This week the NTRA Marketing Summit is being held in Las Vegas. This event is for insiders to discuss how to market horse racing. A noble pursuit, yes, but will it make a difference?
Vic Zast opines that no, it won't. I tend to think he has a point, solely for this statement, "the sport shouldn’t spend one penny more in trying to bring people back until it develops features and benefits that some stranger wants."
To gamblers, racings tag-line is "you can beat a race, but you can't beat the races." Hmmm, so that seems to tell them, "please come to the track, spend a pile of money, and expect to lose with vicious takeouts." Marketing ice to an eskimo might be easier, considering that the people who we are trying to get to look at us can play a football game at a cheap rake, and grind some scratch, among other things.
To the general public on the other hand, our message seems to be, "come to the track, pay to get in, pay for a past performance line that you probably won't understand, sit outside and watch horses you don't know, with people you don't know, wait a half hour between races, and maybe enjoy a $3 coffee and $4 hot dog while you wait. Oh, and if you don't want to wait around, head into the simulcast area where there is 47 events going off at the same time, exactly like the one you are watching here."
Wow, sign me up.
One of the hardest things to market is a game or product with a negative stigma attached. People have been to the races, millions upon millions of them. People have bet the races, millions upon millions of them. It is not like we are springing something new on them. They came, they saw, they did not like it; and after knowing what it is about, they came back in smaller and smaller numbers.
Completely overhauling a business that has preconceived notions attached can be done, but it is extremely rare. Those who have done it have done so with tremendous vision, and a little serendipity. A few decades ago Honda made only motorbikes - and damn good ones. Thinking they could use their good name and engineering prowess to expand, they decided to move into carmaking. It was a complete dud. The potential customers in Japan had their preconceived notion that Honda made bikes, not cars, and they wanted nothing to do with them. The stigma attached to the Honda brand overcame everything else. Moving the market overseas to America was the only way this new vision could become a success and that they did. The US market was not married to the notion that Honda could not make a car because they make bikes. They had the ingrained notion that Japanese technology made good stuff and they wanted Honda cars because of that. The rest is history.
Vic writes, "No amount of advertising, sales promotion or public relations will convince disinterested people to like horse racing" and he does make a strong point. Sure they might come for big days, or for a festival, or so on. In fact, I agree that racing should be doing quite a bit more for big days and admission based events (as opined here). But these folks rarely become long-term fans. I think it is because we have fundamental problems in racing and until we fix those problems, a little bit of flash, a little make-up and a new shirt and tie won't do much good at all. Customers are smart and informed and hoodwinking them does more harm than good.
As for bettors of other sports, well what more evidence do we need than Betfair? Oodles of folks are playing betfair for racing because they are offering something that they want - a good interface, excellent customer service, fun, excitement, and low takeout. Betfair took the racing product, flipped it over, threw it around, and changed it. Old, boring, slow, impossible to win at? No way, sister; not there. It took a complete revamping of the brand to get people interested in racing again, and it worked.
Marketing writer Seth Godin in his book "Free Prize Inside", sums it up for us nicely.
"Your growth will come instead from the dissatisfied and unsatisfied. The dissatisfied know they want a solution, but are not happy with the solution they’ve got. The minute they find it, they’ll buy it. Yahoo’s best customers were not google’s first users. Nope. The happy Yahoo customers were not looking for a replacement. Google focused on dissatisfied web surfers - people who were online but were not blown away by what they had been using (and who wanted to be blown away).
The unsatisfied are the folks who do not even realize they have a problem that needs solving. That is why focus groups are often so useless. The people you really need to hear from are the great unwashed, the people who are not even looking at you. That is where you will find the customers you need when your current line becomes obsolete.
The problem is that management really likes those satisfied customers. The first question they’ll ask about any innovation is “Will our satisfied customers like it?” Of course, this is a silly question, because satisfied customers already like what you’ve got. The question you ought to ask first is, “Will people dissatisfied with what they are doing now embrace this, and, even better, will they tell the large number of unsatisfied people to go get it right away?”
I think the lesson we should all learn is that without a solid product to market, we might as well not market anything at all. We must work on fundamentally changing racing to make it an attractive 21st century gambling game, or a superior entertainment destination, before we throw money at it. The market - the dissatisfied, unsatisfied, or even the satisfied - sees right through anything else.
This piece is contributed from a HANA member with a career in internet marketing.