Word-of-mouth, gossip, buzz, the grapevine—whatever you call it, there’s no denying that horse people like to talk. They talk about their trainers, their veterinarians, their saddles—the good and the bad. Word-of-mouth is a powerful tool in the horse industry, and it is one form of marketing that can be put to work inexpensively and effectively to bolster your equine business.
Ellie Trueman, president of Trueman Communications Group, a strategic marketing agency specializing in equestrian sport, says, “Word-of-mouth is a very difficult concept to actually define, because it encompasses several different elements of marketing. In the equestrian industry, it’s probably one of the most common elements that affects businesses and marketing, and probably one of the least understood elements of a marketing concept.”
Some operations rely on word-of-mouth marketing as their primary source of generating new business. “Is there any other way to market your business?” asks Bill Black, who co-owns and operates Cross 9 Ranch in Spiceland, Indiana, with his wife, Linda. They estimate that 99 percent of their training, boarding, lesson, and clinic customers come to them through word of mouth, and say that even their first customer still refers people back to them.
Kip and Sara Ply of Kip Ply Performance Horses in Redfield, Arkansas, agree. Says Sara, “We do not employ any other forms of marketing. We have never had the need!”
Still, not everyone relies on word of mouth. Co-owner Sharon Edelman of Eden Park Equestrian Center, a 400-acre horse show facility in Sunbury, Ohio, explains that depending on the target market, the impact of word-of-mouth has been very small. At Eden Park, trial is the main marketing vehicle. Serving everyone from local Quarter Horse clubs to this year’s Intercollegiate Horse Show Association National Championship Show, she says once people visit, the facility “sells itself.”
But word of mouth has its place, even in Eden—with the “Western venues, particularly the team penners,” says Edelman. “That group of people, they [need] the reassurances from their fellow exhibitors that the event is run with the rules that they’re used to and the payouts are good.” Word-of-mouth marketing has been so successful with Eden Park’s team penners, in fact, that a team penning event held last December included 300 teams and offered $10,000 in payback.
Start the Talk
The beauty of word-of-mouth is that it is a low-maintenance, low-cost form of marketing. You can’t by any means stop it, but there are a few things you can do to help create a buzz. You most likely already practice the following seven business concepts to some extent. Given some attention, you’ll see how focusing on these details can help you build better buzz for your business.
1. Satisfy your customers. Edelman says, “They are your base for everything. The more people you make happy, the better word-of-mouth you’ll receive.”
2. Make your customers feel important. Trueman suggests “developing a cohesive group among the boarders so they really feel they are a part of the business, sort of enveloping them, making sure they get personal treatment. All of that really helps them to go out and talk about how much they love the barn and why they love it.”
She continues, “It doesn’t always have to focus around going out to the big ‘A’ shows and doing very well in the ribbons. It’s a concept of belonging. When that customer feels valued, they very often will be a great advocate for that business.”
3. “Give more than is expected,” says Bill Black. It’s a simple idea; if you are considered equal with the trainer next door in terms of talent and cost, you have to be one step ahead of him or her in customer service. This extra effort will pay off when your students tell others about how you have exceeded their expectations.
4. Show your appreciation. Reward those customers who refer others to you. Try holding a drawing for a free lesson for those who have brought in new students. Maybe give a gift with your logo to the customer who refers the most business. Or give a ten-percent discount on next month’s board to the boarder who brings in a new client to fill your empty stall.
5. Always strive for improvement. “It wouldn’t hurt, in terms of internal marketing, to every once in a while do a survey of your boarders on what they like and what they don’t like. [Focus on] the little things. Are there things you can do socially with your boarders that they would enjoy or value that are not costly? Are there ways you can have barn jackets available to boarders so they feel like they’re part of a team?” says Trueman. She offers the caveat to be upfront when offering this survey, and to be sure your customers don’t expect something unrealistic, such as less expensive board.
6. Hold an open house. Showcase your business and why it’s so great! A special event for your customers and their riding pals is a great way to create buzz for a business and to invite the public to your facility. Says Linda Black, “Have excitement, feed people, and show them that you care about what you can do for them.”
7. Remember that while your boarding/training/breeding facility may be your lifelong dream, it is still a business. “The most important thing to remember is you are running a business and those boarders are customers,” says Trueman. “As a customer, they will refer other customers; or if they decide not to be a customer anymore, they will, for sure, affect your business in a negative fashion for potentially many months or many years to come.”
The elements of word-of-mouth marketing are often common sense, but not commonly practiced. A little attention to the details can make a big difference in your business.