One of the most successful sporting events over the Christmas break was the Leopardstown Christmas Festival in Horse Racing.

With no fans allowed and the experience delivered through screens on RTÉ and social media, we thought it would be of interest to catch up with Cian Boland, the Digital Marketing Engagement Executive at Horse Racing Ireland, on how they delivered a best in class service through the medium of Instagram.


How did you break up your Instagram content between posts and stories over the Leopardstown Festival?

Static main feed posts and stories are chalk and cheese when it comes to the volume and type of content we aim to use. On a big race day, we recognise optimal volume as being upwards of seven main feed posts and 12-14 tiles on our story.

Stories are for behind the curtain content; whatever we could shoot, that fans couldn’t see on TV. In our experience users expect to see content shot on phones on their stories, but don’t like it on their main feed. Success on the main feed is about timing and quality of image, in terms of storytelling power and visual impact. One of our social media objectives on race day is to complement the racecourse channels, so we make a conscious effort to engage with and share racecourse content.

In terms of content, how much time did you put into planning in advance and then into production on the day?

You don’t have to operate in horse racing – or indeed sport – for long to know best laid plans go out of the window when you’re working live! Our team worked hard pre-meeting to get inside the big storylines of the Leopardstown Christmas Festival, giving us the knowledge base to anticipate moments and react with authority.

We liaised closely with our sports syndication agency ‘Sportsbeat’ in the build-up to the event to make sure our priorities were clear – for example, to not only focus on the high profile races that will feature on free to air TV but to also cover the races with a lower quality field. Sportsbeat were a great asset to us and acted as an extension to our team in HRI throughout the Leopardstown Christmas Festival.

How closely did you work with individual sponsors on the day?

The team in Leopardstown would work directly with the individual sponsors on the day of racing. Leopardstown provides us with social media account handles of each of their sponsors ahead of each day of racing. It is so important from our end that we try and add value to the sponsorship deal that they have in place with the racecourse, so throughout the race meeting we make a conscious effort to give each sponsor as much exposure as possible.

What were the highlight results from the Instagram channels?

We were particularly proud of our Instagram engagement rate, which sat at 4.5% for the four days of the Leopardstown Christmas Festival. Across 37 published posts in the period, we generated 288,985 impressions and more than 12,000 engagements.

How do you feel it performs live in the midst of an event in terms of adding to the experience for viewers, and in time, those who will be attending live?

We always aim to offer a second screen service for users, acknowledging they will be following the action principally with our broadcast partners. In a behind closed doors environment, there is a window for us to run with unique content on our channels to replicate the race going experience – bringing them exclusively the view from the stands and from the winning post, viral emotional reactions of trainers and jockeys and the unique connection between animal and person.

Have you found that social media has become a more important channel for you over the past year?

Yes, since the start of lockdowns and Covid-19 restrictions back in March, social media has become such an important part of our operation. As mentioned above, in a behind closed doors environment it is our duty to provide the racing fan with around the clock coverage of the sport as well as the unique behind the scenes content from race meetings and training yards that we have been able to provide them with over the past 10 months.

Are there lessons you have learned that you think would be universal for others in the sports sector reaching out to their fans?

Our internal mantra is to ‘own the moment’ – we want to tell our racing stories when eyes are on us, particularly around free-to-air television coverage. Respect and be realistic about the literacy and loyalty range of your users. Some will know the winning time for last year’s Irish Gold Cup off by heart, others will be flicking on to the sport for the first time during lockdown. Never post for the sake of it – your audience will know and judge accordingly.

COVID-19 has posed a series of problems for the sector but it has also proven there is nothing quite like it as a unifying force. We were fortunate to be allowed to return under restrictions in early June and have had to be brave and flexible to take some of the opportunities that have presented.

Sport for Business Partners