Alex Brown’s love of horses started long before he launched the blog, Alex Brown Racing, but it was Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro that pushed the blog into prominence — and eventually established it as a site dedicated to the welfare of horses. Along the way, Brown learned many things about creating and nurturing an online community by using tools like wikis, Facebook and Twitter, and following certain principles, such as: Be authentic, be transparent, be consistent and build trust. Brown, one of whose goals is to rescue horses destined for the slaughter house, talked with Knowledge at Wharton about his strategies for bringing attention — and money — to the cause.

Knowledge at Wharton: Alex, welcome. We appreciate the opportunity to talk with you about your forays into social media and social networks. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about the background and some of the approaches that you have taken in these areas. What is the network we’re talking about? What is Alex Brown Racing? Where are we starting from with this?

Alex Brown Racing’s Alex Brown discusses building and growing passionate on-line communities

Alex Brown: I appreciate the invitation to come here. I used to work at Wharton, and I was a teacher at the University of Delaware where I taught Internet marketing. Concurrently, I have a passion for the horse race industry. I ride horses in the morning. So along the way, I would always be experimenting with blogs and some other web projects. I built a website for a racehorse trainer. I told the guy that we would make it a blog at a time when nobody really knew what a blog was. 

But I encouraged him by telling him that we would build some traffic and some audience if he kept it updated. We did that and got about three visits a day for about two years. So clearly it was an interesting idea but we really didn’t build any traffic. Then, when Barbaro came back to Fair Hill after he won the Kentucky Derby, I suggested to my friend that we start blogging about Barbaro’s preparation for the Preakness. He agreed. At the time, I was teaching a class so I bought some Google ads. With the students, we followed the rise in the traffic based on the updates we provided, and we built the traffic out to about 120 visits a day going into the Preakness. Man, I was really excited. I could see something working that was pretty cool.

Knowledge at Wharton: So when you first started, you said three visits a day. What year was that? How early was that in the blog evolution?

Brown: It wasn’t that early. I had run a few projects before, probably around 2003 or 2004. But we did some things wrong. We updated once a month. You’re not going to get people back if you don’t update on a regular basis. I think the content was quite interesting, but we really didn’t provide any glue to build an audience.

Knowledge at Wharton: Any other early lessons besides frequency? What else was it that drew attention?

Brown: Obviously frequency is important. Transparency is also very important in this arena. You say it the way it is. You can’t sugarcoat anything. That just comes back and bites you later. There are other things, but certainly frequency and attention to your audience are very important.

Knowledge at Wharton: What about linking outward? Blogs these days are usually the building blocks of social networks, right?

Brown: Yes.

Knowledge at Wharton: Was there an evolutionary step that you took thinking — well, we should connect this in other areas. We should find ways to mesh out some sort of a network.

Brown: I certainly tried that in the early days before Barbaro came along, but, you know, other people resist linking to you. You can say: “Well, we’re the first racehorse trainer with a blog.” They don’t want to drive traffic to you necessarily. It’s interesting. The whole idea of the role of media and different websites — building audiences, or providing the best information — sometimes those two goals conflict. If your goal is simply to build an audience, you’re reluctant to provide useful links. If your goal is to provide the best information, you’re more likely to provide useful links, but those useful links drive your traffic somewhere else.

Knowledge at Wharton: I think that’s a very important differentiation. What was the relationship you had with general media at the time? There’s always a lot of coverage of the equestrian world. Did you have any kind of interplay with them?

Brown: At that time, in the early days, there was very little relationship although there was some, simply through my teaching in marketing. Because, again, I was a pretty early adopter of that subject matter. I had some interplay. But literally, until Barbaro came along, I was a complete non-entity, so to speak.

Knowledge at Wharton: Sometimes notoriety helps drive the traffic.

Brown: Oh, yes.

Knowledge at Wharton: From this, you have gone on to create a very, very impressive network through the Alex Brown Racing brand and efforts to help the equestrian world. Maybe you can give us an overview of that, too, and then we’ll dig deeper into what the network is all about.

Brown: Sadly, in the Preakness 2006, Barbaro broke his leg. Everybody at the University of Pennsylvania knows that since he came to Penn’s veterinary hospital at New Bolton Center. My initial reaction to the tragic incident was to quit the project. I certainly wasn’t going to exploit a bad situation simply because I knew there was going to be a lot of traffic, right? 

The following day I was at a friend’s house having Sunday dinner. I went on my site and realized that people were googling Barbaro at a phenomenal rate and getting no information. Ironically, all the media was at New Bolton Center, but there was really nothing coming out of there. So I made a couple of phone calls to a couple of vets and put out some information. Then a vet called me back as soon as Barbaro came out of surgery. Along the way, I was updating the Google ads on what we were doing and so forth. So when people did google Barbaro, they would get my ad straight away — updated Barbaro information — and come straight to my site. When Barbaro came out of surgery, we had 3,000 visits in an hour and the site crashed because I was on a free server and, you know, typically had three visits a day. We weren’t ready for 3,000 visits in an hour. 

