LAST UPDATED: 20 September 2023
How to Promote Your Race: Our Ultimate Guide
Everything you need to know to market your race both online and offline in our comprehensive race marketing guide.
Let's face it: When it comes to promoting a race there are no magic bullets and no "best" ways to get the job done.
That is why we harnessed the wisdom of our 7,000-strong race director community to give you the definitive no-stone-left-unturned guide to everything you can do to market and promote your race: online, offline, across all channels and through various strategies.
Note the purpose of this article is not to go too deep into the weeds on every single marketing strategy. (In most places, we will anyway point you to additional resources and tutorials to help you go deeper in any one topic.)
The main focus of this guide is to give you the full scope of all the marketing tools available to you. And, as you'll see, that's plenty to sink your teeth into.
Ok, so let's get started!
Race calendars and listing sites
The absolute first thing you want to do as soon as you've got all your headline race details confirmed (location, date, distances etc) is to list your race on all the race calendars you can find.
Listing your race on race calendars gives you a chance to get your race details in front of an audience of hundreds of thousands of participants that browse these sites every month searching for suitable races to enter in the future.
Not only that, but having your race website or registration page posted on quality race calendar sites will help grow your website's backlink profile (=the number of links pointing back to your site), which will improve your site's position on Google search pages. This basically means that when people do "races near me" searches on Google, your race will get to appear higher on Google search results than races without these backlinks. And this will have a direct and significant impact on the qualified traffic your race website receives from Google.
So this is really a no-brainer. And there really isn't such a thing as getting started too soon: the earlier your race details have been posted on race calendars, the sooner your race will be discovered by your target audience. It's as simple as that.
Finding relevant and quality race calendars that will accept your race for listing can be a bit of a chore, which is why we build Race Calendar Wizard, a tool that helps you search for listings of your race online and submit your race details to race calendars in a matter of minutes.
Promoting your race through email is something you're likely already doing in some form or other, and it's a channel that can have significant long-term benefits for your brand loyalty and race marketing, as it's one of the few marketing channels you get to own without relying on a third-party platform sitting between you and your audience (as is the case for social media, for example).
Building a solid mailing list and mastering email marketing definitely takes its time, but that shouldn't hold you back. If you don't have a mailing list or an email marketing strategy at all, get started working on one today. It may feel like a struggle at first, but you won't regret the effort you put in down the line.
We have several resources on the site on email marketing, so don't hesitate to check them out, if you're just starting out. Our podcast chat with email marketing pro Hollie Hight is a great place to start, if you're happy to listen to an hour and a half of email marketing A-to-Z, as is Hollie's shorter write-up on the topic if you just want a more concise primer.
One thing you want to always keep in mind when it comes to email is that it is a particularly intimate channel of communication. When someone hands over their email, they're doing so in the understanding that they'll receive quality information from you. So don't be tempted to abuse this trust for short-term gains. Always look to provide value first, build a genuine connection with your audience, and grow your brand loyalty for the long run.
There are several different ways you can use Facebook to promote your race to potential participants across the entire journey from awareness to race registration. So let's briefly look at each one separately.
Organic marketing on Facebook consists of everything you can do to promote your race without having to pay for it.
Unfortunately, the effectiveness of organic marketing on Facebook is on the decline. However, there are still things you can do to attract attention to your event:
- Engage followers of your Facebook page with content and news. Although recent changes in the Facebook Newsfeed algorithm mean less people who follow your page actually get to see your posts, you should continue to post news and high-quality content through your Facebook page on a regular basis.
- Create participant communities. Facebook groups have recently received a visibility boost, due to those same Newsfeed algorithm changes mentioned above. So rather than broadcasting news through your Facebook page it may make sense to invest in building a dialogue with your fans through a Facebook group. Groups offer many great benefits, one of which is the ability to promote your race to an engaged community of fans.
- Promote your race on other Facebook groups. You don't have to build your own group to promote your race. Promoting your race on relevant Facebook groups you are already a member of can be a good way to reach like-minded individuals. Make sure though you obtain consent for your promotional posts from group admins.
