Converseon to implement a social media marketing initiative after a successful ad hoc social media blitz around last year’s Hambletonian. Converseon, the USTA, Meadowlands Racetrack and the Hambletonian Society produced and counted down the "Top 20 Hambo Moments in History" on Facebook; engaged key online social influencers, including Miss USA, Erin Brady, to attend and promote the event; and developed a hashtag (#Hambo13) that connected everyone "talking" about the race on Twitter. 


More than 15 million people were reached, including 2.3 million people on Facebook alone. The staggering numbers convinced industry leaders to move forward with the project. This involved several meetings among major industry stakeholders, most notably USTA, Meadowlands Racetrack, Yonkers Raceway, the Standardbred Breeders and Owners of New York and the Hambletonian Society. Key said he had to “build the foundation” of strong support and industry buy-in.


“This isn’t just like other marketing where we can just shoot a 30-minute television spot, buy media and put it on the air,” Key warned. “We need to do this systematically as an industry. We need to build the technologies and the people processes to make this work and scale on a sustainable basis.

“This isn’t like hiring an agency and saying, ‘What are you going to do for us? Come up with a cool logo and pop it on a banner or an advertisement.’ This is about ‘What are we going to do together—using these tools and processes—to transform the industry?’”

Building the Funnel

Since the start of the initiative, there have been two major public developments: the launch of the Harness Racing Fan Zone website, and the Harness Racing Ambassador program. Both are devised to help potential harness racing participants travel through the “sales funnel” from casual fan to racing participant, whether it’s as a bettor, owner or horseman.

The Harness Racing Fan Zone (www.HarnessRacingFanZone.com) is the top of the funnel, for those who have an interest in harness racing and have decided to act on it. It’s meant to show harness racing at its best, using photos, videos and human-interest stories, pulled from websites and individuals throughout the sport.


“Say we send somebody there who doesn’t know anything about the sport,” Key said. “If we say, ‘Hey, check out the Fan Zone and see if you want to go to the races on Saturday.’ If they go there and they have a positive impression based on that experience—and are willing to look more into the sport—that’s success. That is what the Fan Zone is designed to do.”

What the Fan Zone is not, however, is a place that will “cannibalize content" and attention away from such industry websites as USTrotting.com, StandardbredCanada.ca, harnessracing.com and Harnesslink.com. In fact, much of the content on the Harness Racing Fan Zone is derived from those sites and links back to those sites for people who decide to learn more and travel further down the funnel.


“If you are looking for ‘inside baseball’ info,” said Key, “you are going to go to the USTA or Standardbred Canada—in fact we link to those sites. But if you take a new person who doesn’t know anything about harness racing and you send them to one of those sites, they are going to be confused. It’s just not designed for that. We have great trade media. We have some great writers, but we do not have that casual new fan introduction experience.”

The first promotion on Harness Racing Fan Zone to get existing fans to visit the site was the “Top 100 Moments in Harness Racing” poll that began March 18, a collaborative effort among such groups as the USTA, Hambletonian Society, U.S. Harness Writers Association and Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame. To further energize the harness racing fan base, a “trailer” video titled “This is Harness Racing” was created and was viewed more than 60,000 times in its first week. The next promotion, meant to reach those outside the industry that want to win big money, is the “30 for 30 Challenge,” where contestants will try to pick the winners of 30 Grand Circuit races in order to win $1 million.

For those who are already involved in harness racing and want to share their passion, the Harness Racing Ambassador program does just that. Racing fans who sign up can use the tools provided to share harness racing content, with each action earning points that can be redeemed for prizes and special experiences. Those who work in the sport can have their content “picked up” by the Harness Racing Fan Zone and shared with the worldwide audience.

“We think we have something that we are all interested in, and we think other people would be interested in it, if it wasn’t such a big secret,” said Mike Kimelman, president of New York’s Blue Chip Farms and a USTA director. “We advertise to ourselves, we communicate amongst ourselves. We fail again and again to get a new audience while we continue to lose our old audience.

“For the first time in a long time, we are embracing how the people we are trying to reach choose to communicate. I don’t think it’s just a good idea; it’s our only idea.”

And this idea is one that can’t fall victim to the “not invented here” philosophy, Key said, meaning that this project is bigger than the USTA, or the Meadowlands, or Yonkers, or any horsemen’s group or breeding farm.

“This is a movement that we are creating,” said Key. “Everybody can be as involved as they want to be. Everybody’s ideas can be considered. Everybody’s feedback is welcome. This belongs to all of us. I want to get past that this is a USTA thing, or a Converseon thing.”

