How to Market Your Race in 2021

2021 is shaping up to be a year of two halves for the endurance events industry. The first half, like most of 2020, has been an almost total write-off. The second? That is shaping up to be one of the busiest race seasons ever, with oversaturated race calendars and intense competition among events for participants making their return to racing.

So, what should you be doing to promote your race in this market?  And what channels and strategies should you focus on to stand out from the competition? We'll be getting into all that and more in today’s episode with the help of Big Run Media Managing Partner, Thomas Neuberger

In this episode:

  • Lessons learned from marketing The Woodlands Marathon (sell-out event in Texas that took place in early March 2021)
  • How participant signup patterns have shifted towards late registration - and will remain so for the foreseeable future
  • Facebook ads: Do they still offer good value for marketing your race?
  • The rise of Instagram 
  • The importance of race photos in expanding your race reach
  • Promoting your race with Strava clubs
  • Thomas' tips for helping your race stand out among major races this fall
  • The one thing about your race you need to be advertising as soon as you can (hint: it's the swag!)

Thanks to GiveSignup|RunSignup for supporting quality content for race directors by sponsoring this episode. More than 21,000 in-person, virtual, and hybrid events use GiveSignup|RunSignup's free and integrated solution to save time, grow their events, and raise more. If you'd like to learn more about GiveSignup|RunSignup's all-in-one technology solution for endurance and fundraising events visit runsignup.com.

Episode transcript

Panos  1:37  
Thomas, welcome to the podcast. 

Thomas  1:39  
Hey, Panos. Thanks for having me. 

Panos  1:40  
Thank you very much for coming on. You're based in Baltimore. Is that right?

Thomas  1:44  
That's correct. Baltimore, Maryland. 

About Big Run Media and Believe in the Run

Panos  1:46  
Excellent. And you actually have your finger in many pies, as they say, in the endurance space. You run a marketing agency for endurance events, Big Run Media, you also run a very popular running gear review site, Believe in the Run, you even do your own podcast, which is excellent for today's discussion. So why don't you tell us a little bit about all that?

Thomas  2:09  
Basically, we're doing everything we can to live in the space that we're passionate about. So we help other people with their marketing, and help them kind of get exposure in the running world, and help their races get participants, and try to help them with registrations and grow their business. And then on the other side with Believe in the Run, we work with a lot of brands to promote and to work on the review site. But the review site also get -- during the pandemic, we've expanded what we're doing on the Believe in the Run site, so that it would include everything from some events of our own, and to some promotions and co-branded stuff with the brand. So it's not always just reviewing gear, sometimes we're actually doing partnerships with Asics, Solomon New Balance, other brands to do mini campaigns and marketing campaigns through Believe in the Run. So it's just what we find that we like to spend our time and we've been able to find a way of making a living and growing under it.

Panos  2:10  
Yeah. And it's interesting, because you actually have come to work on marketing, both with events and brands. So you have quite a 360 view on the entirety of the endurance space. And - yeah - that probably provides a very good experience for what you do across the board.

Thomas  3:35  
Yeah, I find that-- I worked at a generalist agency coming up - as creative director for a generalist agency. And I realized at that time, kind of a sea change in the industry, where having niche expertise started to become more important than just knowing marketing tactics and tools, but actually living in this space. So usually, when it comes to running and endurance events, and that kind of subject matter, our team is pretty sharp, because we are all athletes, we know the experience, we know what it's like to line up on the line, we'd already-- we all put miles in, we've tried all the products, we see what's going on in the industry as far as how things are marketed, where we think there could be improvement or new tactics used to do new things that bring excitement to the sport. So that's where I feel our strength is, that we are authentic to what we are actually selling and marketing.

Panos  4:41  
Yeah, I know you're authentic because I'm in your running group on Facebook and I see the tons of shoe reviews you put out and the passion with which-- the discussions you enter in with other people in the group. And I know you have like-- you're very proud of being the slowest member of your family, which is a great position to be in. I envy you immensely, to have a very, very fast running partner...

Thomas  5:09  
Yeah. Megan every once a while will slow down and run with me in the sevens.

Panos  5:16  
That's-- that's pretty kind of her, you should really appreciate that...

Thomas  5:20  
Yeah, she's going to pace me actually this weekend. I have a 20 mile run, and I need to do 16 miles of it in around 7:30. And for her that's somewhat of a jog. So it's great to have that as a as a tool for training. 

Marketing races during the pandemic

Panos  5:35  
Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely. So today, I think we're going to need your advice with the race marketing hat on. We're going to go into a couple of events that you've helped over the past few months, most notably The Woodlands Marathon, which is, I think-- was one of the largest events to take place last month, and it's going to be a real interesting discussion to see what's been happening with races opening up. But before we go into that, from the point of view of a professional race marketer, such as yourself, how has the pandemic been in terms of shifting gears, pivoting, trying new stuff? How much of a learning exercise was this whole 12 months of disaster we've been going through?

