LAST UPDATED: 4 December 2023
How to Organize a Virtual Race
Looking to increase your revenue by launching a virtual race? We look at what it takes to organize a successful and profitable virtual run.
Of the many questions that come up again and again in our race directors group none is as popular as this: How can I start a virtual race or add a virtual race to my in-person event?
There's good reasons to be looking at virtual races. The economics are attractive, the logistics are straightforward (if you know what to look out for - see below) and, as for the audience, there's a whole new universe of potential participants to turn to beyond your usual racer crowd.
So, is this the year you "go virtual"? Here's everything you need to know before you do.
What is a virtual race?
A virtual race is a challenge you pay to enter where you are expected to meet a target (e.g. run 13.1 miles, run for 6 hours straight or 100 miles total over a month) to win a medal or prize.
Virtual races are very similar to in-person races - you enter a race and when you finish you get a medal etc - but differ from in-person events in two key ways:
- You can (usually) choose to complete the virtual race whenever you like. Some virtual races are scheduled to start at specific times (see the section on real-time virtual races), but most can be run at the participant's convenience.
- You can complete the race wherever you like. You can even do the whole thing indoors on a treadmill!
Essentially, participants run the race, well, virtually!...So, under these circumstances, what is the role of the race director, you ask?
By their very nature, virtual races are much easier to plan and deliver than live events. There's no volunteers to recruit or road barriers to order and put up.
In fact, most of the tasks you would be used to from an in-person event are not really relevant for a virtual race. Instead, the focus in virtual races is on branding, marketing and customer fulfillment.
So why do people enter virtual races?
If you come from an in-person race background, you may struggle to understand why anyone would enter a virtual race.
Even if you would never do a virtual race yourself, however, it is essential that you understand the reasons why people do to be able to market your virtual race effectively to others.
There are four main groups of people taking part in virtual races:
- First-timers: For them virtual races can provide the perfect stepping stone to an in-person event and help them build the confidence they need to enter a race in the real world.
- Veteran racers: On the other end of the spectrum, virtual races can provide seasoned racers with a flexible alternative to traditional races at a lower cost without the constraints of having to train and race at specific dates.
- Fundraisers: People may enter a virtual race or challenge to support and fundraise for a cause without ever entering an in-person race. That's why virtual races are often popular with nonprofits looking for new fundraising initiatives.
- Fans: Lots of virtual races run on a theme, e.g. a Harry Potter 5K or Great Escape 10K. Themed virtual races provide a fun new way for fans to engage with their favorite franchise, collect theme merchandise etc.
So, virtual races do make sense to a lot of people for a number of different reasons.
Question is, are they a good fit for you, the professional or nonprofit event organizer?
Why add a virtual race to your event?
There are many reasons why you might decide to try your hands on a virtual race. Here are the most common:
Boost your income
Let's face it: the main reason you're considering a virtual race is because of the additional income it could provide for your business or charity.
Virtual races are excellent income earners and fundraisers. There's two reasons for this:
- They are easy to scale up. That means you can increase capacity for your virtual event almost without limit, providing you can get the people to sign up.
- They help better monetize in-person events. That's just a fancy way of saying that with a virtual race you can leverage all the assets you already have from your in-person race (the branding, the swag, the social media audience, the mailing lists etc) to get even more participants through the door.
What's more, virtual races are not constrained by the fixed timetables of live events. This means they can generate funds all year round and keep you busy outside your regular race season. So you could be making money from your virtual races during the "quiet" months, as you work to ramp up your next season's in-person races.
Reuse leftover swag
One other great benefit of virtual races is in clearing medal and shirt inventories left over from previous races. Although this probably won't make you millions, it is still a nice cherry on the income cake and a good alternative to throwing away leftover swag.
Getting rid of medal and shirt stock can be as easy as running a pot-luck virtual race. It will not always be as appealing as a purpose-planned virtual race with its own flash swag, but it often works well enough to help shift leftover supplies in a fun (and profitable) way.