- Engage with your audience through your personal profile. It is not uncommon for race directors to connect personally with people who express an interest in their race on Facebook (by, for example, mentioning something about the event in a group the race director is a member of etc). Promoting this way is not a particularly scalable strategy, but it does deliver some limited results, particularly for more niche/aspirational races like ultras.
Of all paid marketing channels, Facebook has a reputation for effectiveness and value for money. It is not surprising given the almost total adoption it enjoys in most developed countries and the great targeting tools it makes available to advertisers.
There's too much in Facebook advertising to attempt to exhaust the subject here. If you're new to this, our advice would be to check out our step-by-step guide to creating your first Facebook ad and get started trying things out for yourself with a small budget. If you're a little bit more experienced, you may find our guide to remarketing helpful.
At any rate, you can't go wrong with sticking to these simple rules:
- Know how much you're willing to spend to acquire a registration. Without this number, your advertising costs could escalate beyond what is economically affordable.
- Wherever possible, aim for conversions rather than clicks. Use a Facebook pixel to help Facebook optimise your campaigns for actual completed registrations or other actions, rather than just visits to your website.
- Test, refine, repeat. There are almost no campaigns that cannot benefit from a bit of tweaking after launch, so stay on top of your ads' performance and don't be afraid to try things out.
Although just another form of advertising, we make special mention of remarketing because it is a particularly potent form of Facebook advertising that you should absolutely make part of your overall marketing strategy.
What makes remarketing so special? Getting people who are most likely to know about your race to register for it.
To learn how to use remarketing campaigns to turn registration maybes into registration yeses, check our our dedicated guide to Facebook remarketing.
Another special mention should be reserved for photo marketing as a race marketing strategy that works well on Facebook and is particularly suited to mass-participation events.
Photo marketing involves the use of race pics as a marketing tool, by making pics available to participants for free and encouraging them to share them online after the event. For maximum impact, race pics can be branded with the race and sponsor logos and even delivered directly onto finishers' Facebook feeds.
Giving away free race pics as a marketing device is becoming increasingly common, with lots of races using specialized platforms like Pic2Go or simply choosing to distribute finisher pics for free after the event.
Unsure how to make the most of your events' photo pool? Take a look at your options in our overview of race photography.
Twitter is often considered by race directors as a secondary marketing channel. Like Instagram, however, it has some unique virtues that may be worth your consideration:
- Twitter combines the ability to broadcast with the ability to foster user discussions, in a way that brings together the best of Facebook's pages and groups.
- On Twitter you can message anyone and start a discussion with anyone, whether they follow you or not.
- Your tweets get through to everyone who follows you, unlike your Facebook posts whose reach is limited by Facebook's Newsfeed algorithm (the flip-side of this is that your tweets stay at the top of a follower's feed for only a very small time).
With its paid advertising service too Twitter offers some unique features that may be useful in some cases, like the ability to target followers of other (large) races. However, it seems that the reach and cost-effectiveness of Twitter ads fall short of its social media competitors, particularly Facebook.
As we discuss in our intro to digital marketing, if you commit to any social channel, do so 100%. So if you want to add Twitter to your social mix, do so only if you've got the bandwidth to do it right.
If you - or your team - have a good eye for pictures or are after a younger demographic, you should definitely consider setting up shop on Instagram.
Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, is a great top-of-funnel marketing tool (works best for creating user awareness rather than conversions) to complement your Facebook strategy. And there are certain aspects of it that make it particularly attractive as a race promotion channel:
- lower competition (only about half of all races who are on Facebook are also on Instagram)
- a younger audience (good for your event's long-term growth)
- better user engagement
Because Instagram is owned by Facebook, if you're already advertising on Facebook you get the option to display your image and video ads on Instagram as well. However, if you're seriously interested in what Instagram has to offer, it is best that you create a profile on the platform to help add an organic voice alongside your paid campaigns.
YouTube, and other video platforms like Vimeo, used to be the best option for publishing and sharing video content online. But that has changed a lot with the rise of Facebook video.
If you regularly produce high-quality video content (or eye-catching snappy short vids on TikTok - more on this in a sec), it's definitely worth uploading it on YouTube. There are many advantages to this, not least of which is making your content searchable by Google (Google owns YouTube, so YouTube videos show great on Google searches - they look terrible, on the other hand, when shared as YouTube links on Facebook, for exactly the same reason).