Thomas  6:28  
Well, that's the thing about marketing, and it's actually accelerating faster than ever in my lifetime of work in marketing. Certainly, social media is part of that, but just in general, things get old really fast, and the way that you have to interact with your audience, you have to stay creative, and you have to stay on top of things, because it changes so quickly. Two years ago, Facebook, for the most part, was a great place to be to grow and get new people to your race, where now you need to really be covering several different channels. And it is more challenging. But with-- specific to the COVID and switching gears, obviously, a lot of races had to be cancelled. So two things were happening: you had people taking advantage of the new, you don't need to have, you know, a start line and a finish line, it's a virtual race marketing. So you saw a lot of people come into the space who don't have race directing experience, don't have physical race experience coming in, that knew that they could order medals, order shirts, and put on a virtual race and take advantage of it. So I do think you saw some people out of the gate, realize what was going on and do some creative things. One of them would be NYCRUNS did the subway challenge up in New York, was very successful. Obviously, our buddy down from the Barkley Marathons, did his Tennessee thing early on that I think it had some ridiculous numbers, I want to say, like-- I don't even know, maybe 100,000 people sign up for it, it was one of the first ones. But again, how marketing changes and how you deal with people, it started to fade out pretty quick as well. So it left the race directors in a tough spot. Because if you had a physical race, and now it was canceled, people were signing up for it, you're saying, okay, let's do a virtual race. And to some people, that was a big disappointment, that it's like-- I feel like there was some bait and switch, we were going to a live event now they're saying I can participate virtually. And it created a trust problem for race directors because some were still trying to figure out-- they don't know when the pandemic's over, so they want to put their date out, and not knowing whether or not it was going to exist, they had to offer a virtual component to that. And then the consumer got weary of, well, I'm going to sign up and I'm really signing up for a virtual because it's going to get canceled. One of the races that we do work with decided very early - because of the type of people that participate in the race, they're the National Marathon to Finish Breast Cancer, which is the Donna Marathon in Florida - they went ahead and canceled even into 2020 all their events. I'm sorry, 2021 - it's hard to keep track when the year just disappears. Yeah, they canceled all their events for 2021 way in advance. They have an at risk population with people who are survivors of breast cancer, just-- in general, they're tied to the Mayo Clinic, so they had to be pre-emptive and kind of get out ahead of it and just decide that this year that they were going to take it easy. So we actually worked with people strictly doing virtual races, people doing physical and virtual, and people doing a physical race. And Woodland fell into-- Willie, who was a great race director out there and turned into a-- it was a mission to his to have a live event. And his was one of the last events to go off in 2020, in early March. Right after the event, a week later, we are on lockdown. And then he was one of the first events in 2021 to happen. And we can talk about the success, but it was a pretty exciting event we went out there and participated.

Panos  10:37  
Yeah, so in terms of what you were saying earlier about trust issues, and fatigue around virtual events, and the whole bait and switch and all that, which I actually saw in-- I was getting hit by ads on Facebook, and quite a few of them, like a few months back, the copy of the ad was focusing quite explicitly on refund policy, and this is what's going to happen, you're going to get your money back, or we're going to switch you into a new race, don't worry. Tough Mudder, I think was doing quite a lot of that, focusing on that aspect of things. Did you find that it was indeed something to address back then with people quite weary of perhaps races being canceled and being caught out and all that? 

Thomas  11:23  
Yeah, I mean, it's a delicate balance. I think that you need to have some transparency. I think something that runners were being educated in a new way, because the running population, first off, maybe didn't understand insurance and permits and all the things that race directors have to go through, I think a lot of runners just think, oh they put up a finish and start line and hand out water and that's it. So I think that in some ways, the good thing that you can take out of this is the value of an actual physical race is now understood by the consumer - that there's permits to be held, there's streets to be closed, there's municipal things like police officers on the course, volunteers, all these things they maybe took for granted and weren't thinking about, now the participants understand - but when it gets to the marketing of an event and saying, here's your cancellation policy, stuff like that, I think it's nice and gives some people comfort when they see that. And then I also think that maybe industry-wide, I know that some people have tried to do insurance in the past for, like, if the participant is injured and wants a refund on their race. There's been stuff like that, I think that's where there's a huge opportunity for some business, they come in, and maybe work with races or people registering to offer some sort of insurance, it can be a win win for the event and the participant. But I think because it's so individual to which race-- like, okay, Spartan is doing this, and these people over here doing that, and Ironman will let you reschedule or defer to another race, but then you have to sign up for another Ironman membership, which they're kind of getting you twice. So there's all these little nuances that I think that if we can kind of come up with a standard, or maybe there's some sort of service that could jump in and just make it across the board, so there's understanding and again, hopefully, in a few months, this won't be something we're worried about. But I think as an industry there-- it's something that if somebody came up with you could even use for concert tickets and other sporting events. I don't know.

Are participants signing up later that usual?

Panos  13:40  
Yeah, right. In terms of conversion rates, when you were doing marketing over that period, or even just the behavior of people signing up, whether they would sign earlier or later, you know, like be more apprehensive. Did you notice any of that? Or was it sort of similar behavior to people signing up for races before the pandemic?

