We here at ARHub take our “virtuous cycle” seriously. We’re firm believers that adventure racing can directly benefit from harnessing modern technology to share best practices in order to help democratize our sport (translation: we help make AR gooder).
One of the least understood, and thus most poorly executed, aspects of AR is the marketing and sales cycle for adventure racing organizations. Given that success in sales is a rare talent, and the fact that many race directors skew towards the engineering mindset leaves a large gap in the community in terms knowing how to easily and expertly conduct marketing for race organizations. Enter ARHub and our favorite marketing guru, Mark VanTongeren of Michigan Adventure Racing.
Mark, before becoming one of AR’s few full-time race directors, spent years in the marketing business, giving him great insight. Mark’s races, besides being fantastic events by themselves, are well known through the AR community for their success in attendance. Mark is selling out all his races, with upwards of 500 (!!!!!) racers at some of his largest races. Mark graciously lends his voice and time to help share his best practices about how to market and sell adventure races. His previous article on building unique Facebook Ads has helped many race directors create targeted engagement to potential races. Now, Mark dives into the phasing and timing of marketing.
Making Good (and Frequent!) Impressions
How much of an impression do you need to make to prompt people – particularly active, outdoors people – to consider doing an adventure race? The oft-cited, never validated “Rule of 7” states that you need to get your product or service in front of a potential buyer through an advertisement seven times on average before they pull the trigger. I think an advertiser came up with that one. More likely, the average number of exposures required to get someone to seriously consider your race (as opposed to “impressions” which measures how often your ad appears on a page accessed by a viewer) is probably closer to three. “The first exposure causes consumers to ask, ‘What is it?’ The second causes them to ask, ‘What of it?’ The third exposure is both a reminder and the beginning of disengagement” (Lancaster, Kreshel and Harris 1986).
[Editor’s note – Mark is making an absolutely critical point. Whether it’s 3 impressions, 7, or even 20, the vital take away is that it requires repetition in order to accomplish the conversion, aka a sale for your race. You cannot simply make an announcement and think you’ve finished all the work in terms of marketing your races. That’s like plotting your route before the race starts then never checking the map again. Everything else in this article is icing on the cake in terms of marketing optimization, so if you don’t get the above point, don’t read the rest of the article. Sales is three things: persistence, persistence, and persistence.]
Brand Building AND Direct Selling
If you build it, they won’t come. You have to sell it. Whether three exposures is the magic number or not, zero or one exposure certainly will not sell a race to most potential racers, especially because adventure racing is such an unknown. You face an uphill battle to earn the dollars of any outdoor endurance enthusiast, as there are many other sports competing for that person’s disposable income. Race promoters must educate and promote, sometimes in the same message. In an ideal world, race promoters would craft some promotion as “brand building” of their organization and of adventure racing in general. However, there’s rarely budget or time to do that apart from promoting a specific race. Realistically, we are doing “direct selling” of a race at the same time as building our race organization brand and explaining what the heck an adventure race is and why it’s so awesome. That’s a LOT of information to get across to a newcomer, and thus repetition is key for success. Just because you’ve explained it once doesn’t mean they get it. Let’s be honest, AR isn’t the most straightforward sport and the complexities of racing against other teams, against the clock, and against the map doesn’t really click with a lot of folks the first time around. So you got to keep reminding them and keep explaining what is necessary to have a good time. Persistence!
We’ll focus on the direct sell of a race in this article. It’s important to engage potential racers with several different formats/tactics of a direct sell. Just like we sometimes encounter a braided channel in a paddle section of a race, marketing channels are also braided. A racer may initially hear about a race through one channel that piques their interest but it’s two channels months later that seals the deal on their decision to sign up. Some potential racers may be focused on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media networks. Others watch the news and see features that were generated by a media release. In-person “pitches” are also highly effective, as you directly engage a potential racer while handing them a promo flyer. Your most target-rich audience is obviously former race participants reached through e-promotions or e-newsletters using existing email addresses/mailing lists. All of these tools are then shared electronically and by word of mouth by interested audiences with their friends and racing community. Word of mouth is much more organic and we won’t cover ways to encourage it in this article, but it should be kept in mind, especially creating and encouraging easy ways to share with friends, family, potential teammates, and other like-minded individuals. Race promoters must engage through most or all of these channels to be really effective (along with other tactics such as event calendars, endurance/adventure race forums, clinics, clubs, sponsor and partner relations, and cross promotion with other races). Bottom line – Don’t rely on just one channel. You need lots of channels for your race to become “sticky”, aka adopted by lots of people who are exposed to it. Again, the theme of persistence is relevant.
Broad Reach, Broad Audiences
Of course, keep in mind your target audience for each tool you use. Are you pitching a race to an audience that has no familiarity with adventure racing? Weave the basics of what the audience would be doing into the promotion of the race. Focus more on the benefits of adventure racing and link them to the race for the details.
In most cases, there is no time or budget to try to craft to a narrow audience like a powerhouse brand would or a marketing class would instruct. Focus on a message and visuals that will draw attention, quickly convey the benefits and excitement of AR, and quickly share the basics of the race with a link to more information. With limited resources, you’re looking for broad reach to broad audiences. Where a tool allows you narrow audiences, such as Facebook ads explained below, certainly take advantage of this, but to break down your email lists into small groups based on interest is probably not worth the effort.
Recommended Marketing Timeline
When: four to eight weeks before race
With limited budgets and time, Facebook ads provided the biggest bang for the buck. Consider Google Ad Words, Instagram, and other social network offerings but Facebook is generally considered the most effective. [Editor – Google is where you go to answer a question you already have, like “what adventure races are in North Carolina?” Facebook is where you go to discover questions you didn’t know you had, like “what interesting things are going on next weekend?”] If you’re on a tight budget, consider trying $50 if you want to test it out. You can narrow the audience by geography, age, and interests (adventure racing, orienteering, trail running, paddling, etc.) to get the ads in front of people most likely to be interested. For more on building Facebook ads, check this article out.