Encourage remote participation
Some participants will get injured in training. Others will have friends or family they'd like to join them in the race, even if not physically there.
For all those people, there's your virtual race. If you organize an in-person 10K, add a virtual 10K alongside it, so people who want to do the distance and can't physically attend still get to do the race. Treat both groups the same - and consider charging them the same too, if your entry fee offers good value.
Expand your reach
Want to expand beyond your country or state? Reach a completely different audience or demographic than your live events?
Virtual races are ideal for expanding your reach to new audiences and territories. This can be great in and of itself for scaling your virtual race, but can also open up a whole new audience you could monetize through sponsorships, brand partnerships and other initiatives.
Keep the tradition alive
Forget about participants not being to do the in-person race: there may be years - knock on wood - you may be unable to deliver your in-person race ("COVID" ring any bells?)
For those highly improbable, but nevertheless possible, eventualities when you have to cancel your in-person race, a virtual race can be a godsend. Not only will you salvage the annual tradition of your race, you'll also probably be able to switch a good portion of your in-person entries to physical, thus avoiding a refund or deferral to another race.
Virtual race logistics
You may think putting on a virtual race would pose very few logistical challenges - and for the most part you'd be right. But there are some things to think about before committing to a virtual race.
Not everyone finishes a virtual race on the same day. So mailing out medals and other swag to participants efficiently is always a bit of a balancing act. On the one hand, you don't want runners waiting too long to receive their medals; on the other, you need to bundle up shipments to optimize your workflow and economics.
Ordering medals is particularly important if you’re planning to run an ongoing virtual race, i.e. an open-ended event that participants can enter at any time.
Since medal orders can take several weeks to a few months to arrive, you’ll want to make sure you put your orders in sufficiently early to be able to receive shipments in time to cover your commitments. Same goes with ordering T-shirts and other swag.
You may choose, as part of your virtual race, to provide entrants with a custom bib with the race name and logo on it. It's not something you must do, but it adds a nice touch.
If you do believe a custom bib will add value to your participants' experience or help your race stand out from the crowd, make sure you put some thought into the design and - again - try to get your orders in early.
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Tracking finish times
We’ll go into more detail on this in the next section, but be prepared to make a decision on whether or not you’ll track finish times before advertising your race. Some virtual races provide finisher rankings and this matters to some participants. Others skip this entirely and focus instead on the experience and swag.
As soon as you know what swag you'll be mailing out, it's important to get an estimate of shipping costs to use in your virtual race budget. You can do this on the back of weights and dimensions you get from the suppliers for each item or - even better - you can visit your local post office with samples of your items and confirm how much they would cost to ship.
What about insurance? You may be surprised to hear that even for a virtual race, as the race organizer you will be running some basic legal liability risks. For an idea of what it will cost to insure your virtual race, check out virtual race cover by Nicholas Hill - starting at just $125 per event.
Should you track and rank finish times?
Early on in planning your virtual race, you'll have to decide whether you are going to track and rank participant finish times. You don't have to. But whatever you decide to do, it helps to let people know before they sign up for the race.
Generally speaking, tracking and verifying finish times for a virtual race will not be as simple as for an in-person event, where chip timing takes care of all that. People will complete your virtual race at different times and under different conditions. So tracking times and maintaining a leaderboard can be a hassle.
Fortunately, competition is not a deciding factor for most people entering a virtual race. So you can choose to forget about finish times altogether.
If you do decide to track finish times and rank finishers, there's a couple of options available. You can ask participants to share finish times via email or online forms, or use specific tracking apps to complete their race.
Either way, there's only so much you can do to verify the accuracy of finish times and shouldn't go overboard with this aspect of the race. In the end, for most, it will be more about the swag and experience and less about the finish time.
Managing everything under one roof
Before we round up the discussion on virtual race logistics - and you get totally overwhelmed! - it's worth pointing out that a lot of the things you'll need to plan and deliver your virtual race you can get from your online registration provider.