Thomas  14:01  
No, it's shifted and it's going to shift for a while. I think the trust factor of whether an event's going to go off is-- in the beginning, you had a large group of people sign up at the very opening of an event. And you had sort of a trickle in, that's where you added your campaign with your price increases and your different incentives, medal reveal, all that kind of stuff along the way to kind of keep interest going in registrations. And then you had those last minute people that were like, okay, this is my race. Now I feel like people are training to stay ready for a race. And they're keeping their eye on races and saying, okay, what's going to happen, and as they're safe, two, three weeks out they're like, okay, this looks like it's gonna happen, everything's pointing to "yes", I'm going to take my training and take it to this race now. And so not only have I seen that In numbers for our clients, I've just seen it with our running friends and our running crew and running boards that I follow, that people are like, okay, this weekend, this looks like this is going to happen. So all of a sudden, you'll get 10 to 15 friends of mine signing up for one race and trying to encourage their friends to come with them. There is some exception to some of the fall races that are going on. I am seeing people starting to schedule out further for destination races - marathons. I know we already signed up for Wineglass in New York, already with about 20 friends. And we want to make sure we can get our hotel and all that kind of stuff done.

Panos  15:46  
What is the right response from a race director's point of view to that shift? Is there any? Is there anything you can do to respond to that whole shift of people registering later and just holding off?

Thomas  15:57  
I think people have to be aware of the intentions of the race - they have to be reminded about the race. So you still need to have the marketing, because while people aren't signing up, they're kind of getting there, okay, I could either run Wineglass or I could run CIM or I could run, you know, these different events. And they kind of want-- you need to have people reminded that they're still there, they're coming out, so you definitely need to still be somewhat of an awareness campaign. As far as communication, I think that is one thing that is new to runners, that permit aren't pulled until a month before the event or close to that. So when people are getting frustrated, because they'll be like, well, why is it canceling now, they should have known months ago, and the race director's like, well, I pulled the permit a couple of weeks advance. We had that problem with one of our clients in-- that has a race in Delaware. They were getting close to-- the race was supposed to happen in May, they couldn't get a permit. The things that we saw on the boards were people asking, why? why the race director-- they feel like they've been cheated by the race director. Where the race director's, like, look, we're just going to reschedule for a month out and see how things go from there. But it's really tough. As far as how you're going to market, other than-- I think you gotta market for the best scenario. And then communicate along the way. And, once people-- I think this is an opportunity, because once people are invested in doing the events, they're going to be participating in the group, and participating in the things to see if there's any updates to whether or not-- so your email campaign and if you have a group, you need to make sure that you're communicating everything along the way.

Panos  17:57  
Right. So you're saying people are still being engaged. If there's a race they want to sign up for, they'll be around, but they'll just register at the at the last minute, basically?

Thomas  18:08  
Yeah, it is a lot of people who are the wait-and-sees. So you'll get a couple people that will go ahead and sign up with incentives. So I do think that communicating a discount in the beginning and getting those people, they're going to become your advocates, drag other people into the race. So if you can, early on, offer an incentive, whether it's a discounted entry, just get those people in so that they're talking to their friends to, hey, why don't you sign up, we're going to be running this, it's going to happen or looks like it's happening. Now when you're communicating to them and you're saying, hey, everything looks go as long as we can get the permit, we know that this other race went off. And that's the thing, we're starting to trickle in. Even in Maryland, Salisbury had a marathon and half marathon go off last weekend. You're starting to see those glimmers of hope in the running community where they're like, okay, well, what can I sign up for? what's next? And that's when we start to see the chatter of-- I don't know if you're familiar with a group on Facebook, but there's a whole Facebook group called Events that Won't Get Canceled, like, running events. Yeah. So on there - and people communicate a lot - they're like, hey, looks like this one's going off or that one, it has race directors in it, and it has people just constantly talking about what races they feel are going to happen or not gonna happen. 

Marketing the Woodlands Marathon

Panos  19:29  
Oh, that's a good tip. That's a good tip for people to know. On the bright note here, I know that you had a massive success with The Woodlands Marathon. I'd like to talk a little bit about that. How many people took part in the end?

Thomas  19:40  
5,000 over all their events. So it was a success. And again, what we saw, especially because it was one of the first events, there was a mad rush at the finish line - we sold out and had to add spaces. And then if people weren't comfortable coming and they dropped out, we would open up more spaces, but it pretty much was sold out, I want to say, three weeks out, and then we kept opening spots as people deferred or didn't want to participate. But not only was the event amazing, just how Willie pulled it off, there was also a lot of elites there because people want to race. And so it had a really great field of runners. And I would say it's a fast marathon and half marathon anyway. But the amount of people that came out, and that were just-- like you could just tell people were looking forward to racing. It was fast, like there was a lot of fast runners there. It was not-- people have been waiting to pull the trigger. So I think that's good news for the industry, that once these do open up, you got a lot of people who are looking forward to seeing how their fitness, testing their fitness, seeing what all this running during COVID has done to them, so I feel like we're gonna have a nice boom, once events start going.

