LAST UPDATED: 25 March 2023
Cracking Gen Z Runners
What does it take to make your race more appealing to Gen Z runners? A look at lessons from DC Half's amazing success with Pacers Running's Ryan Callahan.
In RunSignup’s latest RaceTrends report, registration data showed that less than 13% of race participants in 2021 races fell within the 18-30 age group - a number that used to be almost 18% as recently as 2017, and keeps on falling.
So why is it that races fail to attract younger audiences?
That’s what we’ll be exploring today with the help of my guest Pacers Running Marketing Director, Ryan Callahan. Ryan and the Pacers Running team recently pulled off the remarkable feat of getting more than 40% of their DC Half start line made up of 18-30 runners, and we’ll be going over a number of deliberate strategic and tactical decisions the team took to encourage participation within that younger demographic. Among other things, we’ll look at intentional branding and website design as a means of appealing to younger runners, and initiatives undertaken by the team in offline as well as online marketing to reach that target demographic.
Today’s discussion probably doesn’t hold all the answers to this very complex challenge facing the industry, but there’s some very big clues in there about what races can do to improve their appeal among younger audiences.
In this episode:
- Participation trends in the 18-30 age group
- Why the Gen Z problem is fixable, and some races are doing better than others
- How DC Half managed to attract 3 times more 18-30 runners than the US race average
- The making of the DC Half brand
- Being intentional with your event choices: race name, logo, swag, website, course design
- Why it's important to keep your race website clear of information clutter
- Beyond cliches: building a DC race from the perspective of a DC local
- Checking boxes vs being thoughtful about your race swag choices
- Offline marketing strategies for reaching 18-30 runners
- Building an engaging race brand on Instagram
- Leveraging community and grassroots efforts to reach your target audience
Thanks to RunSignup for supporting quality content for race directors by sponsoring this episode. More than 26,000 in-person, virtual, and hybrid events use RunSignup's free and integrated solution to save time, grow their events, and raise more. If you'd like to learn more about RunSignup's all-in-one technology solution for endurance and fundraising events visit runsignup.com.
Ryan, welcome to the podcast!
Hey, Panos. Thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to be here to be talking with you.
Well, thank you very much for coming on. I really appreciate it. Where are you joining from today?
So I live in Philadelphia, which is a little bit of a surprise because Pacers Running is actually based in Washington, DC. So I-- I'm an Amtrak right away, but I'm in Philadelphia.
Yeah. But it's all, like, quite close over there. I often get confused. Like, so many states so close to each other. Like, within an hour, you could be jumping between three or four states around there.
Yeah. The whole Northeast Corridor is pretty easily accessible and pretty easy to bop around to. So I get down to DC-- I was just there two days ago. I get down there very, very often.
So you mentioned Pacers. You work for Pacers Running - one of the races we're going to be looking at is under that. And also, quite obviously, under your LinkedIn profile, I see it reads, "Raised in run specialty." So your background is quite heavy on that. But you've done a lot more things than that, particularly in the area of launching and growing races. Do you want to maybe take a couple of minutes and introduce yourself to people listening in?
Sure. Yeah, absolutely. So I'll start kind of with where I'm at and then work backward from how I got here. So I'm the Marketing Director at Pacers Running. Pacers Running is both a running store. We have five locations in the DC area. Also, we have an online store. We've got a couple of other, kind of, retail-related businesses. And then, we also have an events business with races in DC and in Virginia. And we've had the events business now for probably about 15 to 16 years or so. So as the marketing director, I kind of oversee marketing for all silos of our business both on the retail side in run specialty - like you said, that's kind of where I come from - and then on the event side. Going back, I've been in the running industry ever since 2010. Ever since I graduated college, I've been in the running industry. Originally, "Run specialty" is essentially a term that references independent running stores all around the country. Oftentimes, they end in the words running companies so people have heard of lots of enter-your-city-here running company. I started at a store, Philadelphia Runner up in Philadelphia in 2010 and then been working with Pacers since about 2018 - off and on. As you mentioned too, I've been involved in the race industry for quite a while. Races and run specialty in the states often run, kind of, parallel to each other. A lot of running stores own races and a lot of races partner with running stores, so there's a lot of kind of crossover between those two things. And I've been working in races since 2014 when I launched my first race. So that was about eight years ago, which seems crazy to say, but yeah - eight years ago, I launched my first race. So I've worked on the retail side from the floor to buying to managing and then, predominantly, over the years, on the marketing side and then also a little bit on the entrepreneurial side in terms of launching races and putting on races. So I've worn a lot of hats, but it's all within this channel of running and run specialty and races.
And this crossover you mentioned, which I do see quite often, particularly, in the US - the model between the running store and the races. Is this a strategic thing for Pacers? Is that something that, sort of, has been part of the business model?
Yeah, I mean, for sure. I mean, I think, anytime you're running a running store and you are embedded within that world, to begin with. Every weekend, you're hosting packet pickups or you're having races come to you looking for advice, looking for feedback, looking for partnership. I think it just becomes kind of a natural extension of your business where you say, "We're here. We've got a built-in community. We've got a built-in market audience through all of our customers. We do all these group runs. We offer training. We offer all of these things." Adding racing is a strategic way to grow your business. It's also a great way to grow your brand. You might get a lot more people who sign up for your race who maybe have never shopped at your store and vice versa - people who have shopped at your store but never run your races. So there's a lot of synergy between the two. I mean, I think, for Pacers, of course, it's strategic. I didn't found the Pacers events business that was started by Kathy Dalby, Pacers CEO, like I said, about 15 years ago, but I believe the mindset at the time was, "Hey, this is a natural extension of Pacers." But also, there's something we can offer the runner here that's maybe not being offered at the level and quality that we would want to offer. So, I think most people get into owning a running store because they want to serve the running community and they want to serve runners in their town, city, and region. And so, then, I think you naturally extend and go, "I got an idea for a race" or "Hey, my town is missing this kind of race." That's how I got into it. Where I lived at the time, where I was at the time, we said, "Oh, there isn't a good 10K race in the city. Let's go start a 10K race and serve the runners here." So yeah, I think there's a lot of ways that people get into it, but there's a tonne of crossover, a tonne of synergy between retail and events that I think leads to that kind of business model.
And do you guys also work with other races in your area - in your running store areas - outside of Pacers' races?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. We partner with lots of races. And I think you'd see across the industry that we definitely believe in the "rising tide raises all boats" kind of philosophy. So yeah, even if it's not a Pacers race, we still will partner with other races. We will promo with other races. We might have some kind of, like, a tangential relationship like a Marine Corps Marathon where we work with one of our brands, Brooks Running, to kind of, like, show up in interesting ways at the race. So, there are a lot of different ways you can partner. But yeah, absolutely, we partner with lots of races all year long.
So today is a really, really exciting episode - real exciting discussion, I hope, we'll be getting into. I think most people listening in - race directors - would at least be aware of this issue being constantly raised in the industry around the participation of younger runners, and how attractive the sport is and remains for younger audiences. And as running sort of, maybe, is reaching its peak or maybe is around the peak of the sport and has been growing for so many years, what we're doing as an industry to serve that segment and how relevant racing is to people in the 18-to-30 age group. But by "younger", we'll use it to mean that 18-to-30 age group. I'm going to start by sort of, like, setting the scene a little bit, particularly for people who are not familiar with the numbers just to quantify the problem a little bit and put the discussion into context. RunSignup, as many people know, does these RaceTrends report annually from the millions of data points they have in registrations from the races that are hosted on RuSignup, and there's been a consistent trend of the percentage of runners within that 18-to-30 age group dropping from year to year. The latest report for 2021-- the latest RaceTrends report shows that only 12.8% of people who participate in races fall within the 18-to-30 age group, which is not great. It used to be higher. It's getting sort of, like, smaller and smaller just sort of, like, very generally at first. I was wondering, do you have any thoughts-- having worked with races and a very successful one, which we'll get into in a second, attracting younger runners, do you have sort of, like, high-level thoughts on why this persistent downward trend exists in our industry within that age group segment?