Some of the largest and best technology companies in the industry have been working hard during the COVID pandemic to deliver all the virtual tools race directors need for virtual races, from online registration to result posting and verification.
One of our favorite, RunSignup, have taken the challenge of building a full-feature virtual race platform head on.
Their solution offers a reliable online registration solution with a dedicated website for your race, alongside fundraising, email marketing and other native marketing tools to help you grow your race fast.
How to market your virtual race
Ok, on to marketing! :)
Marketing a virtual race effectively is absolutely crucial for its success.
Fortunately, there are two key aspect of virtual race marketing that are on your side:
- You can spend more. Because your profit margins are higher with a virtual race and you don't have many of the other expenses associated with putting on an in-person event, you can stretch your marketing budget a bit further.
- You can track results better. As we'll discuss in a moment, you'll want to put most of your effort in marketing your race online. This can help you better track your cost of participant acquisition.
So, in many ways, marketing your virtual race is a lot like old-school direct marketing: you keep track of the money you put into it and the registrations you generate. If the latter is higher than the former, you keep pumping money into it until you get to sell out your race.
Create a compelling brand
When it comes to virtual race marketing you live and die by your brand. So if you feel yours isn't as strong as it can be or hasn't had a revamp in some time, this is the time to think about a brand makeover.
Before even starting to market your virtual race, make sure you create a strong brand identity behind it (logo, tagline, swag etc). Think of designing a stunning race logo and carry that branding through to all your swag (from shirt to medal and even your medal ribbon!)
If need be, spend some money on graphic design. It will be money well spent that will pay for itself in lower participant acquisition costs over the life of your advertising campaign.
Go digital - and be BOLD about it!
With a virtual race, marketing online should be your key focus. The whole point is to reach as many likely participants as possible at the lowest cost. So don't waste your time going door to door, and think bigger than local.
Start with Facebook, which lends itself best to the marketing requirements of a virtual event. Use your super-awesome visual swag as the spearhead of your ad campaigns. Split-test several variations or, if you can't be bothered creating multiple variations manually, use Facebook's dynamic creative ads that figures out the best ad copy/image combo for you.
Once your campaigns have been running for a while and you've got a decent amount of hits to your virtual race landing page, start retargeting visitors with creative variations of your campaign, switching your message and going for the kill! Experiment with small offers to get people over the line, if the numbers still work.
Always keep a close eye on your cost of acquisition. If the margins make sense and you can handle the logistics, go BIG and spend more money to pull in more participants.
Market all year round
If your virtual race runs all year round, market it all year round.
Working within the rigid timeframes of annual live events often forces your thinking around your marketing strategy into a box. Break out!
Think of clever ways you could be marketing your event around seasonal events such as sales windows, special occasions and the holiday season. This is when people are looking for fun things to buy and gift, so be there with your product when they do.
Make sure your message and image adapts to the occasion. Are you thinking running Santa? Good - you're on the right track. :)
Promote in virtual racing groups
Yes, groups dedicated to virtual races exist, although most of the times they are linked to virtual event organizers, which can be a problem when you try to promote your event in them.
For some of the larger groups - and if you're only putting on the odd virtual race - it's worth having a chat with the admins to see if they would let you promote your race or work with them on some basis to help market it to their audience. Admin or no-admin, always make sure you abide by group rules and don't go overboard with your posts.
Do everything else you would do for a live race
You should still market your virtual races using all the channels you would use to market your in-person events: email, social media, posts in regular running groups etc. If your virtual race is scheduled for a fixed time, try listing it on race calendars as well.
And there you have it...
Some key tips to get you started planning and promoting your virtual race.
It's all the best from us in making a success of your virtual race and, if you're on Facebook, come join our race directors group and let us know how your efforts are coming along and what tips or suggestions you'd want to add to this post from based on your experience.