Panos  21:09  
Yeah, I mean, that's what everyone's saying. And, I mean, I guess you can argue both ways, right? You can say that some people, it's just pent up frustration, and people want to go out race, travel, whatever, do everything. There's the other school of thought that things-- that at least for a portion of people, this is gonna linger on a little bit, the whole anxiety over COVID and everything. But, regardless, you guys did a great job with The Woodlands Marathon, which was actually - what - March 5? Was that the date? 

Thomas  21:38  
Yeah, I think it was March 5. 

Panos  21:39  
Right. And how come, actually - just out of interest - how come the event-- such a large event was permitted? Like in the middle-- at the beginning of March? It sounds pretty early. Now things look great. But, yeah...

Thomas  21:50  
Texas! It helps to start with Texas, who have been more moderate with their response to COVID than some other states. There's been less - I don't know the right word for it - but less concern over getting back to regular life. As you can see, this past weekend, they had a baseball game with 40,000 people, and not many of them wore masks. But that helped-- they also really spent a lot of time working with the local government, and working with the people that were in charge of the permits, Expressing to them his argument, and why this needed to happen. I know he was at almost every council meeting all year round, like he did everything he could to secure an operational race. And, I mean, it's pretty amazing. Because I remember when we were talking and he first started to say, hey, we're gonna have a race. And I've talked to other industry people, and - who know Willie, and have talked to him - and they're, like, he's crazy. This is not going to happen. There's no way that it's going to happen. I'm saying, I don't know, Willie's saying it's gonna happen, I trust him. And even up to, I think it was-- we saw him a couple days before the event, because we got out there early, and we're talking, and  even Willie is, like, fingers crossed, but I've done everything I can. And I think there was some even last minute nervousness that something could not happen. I will tell you, participating in the event, it was amazing. Just being out and running with-- like, I remember just looking at one point and being, like, I'm running a race, and it's with people and it felt normal. And it felt great. And you just looked around, every direction I looked, there was runners with me, and we all had smiles on our faces, and were excited to be out there. 

Panos  22:16  
So you run the race as well? 

Thomas  23:52  
Yeah! 

Marketing tactics during the pandemic

Panos  23:53  
That's great. So in terms of the marketing...You had to market this during peak COVID, I guess. Any change in tactics, any useful tip people that are still in that situation could take away?

Thomas  24:11  
Yeah, I mean, we've pretty much stayed-- organically, we stayed really active. So our posts and stuff throughout, to the group, to people who follow it. And we did end up having a large amount of people from Texas, involved with registration. Having that kind of ambassador group that we had, and what we do for ambassadors, is we worked with The Woodlands for three years, and every year we ran an ambassador group and-- we take the top performers from the ambassador group and kind of skim off the ones that weren't performing as well, and then we do a new ambassador group. And then what it did was kind of like pruning a bush. We kept keeping the top people that were getting people into the race. So that was really helpful for this race, because you had people on the ground in Texas who were committed to the race, going to do the race, talking to their running groups and getting their running group excited about doing the race, and just getting the word out, as well as the organic stuff. We pulled back a little bit on paid campaigns just because, fingers crossed, we wanted to have this event, but we didn't know how people were going to respond once they were registered, if anything happened to the race itself, and we weren't able to have it. We were trying to make sure that the margins on profit were in a place where it made sense. So it all ended up coming together. But, I mean, it's based on stuff that we built over three years, not something that like, hey, we're gonna run a race and put up a Facebook page and do it. We had our base, we had our communication tactics, we had our email list. We had all these different tools that our hands are ready that we built up over the years.

Panos  26:05  
Did you see any noticeable difference in terms of repeat runners or rate of people repeating the race versus new people coming into the race? Was it more like the people who knew The Woodlands Marathon and have run it like five, six times in the past that pulled most of their weight? Is there any insight there?

Thomas  26:24  
I mean, it is always easier to market to somebody who's already participated and has an expectation of what the event is. I think, with COVID, we obviously had-- people weren't traveling as much. But when it really comes down to it, I think it's more word of mouth also that we had, it may not be the same runner, but it was people from the same group. So there was a large Hispanic community at The Woodlands, which is sort of typical for that race. But it was, like, I was seeing new faces in the crowd, but it was like Dromo Crew, and some of the running crews were up. So they talk about the race, they get people involved, I would say-- it was heavy, heavy Texas in general, just because Austin got canceled, the Houston marathon got canceled, all the different events that people were training for it in the area didn't go off. So their alternative was The Woodlands. And we were aware of that in our marketing. When a race canceled, we were out there saying, hey, this is going to be a live event, and taking advantage of a little bit of that. So it was there was a ton of Texans there, but we had, I think, 47 days to-- some ridiculous amount of countries there as well. So it pulled from everywhere, but it was a big Texas event.

Advertising your race swag

Panos  27:55  
Okay, that's great. In terms of - I just want to pick up on one point you mentioned earlier - so you did less paid stuff...In terms of the paid stuff you did - because there's also some anecdotal evidence coming up every now and again on that front - did you find better value doing paid stuff during this period? Like, were more advertisers there? Fewer advertisers? What's happening on that?

