Bet on Horses, Not Customer Assumptions: How the Kentucky Derby tested content for relevance with customers


Assumptions can be a dangerous territory — especially when it comes to being relevant with your customers.

When a brand has a large gap between purchases, keeping customers engaged becomes a consistent concern.

The team at the Kentucky Derby faced that issue when they decided to use the weekly newsletter to identify and validate customer segments.

“When we look to grow a brand like the Kentucky Derby, that breadth of engagement is really core to our growth path,” Jeff Koleba, Vice President of Marketing and Programming, Kentucky Derby, said in this session from MarketingSherpa Email Summit 2015.

To solve this issue, Jeff and Kate Ellis, Marketing Analyst, Kentucky Derby, decided to begin segmenting and directing content directly towards the customers who wanted it most. Within its established customer personas, the Derby focused testing on three segments:

  • Social content interests
  • Equine enthusiasts
  • Betting/wagering information

Once they set up segmentation and supported it with relevant content, the team began optimizing for maximum engagement.

Subject line testing

First, the team began testing subject lines for The Derby Insider newsletter.

“We really just wanted to optimize this whole newsletter to get us as much click data as we could,” Kate said.

Control: “The Kentucky Derby Experience — 80 Days Left”

Treatment A: “The Newest Kentucky Derby Hopeful & Kentucky Derby Insider Info”

The Treatment saw a 20% increase in clickthrough rate, which lead the team to the conclusion that more detailed subject lines result in higher clickthrough rates for subscribers.


Day of the week testing

Second, the team tested the effectiveness of sending on different days of the week. Group A received the newsletter on Wednesday, and Group B received it on Thursday.

Kate said Wednesday was chosen with the idea that, “we’re going to recap what happened last weekend, and then we’re going to talk about what’s happening next weekend on the road to the Kentucky Derby. And then we decided … well, is Wednesday better, [or] is maybe Thursday, closer to the weekend, going to be better for our customers?”

The team discovered from this test that there was “actually very little difference” between the two days, according to Kate, with a relative difference in clickthrough rate of 0.05%.

This discovery gave the team more freedom with developing content. They knew if the content wasn’t ready to be sent out Wednesday, sending it out the next day wouldn’t have a significant difference on performance.


Send frequency

Lastly, the team tested send frequency. Customers who didn’t read three emails in a row were moved to a plan where they only received major content, instead of the weekly emails. The objective of this was to maintain engagement with core messaging, while minimizing opt-out rates.

“The idea of this email was to be a weekly email, but we also acknowledge that not everybody on our list wants an email every week about the Kentucky Derby. Some of them might not want it at all; they just want one email a year that says, ‘Tickets are on sale now,’” Kate said.

The team created a second tier of emails for those inactive subscribers and, by doing so, saw average read rate increase from 32% to 53%.

Collectively, from all of these testing efforts, the Kentucky Derby team was able to gain significant insights into consumers and consumer segments, which all led to increased engagement.

The team increased read rates by 28% over the previous year, and clickthrough rates by 20%.

“But the biggest thing for us was our decrease in opt-out rates. We decreased our opt-out rates by 94%,” Kate said.

To watch the full session from Email Summit 2015, please visit MarketingSherpa’s Email Summit 2015 session replays.


You can follow Courtney Eckerle, Managing Editor, MarketingSherpa, on Twitter at @CourtneyEckerle.


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1 Comment
  1. Theodore Nwangene says

    A very nice article mate,
    When it comes to any business both the online and offline business, its always good to carry out this kind of experiments because, it will help you to better understand your customers and know how best to serve them.

    People usually respond to things differently and if you’ve not yet discovered this differences then, you’ll certainly be loosing your customers.

    Thanks for sharing Courtney and happy new week :).

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