I do. I certainly have thought about this a lot as, I think, everyone in the race industry has been thinking about over the last several years. It is concerning, right? It is a concerning trend. You see that number shrinking and shrinking, and you naturally extrapolate that and say, "Well, if they're not running in their 20s, 30s, then they're not getting exposure to running." So, then in their 30s to 40s-- the next shoe to drop - that 30s to 40s start to come down and, then, before you know, everybody just ages out and, all of a sudden, you've got a much smaller market. I think that's obviously implied in your question. But I think that's important that that trend is concerning in terms of, "Hey, maybe your race is doing well today. But if you see that bottom end of the age scale starting to shrink, what does that indicate for your long-term success as an event?" I think there's a variety of reasons behind this. Most of mine are anecdotal or instinctual - obviously, starting with COVID, and just shifts in young people and how their habits changed. Somebody in their 30s to 40s probably has a more established habit pattern going into COVID than maybe somebody who's 22 or 23 who spent three years during a pandemic shifted up their habits and the things that they're interested in doing - now they're just they're into other things - whereas somebody like me rode through the pandemic ended and said, "Okay, now I'm gonna go back to living my life the way it was before the pandemic started." I think everybody in the racing industry has to take a really hard audit and look at what they're doing. We're going to talk about it in a minute. But for our race, that easy half, we actually didn't have this problem. So it isn't that young people are just immune to wanting to run races. I do think that-- look, in the 2000s to early 2010s, it was, "Put a distance on a date and you would have signups and you'd have growth for a lot of people, particularly in the half marathon - those kinds of sweet spot distances like half marathon and even marathon?" Well, now, that just isn't the case anymore, right? The audience's more particular, they're more discerning. I do think-- and I think we'll probably talk about this a bit more later, but I do think that younger runners care maybe less about PRs and training and getting faster, or whatever. I'm speaking very broadly. Young people also represent the only demographic that is competing at the highest level, right? If you look at the winners of a marathon, whatever, they're largely in their 20s and 30s. So that's not to say that young people aren't competitive. But by and large, I think the things that drove people maybe to run races 15-20 years ago, which is, "Oh, I'm getting into this. I'm getting better. I like the way this feels. I'm gonna go get a time. Oh, I want to run faster. How do I get faster?" I think you're seeing less and less of that and I think what you're seeing instead is - I'm not gonna say anything shocking here - the young people are very experience-driven. And I think that, in races, there are some races that think about experience. I think there are other races that don't think about experience as well. I would guess that if you were to take races that index more heavily on experience versus races that don't, you're going to see maybe better performance in young people. Now, you're the person asking the questions here, but I feel like the next natural question would be, like, "What does that mean?" Like, what does experience mean? Experience is this big loaded word that we use in racing. Panos, you've probably talked to other people and I'm sure I'm not the first person to come on here and say, "Oh, you need an experience-driven product in order to get more runners." Well, what does experience mean? Isn't it just going out and running a race? Like, that's an experience. Is it setting a PR? That's an experience. So what exactly does it mean to be over-indexing on experience? And I think there's no one-size-fits-all solution and I don't think there's one singular ingredient. I think you look holistically across the event and you say, "Okay, let's start with the basics - course. Is my course interesting? Is it going to be the kind of course that runners want to run? If you're, like, a larger marquee city - like, we are in Washington, DC - course, I think, matters a lot because you draw in a lot of people and go, "Wow, Washington DC, the nation's capitol. Like, if I'm gonna go run a race there, I don't want to just be running out and back on some trail in the woods, I want to be running past things that are iconic, and I want to be getting this kind of DC experience and flavour." I think your lead-up and the way you involve the community - that's part of the experience, right? If you own a running store and you've got group runs or if you're partnering with local clubs or running stores, are you showing up to those? Are you creating some kind of sense of identity and community in the lead up to your race? That's part of the experience. Personally, I come more from the brand world, honestly, than marketing. I know my title is marketing, but I'm a bit more of a brand guy than a marketer. I think of things like the T-shirt. What is the design? What does it feel like? What is the medal? Do you use the same medal every single year? There are a lot of races that do. Do you try to like change it up and make it interesting? Do you even offer a medal to young people who care about, like, pinning medals on their wall? Or do they want something else that's more relevant to them? Like, I think you have to look at experience as this very holistic thing of all of these, kind of, A-to-Z pieces. That's part one. And then, part two, you have to audit and take a look at all of those pieces. I think, as race directors, we have so much on our plate. And to be clear, I'm not the race director of the races that we're talking about. I'm not the race or to the Pacers runs, but I have experience in the race directing world, so I understand that, as a race director, you have so many challenges on your plate - so many things that you're thinking about every day from all of the vendors, all the municipal coordination, "Oh my god, there's a water main break on the course a week beforehand and we've got to reroute it", blah, blah, blah. You don't want to pause and go, "Is my shirt design different? Is the fabric I'm using different? Am I thinking about my medal in a different way? Am I thinking about, maybe, what my runners want? Candidly, you're probably checking a lot of boxes there purely because of capacity and because of time. So your question was, "Do I have thoughts on this kind of underperformance in the Gen Z, early millennial, sub-30-year-old group? And I think, A) it's a concerning trend, B) I think it's a fixable trend for a lot of races if you can focus more on if you can slow down a little bit, carve out a little bit more time, and think about, "How is my brand serving my audience? What kind of marketing am I--? Am I doing the relevant type of marketing? Am I building the right experience for this audience?" And if you're not doing those things, I don't think you're going to see this trend turn around. Whereas, typically, I think, in racing, a lot of times these trends do end up rebounding to the average. I don't think that that's going to be the case here. I think there are going to be winners and losers. And I want to put one more fine point on this for a second here, which is, starting in 2021, probably summer 2021, as most races were coming back, some came back a little bit earlier but a lot were off for about a year-- so summer to fall of 2021, as races came back, numbers were really poor for a lot of races. Some of that was because the Delta variant kind of popped back up and COVID kind of got a little bit worse, going into the fall, and I think that had an impact, of course. But I think there were a lot of people who said, "Oh." Like, people just don't want to gather in public yet. Right? Like, it's gonna take us a couple of years to get back to this point. People don't want to gather in public yet - that's why. So it's okay that our numbers are down, right? I want to be very clear that we are now out of that era. If your numbers are down, it is no longer because people don't want to gather in public. Taylor Swift just broke the internet yesterday when she released her tour tickets - I'm sure it's a lot of people under the age of 30 and 35 and none of them have any issues gathering in public. So the data outside of racing is indicating people are not concerned about mass gatherings anymore. So I just think that that's a really important one to leave behind. We no longer can be waiting for tomorrow that mass gathering and the psychology around "that is going to return". We're past that point. If your numbers are soft in 2022, I think you've got one more year to look at your numbers to see, "Okay, do I have a little bit of natural bounce back in 2023?" And I do think that'll actually happen. But I think if it's not bouncing back, right now is the time to be kind of sounding the alarm and asking a lot of these questions. And Panos, I think this under-30 group is a great place to start.
I mean, it's interesting that you say all this because my sort of impression when discussing this topic with some race directors - or looking at comments on this topic - quite often revolves around this concept that, "It's not us. It's basically young runners." There's, like, a fundamental incompatibility between races and what we do in that audience. Like, there's just not a natural match, sort of, a little bit like throwing our hands up in the air and saying, "Well, it's what it is. Whatever. Let's focus on the people that do get us." But you seem to be saying that that doesn't have to be the case. And I'm guessing, from what you're saying, it doesn't have to be this very slow-turning shape where it will take decades to fix it. It sounds like you're saying, "Some races who get some aspects of what appeals to that audience can put on successful events straightaway and be really successful in that audience." Runners don't need to change in the 18 to 30 category. You just need to give them what they're after.
