01/26/2015 4:35PM

Harness: Social Media experiment exceeded expectations according to USTA

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(Edited release from the United States Trotting Association)

Among the more positive news for harness racing as it moves into 2015 are the year-end results of the cross-industry social media marketing initiative sponsored primarily by the U.S. Trotting Association in partnership with 13 tracks and other key partners, including the Hambletonian Society and the Harness Racing Hall of Fame and Museum, the Grand Circuit and social media consultancy, Converseon.

The 2014 initiative was designed as a critical first step in what is hoped to be a multi-year effort to rebuild the brand of harness racing and introduce it to new fans, owners and sponsors. The goals in 2014 were to first establish a solid foundation and online social presence that can then be leveraged and scaled more broadly across tracks and regions over time. This required the development of key digital assets to positively position the sport among key audiences, the creation of new content “shareable” content assets, and the facilitation of increased partnerships among the sport’s different constituencies.

The results of the effort met or exceeded all goals and has now set the stage for more advanced strategies in 2015 that will build on the momentum and focus increasingly on improving the product experience through digital technologies, increasing product and content distribution, acquiring new owners and continuing to build interest among current and new fans. Specific highlights include:

  • The Harness Racing FanZone (http://harnessracingfanzone.com/), launched in March 2014, has become the sport’s primary fan-oriented venue with more than 25,000 new and current fans “liking” the site on Facebook and sharing with their combined network of approximately 3.7 million friends and followers. A new mobile-friendly version of the site was launched in December to better meet the needs of mobile users (which accounts for approximately 70 percent of visitors).
  • The Harness Racing Ambassador Program (http://www.harnessracingambassadors.com/), which allows fans to gain access to special rewards in return for helping to spread the word about the sport, attracted more than 1,800 Ambassadors in its first year, triple the target goal.
  • New social media video assets, such as “This is Harness Racing” (http://youtu.be/UbyiJm2kYOA) and “Because It’s The Jug” reached more than 945,000 people.
  • The new digital assets were successfully applied to sponsorship support for Fazoli’s investment in The Little Brown Jug, which can be now used as a model for other sponsorship support.
  • Thirteen different tracks participated in the initial effort, setting the stage for greater partnership in 2015.
  • In addition to Facebook, the effort has generated strong growth in other key social media platforms including Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.
  • Online social media conversation doubled overall from 2013 and key year end events, such as the Breeders Crown, showed 400 percent growth over the previous year.
  • Overall, the efforts connected the sport to more than 16 million people, many of them new fans who otherwise would not have had key exposure to the sport.

“By every measure, the Social Media Marketing Initiative met or exceeded all key goals in 2014 and laid a solid foundation for growth,” said Mike Tanner, executive vice president and CEO of the USTA. “As other major sports have noted consistently, social media strategies are central to growth and connections, especially with a new generation of fans. My staff and I look forward to presenting a proposal at the USTA Board of Directors meeting in March that would see the continuation of the program.”

“Harness racing now has ‘major league’ digital assets in place and a strong social presence that can now be scaled and leveraged to new audiences,” said Rob Key, CEO of Converseon. “But this is just the beginning. The next level of strategy provides us an opportunity to leverage these digital and social technologies to build on top of this foundation to drive even greater results in the coming year. But it’s going to take even deeper industry collaboration and perseverance to make the long-term impact necessary. We thank our partners involved in this effort and look forward to even deeper integration as we move ahead.”

As other sports, like the National Hockey League, have noted, social media marketing has become the critical center of gravity for driving exposure, awareness and participation, and is increasingly becoming integrated across other marketing efforts such as television, radio and direct marketing activities.

To help set the stage for 2015, the initiative concluded the year with a first-of-its-kind, comprehensive market research study conducted among current and potential fans to help form the next marketing strategies. The results of the study will be released at a later date.