However, always make sure whatever video you have on YouTube is also uploaded to your Facebook video gallery. That way you can easily use it in Facebook ad campaigns and showcase it on your Facebook page and groups.
If you're of the Gen X generation, you may not think much of TikTok, the short-form video app that has exploded in popularity in recent years, particularly among younger audiences.
But you'd be wrong to dismiss it offhand. And here's why:
- TikTok's fastest growing demographic is over 55s. Yup, you heard right. TikTok is proving as attractive with older audiences as with younger people, so more and more of your target racers are joining the app.
- TikTok is still at the early stages of its growth - sort of what Facebook was in a decade or more ago. So there's lots of opportunity to establish a voice for your brand on TikTok organically, and get in on the action early.
- TikTok offers the best native short-form video editing tools out there, and learning to produce snappy videos on TikTok will give you an arsenal of content to use across other social channels like Facebook and Instagram.
- Success on TikTok has a lot more to do with producing genuine, no-frills content that resonates with people, than producing expensive video or spending loads on ads. So you can end up with million+ video hits out of nowhere with next to no budget, just by producing clever vids that grab people's attention.
So take another look at TikTok - and listen to this before deciding.
In contrast to social media marketing strategies, where the objective is for you and content to get through to the right people, Google offers you the opportunity to get your race discovered by people looking for it or similar events.
This crucial distinction creates some unique challenges but also opens up the scope of your marketing efforts to a whole universe of users waiting to be enticed by what you have to offer.
When someone is setting out to find a race that fits a certain number of criteria from scratch, they'll start by searching Google and other search engines. Search engine marketing (SEM) is working on getting your race in front of people when they do so. And the most common way to achieve that organically (=without having to pay) is through search engine optimization (SEO).
Contrary to what most race directors believe, good SEO doesn't mean getting your race found when people search for it. Good SEO means getting your race found when people don't search for it , but rather search for races like it .
Working on SEO can significantly increase your race's visibility and create a steady stream of quality traffic to your website that converts to registrations. Among other things, you can get people to find you race when they:
- search for a race like yours in your area
- search for a race like yours around the time when your race takes place
- look for a race with a theme similar to your race's theme
You should have no illusions about SEO: it is hard, laborious and time-consuming. But it pays massive dividends in terms of increasing qualified traffic to your website. As such, it is something we think you should be spending time understanding and working on.
For a brief introduction on how SEO works and on taking the first steps towards your SEO strategy, read our introduction to SEO for race directors.
Getting your race to come up top on Google for a set of key search queries, like "fast marathon Utah" or "5k obstacle race" takes time and patience working on your SEO. Getting it ahead of the queue fast takes Google AdWords.
AdWords is Google's paid service where you can bid for a chance to get your website to appear at the very top of search results for specific keywords (even above the top non-paid results). With AdWords you can bid for clicks, which means you will only be charged when someone clicks through to your website.
There has been conflicting anecdotal evidence coming out of our race directors Facebook group on the effectiveness of AdWords as a race marketing tool. It seems results vary quite a bit by race type and each RD's own experience with using the service.
If you're thinking of giving Google AdWords a go, start with a look at Google's own comparison between SEO and PPC (pay-per click advertising, i.e. AdWords) to see it'd be a good match for you. Remember, however, that investing in an AdWords campaign should not come at the expense of developing a long-term SEO strategy.
Google's Display Network, much like Facebook's Audience Network, makes it possible for Google advertisers to display ads outside of Google on partner websites.
The reach of Google's Display Network is truly staggering and joining it as advertiser means you get the opportunity to advertise your race to people visiting fitness, outdoors or other websites relevant to your target audience. You can choose to display ads on the network in text, image or video form and be charged per impression (times your ad is displayed) or per click (times your ad is clicked on).
The Display Network is part of Google AdWords so opening an AdWords account will allow you to create campaigns for both Google's own search results pages and websites in the Display Network.
Race ambassador programs
Race ambassador programs tap into word of mouth by getting people who are enthusiastic about your race (race ambassadors) to promote your race to others.
