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Rachel Kosmal McCart is a lifelong horsewoman and the founder of Equine Legal Solutions, PC, an equine law firm based in the Portland, Oregon area. Rachel is a member of the New York, California, Oregon and Washington State bars and is admitted to practice before the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon and the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. Rachel currently competes in three-day eventing.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Horse People as Marketing Victims: Beware of New "Organizations"

If you're a horse person, you've probably suffered under the barrage of marketing efforts conducted by two new horse related groups.   A hailstorm of emails, press releases and social media postings have encouraged you to join these new groups, crowing about how fast they are growing.   To avoid giving these groups even more publicity, I will avoid naming them or linking to them here. One is a group targeted at trail riders, and the other is a group targeted at women horse owners. 

Much like the cottage industry "breed registries" that popped up everywhere in the late 90s (most of which are now defunct), these groups purport to exist for their members' benefit. The trail ride group alleges that membership will provide access to trails "many of which would not be accessible to you otherwise" and "increase the value of your horse."  There's no evidence on the group's website supporting either of these claims. 

At least the women's group doesn't make any unsupported claims about its membership benefits.  Instead, it offers no discernible membership benefits other than access to its membership directory (for an additional $35 if you want a print version) and the "opportunity" to pay $150-200 to attend its conference. Ironically, the 2010 conference topics include "Making Money in the Horse Industry."

Who would plunk down membership fees just to access a directory?  Clearly, someone who wants to market their horse-related business.  As list rental goes, $50 is very inexpensive.  Gee, do you think you'll get any spam email or junk mail if your contact info is listed in that membership directory?! 

Make no mistake - these groups' real purpose is to make money.  And to make money for their founders, not their members. It's no coincidence that these groups target the two largest demographics in the horse industry: Women and trail riders.   It's also no coincidence that group membership is pricey.  The trail ride group charges from $25-75, depending upon how many horses and riders you want to "register." The women's group charges a whopping $50 for a one-year membership, and adds an additional $35 if you want a membership directory.  By August 19, 2009, the women's group had issued a press release congratulating itself on reaching 500 members.  Assuming each member paid the $50 fee, that's $25,000.  And counting!

But what about the trail ride group's claims to benefit charities? Like any charitable organization, before giving, you should ask what percentage of the proceeds actually go to the charities.  The trail ride group's website says that it donated $100,000 to charities (which are named) in 2009.  But what it also says is "Our annual donations to horse rescues based on how many funds we have left at the end of our fiscal year."   A hundred thousand dollars were the leftovers, after the bills and the founders were paid?!  This organization is raking in some serious capital! 

Who's behind these organizations anyway?  The women's group's own website proudly trumpets that its leader is - surprise- a marketing consultant.  But the leader apparently isn't a horse person! The group's website makes no mention of its founder's horse industry experience and an Internet search reveals no ties whatsoever to the horse industry.

However, the women's group's founder has plenty of experience attempting to make money from industry groups.  Turns out that women horse owners are a far larger and more lucrative demographic than women football players - check out the Women's American Football Club.  And women in the music business.  Ditto for senior citizen Wii bowlers - seniorwiicentral.com and seniorwiicircuit.com were quickly shuttered.  Despite the fact that the women's group's founder gives seminars on the topic, it seems that using astrology to guide business endeavors is not foolproof after all!

The trail ride group's website is fairly circumspect about its two founders' backgrounds.  While the founders claim to have formed the group because of a need for more competitive trail rides closer to their home, an Internet search for their names turned up no competitive trail ride results except for one hosted by their group.   Instead, one co-leader's name shows up in several results for an Austin tennis league.

So why are big-name sponsors supporting these groups?  The answer is simple: Money!   It's clear that these groups' marketing efforts are paying off, and sponsors don't want to be left out of the gravy train.  If a big-name clinician can make a few bucks by endorsing a trail ride group, he'll do it.   If a horse product manufacturer can drive traffic to its online store and generate sales by offering a few bucks in credit to trail ride group members, they'll do it.  At the same time, the sponsorships lend legitimacy to these groups. 

Why are horse people apparently joining these groups in droves?  The answer is simple:  Marketing! These groups are excellent at marketing themselves.  The constant press implies that they have a lot of exciting things going on, and you'll be left out if you don't join.  What you'll really be left out of, however, is lining the founders' pockets!  

Why did I write this article?  Do I have a vendetta against these groups?  Am I just a mean killjoy? In a word, No.  Here are my only personal experiences with these groups.

When I started receiving constant emails from the trail ride group, I was annoyed enough to unsubscribe from their email list. Or at least I was annoyed enough to try to unsubscribe! Despite the group's claims to be anti-spam law compliant, it took three separate attempts to stop the tide of email, and I finally succeeded only after I threatened to report them to the Federal Communications Commission for non-compliance with anti-spam laws. Ironic, no?

In the summer of 2009, a smooth-talking Texan cold-called me.  He was forming a new organization for trail riders and wanted my firm to sponsor it.  He made no bones about the fact that the organization existed solely to make money, citing the women's organization as an example of how lucrative these groups could be. When I declined to sponsor, he tried to pick my brain about who else he could call to sponsor it, and what membership benefits would entice people to sign up.  I found the whole conversation really offensive, not to mention shady, and didn't return any further calls or emails from him (and believe me, he didn't give up easily!).  I don't know if his group and the trail ride group mentioned elsewhere in this article are one and the same.

In June 2010, I had an email exchange with the women's group's founder. She had received a copy of Equine Legal Solutions' newsletter and emailed me a compliment. I thanked her and mentioned that I'm available for speaking engagements, which is what I typically do when a horse industry group leader says something nice about our articles. (While speaking to horse industry groups is typically not a paid gig, I do it regularly because I really enjoy sharing knowledge with fellow horse people and helping them avoid legal problems.) My jaw dropped when I received her response: "I apologize..I thought you were a member. We only use our members as speakers. Should you decide to join we would certainly consider having you on one of our panels.." So they wanted me to pay $50 before they'd "consider" having me speak to their group?!  Really?!  I emailed back saying that I found this offensive. 


Alison Rowe said...

Wow, Rachel. Great article. The part about the speaking engagement is shocking.

Tzena said...

I've been contacted by the following:
How can you tell if they are legit or not?

Rachel McCart, Equine Legal Solutions said...

Hi, Tzena. I'll write a follow up blog post on how to check out orgs before you join. The short answer is to check out their websites, see who is behind the orgs and what they have to offer for you.

spring said...

Everyone has to make money to live...even yourself...so just try your best to weed out what is not of use to you and move on...There are many out there on the internet that have no real use to most people - just research them before comitting to any money!

Rachel McCart, Equine Legal Solutions said...

Indeed, Spring - that's the point of this article. Organizations aren't always what they claim to be! :)

Abuela said...

Rachel. you are a breath of fresh air! Thank you for good writing and clear thinking.