I think that's accurate with the caveat being, I do think the industry, at large, overgrew pre-pandemic. I think a lot of people probably felt that way from, let's say, 2005 to 2015-16. The calendar filled very rapidly. Like, you just could not put enough half marathons on the calendar. Like, people were just signing up for them. So, I do think we are living in a landscape of more scarcity than before. I do think there is some element of, "We are in a new normal. But within that new normal, there are going to be, I think, winners and losers." And a lot of the kind of events that aren't going to succeed, maybe a lot of them have already gone away because COVID kind of-- the one positive thing COVID did to the industries is that it shook out a lot of events that may be probably just shouldn't have existed or these 300-500 person, kind of, smaller weekend races. There's no knock-on if you run a smaller race. Some smaller races can be phenomenal, but if you're running a smaller race and had these aspirations of a much bigger race but it just wasn't getting there and you were struggling to keep it going, that's probably all been shaken out of the system by and large. So I do think that some of this is-- we can't bank on the fact that, like, there are proven ways to just get back to having big-time sellouts in all of these events like there was five or six years ago. But I do think that there are absolutely ways to, in the short term fairly quickly, solve some of these problems. I think there's kind of two things. One is what can we do, right? What is the marketing, the branding - and we're going to be diving more deeply into that - how do we speak to this audience? The other pieces, too, that we do have to remember is-- I may sound a little bit bearish on people who want PRs or people who want to run races for, kind of, the historic reasons of why they want to run races. That said, there is still no other product like a half marathon, marathon, or race where a person can go out, run, and feel all of these crazy wild emotions on a Saturday morning - pain, suffering, joy, excitement, all this stuff, cross the finish line, feel fantastic, have these endorphins bursting. There's no replacement for that. I do think there's an opportunity to bring a lot of people back into the fold, particularly, young people because I do think that we offer-- especially at the bigger distances, I do think we offer something that can't be found anywhere else. Right? And so, I actually said-- this is a little bit different from this topic of young people, but I actually said-- near the tail end of the pandemic, I said-- and I should qualify, we're still in the pandemic. I understand that there are technicalities of we're post-pandemic versus in-the-pandemic, but the tail end of the worst part of the pandemic where people weren't really doing much and we weren't really going outside. I said, "Look, I think the best thing that could happen to events is people need to start crossing finish lines because when you crossed the finish line is when you go to yourself, 'That was great.'" Maybe it was terrible, but then, maybe an hour later, you reflect back, like, "Wow, that was great. I'm really glad I did that." You're taking photos. You're hugging your family. You're crying because you just accomplished this wonderful goal. You're texting your friends, "Hey, next time you're coming out there with me. This was so fun. I gotta get you guys to do this." That went away for two or three years. So I do think we can lend ourselves some amount of excuse of, like, "Hey, look, races, I do think, build their own momentum." Having finishers at your race, I think, builds its own momentum, and we haven't had that for a couple of years. So, to your question, I do disagree with this notion that says, essentially, "Ah ,geez, that number is dwindling. Let's just move on from it." I don't think that that's smart. I mean, you might be able to survive. You might be able to create races. Maybe races do become more of an older person's game and that's a sustainable business model. There are certainly businesses that serve older audiences, not younger audiences, and businesses that serve younger audiences, not older audiences, and they do just fine. But for a long time, there were a whole bunch of people, particularly women in their 20s crossing the finish lines and they were a big, big driver of growth for a long time. So to just think that they all just disappeared and they're never coming back, I think, is short-sighted.
Well, I think we have very concrete proof that focused turnarounds can happen with a race you guys put on, which I want to dig into a little bit more detail. That is the DC Half - it's a half marathon in Washington, DC. I think there are lots of things about the race that are really, sort of, like, eye-opening and we should touch on - it's going to offer lots of insights to people - but I want to sort of, like, get us to look at some statistics from the race, which are really interesting in the context of the 18-to-30 age group. So we said earlier that the average across races from RunSignup's RaceTrends reports comes out to around 13% of people in that age group, and I think the DC Half was 35%. What was the actual, sort of, percentage that you guys achieved with the race?
So we were actually 41% of runners 18-to-29. Of that, we were 24% of 22-to-26. So just that five years subset made up double the industry average for the 18-to-30. But yeah, 41% is where we landed with DC Half.
Okay, so that seems like a massive uptick - more of three times the average. I'm guessing there were some conscious decisions that-- it wasn't an accident, let's put it that way that you got to perform so well within that age group. But just to give a little bit more information on the race to the people listening in, how would you describe the DC Half as a race concept and what you guys tried to do with it?
So the DC Half was started in COVID years - it's always a little complicated. I believe we intended to race in 2020. So we launched, like, end of 2019 or early 2020. And then, the race got cancelled in its first year which is always a fun way to get started. Then, we had our first race in 2021 and then our second race in 2022. So the race has been around for essentially two years. We've had two runnings of the DC Half. What we saw as the opportunity was-- again, I always come back to brand. I always start with brand. I start with, "What is the message we're telling our community? What is the promise we're making?" A great brand makes a promise and then overdelivers on it. And so, what we kind of set out to do was to say, "Hey, there are lots of long-distance races in DC. This is a very hyper-competitive environment. We've got some of the country's most iconic, from the Cherry Blossom to the Marine Corps Marathon. We've got some really really iconic big-ticket races right here in DC with high participation rates. What we didn't have, though, was what I call, like, the jersey race, right? Like, Jersey hasn't, like, a jersey you would wear. The rep-your-city race where you look around and you go okay, "What Chicago's biggest race in terms of notoriety?" The Chicago Marathon. What's New York's? The New York Marathon. What's Boston? The Boston Marathon. This is, like, simple and kind of some one-on-one type of stuff, but we said, "There isn't a proper, like, DC Half Marathon, so let's start there where we are a DC brand." So you got to start with authenticity. If we ran an event Company in Des Moines, Iowa, and we noticed that DC didn't have a half marathon, we wouldn't be able to come in and put on a DC Half Marathon. Right? This starts with the fact that we were going to very explicitly put on a "hometown race", a race that stuck its flag in the ground and said, "This is the DC race. It's called the DC race. It's being put on by people in DC and it's for runners in the DC area." Now, we talked about this, Panos, a bit offline, but this question of, "Is that a very localised decision? Or does that kind of vibe end up being too localized or does it end up being too exclusionary for people or a more national level?" But, we felt like if we leaned into our community, if we built a race around the people we know the best, which is runners in DC, we would have a very successful event. Sure, maybe it would attract people from out of town. Maybe, ultimately, it builds-- because again, people like to collect the jerseys. If you're sitting on the West Coast and you're looking at your calendar, maybe you're looking at half marathons ar the east coast, you'll go, "DC half. I'd love to go to Washington DC and run the DC Half." So maybe there's some of that, but we started with a very specific audience in mind, which was our community. We're going to build a race for them. So then, when you start there and that's where your excitement funnels from, you slow down-- like we talked about earlier, you slow down and you go, "What is the branding gonna be like? What is the imagery going to be like? What's the colour palette? What's the logo gonna be like?" And we worked with a very talented brand creative in Rita Carroll. She owns a brand agency called Out and Back Creative, which I would encourage any race director who is interested in-- I don't know. We just worked with Rita. This is not a plug for me by any means, but for anybody who'd be curious, Rita Carol works in the space of making branding for races. So we worked with Rita and kind of came up with this brand approach, which was very intentionally, like, fresh, avoids cliches - right? Panos, what would the cliche colouring of a Washington DC race be? Red, white, and blue. Right? Uncle Sam or George Washington, whatever you want. So we said, "No, we're gonna go with something that's kind of fresh, that feels a little bit more localised, feels very energetic, got a very energetic colour palette," and then we said, "Okay, let's make sure that the shirt is really great. Let's have a great shirt both from the material. Let's make sure it feels nice. Let's avoid the logo billboard - I always call it - where you've got your race shirt.
