Custom branded content solves Kentucky Derby Festival’s marketing challenges

By Cathy Colliver

Courier-Journal Media, USA Today Network

Louisville, Kentucky, USA


Even if you don’t typically follow horse racing, you may have heard of the Kentucky Derby. The “greatest two minutes in sports” is the first leg of the Triple Crown and features the best 3-year-old thoroughbreds with provenances and ownership around the globe.

What you may not know is that Louisville, Kentucky, USA, is host to a multi-week celebration leading up to the big day. The Kentucky Derby Festival has become a beloved rite of spring for residents of the metro Louisville area and the wider region.

The Courier Journal produced a multi-faceted, multi-platform model to help promote more than 70 events for the Kentucky Derby Festival.
The Courier Journal produced a multi-faceted, multi-platform model to help promote more than 70 events for the Kentucky Derby Festival.

With more than 70 events ranging from enormous outdoor events to unique indoor experiences, the Kentucky Derby Festival offers everything from a family-friendly parade to high-end wine, bourbon, and food tastings, and even a business community luncheon with a speaker list that includes the who’s who in sports journalism and commentary.

Outdoor events include a series of music concerts and food truck fare at the extensive Waterfront Park; a marathon and mini-marathon; a non-competitive cycling tour of the city; the Pegasus Parade down Broadway; a steamboat race on the Ohio River; five balloon events, including glows and races; and Thunder Over Louisville, just to name a few. Thunder Over Louisville is often considered the largest air show and fireworks display in North America. Whether that is literally true or not, I will say that Thunder Over Louisville has spoiled me over other fireworks show forever.

And that only begins to paint a picture of the scope of this non-profit’s production of community events.

The challenge: marketing 70 events

How can you possibly tackle advertising all of these amazing events offering options for just about everyone? Gen Xers and Millennials grew up attending the core, traditional events. Baby Boomers took those Gen Xers and Millennials to those long-running events as kids and are now ready to enjoy a night out on their own, or they take their grandchildren to events. Both groups likely aren’t fully aware of all the new events launched over the past decade.

The Kentucky Derby Festival wanted to increase awareness through digital platforms with a broad reach and transform the traditional print event guide into a digital format with promotion leading people back to the content.

Courier Journal leveraged USA Today Network Marketing Solution’s branded content experience to develop a custom portal on our news site as the go-to place for all things related to the Kentucky Derby Festival, with innovative storytelling and features to engage audiences.

The portal was built to include features designed to engage readers and make it easier to find Kentucky Derby Festival events suited to their interests. It can be found through a dedicated menu tab on desktop, mobile, and mobile app, similar in design to major news sections.

Two features make this branded content endeavor truly unique.

Organic + branded content = expansive engagement

While the portal includes the branded content articles, quizzes, photo galleries, video, and infographics you might expect, it also pulls in organic content about the Kentucky Derby Festival events written by our newsroom. Organic content is labeled Derby Festival, and branded content is labeled Story from Kentucky Derby Festival.

Branded content looks at the events from user-friendly angles:

  • Get the most out of this year’s Republic Bank Pegasus Parade.
  • The 5 most Instagrammable events @KYDerbyFestival.
  • Recipes for Kentucky Derby Festival cocktails.
  • What Kentucky Derby Festival events should you attend?
  • 7 ways to use your KDF Pegasus Pin.

By providing content designed to help Kentucky Derby Festival attendees find the events they’ll most enjoy and get the most out of each event, this branded content is engaging and informative — the primary role of branded content is moving consumers to action.

Combined with news coverage of the Kentucky Derby Festival, the portal includes professional photo and video galleries of events, and features articles and important breaking updates on event changes that are inevitable given the vagaries of spring weather.

Finally, branded content started populating the portal in February with new content added weekly. Content was then promoted via social media, digital display ads on the news site, and demand-side platform digital display ads. Geographic targeting was applied based on specific event focuses for the content being promoted.

Interactive, searchable calendar

Locals remember certain things about KDF events:

  • The Great Balloon Charity Race and Glimmer Thursday, Great Balloon Rush Hour Race and Glow Friday, and Great Balloon Race Saturday Morning are a week prior to Derby.
  • The marathon and mini-marathon are the last Saturday in April.
  • The Steamboat Race is on Wednesday and the Pegasus Parade is on Thursday of Derby Week.

However, if you ask them when those events start and whether they are ticketed or require a Pegasus Pin for entry, they’re probably going to come up short on detail.

Courier Journal created an interactive, searchable calendar that serves dual purposes:

  • Explore types of events to see what you might want to attend.
  • Search for specific events so you can get the details.

For either purpose, the calendar provides event details and links to purchase tickets if required and allows you to add the events to your calendar.

Omnichannel marketing for the win

This extensive, custom-branded content solution was augmented by print advertising as well as digital display, digital video ads, and social media ad campaigns for specific events, with audience targeting to help reach the right audience for each event.

By combining targeted cross-platform campaigns with a broad-reach branded content portal, the Kentucky Derby Festival activated a custom marketing strategy for promoting an extremely diverse set of events ranging over four weeks, and successfully informed and engaged a wide-range of attendees from both the local community and the wider region.

About Cathy Colliver

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