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Open Mouth, Insert Hoof – How to Avoid Social Media Blunders

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276 – May/June, 2015

by Kristen Spinning

MasonIt wasn’t too long ago that most horse trainers didn’t even have a website, let alone an entire social media strategy. When we went riding in that bygone era, we could count on a few hours of being unplugged and unreachable, focused solely on our horse and our community at the barn. Alas, the age of instantaneous, worldwide information sharing has even overtaken the horse industry. The smoke from the social media genie has been let out and infiltrated every stall, tack box, trailer and arena, never to be stuffed back into the bottle again.

Yet the very nature of social media, the fact that it’s easy, immediate, and addicting, opens the door to trouble. It can get out of hand as quickly as a 2-year-old with a bee under his saddle pad, and that’s a ride none of us want to take. One misstep, one hastily typed, ill-conceived post can leave you looking foolish at best and blow up relationships at worst. Fortunately, a little groundwork can prepare anyone for a smooth ride in the social media arena.

Social media for the professional horseman has become so complex and time consuming that a number of equestrian-focused marketing companies have found great success managing it for their clients. Who better to give us some pointers on how to avoid social media blunders?

Mason Phelps has been guiding people through this rocky media terrain for 14 years. Early in his career, he was an internationally known equestrian in the Eventing ranks and later became an equine event producer. Phelps understands the complexities and unique needs of professional horsemen and horse-related businesses. His company, Phelps Media Group, is an equestrian public relations firm with a roster of notable clients including the USET Foundation, the National Horse Show, Dressage riders, Hunter/Jumper barns, Polo clubs and non-profits.

He advises using a smart, common sense approach with any social dialog, stressing it is important to understand the best uses of the various social media tools in order to avoid misuse. “By far, the easiest and most obvious platform is Facebook, so a lot of people turn to it. However, over-posting on Facebook can damage you. If you have a horse in the ring a lot, and you want to share what’s happening throughout the day, you may want to use Twitter or Instagram instead.”

The immediacy and relevance of social media are important to Phelps. He can sight hundreds of examples of people who fell into the “black hole of old news” simply because they waited until Monday to post what happened at the show on Saturday

He has another caveat for trainers posting news about clients during shows, “It’s hard to be everywhere at once, so the job of covering an arena often falls to an assistant. You really need to have someone with you who will be dedicated to capturing the images, and they need to be knowledgeable enough to know what’s appropriate to post.”

That knowledge includes whether or not the photo is good and whether it shows the horse or rider in correct form. Beyond those basics, however, are things such as understanding relationships, who’s who, and what connections matter. As an example, Phelps provides a scenario: “Say you have a rider sponsored by Longines. You can’t post a picture of him going over a jump that says ‘Rolex’ across the bottom. A lot of people might want to post that picture because it’s a great photo, the knees are bent just right, and so on. But you would create problems with his sponsor. He’ll be asking you why he is paying you to promote a rival sponsor.” Show producers can fall into that same predicament when posting award presentation photos. The picture may show a sponsored trophy saddle with the happy winner, but the banner of the sponsor’s competitor happens to be hanging in the background. Knowledge, and a few seconds of repositioning can prevent a costly and embarrassing blunder.

Beyond knowing what to post and where to post it, Phelps also insists that all posts be of a positive nature. “Never be critical of anyone or any show. Down the road, you will have to deal with that person or that judge,” he says.

Social media expert Courtney Chown echoed Phelps’ advice. “It’s extremely important to only post positive comments and items you think will generate a positive response. There is no need to promote drama with your posts.” Chown, along with best friend Kelsey Huffman, own Courtsey Promotions, a social media management company that specializes in marketing equine and western lifestyle businesses. Both women grew up as daughters of successful horse trainers, were avid youth competitors, and still show extensively. They use their lifetime of knowledge to keep their clients up to date with the ever-evolving social media landscape.

Chown says there is no one strategy to fit all users of social media. Rather, it depends on a person’s individual needs: who they are, who they want to reach, what disciplines they do, and at what level they want to be involved. “Facebook is a good place to start, yet Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest are more popular with certain groups of riders. If a trainer has a lot of youth riders, they would want to use Instagram, while rodeo people are on Twitter a lot.” Using the right platform in the way it was intended helps to avoid a social faux pas. “Posting to Facebook 20 times a day drives people nuts. Even five times a day may be too much,” Chown says. Instead, if you have a lot of pictures of horses and your barn friends to share, putting them on Pinterest may be the most effective. “The great thing about social media is that you can tailor it to get exactly what you want with the right placement. You can have a $100,000 horse or a $2,500 horse for sale, and you can find the right buyer by knowing how to target social media.”

No matter the platform or level of involvement, Chown encourages people to be inclusive of everyone in their posts. For instance, “Stallion owners can post more than just pictures of winning babies. Some people may not show, but they have a great horse from that stud, and they love their horse just as much as the person who is winning in the arena. People love to see pictures of themselves and their horses. They’ll share those posts, meaning you never know how far one simple little photo can go or who it will impact.” That reach is important to Chown, because she considers the broader picture of all equestrian sports. “I’m always looking at ways we can reach out beyond our industry to attract new people. We need to show how much fun it is and get other people excited about it.” She also believes that posts should be about more than announcing all your wins. “So what if someone came in eighth place,” she says. “Showing the support they have from everyone else in the barn is the engaging story that should be shared.”