Thomas  28:21  
I mean, yeah, obviously, you're competing against less dollars when you're bidding against races and running in that audience and some races aren't happening. The things that work, work. Like, everybody loves medals and shirts. And when you do-- to every race, something I recommend is as soon as you can start advertising the swag, swag does better than just about anything else in advertising for for an event.

Panos  28:53  
Right. So just show off the bling.

Thomas  28:55  
Yeah, right. And you know, everybody says, oh, I don't care about the metal. I don't care about the shirt. But it really does sell the event.

Interview break

Panos  29:07  
Showing of your race swag is always a good strategy to get people signing up for your race. But how about getting your existing participants to refer new participants to the race? How? Through referral programs. And what better person to tell us a little bit about the magic of how referrals work than GiveSignup|RunSignup's own Bryan Jenkins. Brian, thanks for coming on.

Bryan  29:30  
Hey, Panos. Thanks for having me.

Panos  29:31  
So, referrals is something most people don't often think about when it comes to marketing races. How important is incentivizing participants to refer friends and family for growing an event?

Bryan  29:43  
So referrals have been extremely important in marketing events. Over the past several years, we've built our referral engine to help measure and incentivize our participants to share to their friends and family, and typically this generated around 7%-10% of transactions prior to 2020. Well, in 2020, we saw a rise in the effectiveness of referrals up to 17% of registrations coming from referrals. So what we found is that people were more social during the pandemic, which makes sense, because we were all striving for more connections, and more opportunities to join our friends and family, even in a virtual or socially distanced way.

Panos  30:26  
And what kinds of rewards or incentives work best for referral programs?

Bryan  30:30  
The best referral programs typically have a high threshold, such as "refer five friends and receive a $25 refund". So if someone only refers one or two people, unfortunately, they didn't reach the goal, but they still did get to participate in the program. The other thing that's really important, especially when events are virtual, the incentive being monetary-based, the RunSignup platform can automate the refunds going back to the participant's credit card, and this is critical. So allowing the system to kind of go to work was really important so that people-- when they earned the reward, it was automatically sent to them and not another task, yet another frazzled race director would have to check off.

Panos  31:15  
Okay, so participants basically get paid a small refund on their entry fee automatically whenever they refer new people to the race. That's sweet. And very convenient. Bryan, thanks a lot for adding the referral marketing perspective to our episode. Okay, now let's get back to our discussion with Thomas Neuberger. Next up: staying competitive through the busy fall 2021 season... 

Standing out in the busy fall season

Panos  31:41  
So, I know we've discussed this before...You are predicting a pretty competitive fall. I think-- I mean, it's no surprise, everyone knows that all the big events are going to be cramming into, like, October onwards. So it's gonna be pretty hard for events to make a mark for themselves going forward, I guess.

Thomas  32:03  
I do think it's gonna be super competitive this fall for runners' attention. My gut tells me that you're going to have two different types of runner. You're gonna have the ones that are willing to travel and want to travel and want to do the big-- wanna figure out what's going on in Chicago, want to do Boston or London or any of the marathons. But you're also going to have a group of people that are, like, I'd rather just do something local.

Panos  32:33  
Okay, that's interesting.

Thomas  32:35  
So as far as advertising and things, I think there's a couple of ways to compete. One, again,  it's hard to go up against Chicago or one of those events, but they're going to sell out. And so there's going to be people that still want to participate in events. So you have to kind of think about what makes your event unique, whether it's flat and fast, whether it's scenic, whether it's challenging, whether-- what's your average temperature, what airports are close to it, all that kind of stuff. You have to figure out what's unique about your event, and really push towards that. And then I would probably also maybe put a little more dollars towards geotargeting that 100 mile radius and below to really beef up your event if it doesn't have a name, like a major. 

Are Facebook ads still worth it?

Panos  33:32  
Right. So you spoke earlier of-- you spoke at the beginning of Facebook ads. I know they're extremely popular with race directors. It was almost like the place to get participants over the last few years. Is that still good value, you think? 

Thomas  33:50  
It is. I think that it's a mix. So, the rise of Facebook advertising in events was really due to where people were looking at Facebook. So originally, the mobile experience for registration pages was horrible. So there was no point to put any dollars into Instagram, because if they clicked on it from their phone, they weren't going to be able to register. So it's still Facebook, because you're going to do a combo, you're going to do part of your spend on the actual Facebook itself. And the demographic of runners and participants hasn't shrunk ages, the age of the average participant is actually getting older. So Facebook isn't necessarily a bad space for that, as much as we'd all love Tick Tock to be the major driver. So we had young people getting in this sport, but that's one of the challenges, is figuring out how to reach those new audiences. And Facebook isn't necessarily new audience anymore, but with the addition of Instagram and Google, as far as the search, you can kind of create a nice funnel. So what you're trying to do is trying to get people into your system. And right now the pixel still works. And you can still use pixel information to target people, which we'll see how that changes with the Apple news and all that, but smart people are working on work-arounds and-- I don't know if you've seen the alert on Twitter where it says, "Do you want targeted ads or you just want ads that are going to be irrelevant to you?"

Panos  35:30  
I haven't seen that, but Facebook has something very similar.