So the next day I determined that if I was going to do this, I was going to do it correctly. I was going to provide updates if I had the permission to provide them. And I would run with this project. Obviously we know now that Barbaro didn’t make it. But the site went on tracking Barbaro’s time in New Bolton Center and then we started talking about other horse welfare issues. Specifically, we’re focused on the whole horse slaughter issue. We started raising money for horse rescue and some other initiatives. When Barbaro did pass away, I thought at the time that it would probably end the project. But interestingly enough, it didn’t. And the project has taken on a whole new life. We’re clearly a website about horse welfare at this point. 

We’re actually quite a large player in that field. Along the way, I started off with a blog for about three months on its own after Barbaro broke his leg. We were getting 500 comments a day.You really can’t have good conversation when you’re getting 500 comments in one blog post where people are trying to discuss a variety of different things. So I used some of my contacts from Wharton. I got a license from a discussion board provider and implemented the discussion board, initially to some resistance because the community was used to one platform — the blog. Now I was asking them to shift to another platform and keep both. The resistance was there for a while, but then they saw the value in the discussion board. If it wasn’t for the discussion board, we wouldn’t have been able to start raising money. We’ve raised more than a million dollars to date. 

Knowledge at Wharton: How do you feel a discussion board drove the revenue or the donation movement?

Brown: I’ll explain a little bit about how the fundraising model works. We’re not a non-profit organization. In fact, we don’t exist as an entity. We basically provide a medium for fundraising. Horse rescuers can go to our discussion board and can start a discussion — for example, about a couple of horses that might be in a kill pen on their way to slaughter. They might need a thousand dollars to get those horses out of harm’s way. They’ll provide the information, and various members of the community — the community is actually called Fans of Barbaro — will contribute $50, $20, $100. The money will be raised and the horses are then out of harm’s way. 

I don’t think you can do that on one sort of comment system. I would update the blog once a day with a new blog posting and then just do various updates within that. So there just wasn’t a medium at that point to do what we could do with a discussion board.

Knowledge at Wharton: Did you find, after the initial resistance, that people took to the discussion board more so than they had on the commenting blog? And from your own strategic viewpoint, was there a difference between the information that you sent out via the blog and the conversation that nurtured itself?

Brown: Certainly, very quickly the community realized the value of the discussion board. There are still community members — and there really is no such thing as a member but rather people who use the community — that only go to the blog or that only go to the discussion board now because they became part of the community after the discussion board was in place. 

So there is a little bit of that, but mostly they cross over pretty well now. I actually update the blog every day still — three or four times a day. I try not to get involved in any of the conversations on the discussion board unless there are particular questions where I have some expertise — like galloping a horse or what’s going on with getting ready for the Triple Crown or something like that. It’s very important for me as a moderator — and I now have three other moderators — to stay out of conversations.

Knowledge at Wharton: Why do you feel that’s important?

Brown: Because I don’t want to put my footprint on the discussion board. The discussion board works because it’s a lot of people talking about a lot of different issues, some of which they agree to agree, and agree to disagree, but I think, because it’s “my site,” my word carries a degree of influence probably more so than somebody else’s. Because of that, I just stay out of the conversations to the extent that I can.

Knowledge at Wharton: I think you’re probably touching on a couple of issues that are very, very important in the proper adoption of social media strategies. The community is in dialogue with itself. It grows on itself. They have a lot of value to add to it. Yet, at the same time, you have, in essence, a brand in oversight. Whether or not they’re members of that brand is immaterial. They are galvanized by the topic. They are galvanized by the purpose. So you have the ability to give some expertise and yet you can have the ability to listen. I think it’s worth noting, too, that you have some incredible statistics about the growth of this. You’re in YouTube. You’re on Facebook. You have thousands of friends in this type of environment. So you’ve gone from blog posting every now and then to a very vibrant aspect. What is it you think draws all these people together? Surely you haven’t done any outward marketing to try and collect it. What is it that gets — as a friend of mine would say — the canaries flying your way? What brings people to the site?

Brown: What brings people to the site now, I think, is the reputation of the site and the generosity of the community — the Fans of Barbaro. One way to describe this community and its growth is comparing it to a positive virus. This is a community that does great things and that intrigues people. People come to the community and do good things because they see a lot of good things being done. So it feeds off of itself. I talked a little bit about why we introduced the discussion board. One of the roles that I think I do play in this community, which is important, is from a strategic standpoint regarding what sort of social media tools we should be using. 

