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Op/Ed: Tapping into the Power of Networks

November 28th, 2017

 By Vicky Leonard

Over the last two months Australian horse racing has hit a purple patch of form. It kicked off with an incredible inaugural Everest event where, for the first time in Sydney for decades, the crowd roared as the barriers broke open for the big race. Only a fortnight later, a highly infectious dose of Winx-mania hit Melbourne as the Queen claimed a third G1 Cox Plate for her smorgasbord. Then we rolled straight into the biggest week of our year with Melbourne Cup Week, the third leg of an adrenaline-pumping treble.

For a racing fan, horse lover and industry participant like me, it has been epic. I’ve loved going to the hairdresser and being asked about The Everest, seeing a young child trick or treating dressed in the blue Winx silks typically reserved for Hughie, and getting messages for tips from people I didn’t realise actually knew how to put a bet on.

Horse racing day in, day out, is my (and probably your) normal world. As we know, that is not where most typical Australians live. It has been exciting bringing outsiders into our world for the last few weeks.

Of course, the activists have also been out in full force. Articles full of fabricated statistics and slanderous innuendo have graced the pages of The Australian, The Age and SMH, while social media feeds have been filled with dramatic rants and trending hashtags such as #nuptothecup.

So how do we stop this dissemination of false information and the associated rampaging hysteria? And how do we use these big events to grow our fan base?

The power belongs to the networks.

One consequence of life in the 21st century internet era is that we all live within a bubble of our own network. By ‘we’, I don’t just mean those of us in the horse racing industry; I mean everyone. Its foundation lies in the innate human tendency to find comfort with people, activities and concepts that we are familiar with.

Whether we are aware of it or not, our days are filled with a highly curated newsfeed, selected for us (partially by us and partially by algorithms) designed to show us content and community networks closest to our heart and mind. The internet has dramatically amplified this blinkered effect by utilising data gathered through the connected tools we use everyday.

Our digital footprint reveals our preferences and routines to an intimately detailed level–what time we wake, how much we move, where we drive, shop, work, socialise, what we ‘like’, read, watch and listen to, who we talk to, and who we ignore. This intelligence allows future content to be selected by algorithms designed to feed the self-perpetuating cycle.

Researcher Rachel Botsman has carried out extensive analysis on the familiarity phenomenon and the impact it has on our lives and decision making. She describes it as “the subconscious desire to connect and associate within networks of people similar to us, and engage only with content that validates our opinions.”

She found that we crave familiarity so much, that we are more likely to consider information credible if it was delivered by someone described as ‘a person like me.’ We will adopt new things, but only if they are an upgrade on things we are already familiar with or endorsed by people we know.

And startlingly, Botsman discovered that the trust and influence that once belonged to governments and institutions now belongs to the individual and their social network. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer found we now rate our Facebook friends more credible than government leaders, businesses and traditional media. We rely on social proof; if a lot of people are doing and saying the same thing, it has immediate validation.

Considering the importance of familiarity, it’s easy to see why networks–social media networks, influencer networks and the dissemination of information via networks–hold so much power. It’s also easier to understand why false information and sensationalist content catches on so quickly and has such lasting, damaging consequences. People believe these “facts” because people they trust are either saying it or sharing it.

If a Facebook friend posts an article during Cup Week stating that 18,000 ex-racehorses are slaughtered each year–a stat that is patently and ridiculously false–their network will be inclined to trust its validity. And then pass it on. The more startling and horrific the content, the more shareable it becomes. Even if an authority figure comes out with the real facts, the message will not necessarily be considered credible unless it is delivered with social proof.

This is where tapping into the power of networks offer a massive opportunity. If businesses, brands, sports and industries connect with the full circle of an individual’s social network influence by communicating effectively and authentically, the majority share of truth can be earned. The horse racing industry has had unprecedented overlap with outside networks in recent weeks. The Everest pushed racing into a younger demographic – likely a result of the innovative concept and Jason DeRulo as entertainment choice. It increased the wagering network, evidenced by turnover far exceeding any other Sydney race in recent history.

Winx expanded the racing bubble to overlap with networks of sport lovers, animal lovers and those that simply love hero achievers. And each year, the Melbourne Cup Carnival brings fashionistas, celebrities, politicians and a global audience into the racing network, reflected in its viewership figures and economic impact on the Victorian and Australian economy.

These three recent events represent three occasions where many networks overlapped with horse racing; three massive opportunities to positively grow the Australian horse racing industry. So how do we use these networks to our advantage?

We create bridges that allow people to move from the unknown into the known. We tap into networks of social influence, fostering a connection to horse racing through creative marketing content and fascinating tales from our world. By using social proof, content can be presented with the familiarity that we crave, from ‘people like us’ that we trust. And because humans don’t fully embrace something until they understand it, we offer them the opportunity to become more knowledgeable on the depth of the topic–not surface skimming, but real, meaty stories, backed up by actual data and information.

We don’t simply post the content on platforms within our industry bubble (to audiences that we always talk to and don’t need to convince), instead we use key influencers and interest triggers to validate horse racing with positive social proof within their circles.

Creating these overlapping networks is half the battle–with The Everest, Winx & Melbourne Cup we are already partly there. The next step is to convert these opportunities so our industry can thrive and grow.

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