It has 30 sponsorships splattered all over the back. We were very intentional to make sure we didn't do that. So all of this is pre-marketing, right? This is all, like, in the lab building the race. Okay. We think there's an opportunity for a half marathon in DC at this time of year. So it starts with your technical side, right? There's a half marathon opportunity. September is a good time for half marathons because we all know the big marathons are in October and November. A lot of people like to run a half marathon in September, whether it's a tempo run or on an actual race course. So let's put a half marathon here in September. We were fortunate that a date opened up, an opportunity opened up and we thought that it was a good opportunity for that. So we started with that kind of technical side. Then we said, "Who is this race for?" Okay, like I just said, it's for the DC community. It's for DC runners. Okay, great. So what are we going to call it? Well, we're going to call it the DC Half because if that's what we're building it for, that's what we're gonna do. Okay, how are we going to make it look and feel then? How are we going to communicate it to people? How are we going to make sure that when we open and we put it out there, people go, "That's cool. I want to run that race. That race seems more like the kind of race for me versus the corporate sponsor, corporate sponsor, corporate sponsor, race name presented by corporate sponsor type of race. There's no knock on corporate sponsors. They're a critical part of making these races happen But it was very intentional for us to have the name be what the name was. Then, you get to the website. Okay, how are we going to communicate this information? One of my biggest pet peeves in race websites is that-- and this is reflected on DC Half website and it probably causes some frustration for some runners. But I always say that most races spend 95% of their real estate answering questions for 2% to 3% of their runners, and we like to take the opposite approach. We'd like to take the approach of like, "Get to the site, find the core information very quickly. What is this thing? When is it?" Boom, boom. That's what most people want to know. And if we want to tie that into, like, a younger runner, that's how most young people consume information now. Nobody's reading 40 FAQs. Nobody's going to the dropdown that has 30 different dropdowns. Nobody's reading about all of these things that you have on your site that you're putting there because you either feel obligated, or you've got a partnership commitment. One person emailed you asking you a question about it and you got nervous, so then you had to create a whole page for it. So the simplicity of the message, I think, was kind of the final point. Then, we go, "Okay, we're ready for showtime. Let's go out and bring this to the world." And that's where the kind of marketing begins. So that's kind of how DC Half started. And then, that's how kind of the brand came to life. And then, I think, within all of that, that was the early seeds of success. That was the planting of the early seeds of what would be the success of that under-30 crowd further down the road.
You’ve heard so far - and we’ll hear a bit more in a sec - how important branding has been in making Pacers Running’s DC Half appealing to DC runners and younger audiences.
So how do you achieve that professional brand consistency across your website and email, without going completely overboard?
The answer is custom race websites with integrated email marketing - both free and awesomely easy to set up - from RunSignup.
With a RunSignup custom race website you’re getting an amazing, professionally designed website that matches your brand from logo to color palette. You get to use your own domain name to further build out your brand identity, and you get to easily add any number of pages to your website, from donation pages to searchable participant photo galleries.
And to carry over that nice polished branding to your emails, RunSignup’s integrated email marketing will automatically pull your logo and brand settings from your website and apply them to all your email templates, making it easier for you to pull in additional images and other brand assets into your email designs.
Best of all RunSignup will never promote another brand or event on your race website or emails. Ever. No ads, no competing results, nothing. Just your brand and your brand alone on your event website.
So to learn more about RunSignup’s free custom websites and integrated email marketing, head over to runsignup.com. You can really achieve a great professional look for your brand in minutes.
Ok, now, let’s get back to the episode… I think there's just so much stuff in there - very, very useful stuff - that I think we want to sort of, like, do a couple of runs over because it's really important, and I want to stress the message because some of these things we're going to be discussing here. And I strongly advise people that they go check out the DC Half website so they also have like a visual understanding of what we're talking about here as they listen to this or after. But I think, pretty much, everything we want to touch on was just all in that one answer, but I want to go over that ground again and, sort of, like, highlight a few aspects of that because that's really, I think, the secret to some of these. So you were saying that choosing the date, the angle of the race, which is, we want this to be the race for the people of DC - really important. I don't know whether people fully appreciate the subtlety there of what you're trying to do in making the race about the people of DC - and there are aspects of the website that touch on that we'll get on. And then, so far, okay, you've decided on some aspects of the race. And now, I think, as you say, the look and feel and the communication is probably what cut through to that 18-to-30 audience and probably some of the marketing tactics that we're also going to get into. Like, the look and feel of that website is really, really important. And as most people these days discover a race and most of the information they have about a race through a website, I think it's really important to, sort of, dissect that a little bit. And one of the things that we didn't even mention - in a way, which in itself is quite meaningful, I guess - is the fact that even the name of the race is not the DC Half Marathon - it's simply the DC Half. It's sort of, like, the way one person would talk about the race to another person.
Yes. Those are kinds of the subtle types of decisions that we love making. Right? And look, does calling it the DC Half versus the DC Half Marathon-- does that explain how we went from 12.8% of under 30 runners to 41%? Probably not. But to your point, it's thinking about all of those little details stitched together, calling the race what people are going to naturally refer to it as. Maybe someone who hears the word "Half Marathon" feels that it's somewhat intimidating whereas just hearing "Half"-- if somebody says, "I'm racing a half marathon this weekend" or somebody says, "I'm racing a half this weekend," it sounds a little bit more casual, a little bit more informal, a little less threatening. Not to hang up on that specific piece there but your question is just kind of about the decisions that go into things like the logo and what we call it, the website, and the type of concise communications. Or I'll also say, "We're 10 months out to race day you go to the DC Half website, and eight months from now, you're probably gonna see a little bit more information than you see right now." Naturally, these things kind of fill out a little bit as you get close to race day. You pull things down right after the race is over. But back to that point about consolidating the information or making the information as to the point as possible, I really think you have to ask yourself, "Okay, if somebody is coming to my website, what is causing them to decide to sign up for my race or not?" Right? It's like window shopping. In marketing, we're always talking about the conversion rate. So when a person gets to my site, they look at how many of those people then decide to click, "Go to Cart", "Checkout", and "Purchase a race registration." You're always wanting to optimise for a higher conversion rate. I want as many people who see my race to then sign up for it. So this is this opportunity. Your website - the homepage of your website - is a marketing opportunity as much as it's an informational opportunity. This is tricky because your website has to serve two functions. Your website does need to be an informational hub. People are going to come to it and find out what is your bag check policy. People are going to come to it and find out what time is that race at. I'm one of those people who probably, like, in the morning of the race, I pull up my phone and go, "Geez, where's the start line of this thing? I'm not really sure. And if I can't find that, I'm going to be very frustrated." So you do have to kind of hit both. But think most people today, particularly, probably younger people make that decision pretty quickly and make that decision based on two to three factors. A) does this race look fun, exciting, different, or whatever - right? Do I vibe with what this race is communicating to me? Is it on a date that I can make it? Am I free on this date? And is it at a location that I'm either interested in running at or can go and run out? Look, I'm just making this up. That's probably 95% of people's decision-making in running a race, right? In addition to tangental things like, "Oh, my friend is running this and told me about it," or, "Oh, I'm trying to get a group together" and stuff like that, most people are not wondering what your bag check policy is even if that's a really important piece of information. Most people probably aren't wondering what's the elevation gain on this course. How many turns are there? Like, most people probably aren't thinking about that. There are some people who are thinking about that. There are people who want a flat course, who want to know what the historical weather data is to understand, "Do I have a good opportunity for a PR here? Is there gonna be a good opportunity for good weather and things like that?" But if you lead with any event information or if you pepper that information all over your site, and it clouds out the information that most of your audience wants to see, then you run the risk of just turning off a lot of people in favour of overinforming. And this is an approach any race I've ever been involved in. It's definitely an approach I push for, which is a very simple website that is very brand heavy, , gets the audience excited, and then also has critical information predominantly placed and then you talk the other information a little bit further back.
I would, again, advise people to go and check out the website as they're listening to this because, in some ways, that website-- there are a couple of other points I'm going to be mentioning now. You can see why it works when you're there and you start looking at things on the website from the point of view of having made conscious decisions about things. And I'm going to touch on two things there that are quite interesting to the younger audience that I really found impressive. So one was the course - right? Usually, you go on a website, most websites have a page about the course and it's your typical map. It switches between different layers, lots of details, or, like, on kilometre 10-- like, particularly on some kinds of races, it's almost, like, a corner-by-corner commentary on exactly how the course runs. And on your website, what I saw is, basically, there was a single thumbnail and it said, "We're excited to unveil one of the most scenic routes in the district. Now, when people listen to this podcast now and haven't gone to the website, when we're talking about the DC Half, the tagline under the course thumbnail reads, "We're excited to unveil one of the most scenic courses in DC. They're thinking obelisk, Lincoln, whatever - like, all of those kinds of like things that you associate with Washington. I hope my geography isn't failing in some of the stuff at least. At least, some of them are in Washington.