Thomas  35:32  
Yeah. And, honestly, I do think people want-- it sounds they'd made ads sound like they're a bad thing. But ads are a good thing, if they're targeted, because it is things that you're interested in. I'd rather get ads that have something to do with my life than ads that have nothing to do with my life. But with that said, whole another conversation! As long as that keeps working, and you have the Google and you can drive people to your website, once you have that you can retarget them on Facebook and retarget them on Instagram, and other advertising platforms. So you're kind of creating what we like to think of as a sort of a funnel. So someone searches for races, and they're, like, I want a race near Baltimore, Half Marathon races near Baltimore, you want to be able to show up for that and have maybe an ad for that. They click that, they go to your website, boom, now you have them pixel. When they go back to Facebook, they're gonna see that ad saying, hey, would you like to run the Baltimore Half Marathon. And they're in your system at that point. And now they're going to see those ads, and anytime you have something to produce, they're going to check that out. And hopefully, they go and look at the organic channel, and they're, like, I'm gonna follow this group, because I'd like to see what's going to happen with this event. And then you pretty much got them in your system and hopefully, get an email and wrap them up. So, it's still something I would consider-- we started testing with a client some SMS marketing tool, and jury's still out on that as far as conversions and what it's going to do for marketing. My initial feeling was people didn't want to get marketed to in their text messages... 

Panos  37:17  
I don't... 

Thomas  37:17  
But, yeah, I didn't think it was, but you know, we're starting to talk to people. And they're, like, yeah, I don't mind getting a text let me know, hey, 15% off a race, and I can get a text, no big deal, that sounds great. So it is going to be interesting thing to see if it actually converts.

Panos  37:37  
I mean, we've talked about this, we know the service. I mean, there's no name dropping or anything. I've actually been-- I say I wouldn't respond to that kind of message, but I've been very impressed with the tool. So I'm not surprised that it's getting results. And maybe it's something to plan another episode on.

Thomas  37:52  
I don't think we've seen the results yet from it. So we're still we're still trying to figure out what's going on. And it may be just the climate of things right now, I don't know. But it could be our phone list, though. There could be a lot of different factors. We're testing and seeing if it works, and are interested in, obviously, every new tool. If it-- we'd love to have everything. We'd love to-- if you're a runner, and we can say, hey, this is the race to sign up for and this is the event to be a part of, any way that we can reach a runner we'd love.

Facebook ads vs Instagram ads

Panos  38:31  
Yeah, I think, if it all works out - and I hope it does - maybe we bring both you and  the other tech side of things with the text module on the same podcast. And you guys tell us a little bit about that. Because it's really interesting. I mean, I've seen the tool. It's really impressive. Let's hope the results are there. Now you were saying earlier, Facebook versus Instagram. I'm a little bit familiar with Facebook, simply because Race Directors HQ, we have a presence there, we do stuff. Instagram has always been something that perplexes me quite a lot. Maybe it shouldn't, maybe it's my generation. But it just-- I just don't get it necessarily. That said, two days ago, I was just sitting there one evening and I just picked up my wife's Instagram. I don't know why, she probably just showed me something there. And I I literally could not put it down. Like, I honestly-- I told her just get this thing away from me. I literally can't stop scrolling. It's just so-- yeah, I mean, I honestly couldn't believe it. It is amazing, the stuff they hit you with and the engagement. It's really, really great. So in terms of results and races, question one: do you get better results from Instagram than Facebook? And question two, now in terms of the insight tip from someone like you who runs these things: when you run your campaigns - because you know you run both of them from Facebook essentially, from the Facebook ad manager - are you tempted to run different creatives just for Instagram versus Facebook? Or do you run the same campaign on both?

Thomas  40:06  
It used to be that we would create separate messaging for Facebook and for Instagram - the images would be different sizes and stuff like that. But it's become much easier. I don't know, if it's Facebook that realized, hey, they're going to be advertising in both places, it's become easier to use the creative and the copy in both places. Obviously, you're going to have hashtags and stuff on Instagram that you're not going to use on Facebook, it just doesn't make sense. But for the most part, Instagram is catching-- like, it used to be very heavy Facebook and, slowly, Instagram started coming up in results, like where we're seeing the ads convert. And, it really is-- we attribut it to the fact that the different registration platforms have made, registering from your phone a thousand times better than it was a year ago, two years ago. So now you're sitting there and you're scrolling - like you said, it's very engaging. I don't know if you noticed, but every fourth image you're looking at is an ad on Instagram. But, you know, it's just as you scroll-- 

Panos  41:19  
But it's just a pleasure. Even the ads, it's impossible to put down!

Thomas  41:24  
Yeah, and the thing is, if you have-- even if you're not interested, say, in signing up for an event, you're sitting on your couch and maybe having a cocktail at the end of the evening, and you're scrolling through your feed, and you click on the ad just to learn more, now you're in the system. Now you're targeted, and you've shown interest in the event. So you've become-- if you don't convert right there now and the chances of me converting you are much greater.

Panos  41:55  
So for someone who - by the way, included myself - up until very recently, who goes on to ad manager, and just thinks, I don't know nothing about this Instagram stuff, and just clicks it off from, you know, like, it says, "Don't show my ads to Instagram", would you actually advise against that? Even if I haven't optimized my creative for, like, Instagram audiences, would you just give it a go? 

