Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The RD: Advertising

Before I sink too far into today's post.. I want to make sure I add the following preface. What I am sharing with you all in this sort of "expose" series on Race Directing, is my own personal experience in creating the Human Potential Running Series. The thoughts, opinions, facts, and facets that I have shared with you in the previous six parts is in no way a sweeping representation of what all race directors go through in directing their own races. This is merely a representation of what I've discovered, what I've gone through, and in a way.. I'm trying to debunk a number of myths that I know runners have bought into through the years. Ultimately, I'll let you come to your own conclusions.. but just know that, this is just my own personal experience.

In this post, I want to talk about advertising. We've already gone through discussing the motions of bringing your race to birth. Now what? Now, you need runners. So let's be honest.. if you're a virtual unknown in the community and are starting from scratch.. you have a long climb ahead of you. If you are active in the running community (and by active I mean: You show up to a lot of group runs, you talk with people, you blog, you run in a lot of races, you organize other smaller events..) then this is going to be a lot easier for you.

There are a number of people in the sport, who walk in to race directing with a shovel. They use that shovel and dig themselves a rather large hole to the tune of thousands of dollars to get their race(s) off the ground. If you don't have a following, or the funds, you're going to struggle from the get go. What I want to do is lay out what I've done here in Colorado to create my brand and get these races off the ground without diving into insurmountable debt.

The first thing I did when I moved to Colorado was to find some of the local running groups. There are many in Colorado's Front Range. Denver Trail Runners, Boulder Trail Runners, Fort Collins Trail Runners, Team CRUD (Coloradans Running Ultra Distances), Rocky Mountain Runners (new), Boulder Banditos, Team Alpaca.. these are just a few. I sought out some of these groups group runs and went for a run. What I discovered what that each and every group was vastly different. For awhile I thought that this place, with more ultra/endurance athletes than anywhere else in the world, wasn't running together. What I discovered was that.. they were.. based on geographic location in the metro-areas, and overall abilities. Most runners here in Colorado are competitive and care way too much about their time. All of this was different than what I'm used to back east.. where all abilities, desires, and geographical areas still run together.

So after diving into some of these groups, I was able to learn more about what Colorado had and did not have. There were few Fat Ass runs.. certainly a lot less than what I was used to having. So, I created a Fat Ass Series. I don't want to get too deep into what that is if you don't already know. Basically, they are glorified group runs. 100% Free. No Aid, No Fees, No Awards, No Wining. The first winter I had 14 individuals come out. Then the second winter I was up to about 35 individuals. Last winter I decided to take registration to Ultraisgnup.com. Doing this alone was a way at FREE ADVERTISING. People scour through the Ultrasignup.com website to see what's out there. Suddenly, people were stumbling across the Fat Asses. I created a mailing list on Mailchimp.com to communicate with everyone and suddenly, I had a mailing list of close to 300 people where 120 individuals showed up for at least one Fat Ass Run. BOOM... I had a following. Keep in mind though.. I built a following on Fat Asses over the course of three years. That's right.. it took me three years.

Once I got the Fat Asses off and running, now I was reaching people. I had a following and I built myself some credibility. But to me, it really goes beyond that. In doing this, I was able to display to everyone my true passion for this sport and to create some expectations of what people are going to get from my events. People now know that my events are well organized, welcoming, a great place to meet new runners, and challenging. How much did it cost me to do all of this? Over the last 3 years, a few hundred dollars.

So when it came time to jump into being a full time race director and creating my own series I already had a customer base at my finger tips. Not only do I post to the list-serves and e-mail groups of the number of clubs I listed above, but I also have my own e-mailing list that I personally manage from the Fat Asses. Now, I understood pretty early that if I'm going to compete in this market, I need some start-up funds. I'm not independently wealthy and I've only been employed for 6 months out of the last 2 years. So I started to get my message out there. A "Hey, this is what I'm building and why. Care to support us?" I started an indiegogo campaign, asked for donations, and boom.. over $3000 from local (and national) runners who want to support what we're building. MORE advertising and more getting the word out about our brand.

I then sought out some runners who were talented and interesting in volunteering their services. For what? The first thing my brand needed was race logos. One race logo typically goes for about $2,400. However, I was able to find a local graphic artist willing to donate his time and energy to helping us out. In exchange, I give him free advertising space on our website, mentions on Facebook and in our newsletter. He is also trying to start-up his own business so... it's a "back scratch" type situation. Now.. he didn't do it for free.. but the discounted rate on artwork has helped immensely. Then I was approached by two local ultra runners who wanted to help. One is an amazing social media person who is good with website content... but not so great at coding. The second.. is great at coding but not so much with content and social media. So I put them together and made a great team of talented web people who crafted an amazing website for us. The exchange? Comp race entries.

So now we have a fully functioning website that looks professional and is light years ahead of a number of race websites that exist out there. We have logos that match the look and feel that we want. We have a following of people who supports us.. and we're only about $1,000 in the hole... but not really since we raised $3000+.

The next step was social media. Let's face it.. it's a booming enterprise these days. Creating Twitter, Facebook and Instagram Accounts.. with the same handle.. is essential to continue to reach runners and make it easy for them to connect with you. Then.. you have to be active. You can't sit idly by and only post when a race happens. You have to engage them. I'm not going to get into the science of social media.. there are whole semester long college courses on this. Having these accounts helps with your advertising. Some Race Directors go out and make a Facebook page for every single race they direct. This ends up being wasteful and spreads runners out across your brand. Instead of having one place for them to go to see and discuss all of your offerings.. you now make them engage with 3, 4, or however many pages you have. People don't have this kind of time. Getting Page likes on Facebook comes two ways really.. Organically through word of mouth.. and through Facebook Ads. We currently have over 1200 Facebook Likes on our Page and we've only spent $200 on Facebook Ads to do so. You pay by "like" or whatever other way you decide on the ad setup page.