And the very exciting thing is that the thumbnail for the course - speaking of this very scenic course in the district - just shows some streets with graffiti on it, which I found fascinating because, in a way, it hits exactly to the point you were mentioning about building a race for the people of DC - the kinds of things that they see every day, that they associate with every day, and a race for the young people and the image they have of their city rather than a tourist having of their city. Right?
Yep, yeah. So I love this point. And I love that you're pointing this out. This is a very, very nuanced point too because our race, as with many races, has to follow certain rules in course building. Right? So I would want to run through the coolest hippest every single cool spot in DC shore but I can't necessarily do that and I can't necessarily promise my audience that that's what's going to be accomplished here. So I do think I want to caveat all of this by saying, if you're a race director or anything, don't over promise anything in terms of your course because our course, like others, is a scenic course. It does go through a lot of the kind of really big ticket items of what a typical person would think of in terms of Washington, DC. But yeah, that was a very strategic decision by us to show imagery that felt more like, you may be looking at the Washington Monument, but I see the little side shoot over here that I know there's a cool bar up it and I've been there several times before. Now, there's this mural over here that I know about because I'm a local and I understand this - maybe differently than somebody who's a tourist. The course does go by a lot of monuments. It does go by a lot of this, kind of, what you would think of as traditional DC type of landmarks. But yeah, I think, for us, it was very intentional to brand and show the underbelly - I don't mean that in a negative way, but to show the, kind of-- there's a lot of winking on our website, right. There's a lot of winking. And I think when you're a local or when you're somebody who-- a brand can be extremely effective when you wink and the person you're winking at knows what you're winking about. Right? If somebody winked at you and you don't know why they're winking at you, and you're kind of like, "That was very weird and a very unpleasant experience." You don't want to do that. Right? But when somebody winks at you and, kind of, winks, and it's a knowing moment, if your brand can wink at your audience and your audience go, "Oh, yeah, I know what they're saying." That's, again, another one of those very fun brand moments that you can kind of bring to life. Now, there was another point about this, I think, is interesting, which is, I actually believe that, for a lot of people out of town, they actually want that experience too. Right?
When you go to another city, this is the way I travel. It's maybe a little different now that I have kids and stuff. But when I was a little bit younger, when I would travel to a city, I didn't want to go to the tourist things, right? I wanted to find what are the places that a local really does here? And that's where I want to go. I don't want to go see the tourist things with the huge long lines. Maybe I need to check those off my list, of course, but I want to go and live like a local. So I actually think by being very authentic to that, I think you actually can speak to an audience of people who are like, "Oh, wow, this race seems really interesting and really authentic, and I want to go race in DC and I want to go race the race by people who are going to be tour guides and show me around versus the more, kind of, cliche kind of stuff. So that is what we're trying to communicate here, "Hey, we know this city. You know this city. This is the race for you." That said, we do run past monuments. We do have that flavour." And people in DC are proud of that too, right? Like, this isn't a knock-on on saying, like, "Hey, you shouldn't be proud of the landmarks in your town." And I want to be clear on this point, too. This advice is probably geared, I would say, to races that are either larger races or kind of, like, magnet types of races. I think if you're running a more niche type of race or if you're running a more smaller community-driven races, there's different ways of doing what I'm talking about. But this strategy of being, like, "Well, we're gonna be really ambiguous and cheeky with our website" may not be the right strategy for you. It is for us because we're kind of filling in the blank and assuming our audiences are filling in the blank because we've got the privilege and ability to start with DC Half Marathon, which automatically fills in 90% of the information you need to know before I've even told you anything about the event.
Yeah, that is a very good point. But it seems to me, like, through this discussion, we're trying to-- I think I'm sort of seeing a picture emerge - hopefully, for the audience as well - of the kinds of things that that younger audience resonates with. You mentioned authenticity before, like, particularly contrasting that with a kind of, like, souvenir shop mentality of a race of, like, the George Washington and red, blue, and white type thing, like putting a different spin on it. I guess, we all have 18-to-30 year olds in our lives. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I'm not part of that age group anymore, but we all have people in that age group and we know what kind of resonates with them when they speak about their town, about their city, and about what matters to them, and these are the kinds of things that you want to try and embed in the race. One other things, speaking of nuances, because again, there's very little on the site and I mean that in a good way - like, a couple of focal points there. The other one is about swag. Swag is another item, I think, where you can draw some distinctions between a more old-school approach to swag and the more kind of, like, young audience-friendly approach to swag, I guess, from your choice of swag, from how environmentally conscious you are with the kinds of swag you give out. And in your case - I took a note here - it said on the website, "What you get is a lifestyle, soft-hand tee perfect for Sunday brunch." Now if this is not for the 18-to-30 year olds, I don't know what is. Right? And I think, like, above that line, rather than having the T-shirt, there's just a picture of a coffee shop or something. Like, it's all about putting you in the shoes of how you'd be using that lifestyle, soft-hand tee.
It's very point-of-view based, right? It's very look-from-the-lens-of-your-audience versus being very literal and saying, "Look at this thing." Right? And again, that's another kind of intentional decision. Now, I'll say this, I want to I'm going to come back to the swag piece in a minute, but I want to point something out that we did here that I think is interesting, particularly for a first-year, second-year type of race. This is all done intentionally. But I'll also say some of this is done because it's a brand new race. When you're starting a race, one thing you don't have is runner photos. Right? Now, we're two years in, so it's not necessarily the case. But last year was a little bit weird because we, kind of, came right as that delta variant was hitting and the race went well, but we really had to scale it down, we had to be very tight about how we operated the race. I kind of see this 2022 race that we just had as really more embodying what we envisioned with the event. So one of the things is that we didn't have the photos. So this is just kind of a very, like, nuanced kind of thing for somebody who's maybe first starting a race. It's like, you could go and get stock imagery of runners running a race. I think that gets sniffed out very quickly when we talk about authenticity. I think, when somebody sees that, they go, "These are just stock images. These people aren't even running this race." So it's solving a problem but in a really intentional way, which is we don't have runner photography because we haven't really had a proper year of the race yet. So how do we show our audience what this race is about without being able to show them photos? That said, you will continue to see the DC Half website take this approach. We will probably start piping in more runner imagery. You will see more runner imagery come in because I do think that's important for your audience just to be able to see other runners. I don't want to get too cheeky with this but I just wanted to point out that some of this is solving a technical problem of not having runner imagery and avoiding the kind of lazy route of using stock imagery or not having imagery at all. We did hire a photographer, we went around town, and we shot a lot of imagery of what we felt was very classic DC in order to create that message. To your point about the runner swag, this is one of those places that to me is such an obvious place to spend a little bit of extra time that a lot of races for years and years just haven't. One, your focus needs to be your runner at all times. Right? And I think a lot of races are led by people who are race ops focused and they think in terms of logistics and operations, and they're not thinking in terms of customer experience and customer service. And that's not against or a knock on anyone. I'm more on the brand marketing side, I'm not as great on the operations side, and you really need both to be functioning well. But this is a great place where you go, "Wait a minute, why do we every single year just order the really scratchy tech shirt for $2?" So we're going to order this really scratchy tech shirt that doesn't fit very well. We're going to slap a bunch of logos on it. And why are we doing this? Okay, there's three things we could serve here. We could serve our bottom line. So let's get the cheapest shirt possible. We could serve our sponsors. Let's put all their logos on there. We could serve our runners. For whatever reason, we choose to serve the bottom line and the sponsors, and we sacrifice our runners. I've never met a runner who goes, "Please give me more $3 or $2 scratchy boxy tech shirts to run around town in." I've never met a runner who wants that.
You're not even serving the sponsors. to be perfectly honest. Slapping a logo on a $2 shirt is not even serving the sponsors.
