The Breeders’ Cup Forum: NTRA’s Penelope Miller
Penelope Miller didn’t travel by wagon train from Tampa to New York in August when she took on the job as social media manager for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, though she’s been something of a pioneer in helping bring the racing industry into the 21st Century’s digital world.
Miller, a Georgetown University graduate who formerly worked at Tampa Bay Downs, has helped kick-start the NTRA’s outreach on popular platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and she is working with a group to help redesign the NTRA website. She took time out between Tweets and Facebook updates to answer a few questions from the Paulick Report.
What exactly does a “social media manager” do? I assume it has something to do with socializing with media people and trying to manage them. Am I close?
Almost! I work a lot with various media people, and I do love socializing. But what I really do is work with racetracks, horsemen, horseplayers and new media professionals to find interesting, timely videos, photos and stories to present to fans (and potential fans) of racing. I also do a lot of work to draw people’s attention to horse racing in non-industry news and entertainment. One of the things I’ve been focusing on lately is a #LuckChat on Twitter, giving fans of the show the opportunity to chat with both cast members from HBO’s “Luck” as well as horse racing professionals in horse racing so we can address any questions that fans of the show might have about the series or about the sport of racing.
Tell us a little bit about your experience in this area?
I was lucky enough to work at Tampa Bay Downs for almost six years before I began at the NTRA, and when I was there I was in charge of all of the social media for the track. I really cut my teeth there when it came to applying social media to horse racing, and I learned a lot about what fans, both casual and core, really want to see when they’re engaging with horse racing online. Twitter was a revelation for me when it came to racing: it was so fast-moving, and the exchange of news was in real-time. I remember the photo finish from the 2010 Tampa Bay Derby, when Odysseus barely nosed Schoolyard Dreams. We released the photo finish image on Twitter and Facebook, and people on Twitter jumped on it. It became a talking point and at the same time was a great visual aid to show how close that photo really was. We used to joke that my title at Tampa was the Head Twit.
In eight years, Facebook went from something that a few kids at Harvard University knew about to a platform that may soon have 1 billion users. Why on earth would horse racing want to have a presence there?
I know, right? Boggles the mind!
But seriously, Facebook is a really good fit for horse racing and its fans. It connects people with like-minded fans, and you can really see communities build up in the comments on posts. It’s great, too, because it’s a great way to connect with fans one-on-one. I try really hard to answer every single question posted on the NTRA Facebook wall, and it’s been a great experience so far. I’ve also come up with some fun fan engagement projects, like a Fan Photo of the Week contest. We’ll post the top three finalists every week, and fans get to vote for their favorite. Then the winner gets posted in the weekly NTRA Thoroughbred Notebook with their name and a quote about what makes their photo special. We’ve had so many amazing entries, and it’s something I really look forward to every week.
So you can spread positive news about horse racing and publicize events on social networks like Facebook. But it isn’t it a double-edged sword, where if you aren’t controlling the message there can be a wildfire of bad publicity? How can we combat that?
Well, the reality is that, as you know with your coverage of Star Plus and the allegations against Kelsey Lefever, this industry is far from perfect and to pretend otherwise is disingenuous. Every time there is a black mark on the industry, we need to do some self-examination and figure out the best solution to the problem. It’s an opportunity to gauge what the fans feel about the issue as well as to point them toward information that may help them form an opinion. To me, if someone has a legitimate question about something they think isn’t right, it’s our job to try our hardest to address it. That having been said, if someone comes onto our social media pages and they’re clearly just trolling for a reaction, I tend not to engage with them. I have a very strict “do not feed the trolls” policy.
The new-look NTRA Thoroughbred notebook has a feature pulling comments and photos from Twitter by some horse racing participants, media and the general public. Why should a trainer, an owner, or a horse farm consider joining Twitter?
Twitter is the best way for trainers, horse owners, handicappers and fans to connect, exchange information and news, and interact with fans that I’ve ever seen. It’s great – you can get updates and photos on Animal Kingdom from Graham Motion (@GrahamMotion), find out the latest on Rachel Alexandra from Stonestreet Farm (@StonestreetFarm), find out what Julien Leparoux (@julienleparoux) is up to, and all sorts of other great inside information. And from a trainer or owner’s standpoint, it’s a great way to connect with the fans, farms, and handicappers that make our sport possible.
Twitter’s feedback is overwhelmingly positive within the horse racing community. People really look forward to getting information from the horse’s mouth (sorry!) and are thrilled to engage in dialogue with people who are usually inaccessible in real life. And for trainers especially, it’s a great way to get your name out there. You become the person that fans look to as a racing authority, and it adds a level of transparency to the training process.
Give me a few examples of people or racing institutions using Facebook or Twitter to their best advantage?
I mentioned Graham Motion, Stonestreet Stables and Julien Leparoux on Twitter; there are countless more, and I’ve actually been in the process of curating lists of people to follow for fans new to Twitter here.
As far as Facebook is concerned, a lot of farms shine there, and Keeneland’s Facebook page is just a masterpiece. Of course, I’m also very partial to the Tampa Bay Downs social media, and Santa Anita does a great job on both Facebook and Twitter as well. I’m hoping to do a lot more coordinating with tracks in the future, because social media is a great way to communicate with local audiences and get some new folks to the races. Promotions, big racing days, videos, photos – these are the things that really speak to Facebook fans and get them through the turnstiles.
Isn’t one of the biggest hurdles our game has to overcome is the intimidation factor (i.e., not knowing how to handicap or how to place a bet)? How can social media play a role there?
Absolutely. And social media once again is a great answer to the problem. One of my favorite things the NTRA does for fan education was already in place when I started there: Night School. It’s a great program, and I think it’s a great way to ease new horseplayers into the sport. Fan education is so important, and YouTube is a great way to actually show people how to wager. It’s completely judgment-free; if you don’t understand something, the computer doesn’t mind if you rewind.
What is your frank assessment of where we are as sport – compared with the major league “ball” sports of basketball, football, baseball – in embracing social media? What needs to be done for us to improve?
This is a great question! We definitely have room for improvement; for the most part – and there are certainly exceptions – we as a sport broke a little late from the gate when it comes to social media. But I’m truly encouraged when I see how often I see horse racing-related subjects trending on Twitter; when I see videos of NHC winner Michael Beychok watching the race that won him $1 million get over 4,000 hits on YouTube in less then 24 hours; when I see a photo of Rachel Alexandra on Facebook get hundreds of comments and shares.
The good news is that we are in a sport that is tailor-made for social media. The horses and settings are visually stunning in photos and videos, and we have plenty of people who are always ready to engage in a lively debate or explain some of the finer nuances of the sport to new fans.
I would love to continue to see growth in collaboration between tracks, horsemen, handicappers and fans to really showcase the great things about our sport while at the same time striving to improve the aspects that need work. And with social media, we can always keep the dialogue flowing.