In exchange for free entry to your race and other perks, race ambassadors will help spread word of your event on social media and the local racing community, persuading people - sometimes through the use of a small discount or other incentives - to register for your race.
If you'd like to learn more about recruiting race ambassadors into your event, take a look at our comprehensive guide to setting up and managing a race ambassador program.
Bloggers and influencers
Similar to race ambassadors, bloggers and so-called social media influencers (fancy name for people with a large social media following) can work at the grassroots level to increase awareness for your race and drive registrations to your event.
The type of people you'd want to look for are frequent racers with a flair for writing good race reviews or any person, really, with a good following amongst the sort of people you're looking to reach. And you'd want to look for them on Twitter or Instagram.
If you're seriously considering adding influencers to your race marketing mix, you may want to take a look at BibRave, a service that connects races with bloggers and social media influencers. Or, instead, spend some time hanging out on social media.
Race partnerships are a great way of building strategic relationships with other events with the aim of leveraging each other's audience to expand your overall reach.
There are many forms race partnerships take, from simple cross-promotions (I'll link to you, you'll link to me type of arrangements) to more elaborate arrangements where races may come together to create race series, grand slams or other multi-race "cups".
If you'd like to explore going into partnerships with other events further, start by reading our article on race partnership strategies for a few tips on common partnership models. But do go into this with a long-term view, as it does take some effort to get right.
Exhibiting at race expos can be a good way to create awareness for your event among an audience of racers similar to yours. But it does come at a cost - literally.
Because usually only larger races have the appetite and resources to hold expos for their events, bidding for expo booths can be outside the reach of races with limited marketing budgets. Not only are you competing for a small pool of spaces, you'll probably be doing so against some big-spending sports brands.
If the price makes sense and the expo is a good match (the lead time to your event, type of race hosting the expo, exposure opportunities etc all work), go for it. But be careful not to make getting into the expo a vanity project.
Referrals and other incentives
Offering incentives to registered and prospective participants is a great way to build up your registrations. Not only can you control the economics in this strategy by managing what type and how many incentives you offer, you're also tapping into the most effective marketing channel of all: word of mouth.
There are so many different choices of incentives you can offer. Here's a few things you could do:
- Refer a friend. Offer a registered participant a cash, gift card or in-kind incentive to get a friend to register for a race.
- Register yourself and get X% off a second registration. Primarily aimed to incentivize two people to register together, one of whom will receive a discounted entry.
- Free entry when you refer X people. Very similar to the incentives race ambassadors receive. Also works very well with clubs, where you can offer the club one or two free entries to put into a prize draw if they help refer enough people to your race.
- Group offers. Offer discounted entry for teams or groups of athletes registering together.
- Series offers. Offer discounted entry into future races when someone registers for multiple races in a series or helps refer others.
If there's one catch with incentive schemes, it's properly tracking and managing referrals. So if you're interested in pursuing these strategies, do make sure your online registration platform can deliver the necessary functionality.
For a more detailed discussion on planning, promoting and executing referral programs and other incentive strategies, check out our complete guide to discount and referral strategies.
Specialist press publicity
Getting your race featured in a popular running magazine or website not only lends prestige to your event, it also helps put it in front of potential participants in the best possible light.
The good news is it's a lot easier than you think to get your event featured in even the most popular publications. But your race needs to make for interesting content. You may get the editor excited about your race's novel format, stunning scenery or character. You won't get them as excited about your local 5k.
If you do think your event stands a chance of standing out, make the approach. Start by compiling a list of publications that would be interested in featuring your race and simply email the editors with an introduction. Usually, if they do agree to feature your race, covering travel or other expenses is all they will ask for. And it's well worth it.
Press releases and broader media distribution
Non-specialist media - local newspapers, radio & TV etc - will also often be interested in sharing news about your event. But to stand a chance of getting their attention, you need to feed them stories in a way that's easy for them to use.