So it's a great point and that is another thing that we say with our sponsors, "Hey, yes, if you are the top, top, top sponsor of the race, we'll hold some real estate for you, but let's do it in a thoughtful way" because our sponsors-- ultimately, they're sponsoring the event and, by sponsoring the event, they are implicitly endorsing the experience that the runner is having, if the experience is crummy, if you give them a crummy event, if you give them a crummy shirt or whatever, that does the sponsor no good. So what we say to our sponsors is, "Hey, here's our approach we're going to take, but the runner is gonna have such a better experience and we're going to find really good ways to make sure your brand gets in front of them. So you're still going to get the brand exposure that you need, but we're not going to give them a crummy shirt and billboard it." Because, Panos, to your point, it does not serve the sponsors at all. So I think that's a great point, which is checking boxes versus being thoughtful about what actual outcomes you want to be achieving here. So with our swag, that's what we go for us. We say, "Let's do more of, like, a lifestyle shirt. Let's do a little bit more of, like, a poly blend shirt that, maybe, somebody isn't going to wear on a hot summer's day on their run." But they're runners. They presumably already have that shirt. Instead, they want to represent the accomplishment. They want to rep the accomplishment. Your runner doesn't need another running shirt from you. They need something that they can be proud of. They need something that can reflect "I did this thing. It was cool. I felt part of it. Now I'm wearing this shirt because I feel that connection to it and nothing brings me more joy than when I'm at the grocery store, or when I'm walking down the street, or when I'm visiting one of the stores," and you see somebody walked by wearing one of our shirts in the way that we kind of intended right throughout just running errands. They're at the beer garden on a Thursday afternoon after work having a beer with friends, and they've got a DC Half T-Shirt on. I mean, to me, they made a very intentional choice to wear that shirt. When we go out on a run, we'd largely just put on whatever shirt is at the top of the drawer. When we go out and hang out, we make an intentional choice. And if people are making that choice to put on our shirt, awesome. They feel like we gave them something of value. Right? I got a very cool shirt. For a lot of people, a nice lifestyle shirt is worth $25 - $30 in terms of value in their heads. I gave them a cool shirt and, by the way, more people are wearing it. So more people are seeing my brand and more people are saying, "That's cool. What is that? What's the DC Half? It's this great race." It's a marketing thing that ripples outward. So yeah, I think, our approach on the swag side is that and we're planning some interesting things for 2023. We haven't confirmed them yet, but we're going to be bringing in some elements of the runner premium that continue with this idea of really trying to give our runners things that they're interested in versus what I'm interested in.
Yeah, that's super interesting - everything around that and the fact that you said that about people making a conscious decision and it's really a great endorsement of the swag if people decide to still wear it in their own time. God knows I have, like, tonnes of shirts - what you'd call the $2 shirt - that I have at the bottom of the drawer and never wear. Let's take a quick look at some of the things you guys did around marketing. When we were chatting about this - I think I mentioned it at the time - you said something to me that's just immediately, sort of, like, an immediate lightbulb moment, which is-- again, going back to that 18-to-30 audience, when you say 18-to-30, you're thinking of marketing to 18-to-30, most people's minds would immediately turn towards online marketing because it's online. It's young people. That's where they go - TikTok, blah, blah, blah. And I'm sure you'll tell me there are parts of that, but you actually said to me that quite a lot of what you did was actually offline marketing, which is something that - with all the attention on online marketing - people are almost neglecting nowadays - doing offline marketing and doing it well. So what did you guys do on that?
Yeah, so, I'll first kind of start with the theory, the thesis, and kind of what our philosophy was in this-- to begin we always believe in a multifaceted marketing approach. Yeah, we did digital. We absolutely did digital and we'll talk about that, but we didn't exclusively do digital. I generally believe that a race audience, in terms of, like, products, is a fairly diverse audience of people. Yeah, you could target based on running, of course, but if you try to figure, "Where do they all live? What do they all do when they're not running? What are they interested in?" That's a huge spectrum. Right? So finding these people-- they're everywhere, right? I've talked to thousands of thousands of people at the finish lines in my life, and they represent a massive cross-section of experiences and journeys that got them there to race day. So that can be a bit overwhelming. Where do we find our audience when they're theoretically potentially everywhere? How do you have a focused approach? But one thing that is just true is acquisition cost is getting very expensive. I'm not certain that people are as aware of this, especially, if you don't live inside of Facebook ads day in and day out, which I don't personally but we do work with an agency. We do have a fairly large investment on the digital side and we have seen, year over year, that ads are getting more expensive because it's a marketplace. It's not infinite. There are only so many people in the world. Facebook's not creating more people. Instagram's not creating more people. They're maybe trying to create more users, but even that's kind of plateauing out. Most people are either on or not on at this point. So if five years ago or some may say 10 years ago, 20% of races were marketing on Instagram and, now, today, 90% are, but the user base hasn't gone up. Then, you are all paying more money to outbid each other to talk to that audience. So there are just some technical components going on with digital marketing. It's not this infinite thing. And so, when you're coming up with a marketing strategy to just say, "We're gonna throw money in the Facebook Instagram bucket and call it a day," You're going to spend more and more on marketing doing that. And then, also, the other half of that is, thanks to the iOS 14 updates - which anybody in the marketing world is pretty familiar with and for anybody who has an iPhone is probably familiar with, it's when they updated your phone - and you could say, "Please don't track me," immediately, overnight, a lot of data links to the audience were broken. So when we look at this, we say, "Okay, we're spending more on digital and we're getting less relevant audiences on digital because of this more people bidding and less effective audiences due to these iOS changes. What else do we do?" Well, interestingly enough, if you go and call a bus ad company, a billboard company, or some kind of out-of-home company, you might find that their rates are actually not as expensive as you would picture. I think all of us see billboards and bus ads and think that must be the most expensive way to market to people. Well, what's happening when everybody's running all their dollars in the digital? They're running all of their dollars out-of-home. So we said, "Let's give it a try. Let's do bus ads." So we had ads on actual buses and bus shelters. I do think this is a strategy, again, for a slightly larger race, or maybe not if you're a smaller race in a smaller town, so maybe you've got cheaper rates for outdoor advertising then, actually, that could be a particularly effective way of doing it. But if you're a smaller niche race in a big city, then this may not be an effective strategy. But yeah, we said, like, "Look, let's get our brand out there in as many places as we can." At one point, we're talking about doing mailers. I don't believe we did mailers but we were talking about just doing physical mailers out to people, and the idea was essentially, one, "Let's give it a try. Let's not presume anything. Everybody now just says put your dollars into Facebook, Instagram, and then also Google." We said, "Let's not presume anything. We haven't tested out our advertising in years or potentially ever. Let's see how it works." And second, I think what was interesting about the out-of-home advertising for us is if we were trying to create this sense of, "This is the race to be at. This is the place to be", outdoor advertising can elevate that in the runners' minds. So even among your runner who's already signed up, they see that bus roll by and they go, "Oh, wow." Like, they get excited. Right? Oh, that's the race I'm doing. It's three weeks away. Holy cow. You've probably seen, like, in town, when there's a really big thing going on downtown and maybe they changed the flag poles out. Right? Like in Philadelphia or in DC, they maybe do like the baseball team. It's opening week, they put all the flags up, you're walking around town, and you go, like, "Wow baseball's back. It's opening week." They're also advertising to you. They're creating a feeling but they're also advertising to you. So one of the feedback-- I talked to some people because I'll be honest with you. We were surprised by this under-30 damper. Like, we didn't set out and say we're gonna hit 40% and then we did it. We were surprised but it was as high as it was. So we talked to some people and one of the things that I kept hearing was they were like, "It was everywhere. We just felt like it was the race to be at because we saw it everywhere." Now, of course, you hear that and you go, "Geez. That sounds very expensive to be everywhere." Part of what I'm saying is, that's somewhat true and that strategy probably works based on what type of event you have. But then the other part is you may be surprised at how far your dollars can go if you look at other channels outside of just the typical Facebook, Instagram, and Google digital channels. So yeah, we took a "there's no bad answer here" kind of approach, and I think it was part of-- also, like, who's outside more right now - like, the younger generation. It's interesting because, in one sense, they are more digital than anybody. In another sense though, they are being inundated more than anybody and they're savvier than anybody. Right? So they flick through ads. They're flicking on TikTok. Flick, flick, flick, flick, and an ad pops up. They know, in a fraction of a second, that it's an ad and they might just flick right past it because everybody's trying to market to them. So there's just a delusion of all of these ads being thrown at them. So, one, that can be super effective. And if so, you got to really think about your creative, you got to really think about your message, you got to really think about how am I going to cut through them. But, two, they're also the ones who are out and about the most. They're the ones who are jumping in an Uber and going downtown to grab drinks. They're the ones who are maybe hopping on the subway. They're the ones who are walking around. People like me in their mid-30s are working from home, jumping on our peloton, and working out from home. We're not interacting with people as much. In a sense, my life is potentially more digital than a younger person's life is, maybe not in terms of sheer numbers spent online, but in terms of how I'm experiencing the outside world. There are a lot of young people out there walking around right now and some out-of-home marketing might catch their attention.