Timing wise, think about how much time it normally takes for a team to gather (especially a new one), train, and acquire gear. Work back from the race date and create your start and end time for your ads accordingly. At four weeks before a race, we see a drop-off in registration so we usually don’t purchase ads after that. And several months before a race may be too early, except for an email to your existing racers to get word of mouth going. Of course, it depends on the duration of the race too. The longer the race, the longer in advance you need to reach potential racers.
Facebook ads generate a lot of valuable data during and after campaigns. Ideally, submit multiple ads that are different from the others in one clear way such as a different image or a different message. This is called A/B testing. If you run these ads for enough time, you can clearly see which ads are most effective. Turn off ads that are not generating as much reach or a high cost per result (e.g., clicks to your website). A/B testing will also give you a good feel for your next campaign what will work best. One thing we’ve learned is hiring a good photographer can generate images that are worth their weight in gold in Facebook ads (and work great for e-newsletters, media requests, website design, etc.)
When: start of registration and four to eight weeks out as needed
Email lists obviously generate more impact as more participant email addresses are collected. Consider using an email distribution service such as MailChimp or Constant Contact which provide design templates and send emails in a way that limits them from getting relegated to spam folders. They are usually free to get started and won’t charge you until you hit a large enough mail list. Because email lists go to audiences that know you, you can usually spend more time focused on the details of a specific race rather than explaining adventure racing. Use email to announce open registration and for reminders as the race gets closer. Be careful not to send out too many emails as people will begin to ignore them. But at the same time, be sure to actually use your email list! Email lists aren’t meant to be collections, sitting on the shelf, always admired but never used. They are a powerful tool that lets you directly engage your most active customer base. Use it wisely, but above all, use it!
[Editor: ARHub uses Mailchimp (free service) to regularly engage our subscribers with the best content from our site and across the AR community. Interested? Sign up at the top of the page!]
When: start of registration, two to four weeks before race, and personal email a few days before race to seek interview or race coverage
Local and regional media LOVE races that are unique. The media is looking for stories that “cut through the clutter” and keep their viewers engaged and emotive, whether that’s a fun story or a story of triumph. Adventure races certainly stand out from road runs, triathlons, obstacle course races and “fun” runs that have saturated the race scene. Races that take place in popular locations such as state or national parks will particularly get the media’s attention, more so by local media in those areas. If you are doing a beginner-focused race and your race includes Amazing Race-like challenges or some other unique aspect (e.g. rappel off a downtown building, rafting down river), it will generate even more attention.
The best way to reach media is through a good old-fashioned media release. Your goal with a release will likely be to get the media outlet to do one or more of the following: invite you to their studio to be interviewed for a taped or live broadcast; interview you in person or over the phone about an upcoming race; interview one of your registered racers as more of a human interest, pre-race story; and/or cover the race with a crew or report on it after the fact. Whether you achieve one or more than one of these coverages, your race has the potential to reach thousands or ten thousands of people. Odds are that several viewers will be interested in your race or will share it with someone who they know would be. Whether or not they actually do the race, you are building the adventure race brand, your company’s brand and the brand of the race and future races. It’s a gold mine at no expense to you, just time.
You’ll need to write a media release and gather a list of media contacts. There are hundreds of examples of media releases online. The basic framework should be to first give the basic What, Who, When and Where information as briefly as possible. Then include the Why and expand on the other categories, especially the format of the race as this will be unfamiliar to the media and viewers/readers. Include a quote from yourself or even better from a local racer who has signed up or who did a previous race. You can even have a friend who has raced before providing a quote as long as it’s their own words and genuine. Provide a link to photos or video.
Rather than attach photos, consider posting previous race photos to an online photo album like Flickr so you can provide a link and allow media to look for images to go with their coverage online or on the air. Even better, if you have “b-roll” video of a past race, let media know. Consider posting it to a YouTube channel so they can watch and grab it from there. When this video airs on television, it allows viewers to easily understand what an adventure race is all about.
Here’s an example of a media release from one of our races. (link to PDF) When you send out a media release, make sure the text is in the body of an email, not an attachment. Consider sending it out when registration opens and again one to three weeks before the race when media would consider making one last appeal to racers to sign up, sending a reporter or camera crew to cover the race, and/or asking for photos from the race (be prepared, they may want shots right when the race is done for their evening or late night news).
The easiest way to gather media email addresses is from their website. Look under Staff or Contacts. Media like to be approachable so most include their on-air personality and reporter emails, but still gather the typical newsroom/release general email they provide. Ask your registered racers if they have a compelling story to tell and share that with the media in your release. Ideally, built a question in your race registration to capture these stories and racer contact information so you can determine whether to include this story in your release or forward it on to a reporter. The media is always looking for human-interest stories; even better if they involve a local racer in a local race. They crave stories with good visuals and sometimes show up at a race to film the action.
Send the media release out when registration opens. Some media will post the registration opening news. Most will not but you now have your first exposure. Follow up one to four weeks before the race or whatever timeframe allows teams to still recruit and prepare for a race but close enough to the race that the media will find the information timely. That’s the balance you must strike. Consider following up with key media a few days before the race to see if they would be interested in an interview or race coverage. It may not help your participation numbers, but the long-term awareness is still very valuable.
So that’s it, folks! Some proven tactical applications of marketing principles tailored specifically for adventure racing! Get out there and make it happen!