If you've built a database of journalists you're planning to send press releases to about your event, keep these guidelines in mind:
- Include a compelling subject line. Use an email subject line that is as factual and descriptive of the press release content as possible. If you're opening for registrations, for example, make this "Registrations open for 2018 ABC Marathon"
- Include a compelling headline. The headline should be at the top of your email body and should be your suggested headline for the press release. For the same example as above, the headline should be a little bit more exciting, perhaps "ABC Marathon welcomes a new generation in 2018 edition"
- Try to stick to the five Ws on your opening paragraph. Go old-school in your opening paragraph. Spell out as clearly as possible all the facts around your story: Who's doing what, when, where and why.
- Make your press release copy as close to the finished article as possible. Think as a journalist, write as a journalist and give the journalist you're contacting as little to edit as possible. The less work they have to do, the likelier it is they'll publish your story.
- Manage your communication frequency. This is crucial. Because you're sharing news about a fairly niche event with a generalist media outlet, you need to only contact them when you have something really worthwhile and interesting to share. Don't spam them with every little bit of news you put out on your Facebook page, otherwise you'll quickly lose their interest.
There's tons of resources out there for writing compelling press releases - and not all of them agree on the basics. If you're after a few pointers start here.
Content marketing can be a super-effective marketing strategy for some races and a huge waste of time for most who approach it halfheartedly. So, straight off the bat, a word of caution: don't do this if you're not really serious about it. And even then weigh up the pros and cons carefully.
But what do we mean by content marketing?
Content marketing is an in-bound marketing strategy (your customers find you, you don't find them) where you create valuable content that people can follow back to your website. That content could be a blog post on race pacing, a top-10 running shoe shortlist or a how-to guide to faster triathlon transitions.
There are two things you can hope to achieve by producing content for marketing purposes:
- Get people who already engage with you to pay attention and associate your event with a source of value
- Get people who don't know about your race to discover it, mainly by searching for that content on search engines
It is not very typical for races to engage in this type of marketing, because getting whatever content you produce ranked high enough to make it visible takes time and a lot of expertise. If you think you have something of real value to leverage, try it out. If not, find a better way to invest your time.
We single out competitions as a promotion strategy, although it is usually delivered through some of the channels we're already mentioned (social media, press releases etc), because they can help keep your online users engaged over a period of time (competition entry phase, shortlisting phase, finals, results announcements etc).
There's two types of competitions we particularly like:
- Promotional giveaways. If you have product brands sponsoring your race, you should think about giving away some free products in an email competition. Not only are you growing your mailing list, you're also giving your sponsors valuable exposure.
- Photo contests. By running a photo contest, you create valuable content you can use on your website and social media. For example, if you organize a city 10k, ask for people's best photos from around the course. Or, if you plan a trail race, why not do a trail running photo contest? That way, you get great free content from your users you can create a buzz around.
With most of the focus these days on online marketing strategies - rightly so - it is easy to overlook the many ways you can promote your race locally for free in the real world.
Putting up posters in your local community, gyms, health clubs, town halls, sports centers and wherever else people might see them, is a great way to raise awareness for your event not only among athletes but the community as a whole. Distributing flyers is another effective strategy, if a little bit more labor-intensive.
Working with hotels, travel agencies and businesses in the tourism industry is also worth mentioning. If your race takes place in an area and at a time that is popular with tourists, explore partnerships with tourist agents, hotels and even your local tourist board. If the tourist board has a schedule for promoting your region in shows and expos overseas, get your race included in initiatives and promotion materials.
For more tips on attracting international participants, check out our international race marketing guide.
More resources for your marketing
Found that useful? We hope you did - and, more importantly, we hope you'll work on putting all this to good use.
But we're not done yet! :)
Here's a few more tips and resources you may find useful in expanding and optimizing your race marketing effort:
- Brand building for events 101. Marketing (and pretty much every thing) starts with the strength and cohesion of your brand. Want to get started on the right foot? Take a look at this short article on race branding from branding expert Peter Abraham.
- Essential tools to analyse and monitor your marketing online. Understanding how people find your race online can help you make the most of your efforts and marketing budget. Don't leave things to chance - wise up with these marketing analytics tools.
- Tips for marketing your race internationally. Some tasks and technical capabilities involved in promoting your race to an international audience are unique. We discuss these in length in this article.