We also have a wiki. We’ve had a wiki for awhile in order to aggregate content and sort of as a depository for people to learn from what we’ve already done, right? There was a decision about six months ago to adopt Facebook as a social networking tool for the community. To me, I think that was important so we could reach out more to people who are interested in what we’re doing but wouldn’t necessarily come to our websites on a daily basis. The nice thing about Facebook is it does allow me to email out once a week a summary of things going on. So I am quite interested in how Facebook has enabled us to essentially accomplish two things.

One, strengthen the ties within the community. Those within the community who are on Facebook can now learn more about each other. 

Secondly, to reach out to other people, including members of the media, for instance, who are not going to spend hours on our website everyday. That enables me to further get the word out and make connections. We created a YouTube group simply because a lot of our community likes to create video content. So why not enable some form of aggregation of that content? We are now running a pretty cool YouTube contest, which I can go into a little bit more detail about. And most recently we’re now on Twitter. Twitter is useful for reaching out again to media types and others who wouldn’t ordinarily go to our sites, and for keeping people updated with maybe some media coverage that we’re getting or some other sort of significant things that the Fans of Barbaro and Alex Brown Racing are trying to accomplish. 

I think it’s important, when you look at these different tools, to have goals for them and stick to that. I tried MySpace — it didn’t work. I quit pretty quickly. If you’re not prepared to make mistakes, you’re not prepared to figure it out, right? So along the way, we’ve made some mistakes for sure.

Knowledge at Wharton: I was just about to ask that. How did you determine that it did or didn’t work?

Brown: I learned Facebook pretty quickly and I could find my way around pretty easily. I still haven’t figured out MySpace. I just couldn’t figure it out. I don’t think MySpace’s demographic is as suitable for us as Facebook. We typically reach an older audience. My demographic is 50-year-old women, to a large extent, which is quite interesting given that a lot of them kind of learned the blogging environment through this project and the discussion boards through this project, and are now going to Facebook through this project. 

Knowledge at Wharton: So you helped educate them to be active participants in the community, too. You made a comment earlier that I think was very, very important — the strategic adoption of these tools. It doesn’t sound like you’ve just been willy-nilly about — I’ll grab it because it’s buzzy. It sounds as though it fits into your overall community architecture very well. Maybe you can talk a little bit about how somebody with a brand or a purpose or a cause can make that strategic assessment.

Brown: It’s difficult. I will say out of all the work that I’ve done when I worked at Wharton and the University of Delaware and in consulting — this has been intellectually the hardest project I’ve ever worked on. I think all experience in Internet marketing was necessary for me not to make too many mistakes. 

How I assess these tools strategically is a little bit of hit and miss, but the key is that you have to experiment and you have to have clear goals for outcomes — and try to measure them. But I will also say that if you ask me how many members there are of our community, I wouldn’t be able to give you a straight answer and I wouldn’t really care. I do know page views, I do know number of messages posted per day on the discussion board. I know all those metrics and they’re all important to me and the project as it continues to move forward. So it is somewhat data driven, but probably not as much as others would appreciate.

Knowledge at Wharton: The Wharton Interactive Media Initiative is all about examining the data generated by these types of platforms and the story that the data tells and how that can drive your business decisions. But you have something else at work along with that strategic examination, and it’s authenticity, right? 

Transparency and the passion that goes along with this particular topic — I don’t know that you would be able to fabricate this kind of uptake with the audience in a community that you have. How much of it do you see as a function of a need that’s answered — a platform to give voice to all these people?

Brown: I think it is a huge function of what we’re doing. You know, we’re a horse welfare site essentially hosted from a horse racing perspective. That has been very important to tie people together. I’m convinced that we’re successful because of the Internet. The Internet provides two things for us. One is pure transparency. Transparency is just super critical and the Internet has provided that. 

And the other is connectedness and the social networking aspects of connectedness. But you combine transparency and connectedness, and now you have to have authenticity in the words you use. You have to say it the way it is. Sadly, in the horse world, the horses need a voice and it needs to be said the way it is so that we can get passionate about issues like horse slaughter. At the end of the day, I absolutely believe we’ll end that practice simply because of the combination of transparency and connectedness. We continue to grow, get more people involved, and the reasons that we have horse slaughter can no longer be maintained because they’re not authentic. I’m not going to go into the political debates about the particular issue, but that’s my belief and that’s my passion and that’s why I think we are successful and can continue to be more successful. But without this sort of social networking site, it would be a lot harder.

Knowledge at Wharton: You’re able to pull all that passion together in almost a singular voice. Tell us a little bit more about your YouTube contest. It’s another platform but again, it fits strategically in your mission.

Brown: It fits strategically in our mission and it’s an example of what I think is an interesting tactic. If you get down to the goals, strategy and tactics we use in terms of the horse slaughter issue, one of my goals is simply getting the word out about horse slaughter. I’m not absolutely going to convince you that it’s a practice that should occur or shouldn’t occur. My goal is that you know about it. Then you can make your own decision, right? But if you know about it through me, obviously, some of the content is going to be biased toward my viewpoint, right? But the goal essentially is just to make everybody aware. 