Thomas  42:17  
My feeling is that Facebook, if you don't-- if you're not conscientious of what you're doing, Facebook takes your money. I would never recommend not taking a look at exactly how it's going to show up on Instagram, so that you can make sure that it is exactly the way you'd want it to come off for that platform. And things to consider, of course, tagging people, hashtags that you'd want to use, especially for, a race, if you're trying to localize your races or race in Baltimore, #Baltimore, #marathon, #halfmarathon, all the distances that you have, which I wouldn't have in a Facebook ad, I wouldn't put that in there, but I think they would be necessary for Instagram. And then, as you're saying, as you're going through Facebook Manager, you really got to watch-- we consider it kind of like the stock market. So we want to convert at the lowest possible number. So if we can get people to be registering for an event at $3 a pop or lower, we know we're doing something well. If we start seeing that number creep up to $20 a conversion, there's something wrong with the ad, and we need to-- we need to go in and fix it. So where we spend a lot of time making sure that our ads are optimized on both channels. So you can see what works though. If you start seeing, hey, this is converting on Instagram, but it's not really converting on Facebook, what's the difference between the two ads? Who's the audience I'm looking at? Like, is it the demographic, is it maybe this ad had a male runner in it and it should have a female runner in it? You know, all those different factors are going to hit.

Google, YouTube, SMS

Panos  44:05  
So where else are you spending time and money in 2021 marketing races? What are the channels that you are really relying on?

Thomas  44:15  
I mean, we're still relying on the basics right now: Facebook, Instagram, Google. But we are experimenting with things like YouTube and some other platforms, just to see - and then text and SMS - just to see where you are gonna see some traction. I do feel like right now, it's a little early to see how people are responding and seeing what the behavior is going to be like with registrations just coming out of COVID. But, I mean, I'm feeling bullish. I feel like-- I do feel like the industry is going to come back pretty strong. I think it might be interesting to see how some of the events, like, is it going to be oversaturated, because people are gonna want to race? Or is it gonna be, like, now there's less competition, because some of the races that were able to survive before COVID are gone because of COVID? 

Using race photos for marketing

Panos  45:15  
Right. Let me ask you something, what's your opinion on the marketing power of free race photos? So we're going to be having in person events come back, there's going to be lots of people on the race course, there's going to be lots of race photos. Traditionally, the model has been shifting quite a lot between free, paid, all that. What would you rather advise a race director to give away, like, a free T-shirt or free race photos?

Thomas  45:48  
I value the race photos over the T-shirts, personally. I do feel that for most runners the medal and a race photo is as appealing as maybe another-- getting another race shirt. Depending on the quality of the race shirt. If you have a Nike or Under Armour or Adidas race shirt, then the value's there. I think if you're going to do a generic, it's not quite there as much. Ideally, the situation is you're still giving out a race shirt, you're still giving out a medal, and you're giving free race photos, that hopefully you've gotten a sponsor to work with you and the sponsor bears the cost of the photo program. I think it's very valuable for a sponsor, more so than the back of a shirt, more so-- we look at the numbers of when someone shares their photo, if they include the sponsor in there, and the reach and the exposure the sponsor's getting is immense compared to the exposure they probably get from the back of a shirt, which we can't even really measure. I mean, you got to say, okay, first off, someone has to see the person wearing the shirt, then they have to read the logos through them, they got to see your logo on the shirt. But for some reason, sponsors are still stuck on some of the old ways of thinking, like, I want to be in a race booklet, and I want to be in the-- on the back of a shirt, where there's hardly anybody reads the race guide. And hardly anybody reads the back of the shirt. Whereas the photo if there's a logo on a photo, and it's getting shared across Instagram, Facebook, people are putting it on their Strava. And we didn't even talk about Strava, but that's another area where I think people are not utilizing as well, and there's ways to do it without spending money.

Marketing races with Strava Clubs

Panos  47:40  
Well, let's talk about that, actually, that-- you guessed exactly where I was heading. My last question actually was on Strava. And I think we should spend some time because it's a complete unknown for most people. So tell us about Strava.

Thomas  47:54  
So, we use Strava a lot, but we use it for our Believe in the Run page. So we figured out that it was great to have people in there to give kudos back and forth. And then we started playing with actually posting to it. So, the algorithm that Strava has right now isn't super exclusive, like it is on Facebook, where you have to push things. So it's almost like Facebook pages back in the day. We have used it, so whenever we do a review or new video or something like that, we post it to the Strava group, which has over 4,000 runners in it. And they all see it because they're in the group. So it's a great way for us to communicate with our fan base in a spot that they're not oversaturated. They're not seeing a ton of content being provided. We've actually had people come in this is the only group where I get information, like, all my other groups. So it's just like I joined the group and, yeah, I've been in the group but I don't know what it does for me. Now, like, this one, I know that I'm going to get some video shoe review or a post. So it's really an open frontier to grow your audience and maybe put more attention into that than some of your other channels, because it is something that you have the ability to talk directly to them. So for me, my advice to race directors would be start that group, start getting your people in it, make people aware that you have a group, because once they start-- are in there, they click and nobody leaves. It's very rare that someone leaves a Strava group. And then once they're in there, you can post your, hey, have you registered yet, have you-- here's our latest information and make it a value to them. So, like, important information like you know what's going-- hey, we're working on getting permits, here's what's the latest news. You can post simple text in there. You can put pictures. You can put links to a website. So all the communication that you want people to know about your race you can do on there and they're going to get it.