There are magazines out there that a lot of races advertise in. Magazines have rate sheets, that tell you how much an X-SizeD Ad costs in their publication. Ultrarunning Magazine has rates for their online newsletter and their in-print ad's. These run anywhere from $200 to $2,400 PER MONTH. Depending on the ad you want in the magazine. Trailrunner Magazine run's special rates for the following year in the Fall... but you can spend similar amounts of money to advertise there as well. Let's face it, putting print ad's in these magazines can cost you a pretty penny. For the first year race director, you might abstain from doing so until you've started making a little more money. Year two or three is a great time to extend your reach to the national audience.. especially while you concentrate on building your brand and working out your kinks. The local crowd will be a lot more forgiving or your shortcomings than a national crowd who starts flying in. Think about that..

The most powerful advertising you can do for your race... is to put on a top notch, well run, nearly flawless event that people have a great time at. You can have the prettiest website, beautiful ads, rocking social media presence.. but if you can't deliver the product in the way our community expects to receive it.. you are sunk! When people run a race.. they tell everyone about the race they've run. They tell the good, the bad and the ugly. They write blog posts and race reports. They make videos and add it to their YouTube Channels. Come up short in far too many areas, especially those the runners in the community deem most important.. and you're just building your own disaster. Figure that 1 runner will reach 10-15 people while talking about your race. It's not that big a community, so if the wrong words gets out.. it'll spread quickly. An example would be UROC here in Colorado. In 2013, they had 307 finishers at their event. However.. word quickly got out that Killian Jornet quit the race after finding it to be "boring," their post-race celebration was incredibly lacking if not non-existent, and word quickly spread through the community. This year, even after adding a half marathon to the fray, they only saw 126 finishers. That's a HUGE Decrease in their business!

Which brings me to my next point. Before I even got started with my own race series here in Colorado, I started a spreadsheet. On this spreadsheet I have every single ultra in the state of Colorado. I then went back in history for the last 10 years (2004-2014) and plugged in the number of finishers for each race over that time span. I even separated races on my spreadsheet by who owns that race, and list all the other races in their series. (See example below). While the number of finishers for a given year could be indicative of conditions on race day more so than the number of entrants, it does still give a good snapshot on the trends in the area. Doing this snapshot allows me to see who is succeeding, how long it took them, then I can take an even closer look to see what they're doing to succeed..

Lastly.. I want to talk about Prize money as a mode of advertising. If you are offering prize money at your race... you are ONLY advertising to the few people who come to your race and have a chance at getting it. So if Anton shows up.. you just spent $1000 on having Anton come up.. and likely a comp entry. Sure.. if Anton run's your race, it looks good for your race. If you have Anton, Killian and Karl Meltzer come in the same year and they run against each other... that's fantastic. Certainly it gives you more visibility. But.. does prize money really help you advertise? I think it's good for the Front Runners.. but that's about it. At my races, I give a comp entry to a future race to those who come in DFL. I put a 50lb rock out on the course and challenge someone to carry it to the finish in exchange for $250. The pictures from this stunt went viral on social media. That to us was worth more than shelling out a few grand for fast people. 95% of the field in your race.. doesn't care how much money the 1st-3rd place runners made today. They'd rather you sink that money into better shirts, more company on the course, and immaculate aid stations. Choose where you spend your money wisely!

Lastly, you can make posters and post cards on Vista Print. You can even advertise on a business acrd size piece of cardboard. I spent two days driving to every single running store in the Denver-Boulder Metro area to drop a stack of these off. It's time consuming.. but it has to be done. Ask other races if you can put cards in their race packets. Most will say yes and generally.. this is an old school way in the community. But with Ultra Races becoming more and more about business.. I'm being told NO by other area RD's or not being answered at all. That's right.. I'm being told, "No.. you're competition" or being down right ignored. All because this is business. True.. it's business.. but again.. this used to be a community.

I think I've done a good job discussing a lot of the many aspects of advertising your race in this post. There are a number of things to consider. I truly believe that in this sport, the best way to advertise is to put yourself out there. Not by paying for ads or sinking deep money into flashy stuff.. that has never worked in this sport.. but by putting YOU out there. Being a member of this community, a respectable member, is worth more than any print ad in a magazine. You need credibility above all else, without it, you're done before you really get started. The two races I showed you above, are directed by runners who have been in this sport for a decade or more. Same with Gnar Runners, Collegiate Peaks, Leadville, Hardrock.. they're all run by folks who have been in the sport and have run DOZENS of ultras over the years.. not just a few. Look at Aravaipa. The Coury Brothers have been running ultras for a decade and between the two of them, they have over 100 finishes. With those numbers alone, their advertising is done for them.

So instead of laying down the bills, and trying to sink deep dollars into advertising.. do the real work. Meet the people. Get out there. Be a part of your customer base. Run with them. Build this community, and celebrate all that it is. Together.
This is Part 7 of a multi-part series focusing on the ins and outs of race directing. You can read the previous three parts by clicking their links below:
Part 1: The Decision
Part 2: Your Course
Part 3: Permits
Part 4: Infrastructure
Part 5: Expenses
Part 6: Insurance, Shirts, Shwag, Volunteers