In terms of the YouTube contest, I put up $1,000 for someone to create a YouTube video that wins the contest. What is the contest? It’s to create a one- to four-minute video about the practice of horse slaughter. I’ve written a 16-page essay on this practice. So one of my rules is that you have to read the essay and then create a video about some piece of that essay — whether you agree with it, disagree, whatever it might be. And then I have certain other rules, some designed to get Google juice and, you know, search stuff, which is obviously very important. So in the title it has to have horse slaughter, for example, and some other things. The other rules are designed for the more viral aspect of the Internet. How does the winner get judged? It’s based on number of comments, number of views and the rating — purely. 

The submission date was over on April 10, and now there is a one-month period until May 10 before the winner is judged based on some algorithm of that data. So my goal is getting people incentivized to create a piece of content and then market it, get it out there and get other people to forward it. Get it rated, get it on Google and so forth. One other rule that I put in there is simply that it’s got to be PG-13. Nobody wants to read about or see videos of horses getting slaughtered. Any kind of animal slaughter is going to be gross to look at, right? So that’s not the point. The point is, we need to create content that people will actually view and learn from. I do believe that there’s lots of horse slaughter content on YouTube that people absolutely won’t view because they just don’t want to be offended by what is a horrible experience. 

Knowledge at Wharton: But through this contest you’re able to enable your community, reach out to others, share on YouTube and raise awareness of the issue. I assume the voting and ranking is done on the YouTube platform as well. And then you have nice interactivity between your site and YouTube, so hopefully you generate some traffic.

Brown: The cool thing is — I’ll give you a very short example. Montana right now is trying to introduce legislation that makes it easier to open up a slaughterhouse. One of the YouTube “producers” is based in Montana and created a wonderful YouTube video about why horse slaughter shouldn’t come to the great state with the big sky and all the beautiful stuff. It’s a really cool video. Because this is an ongoing issue and the governor of Montana has not yet, as we speak, signed the bill — that video has gone viral. It’s all over the Internet. It’s being blogged by pretty cool people. It’s being used to encourage people to watch it and to then call the governor of the state of Montana to request that he veto the bill. So it’s a perfect example of what we’re trying to do. 

Knowledge at Wharton: What’s next for you? You mentioned Twitter already. Where do you see the evolution of the community going and how do you feel you can fulfill the needs of the people involved with it?

Brown: My goal is always every day wake up and don’t mess it up, right? I mean it’s a pretty basic goal. But it’s very easy to mess this community up. I could ban the wrong person. That could create a massive adverse affect and so on and so forth. What new tools will we look at, how will we continue to grow the network? I’m not sure I can really answer that because if I knew, we would probably already be looking at it. For instance, Twitter I knew about two years ago, but we only started using Twitter a couple of months ago. 

So I spend quite a lot of time thinking about that kind of stuff. We have 1,000 members of the group on Facebook. I’d like that to be 5,000. There are only a couple hundred people currently following us on Twitter. I’d like that to be 500…. Discussion board has a million posts. We get about 1,200 posts a day. Let’s grow that to two million. And the blog — to be honest, I don’t even follow the blog page views any more…. So I have some pretty strong goals, but you also have to be pretty flexible in this environment. I don’t know if Twitter will last. I don’t even know what their business model is. They need to have a business model to stick around…. I don’t know how vested you can be in some of these things. 

Our blogging platform is free. Everything that we’re doing is free. So I am always concerned that we’ll get the rug pulled out from under us at some point. But along the way, you focus on the brand Alex Brown Racing so if we are interrupted, hopefully that brand has now gained enough strength that we can come back in another form.

Knowledge at Wharton: You’re shored up by a very valuable, very vocal and very growing community. I think you’ve got a lot that will keep you afloat for a long time to come. We appreciate your time with us today and your insights on how to work these social networks in the right direction. Thank you.

Brown: Thank you very much.

Knowledge at Wharton: Some tremendous insights from Alex Brown today on how to nurture and build a community and leverage the strength of social media and social networks moving forward. A couple of the key points that he made revolve a lot around his mission statement. This community has drawn together for a purpose. It’s not fabricated. There aren’t artificial tools. There’s authenticity. There’s trust. There’s information. There’s a value to the community. I think it’s also important to understand that Alex and his team experimented. They grew and did it strategically looking at the tools that are available in the social media construct — the Twitters, the blogs, the social networks, Facebook. All these things weren’t just thrown together. In fact, they were very strategically designed to help empower the community. So through a strong mission statement, a strong galvanizing factor, it’s very apparent that brands can pull together a strong network, a community that functions, a community that gets things done. I think some of those interesting frontline aspects are very viable and can be extrapolated to other business models.