Interview with Alex Brown, Author: Great and Goodness Barbaro And His Legacy - Part 1

07/15/2011

When I think of the world of social media and blogs what I will forever remember, and be greatful for, are the amazing people who walked through my virtual door. One of my favorites is Alex Brown.  

Alex brown_2 Recently Alex wrote a book .. a beautiful book .. an inspiring book .. a book that touches the heart. I must admit it moved me to tears. (The amazing photographs and sketches make it a wonderful coffee table book.) 

It is the story of Barbaro the gallant racing horse and the people who trained, nutured and cared for him. 

It is also Alex's story of how he used social media to create a structure that encouraged a community to form that supported Barbaro and each other. 

About Alex Brown: I am a horseman, who is also an internet marketing "geek."  I have ridden horses all my life, and I have been using the internet for teaching and marketing since 1992.

Diva Marketing/Toby:  Before we explore some of the social media marketing initiatives that support Greatness and Goodness Barbaro And His Legacy and alexbrownracing.com please give us a bit of understanding why you felt compelled to write this particular book about Barbaro?

Alex Brown: I had spent the better part of three years supporting an online community which had emerged as it followed Barbaro's attempted recovery at New Bolton Center, and which merged into a horse racing and horse welfare community.

I had used many social media tools to support this community.  I decided to then use a more traditional medium, a book, to write about the experience in a broader story about Barbaro and his lasting legacy.

Diva Marketing/Toby:  To help frame our interview, would you tell us the back-story of why you created a site for/about Barbaro? Alex Brown_ Barbaro

Alex Brown: I was already running a web-site for a racehorse trainer, and friend.  We decided to use his site to update race fans of Barbaro's preparations for the Preakness Stakes after he had won the Kentucky Derby so easily, to remain undefeated. 

Tragedy struck in the Preakness as we now know, but the site became useful to keep his growing fans abreast with his daily attempt at recovery.  He very nearly made it too! (Photo of Barbaro)

Diva Marketing/Toby:  While your friends in the equestrian world know you as a dedicated and passionate horseman, I know you as an innovative marketer who stepped into blogs long before the term social media was popularized. 

So let’s turn the clock back to 2005 – 2008 when you were Sr. Associate Director of Admissions at Wharton and then marketing prof at University of Delaware.  What lessons did you learn during those early days that helped you create the blog for Barbaro?

Alex Brown: I think we are always learning, so clearly all my prior experiences, which include teaching Internet Marketing at the University of Delaware, running the first blog at the Wharton School (for MBA admissions), managing a very active online discussion board for MBA applicants, and so forth, allowed me to understand how communities can work. 

I also read geeky books on game theory and stuff like that.  But as much as I learned, and thought I knew it all in terms of managing online communities, I have learned twice as much managing this project. 

Diva Marketing/Toby: You had huge success with that blog (and subsequent message board and wiki), from hundreds of thousands of comments, to rich content and wonderful search rankings.  Recently you changed domains from timwoolleyracing.com to alexbrownracing.com.

Obviously, the blog drove traffic to the Tim Woolley Racing web site. Did you have an agreement with Tim Woolley Racing that you would “own” the site and might even change the URL? How was that relationship structured?

Alex Brown: Tim Woolley and I have been close friends for a very long time.  At one point the site was overwhelmed with Barbaro and horse welfare and racing content and it made sense to let Tim have his site back.  At that time I was also leaving Fair Hill where Tim and I worked, and was planning to travel for a couple of years to do further research for the book. 

Changing domains helped mark that occasion.  Maintaining Google rankings and so forth was not really a problem, and we were able to copy all the content over to the new domain. 

What I felt was super important was to leave the design of the sites the same.  I am a huge believer in the value of design usability, and once your community is used to how things work, only change things if there are super critical reasons to do so. 

My interest and experience with web design usability was also something I brought to the design of the book, an aspect of the book of which I am very proud.  I do think the designer wanted to kill me at some points of the book project though!!

Diva Marketing/Toby: For the geeks in the audience, did moving the domain impact your search results and/or traffic to the site very much?

Alex Brown: A slight hiccup perhaps. No more than that.

Diva Marketing/Toby:  Barbaro captured the hearts and imagination of people from all over the world. The site provided what Mike Jensen, Philadelphia Inquirer said was “.. real-time updates from the principles and they were able to form a community.” (p 85)

In the social media world, you had 2 critical elements: content and emotional connection. However, the big social media win goes beyond just the number of “likes” “followers” “circles” or subscribers that comprise a community but to engagement.  You knocked that out of the park (oops wrong sport!). We’d love your insights on how to take community to the level of “tribe.”

Alex Brown: Yes, certainly this became a community of action.  They have raised well over $1 million to rescue horses from slaughter, and done so much more too.  I think it is hard to absolutely determine how that happened, but there are one or two things I have learned from this that might prove useful. 

Firstly, mistakes happen, a community needs to be able to learn from those mistakes and grow from those mistakes.  Making a mistake once is fine, as long as you do learn from it.  Not making any mistakes really means you have not tried hard enough. 

The other thing that I think is super important is how the community is led.  I did not decide we should get active on the horse slaughter issue.  Members of the community did, and others followed, and it all bubbled up.  This is the same with other projects the community has undertaken.  My job, along with other moderators, has been to observe, nudge, and keep the conversations on target. 

I once told someone, when describing the most important aspects of managing the community: "When I get up in the morning I just hope I don't mess it up." There have been a few occasions, over the 5 years, that I nearly did mess it up.

Diva Marketing/Toby: Can you share some and how you recovered?

Alex Brown: The most sensitive aspect of running a large community is what actions you take if inappropriate content is posted.  As the moderator you have to have a set of rules for your community, and you have to adhere to those rules.

This can create short term reactions, but you have to keep your eye on the long term welfare of the overall community.  If you have to ban someone (a user ID), typically that person has his / her own network, and belongs to other communities. 

On top of that, the banned user can easily connect now (especially with facebook) to "discuss" your actions with others.  Honestly it can get nasty, and as we know, if two people say the same thing about you on the internet, it has to be true!  You need a thick skin to manage a community like this.

To be continued .. more about how Alex is using social media to create awareness for the book, the community, horse slaughter and the disease that killed Barbaro.

(Update: Part 2)

Disclaimer: I recevied a complementary copy of Greatness and Goodness Barbaro And His Legacy.

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Comments

Great interview.I loved reading this post. Very inspiring! It’s great to know that so many people made it so big, it’s stories like these that motivate people to do so much better in life and gives a lesson to never give up. Thank you so much for sharing this!

Posted by: Virtual Business Assistant on Jul 16, 2011 12:24:02 AM

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