07/18/2016 8:47AM

Giwner: What happens when Converseon parts ways with USTA?

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Come September, the much debated social media partnership between the USTA and Converseon will come to an end. Now three years into the venture, the big question persists: Was it a success?

I suppose industry insiders could argue both sides of the issue. From a positive standpoint, through the Harness Racing Fan Zone initiative created by Converseon, the sport has certainly gained traction outside the typical standrbred community.

The numbers don’t lie. Since inception a few years ago, the HRFZ Facebook account has registered 54,817 LIKES. Regardless of how this was achieved, when they post something, people are seeing it. Let’s compare the HRFZ totals with some of the other leading North American industry.

30,004 Meadowlands

14,642 United States Trotting Association

8,680 Standardbred Canada

4,363 DRF Harness

When the HRFZ page can reach almost four times as many people as the USTA despite launching many years later and nearly double The Meadowlands, it is obvious that it can serve the industry well if properly maintained.

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From a negative point of view, people can certainly point to the $250,000 cost to the USTA and lack of clear numbers showing profit to the industry in terms of owners and wagering handle. That is fair.

There was much debate at the annual USTA Board Meeting centering on whether it was truly necessary for the USTA to pay an outside corporation money. “Why can’t this be done in-house?” That’s a reasonable criticism and perhaps something the USTA will look into as it prepares for its next board meeting in November.

USTA Executive Vice President Mike Tanner was happy to outline the next steps for the organization as Converseon sunsets out of the picture:

“It was always planned that the USTA would, at some point in the not-too-distant future, assume the full-time maintenance duties of the initiative, and we already had started that strategic process, so I don't think the transition will be dramatic, even if the announcement made it seem that way.  I don't think anyone following us will notice a difference, frankly; we'll still have the same presence on social media, and the scheduled programs and promotions will continue uninterrupted. We'll need to fill the gaps in a few areas, specifically regarding paid media buys and in leveraging emerging technology.   Both of those things were in Converseon's wheelhouse, but there's a lot we learned in working with them that we now can apply on our own.

“The first step is to take an inventory of where we are.   That involves individual interviews with each member of the Social Media Advisory Committee, drilling down into the analytics, and meeting with Converseon over the next two months to ensure the transition of digital assets and the transfer of duties and files - things like that.   At the same time, we'll be taking a hard look at what went right and what didn't before we put together a budget and strategic plan for next year.   From a budgetary standpoint, it would have been very difficult for us to go into 2017 at the same level of financial commitment, and there just hasn't been the anticipated monetary buy-in from other segments of the industry.  We'll explore the possibility of adding a staff member or engaging a contractor, but it's too early to say for sure.   We'll spend money where we think we can get the best return on investment for the industry and for the Association.”

The parting of ways with Converson certainly leaves the industry without a scapegoat in point man Rob Key. He took considerable fire at the winter meeting from USTA board members and he is hoping that his departure will open some eyes.

“This takes away me as a focus and the ‘Converseon is making all this money in this initiative’ refrain I heard too often.   That's now removed from the equation, so it can't be used as an excuse not to get involved.   I hope this serves as a bit of a wake-up call,” said Key, who also summed up the progress of HRFZ in a recent email conversation:

“The USTA staff has learned a lot and can take on more.  Our strategy is in place.  

1. Build a digital platform:  mobile apps, fanzone, ambassador program, promo videos and more - DONE 

2.  Build an audience.  We've reached millions of new potential fans. 54k likes and growing.  DONE (and t.b.d.)

3.  Begin monetization:  new owners and drive wagering - All components are in place.  This just needs more resources and focus.  

So we did all we said we would do and have met or exceeded stated goals.  The sport now has a first class social and digital initiative to build on. 

Now it's time for the sport to come together in cross organizational way to build on this and take to next level.   My one disappointment is not having more organizations step up to get involved and there remain too many people on the sidelines.  Too much infighting remains.  Too much opposition in some areas.  This I can't fix.   I think There's a certain complacency that this effort would do all the heavy lifting for the sport so it relieved responsibility from others to get involved deeply too.   And not just critique but to get hands dirty too. 

I'm hoping by stepping away it will help people/groups recognize the fate of the sport depends on ongoing sustained marketing built off of this, and everyone needs to get more involved.   It's in the sports’ hands.  Not mine.  

The effort remains underfunded as you know and we have continued to run a loss on this financially.   It's not something I can continue to do and I also have to put more focus on other areas.   This has taken a good deal of my personal time because I care about the future of the sport.   But that's not sustainable for me. 

But I’m proud that we've now created the first sustainable ongoing marketing initiative the sport has seen.  The fact this initiative even exists is pretty amazing in and of itself.   I'd fight for it again as needed but now from a different perspective.  But 3 years is enough for me here.  It's time for others to now step up too.  It's important that this remains a professionally run initiative and we will be working closely with the USTA to help make sure that happens.   Let's hope this is just the beginning of a new phase.”

Whether you agree with the current results from the association with Converseon or not, let’s applaud the USTA for pulling the trigger on the project and thinking progressively. While many have criticized the organization over the years (including myself), they truly have made strides of late. Projects like the Strategic Wagering program to support guaranteed pools have been very successful. Is everything perfect? No. But what aspects in life are ever perfect.

Specifically looking at the Fan Zone project, you can see clear improvements. Messages on social media have been much more timely and appropriate in the last few months, and the recent website redesign makes HRFZ much easier to navigate.

The USTA has a clear platform now to reach people. One can only hope that the many organizations, tracks, and participants in the sport can band together to support Harness Racing as a sport rather than fray off into our usual separate agendas.