When tagging people in a post, Chown cautions to keep it relevant. While tagging is a great way to extend a post’s reach, tagging everyone and everything is annoying. She implores people to use common sense when tagging a judge. Even though they may be a judge one weekend, and a friend or fellow exhibitor the next, comments must be appropriate and not suggest in any way that you are currying favor.

Chown IMG_2616For equine professionals, Chown stresses that it’s important to have a business Facebook page in addition to a personal page. Many people balk at that suggestion, with the excuse that they already have so many horse friends on their personal page. Her advice is to keep business items on your business page. “A few personal things on your business page, as long as it’s not too personal, can make it more engaging. If you only post about your business, your page lacks that human touch.” Once a business page is established, she advises to stay active a few times a week to build followers.

Chown sees way too many bad horse pictures in social media. “If you’re promoting a horse, then be sure to make him look good! Have him standing correctly, use moving shots that show his best traits, and don’t use angles that make him look awkward. It takes 30 seconds to take a regular picture, but it might take 30 minutes to take a good picture. It’s worth the time to make it good. A bad photo can make people pass on a really nice horse.”

Horse business consultant Elisabeth McMillan views social media as yet another arena in which to build relationships. “Relationships are important in life, whether personal, business, or recreational,” she says. She has been adroit at the art for many years. She bootstrapped her way up from a small school-horse operation to owning a highly successful Hunter/Jumper barn in Santa Barbara. Today, she combines her practical experience with her worldwide network of relationships. Her company, Equestrian, offers resources to improve many aspects of business, including marketing, the use of social media, and the power of relationship building.

McMillan’s practical approach to any healthy relationship, whether online or in person, is to treat people with respect. “You have to remember that if you post something that lacks respect, it’s up there permanently. If you say something over the top, you can do real damage.” She gives a good gauge for where to draw the line: If you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, you shouldn’t post it online. She stresses that everything you post should reflect you, your values and goals, all while remaining positive in the process. She sees so many people who get caught up in the drama and negativity that can accompany social media. She councils to always consider how your own engagement in a flaming dialog will be received by others, even if the conversation isn’t personally directed at you. She believes you can create a shield to the negativity. “When you build up the positive, you have all that good energy out there. You won’t have to go into full defense mode when someone posts an attack on you. One drop of negativity won’t rush in and fill up your entire pond,” she says.

In McMillan’s view, all horse people using social media should be aware of social etiquette, and she sees far too many breeches. “Oversharing has started to irritate me a little bit,” she says. “If the only things a person shares are horse show accolades, with nothing personal about it, it falls into the ‘so what’ category.” Another social media blunder she cites is complaining about a particular show, how it’s run, or how it was judged. She is steadfastly against complaining and blaming. “Show some gratitude,” she admonishes. “If you have a legitimate concern, then take it up with the individual who can do something about it. Don’t post it to the world.” She does admit there can be a fine line between a review with useful, albeit unflattering, information about a show or venue and a post that’s simply a whining complaint. “It can be similar to a restaurant or hotel review. It may be important to tell others about something, but use good judgment. I tell people to look at their motivation when writing posts. Are you doing it to be helpful or is it because you are mad about something?”

Another area where motivation makes all the difference is when communicating with judges. It’s perfectly reasonable to comment and like judges’ posts if you have a standing relationship with them. However, making comments and liking every post in an attempt to win favor is a bad idea. She warns, “Manipulation is surprisingly transparent to others on Facebook. Be respectful of your relationship, and don’t put that judge in an uncomfortable position.”

McMillan groans regarding mistakes she’s seen made when people try to sell a horse through social media. “There are so many,” she says. “I think one of the worst is posting a photo with no call to action or contact info.” She offers a handy tip. “Put your contact info right on the bottom of the picture. That way, if it’s shared, and your goal is to have it shared, you know the information will still be there no matter what.” When posting a sale video, she feels that shorter is better. “Horse people hate having their time wasted. My goal in a video is to have someone contact me and try out the horse. The goal is not to sell off the video. I leave them wanting more.” She contends that a few minutes are all that’s necessary to show the horse going in both directions and at all gaits. And, of course, include the contact information.

McMillan had some specific advice for horse professionals. “Every single horse professional who has a social media page should have a content marketing plan.” Along with clearly understanding their audience, pros need a road map of sorts to define what they are going to say, when they are going to say it, and how they are going to say it. “What do you stand for? What is your value proposition? How are you expressing customer care? Look at your brand. Is what you are posting consistent with that brand?” She adds that social media is a great tool for educating current and future clients. “There is so much good content available to share,” she says. “You can be a content aggregator. It’s simple, fast and sharing it needs to be part of your plan.”

Once a horse professional has a social media plan, McMillan says it’s important to review the policies with clients so that everyone understands. “Sometimes, clients may post something that’s inappropriate. It’s helpful to refer back to the policy; that way you aren’t making it personal against them.” She also suggests leading by example. “Clients will model you. Be sure to post using the behavior you want [them to emulate].” Conversely, riders can be proactive and ask what the trainer’s guidelines and boundaries are regarding posts from the barn.

These three experts give excellent advice on how to avoid social media blunders. Some of it might seem like common sense, but horse people unwittingly trip over a simple pole of social media etiquette every day. Like everything else, knowing the pattern and practicing is the key to showing your best self online.

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