Panos  50:05  
Let's say that I'm organizing a race in Baltimore. Would you make your Strava group be a branded group? A group that's branded after your race? Or would you make it be, like, Baltimore runners kind of group, where you may attract people outside the race? 

Thomas  50:24  
Yeah, no, I would do a specific race because it gives them a reason to join the group. So if I'm running a Baltimore running event, and I want to see other people's training, for the event, I want to see other people who are participating in the event, maybe I have friends that are in there that are doing it, and then I'm getting information about the event, they kind of-- as I lead up in my training for the Baltimore Marathon, I would get all that great stuff. Now, that's the only thing is for people who maybe aren't going to run the event again. But a lot of of races have repeat-- like, the Baltimore Marathon in some form we're participating, whether it's doing the 10K, the half or the full, it is such a large event in our area that we want to be involved with that in some way. And I feel like, especially for Strava, that's a good place to have those repeat customers, those people that are in there. And it's also they have other events, so they own the Frederick, Half Marathon. No reason why I wouldn't say, hey, you signed up for Baltimore, you might want to also sign up for Frederick Half Marathon, here's the registration page for that, you know, and put in the feed.

Panos  51:45  
And the Strava group, it doesn't expire with race date, right? So you can you can keep building that audience year on year and keep engaging with people throughout the year? 

Thomas  51:57  
Yeah, and you can even create events within your group. So you can have-- update the event, so this year, it's going to be this day. And you can have people say they're going or not going, that kind of stuff. 

Marketing races with Facebook groups

Panos  52:12  
Last thing: what about Facebook groups? I know that-- that's sort of, like, an on and off topic, when it comes to race marketing. I'm a big fan of them, for the kinds of reasons that I think race directors should be using them more, because there's something really special about communities, probably very similar to using Strava groups. But in terms of actually on the ground using Facebook groups for marketing races. Have you had any experience? Any successes? Any tips?

Thomas  52:40  
Yeah, groups are great, but they do require a lot of work.

Panos  52:44  
They do. They absolutely do.

Thomas  52:46  
Yeah, you can't set up a group and leave it and be, like, okay, it's going to grow on its own. I mean, some can - like the Marine Corps marathon has a very strong group page where the participants interact with each other, but it also has a brand that people are really loyal and excited about. So that is a little bit of a different situation. So if you're going to start a group, be prepared to nurture it almost every day, and be in there and create topics of conversation, at least until things get some momentum on their own. But it's, it's very work-intensive, organic, social media.

Panos  53:29  
Absolutely. Okay, so that has been extremely helpful to all of our listeners, I'm sure. Thank you very much, Thomas, for coming on today. I very much look forward to you coming on maybe in a few months, and giving us an update on how things have been evolving. It's really interesting to hear from professionals like you, doing this on the ground. I know, like, with race directors, as with lots of businesses out there, people feel like they know everything there is to know about marketing, but it's always good to hear from a professional like yourself. So thank you very much. One last thing, where can people find you, if they need any kind of help with marketing their race or anything like that?

Thomas  54:12  
I mean, you can certainly reach out to info@bigrunmedia.com, and we can get back to you there. Check out bigrunmedia.com as well and connect to us through there. And then also, if you check out the Believe in the Run Instagram, you can kind of see what we're doing on that side. And I think it's really a place where we showcase a lot of what we're doing. So even if it's not something that you're interested in - you know, new gear and new running equipment and all that kind of stuff, which I wouldn't understand! - but if you weren't, you can kind of see some of the tactics that we use, some of the things. Like, right now, reels are real big because the algorithm puts them up. We always are trying to see whatever new tools that the social media channels are offering, we try to use them and see how it affects our reach and visibility. So we do a lot of testing, actually, on Believe in the Run to see what's working out there. And usually, if it's a new tool, they want everybody see it, so you get lots of exposure if you use it.

Panos  55:24  
Perfect. Okay, bigrunmedia.com, where people can get a little bit more about your agency services. Thanks again very much for coming on today. We'll chat again, I'm sure. You keep running, and thanks to everyone for listening, and we'll see you all next time. 

Thomas  55:41  
Alright. Thanks, Panos. 

Epilogue

Panos  55:46  
I hope you enjoyed this episode on race marketing with Big Run Media Managing Partner, Thomas Neuberger.

You can find more resources on anything and everything related to race directing on our website, RaceDirectorsHQ.com. You can also share your questions about race marketing or anything else in our Facebook group, Race Directors Hub.

And if you enjoyed this episode, don't forget to hit subscribe on your favorite player for more content like this. Until our next episode, take care and keep putting on amazing races.

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