Racing’s marketing is misguided

Donald Trump’s digital marketing campaign said so.

In just the last few weeks, Harness Racing Update published chatter from some of the movers and shakers in the sport, like Joe Faraldo and Jeff Gural, about marketing racing. This ongoing discussion is probably an offshoot of the debate over the USTA’s $250,000 investment in digital marketing the last couple of years. It’s often discussed in thoroughbred racing, as well, around the efforts of the Jockey Club.

Broadly, everyone tends to ask the same question: “Does marketing work?”

It’s an honest question, but I think the better question is: “What is marketing nowadays, and how can it work?”

When most people in racing think of marketing they think of publicity; about someone or something getting its name ‘out there’, especially on television.

Back at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, a man named Ron Bensimhon was on a diving board preparing for the 3 meter springboard. The crowd watched as Ron jumped and did a belly flop, and when he emerged from the pool we saw a logo across his chest; an “ad” for an online casino. That marketing ended up (for lack of a better word) flopping. In this day and age, when consumers and everyone else are inundated with images and imagery, it doesn’t work.

When I started in marketing, “getting your name out there,” or interrupting people with your marketing, was accepted, but it’s not any longer. And grand plans in harness racing (for five per cent of purses, or whatever other funding mechanisms have been floating around) should never include these tactics.

But, don’t think for a second I am calling for zero marketing spend, or that five per cent of purses invested is a bad thing. I’m not. Marketing can and does work, if it’s spent in the right place. And oftentimes that place is right under your nose.
Let me explain my view, with the recent election as a guide.

In July of this year, AdAge reported Hillary Clinton had reserved $111 million for her television ads through November, while Donald Trump booked only $654,455 for his. In June, campaign disclosures showed Trump spent $1.6 million on digital marketing, while Clinton’s camp had a whopping $35 million in the digital war chest. This was a massacre.

However, while the Clinton campaign blanketed digital marketing in traditional ways, and headlines like Wired’s, “Clinton Has a Team of Silicon Valley Stars, Trump has Twitter” were almost mocking in tone, Trump’s digital head (not a Madison Avenue marketer, but a Kansan with a small firm) was ignoring the sexiness of marketing. Instead, he spent money talking to people who were willing to listen.

In July, the campaign’s major expenditure – a Twitter ad buy — was about fundraising and contact capture, not marketing, through asking people to text a number on their phones. On Facebook, ads were targeted to supporters with creative that spoke their language and energized them. This strategy was all about seeking and finding people who wanted to help, cataloguing them in databases, learning their likes and dislikes, and raising more money. It was also about digitally data-mining groups that were against Mr. Trump, to be hopefully be used as an asset for hyper-targeting later on.

“Trump’s digital operation is focused primarily on tracking down the people who already liked his burgers and getting them to buy more,” wrote Sasha Issenberg and Joshua Green at Bloomberg Business in August.

Vincent Harris, a digital marketing campaign veteran, told Wired, around the same time, “This is about effective digital operations. It’s gritty. It’s fast-paced.”

It worked well, because by building assets, the money flowed in. $80 million was raised, a lot of which was spurred by modest digital investment. On the night of the third debate – which most of the punditry said was horrible for Mr. Trump – his digital marketing head crowed that $9 million had been raised on digital channels, at $72 per person, in just hours. They had built an energized list, hammered it with tested messaging, and people again responded.

While the first part of the marketing equation was to raise funds and get Trump’s turnout up, in the Washington Post, Philip Bump talked about part II of what he titled, “this risky marketing plan”: To get Mrs. Clinton’s turnout down. People who were not going to vote for Trump were not marketed to in traditional ways, (i.e. by asking them to change their vote with ‘marketing’) they were going to be fed messages to suppress their enthusiasm. This was primarily done via Facebook. Ads that had been back-tested with hundreds of thousands of iterations during the season (to find the right closing messages) were created. Then, the database of non-supporters was subset based on various target demographics (and geography) and the ads were delivered.

“So this is the Trump campaign’s bet, laid on the table by a group of people who haven’t run campaigns before. Given the inability to increase Trump’s support, they’ll try to drag down Clinton’s,” Bump wrote a week before the election.

There’s a mistake often made after a horse wins a close race, or a team wins a close game – we give the driver, jock or the coach too much credit, when the result could’ve been lucky or random. But in the Trump digital case, the post-election turnout numbers appear to show this strategy played a role. Her core turnout (in key states) was down, and his was up.

And, yes, it was “marketing”. It just wasn’t the kind that we’re used to, or what is longed for in our sport, from many quarters.

The marketing needed in harness racing – all of racing, I think, but harness racing in particular – is much closer to what Trump’s team strategized. Cost effective, data-driven marketing that tries to get people who like racing’s burgers to buy more of them, is not about a billboard and it’s not only about talking to ourselves. It’s about creating a marketing ecosystem that can be used to grow the sport.

With this type of marketing and the resulting data that enters the lexicon, we open doors and we learn. We learn what makes customers tick, what they (and more importantly, subsets of them) want from the sport in terms of pricing, or rules, the spacing of races, field size and a hundred other things. We use cohort analysis to learn exactly what new people may be attracted to, when it comes to owning horses or becoming a bettor. We learn what messaging works and doesn’t work, what projects need capital, and what should be scrapped. This marketing holds value; value that the sport can act on, to engage customers, and build a better product.

Marketing in 2016 is not about billboards or TV time in an idle fantasy that someone might happen to see something, pack up the kids, and drive to the track. Horse racing must get past this inherent bias. Marketing is about building assets, grinding through numbers, getting your hands dirty, hyper-targeting, testing, honing strategy, and acting on it; all in the most cost-effective and efficacious way. That’s the way forward, and that’s the marketing racing must invest in.