Winning the Customer Experience


Key emphasizes that the goal of this plan is not to fill grandstands or get harness racing on ESPN. Much like USTA CEO Mike Tanner in his column in this month’s issue (see pg. 8), Key said that harness racing’s leaders must “skate to where the puck is going” by accurately predicting what defines success for the sport in the future and arriving at it with an executable plan.

“What we really need to do is win the future,” he said. “The present isn’t winnable in its current form. We’re not organized enough. We don’t have enough money.

“The future is winnable. The future is winning at video streaming and new forms of television. It’s winning at social media marketing. It’s winning at having new products that allow people to engage in the sport in a much more interesting way. It is also winning the customer experience in the digital world.”

This digital experience is key, since unlike the on-track experience, it doesn’t require great amounts of capital and time to improve.

“We can’t make a perfect customer experience at every track, but we can own the digital experience,” said Key. “That makes up for some of the challenges presented with the on-track experience.

“That doesn’t mean we will ignore driving people to the track. We know that we are considered a regional sport and some tracks don’t have grandstands. In the digital world, vicinity doesn’t matter. Regions don’t matter. But the experience that we create can be powerful.”

Key said it will take at least 18 months before true return on investment is realized. In 3-5 years, he envisions that this initiative will become a case study for other industries to follow, all thanks to the work to the thousands of new “best friends” using social media to promote harness racing.

“In the future I envision us creating a first-rate, major-league customer experience using new techniques,” he said. “We’ll be able to bring new sponsors to the sport that we’ve never been able to touch before we had these new assets. I see a significant revitalization of the sport if we follow through on what we have created.

“That is going to require a few things: fortitude, which is something the sport hasn’t always had. Vision. Collaboration.  A willingness to participate and believe. If we believe it can happen, it can happen.”


Photo: Ed Keys
Rob Key (right), the founder and CEO of Converseon, has roots in harness racing.

Paid His Dues

Rob Key, founder of Converseon, is no stranger to harness racing. He is the son of owner and breeder Bob Key, who bred and owned 1993 Hambletonian winner, American Winner, and owns more than 100 broodmares today. The younger Key said he learned the sport of harness racing from such greats as Billy Haughton and Jimmy Takter. He worked for the latter at age 17, when the trainer had just struck out on his own.

“I rode in the back of Brookledge trucks all over the country,” Key said. “I slept in front of the stall. I groomed B J’s Super Star. I paid my dues.”

Key entered advertising in his 20s, working for such firms as Ogilvy and Young & Rubicam. He said he knew that it was time to leave traditional advertising when he was named head of the “innovations group” at Y&R. 

Key struck out on his own in 2001 when he founded Converseon Inc., one of the first purely social media advertising agencies. His company has since worked with such brands as Proctor and Gamble, General Motors, Dow Chemical and Wal-Mart. His firm, which now has more than 100 employees, won a “Sammy” as best social media agency in 2009.

All the while, Key said the sport he loved was never far from his mind.

“I was watching from afar, watching all the changes in the sport,” he said. “I never thought that this would come full circle.”


What Can You Do?

For those who want to share their love of harness racing, Rob Key lays out the steps to take and the tools available to get involved.

1.      Visit and contribute to the Harness Racing Fan Zone: Make www.HarnessRacingFanZone.com the website to which you send potential racing fans. Unlike traditional trade websites, it’s a “lifestyle” website that shows the beauty and excitement of harness racing and the Standardbred racehorse.

2.      Become a Harness Racing Ambassador: For those who want to become even more involved, visit www.HarnessRacingAmbassadors.com and become an “Ambassador” for harness racing. This is for the most passionate fans of harness racing only. Once signed up, ambassadors will be given special tools to help them share their stories and love for the game.
Also, the more ambassadors share, the more points they can earn, which can be exchanged for rewards and prizes, including Hoof Beats subscriptions, T-shirts and bobbleheads. In the future, points can be earned and prizes can be redeemed at participating racetracks.

3.      Use the hashtags #harnessracing and #harnessracingfz (for Harness Racing Fan Zone) in your social media posts about the sport. This will help Converseon’s software pick up and share your content.

4.      Believe: “If we don’t imagine what success looks like, we will never be able to make it happen,” Key said. He added that social media success doesn’t happen overnight, but if more and more people start sharing and interacting online, the results will be tremendous.

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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.