Yeah, I think there are also some great points. And also, what you said earlier about this feedback you've been getting from people on, like, "We've been seeing the race everywhere." They obviously don't mean Facebook. I mean, you can be bombarding people on Facebook and Instagram with ads. You don't get the sense that this is, sort of, as you were saying, the event to do. It's like, when you step outside and you see it on the billboards, the bus ads, and the posters in the coffee shop, you go into that kind of thing everywhere around the community, that's when you feel like, "Okay, this must be a big thing because, like, yeah, on Facebook, you turn off your feed or you close your laptop, your phone, or whatever and then, sort of, everything disappears a little bit. And as you say, it's so crowded online that it's becoming more expensive and more difficult to get through to people, particularly the younger generation, which is so savvy.
Hey! Let me interrupt myself there for a quick sec to tell you a little bit about our Race Directors HQ membership program.
So this is currently available to US race directors, and should also be available to UK race directors in early 2023, and the idea of our membership program is giving you a bundle of services and benefits that can save you money and help you more easily promote your race.
As a member, you’ll be getting access to our member-only offers, including awesome insurance rates from our partners, Nicholas Hill Group, with rates starting at just 15c per participant and a minimum policy premium of only $75. You’ll also be getting a free subscription to Webscorer PRO, the world’s most popular race timing app to use either as your race’s primary timing system or a backup, and a bunch of other member-only offers on Constant Contact email plans, RFID timing hardware and software deals, as well as an exclusive 20% off USA Triathlon’s race director certification program.
Besides these, as a Race Directors HQ member you can use our exclusive online tools, which you can only find at RaceDirectorsHQ.com, to instantly promote your race on race calendars, and find sponsorship programs you can apply to directly online. Two great tools that are going to give you an instant boost on registrations, as well as a straightforward way to reach out to sponsors through the comfort of your laptop or desktop.
So, to find out more about our members program head over to racedirectorshq.com/join, and you’ll be able to see there all the benefits you’ll be getting when you join.
Cool - that’s it from me. Now, back to the episode… I noticed, speaking of online here for a moment on social media, that I think the only social account that you have on your website is on Instagram. Is that the case?
That is correct. Pacers Running, Pacers Events-- we've got exposure across all the main platforms, so we do some cross promo on there. But DC Half specifically is on Instagram and that was pretty deliberate.
Can you talk us through that decision a little bit? Like, why not more? Why Instagram specifically? Because I guess there's also this whole, like, TikTok thing, I guess, like, floating around as a potential contender. What was the thinking there?
So first thing I'll say is we should be on TikTok. Right? Like, I appreciate you bringing me on. We're having this conversation. You're making me feel good about this success that we have, but there are a lot of things that we could do better than this. This should be the takeaway, I think, for any race director. It's like, "We're not all striving for perfection here. Like, there are a million things to do and we're not going to get all of them right, but what I hope that some of you take away from this conversation is, like, there are things to try, there are things to experiment with, whether they are strategies, whether it's just adding something to your arsenal, whatever it may be. We, by no means, are perfect in all of this. We probably are under index on organic social media. We probably should be doing a little bit more on organic social media. I will say it was intentional to probably not be on Twitter. Facebook is maybe a place we could be. I just see less and less returns on there and being there in an organic sense because, on Facebook, you can run ads. Like, we show up on Facebook through ads. So, as much as ads are getting more expensive, I'd rather just-- Facebook has made acquisition so difficult in an organic sense. I'm sure a lot of people have seen this. Six years ago, if you put up a post and it would get 150 likes organically. Today, if you put a post, it gets two likes. Facebook's very, very consciously trying to squeeze people in that case and trying to make sure that you're buying your audience. Instagram does that as well, but not quite as much. And I think Instagram to me has always been - and this may be an outdated opinion in the age of TikTok-- but Instagram has always been-- if you want to build a brand, Instagram is the place you do it. It's imagery-focused more than copy-focused. It doesn't get quite the trolling and bad conversations that you might get on Facebook. Facebook's a little bit more built for conversation and people comment, and somebody else says something bad, and all this trolling and negativity that happens on Facebook. Instagram tends to have less of that. So for me, it's a great place to build a brand. There's a lot of control. It's very image-focused in a way that Facebook isn't quite as image-focused. So for us, we love photography, we love design - Instagram is a great place to showcase that. And Instagram is doing a lot of interesting things - stories, reels. They're ripping a lot of those things off from other platforms, but they have a massive user base and they work those things off pretty effectively. So strategic to be on Instagram? Yes. Strategic probably to not be on Twitter just because it's probably just too much of our time for not much in the way of results. I don't think you're acquiring many customers on Twitter. For some events, Twitter is actually a really helpful tool for information, especially race week. If the train is delayed getting to the start line, I might pull up Twitter, look up the race's Twitter account, and see, "Hey, are they saying anything about this?" So Twitter, to me, sits in a bit more of an informational strategic bucket. Facebook, I think, we're accomplishing with our ads. If we had more capacity and bandwidth, we would probably do something on Facebook. We probably should be on TikTok. But to me, Instagram wasn't random. It was the first place we went on. It's a great place to build your brand.
And in terms of other things like more grassroots type stuff influencers people out in the community running clubs, did you get any of that involved in your marketing mix?
Yes, we did. We did in terms of grassroots and community. Influencer? Not quite as much. We did a little bit of influencer stuff. I've asked influencers when I just don't have a great grasp on to just be completely candid. I think it's an interesting space. I think, to me, why I've always been a little late to get into influencer is authenticity is so important and I think your influencer strategy - if you're gonna have one - needs to be very sharp. You need to work with people who already have an affinity towards your brand. If you see somebody in your community and they've got a tonne of followers but they've shown no natural affinity to what you're doing, is the message going to resonate when they go, "Hey, guys! Run the DC Half! Here's $5 off." I do think that if you do work with influencers or ambassadors, you want to be working with people who are going to be really honestly and authentically going to be able to connect to your brand, and that takes time - right? I could, tomorrow, just go onto one of these online platforms, find a bucket of influencers, and throw some money at them. I'm nervous that that wouldn't be very effective. So influencers marketing - we need to be doing but I think I'd be really careful and you want to make sure you're cultivating the right people - ideally, maybe even working with people who are already posting about you and just saying, "Hey, can I amplify your efforts? Hey, can I reward what you're doing here? Hey, thank you so much for running with us. Here's a free bid for next year." I think you can start in, kind of, a smaller grassroots way. Community, for us, is always big and this is where that strength of having a running store business and also a race business in the same city is important. Pacers does an incredible job at community. Our community team, really, really, really cultivates community effectively and, in DC, that's important because we have a big transplant where our population is very transient. I would imagine we've got the most transient population in the country. Every two years, there's a major election that brings in new people into the town, old people leave, people move in and out, there's a lot of turnovers, and people are looking for community. Look, if we talk about young people, again, kind of, for a moment, and community, young people are more digitally savvy than anybody else. They are on digital more than anybody else. They also have some of the highest rates of depression related to being online than anybody else. They have some of the highest rates of feeling disconnected than anybody else - lowest rates of relationships, right? In person, that community building is hard work. And in a world where people are addicted to being candid to technology, it can be a little bit difficult to cultivate community. But when you do, it's very, very powerful because that community, in person, to me that is one of the antidotes to a lot of modern life stresses. And if you can cultivate a good community 365, you've got a great runway into your event because you can then say, "Hey, guys, we're having a great time here. Let's all go have a great time over at this race." So, for us, communities cultivated because of pacers-- if you're only a race and only event, it's a little bit trickier to cultivate that community. If you're a big race, you can probably do it but you got to be pretty hands-on. It's a lot of showing up in person. It's a lot of just being there for your audience in person, which is a lot of work, but it definitely produces results having community. Those people become natural ambassadors. They want to defend your race if something goes wrong. If somebody has a bad negative comment, they're gonna defend it. They're also the ones who are, through word of mouth, going to get other people to come race. I can bank on our pacers community anytime we open a race - it's going to account for a big bulk of some of our early numbers because they're our most passionate advocates for the race. So cultivate community. It's worth the time and effort. If you got to do it through partnerships, I think that's fine. If you're a running store and you have an events business, and you're not bridging the two, definitely start. Make sure you're bridging your community more into the events you're doing. Ambassador programmes, in my mind, are very interesting. Ambassador and influencer programmes are very interesting. My advice is to make sure it's authentic and make sure you're working with people who are very naturally connected to your brand. I think there's something there for sure. I think it's one of the tools that somebody should look at.
I want to, sort of, like, wrap up by taking a look at race day itself at the DC Half and how that transpired, also, with such a large percentage of younger people in the race. Was it any different actually, like, having 40% of your runners being under the age of 30? Was the atmosphere any different having such a large percentage of young people there?
Yeah, this is what's interesting because it is-- I'll say this, our race itself is a phenomenal race. We're not doing anything too crazy and the box in terms of post-race and things like that. Being where we're at in DC, we've got a lot of restrictions at times. Closing roads is very difficult. Congregating for long periods of time post-race is very difficult. So we try to solve that through other ways - that's maybe a conversation for another podcast - like, how do you create a post-race experience if you can't actually have a post-race? So we potentially run the risk of, "God, are we going to be able to deliver on the type of energy we want to produce here?" But to your point, because you bring in such a youthful crowd, give them good music and give them some backdrops to take their photos in front of, and then have a great race, which is always the most important thing. And yeah, the energy was elevated. Like, people were excited to be there. Like, that audience enhances the experiences. Right? That audience made the experience better because it was an audience that really wanted to be there. It was a little bit more of a youthful audience. So, get a good announcer who can keep a crowd. Play some good music. For us, I always like to try to, like, avoid-- if somebody gives me the control over the playlist - which they don't always - I like to kind of have music that's fun, but not, like, again, the cliche songs - the songs you're gonna hear it every single startline. I'm not going to play "Born to Run" every five minutes or whatever. Have some fun with your music and make sure that you've got some good branding out there because people do want to share their experience. People do want to say, "Look at where I'm at. Here I am." They're going to do that whether you've got it or not. So, one, put it out there because it's going to create more people to take photos. And, two, when they do reshare, it's going to amplify that and now you're pulling people in who aren't there. "Oh, wow, that seems fun. Oh, that seems exciting." So yeah, I don't think anybody thinks having more young people at your event is anything but upside, both in terms of just sustainability of your event long term and then also just in bringing some of that extra energy and fun to the event.
So you also ticked those boxes with the photo opportunities, as you were saying. Like, you actually had deliberate triggers around the event or deliberate spots for people to be taking pictures and stuff.
Yeah, we will call them, like, photo backdrops. If in your brain, it's easy or smarter call it a selfie station. You don't even necessarily say that out loud but when you're the ops team and you're planning, like, here's a great takeaway, easy takeaway, that every single person, whether you have a 300-person race or a 30,000, I want you to put into your ops manual tomorrow "Two selfie stations." Okay. What is that? It can just be a 10 by 10. For us, it depends. Sometimes, it's just 10 by 10, step and repeat. It's our logo. Right? That's the easiest way to do it. If you want to get punchy and do a tagline-- "Race the District," which is our tagline - if you wanna do something kind of fun, whatever. But hey, a logo step and repeat where they just can get their photo taken in front of it, and they can hold their medal up and have a big smile-- if you're not doing that, do it tomorrow. It's such an easy way to just create some engagement and to get a lot more photos on social media.
And the race announcer-- I'm glad you mentioned that. I'm convinced more and more that every race should have one or should aspire to have one within budget, if possible. They do add quite a lot to the experience, don't they? Particularly, like, an experienced race announcer bring everything together.
Absolutely, absolutely. Again, there's another one of those ones where smaller race-- maybe you do just need to have somebody from the nonprofit who's doing it or whatever. If you're over 800 people or whatever it is where your budget allows and you can spend $1000 to $2,000 for a really high-quality announcer and somebody's gonna bring a lot of energy, it's huge. Again, the experience is not the asphalt and the distance. Right? That's the arena. The experiences are the performances - the feeling that you get, the performance of the camaraderie, the performances of the community, the performances of crossing the finish line, the performances of the person on the microphone. Those are all the elements that create that experiential feeling in your head. 13.1 miles and asphalt is basically the same anywhere in the world - maybe some hills or no hills. It's everything you wrap around that's going to cause you to set yourself apart.
Yeah, absolutely. I think this has been one of those episodes that people would want to listen to more than once because I think there are lots of very powerful concepts here. Obviously, making headways with this issue of the 18-to-30 and stuff, as you say, it's not something that, for some people, is going to change overnight, particularly if you've got an established race. But there are so many little gems, I felt, in this episode - conscious decisions you have to make, questions you want to ask yourself, things you want to rethink that would really pay, I think, to listen to this episode every once in a while and just take a pause and rethink some of these things. If people happen to want to maybe reach out with thoughts or comments or questions about any of this or any of the stuff that may have piqued their interest, is there any way to reach you?
Yeah, absolutely. So I know this is ironic to the digital part of our conversation or makes sense to the more analogue part of our conversation, but I'm not super online. I don't have an Instagram account or a Twitter account or anything. The best way to get ahold of me is to just email me. My email is email@example.com. I'm always happy to take emails and I can at least point people in the right direction. I've worked with a lot of great people in the industry over the years, like I talked about earlier, like Rita Carroll who did all of our brand work and stuff. So I'm always happy to connect with people or put people in touch. But yeah. Just email me at Ryan@runpacers.com and I'm always happy to respond. And I think this is one of the best parts about being in running, Panos - and you probably feel this - which is just like, there's some competitive nature to what we do, right? We're trying to grow our races and stuff. But at the end of the day, running just brings together people around this common thing that does so much good for people's lives and, by and large, everybody I've ever met in this industry wants to help each other out and I feel the same exact way. So if anybody ever has any questions or wants to talk further, they can email me. My little piece of advice would be, in listening to this episode, start small. We just talked about a lot of things. We don't do everything perfectly. We do a lot of things wrong, even some of these things I say that we're doing. Like, we do them but, sometimes, it's luck. Sometimes, we're not doing as well as we could be doing. Start small and be authentic, right? That's really, really important. Just be true to yourself, be true to what your event is, and then start with a couple of tactics. See what works and then go to the next thing. Don't, tomorrow, run out and rewrite your entire plan and try to do it all at once. Just start small and start to see where the results come in.
Yeah, absolutely. And one thing I will say, again, is do take a minute to visit the DC Half website. Lots of the stuff we talked about - the branding and some of those choices-- it's great to hear about them here, but it's even better to actually see how they all come together on that website. So, Ryan, I want to thank you very, very much for your time. I really appreciate it. I think we've covered some very interesting ground here.
Thank you so much, Panos. This conversation was great. I really appreciate you having me on.
Thanks to everyone listening in and we'll see you all on our next podcast.
I hope you enjoyed today’s episode on cracking Gen Z runners with Pacers Running Marketing Director, Ryan Callahan.
You can find more resources on anything and everything related to race directing on our website RaceDirectorsHQ.com. You can also share your thoughts about branding, marketing or anything else in our Facebook group, Race Directors Hub.
Many thanks again to our awesome podcast sponsor RunSignup for sponsoring today’s episode. And if you enjoyed this episode, please don’t forget to subscribe on your favorite player, and check out our podcast back-catalog for more great content like this.
Until our next episode, take care and keep putting on amazing races.