How do you market a virtual race? Strategies for promoting a virtual race.

We’ve learned a lot from six years of hosting virtual races. Great software is only half the battle—a lot depends on how and when you, the race organizer, communicate about the race. Below, we sketch out some of what we’ve learned.

Timing

Just because you can create the skeleton of a virtual race in 20 minutes doesn’t mean you should start a virtual race next week. The longer the runway between opening up race registration and the race’s start, the better your race will do

To maximize participation, we recommend:

  • Nonprofits should open entries at least two months before the race’s start.
  • Companies should open entries one month before the race’s start.  

Psychology

Big companies and charities often fail to pull off successful virtual races. Why?

  • Virtual races can be tar pits for organizations with committees of managers, designers, marketing VPs and copywriters.
  • Each job title seeks add value, which frequently, unfortunately, actually creates friction and delay.
  • Big companies and charities often are tempted to try to brute force virtual race adoption. “Let’s buy some ads in USA Today”… “Let’s spend six weeks creating a video to explain our virtual race.”
  • Here’s the bad news: that six week delay while your company creates a video could have been infinitely better invested in simply recruiting influential racers.
  • Committees often ignore the core driver of virtual race success: social validation. Think about it: how many ads or explainer videos Facebook, Instagram or Twitter ever invest in? 
  • Don’t waste time debating gift cards or monetary prizes. Pride is the prize.
  • Fight the urge to call another committee meeting. Rely on a simple link and FOMO to sell your race.

Setting an entry fee

How you price your race can have a huge impact on how many racers show up. This isn’t an issue for many company races, which offer free entry for staff. But for charities hoping to maximize a mix of entry fees and donations, the decision is crucial. The right strategy is counter-intuitive: keep fees low, but not zero to maximize the overall proceeds from the race. Lots more thoughts in this post about how to price virtual race entree fees.

Stage 1: start with influencers

  1. A virtual race only becomes real when enough people believe in it. Most humans won’t try something new until they see others doing it. So start with marketing to true believers and aspiring leaders, then help them recruit other racers.
  2. Tap into natural rivalries/networks by recruiting team leaders first: division A vs B vs C
    region 1 vs 2 vs 3
    sales vs marketing vs manufacturing vs admin
    middle school versus upper vs alumni; parents vs kids vs faculty; basketball vs soccer vs swimming vs orchestra  
  3. When you use a test race, be sure to recruit potential ambassadors and influencers! They’ll be crucial in helping spread the word and reaching early participation milestones.

Stage 2: expanding the circle

  1. Work email lists and Facebook repeatedly, plus Slack and Instagram if your organization is strong in either.
  2. Create a sense of momentum and urgency by accelerating communication frequency as race day approaches. Set big goals privately and keep expectations low publicly. Then announce the success of any milestones passed. “Wow, 500 racers registered, can we get to 1,000?!” etc, etc. 
  3. Do regular Zoom calls with all ambassadors or team captains to get everyone fired up.
  4. If competition doesn’t fit your group’s ethos, consider a “uniteam race,” in which everyone’s miles roll up into one avatar. This lets everyone, even the least athletic participants, feel they’re contributing. In a uniteam race, there’s still an individual leader board. This approach just softens the ‘race’ angle. 

Content strategies

We recommend successive waves of Facebook posts and email blasts to your organization’s potential racers (whether staff, past racers or past donors) to build momentum for the virtual race.  

Some ideas for content for social media or email blasts: 

  • A video of different racers lining up on their personal ‘starting lines’ (chalk line in sidewalk, etc)… cheesy and user-generated beats slick corporate look. (Here’s an example.)
  • A digital bib from your race
  • Your race’s route map
  • Highlight rivalry between various groups that are relevant for your race. If the race is national, pit alumni against each other. If the race is within a company, pit departments or divisions against each other. 
  • Use an image of a Google Street View from along your route. To get this, enter an address here (not our site.) 
  • As momentum grows, highlight the number of signups or donations. Create tangibility for your racers and donors. “We’ve raised $$, that’s enough to feed 10 hungry families for one week.” 
  • Momentum and social validation, not explanations and fancy designs, drive signups. So keep it simple. “We’re doing a virtual race. Here’s the link!”  The goal is to get people to click through to the race, see the map and, very importantly, see the list of racers who have already registered.
  • Tell a story. This race offers a great example: “Why are we calling this ‘Run Forest Run’? Midwest Boston Terrier Rescue saved a puppy’s life earlier this year. He was going to be euthanized due to his misshapen front legs. So we saved him and will cover his $3,500 surgery and additional medical costs. The puppy’s name? Forest! So we are running for Forest. He is a rambunctious, energetic little puppy who doesn’t know anything is wrong. And we want to keep it that way! So let’s run for Forest so that he can keep running!”
  • If prizes are important to your community, reward participation but avoid physical prizes when possible. Think social validation and shout outs, vs. branded water bottles and t-shirts. 
  • Leverage your social media platforms and the race page message board to create engagement and “contests” like, “Post a picture with the hashtag #myvirtualstartingline” or “Tell us why you’re here by using the hashtag #thisiswhyirun.”

Communication timing

Here’s a suggested timeline for content to drive race entries and donations. It includes references to fundraising since some of our events are for nonprofits. 

Depending on how many people you message, 10-20% of signups may come from your first big blast. 40% may come in the days just before and after the race begins. In a competitive environment, 40% of donations may come in the last week of the race. 

Ten weeks before race start

  • Identify leaders of groups related to your organization—running clubs, divisions, offices, breweries, branches—who are particularly excited by either your cause or the idea of competition
  • Send them “FYI notes”
    • Hey, I wanted to give you a private heads up. We’re thinking of doing a virtual race. The race will last X weeks and cover X miles. We think it will be good for fitness and camaraderie. 
    • If you’re interested in helping us launch this, I’ll let you know more as our plans develop. 
  • If doing an ambassadors’ test drive, do a 5-day warm up race.

Six weeks before race start 

  • Mode: Organization mailing list or CRM
  • Focusing on: insiders/loyalists
  • Subject: 
    • You’re the first to know! Announcing [organization’s] first virtual race!
    • Shhh, it’s a secret!
    • Ambassador invitation.
  • Content: 
    • Media: digital bib
    • We’re inviting people we think can be ambassadors who will help us make this race big! 
    • As a long-time [organization] fan, you’re one of the first to hear… 
    • Enter now to get unique insights and play a leading role in making this race a success. 
    • We’ll announce this publicly on TK date, but be the first to sign-up and start pushing it out! 
    • Tell us how you want to be involved!
    • Using Racery. Here’s what some past racers have said…

Four weeks before start 

  • Mode: Organization mailing list or CRM, Facebook
  • Focusing on: entire organization mailing list, Facebook audience
  • Subject: Announcing [organization’s] first virtual race!
  • Content: 
    • Media: sample bib and/or race map
    • Get X days of fitness, morale-boosting and competition. And help [organization] raise money.  

Two weeks before start 

  • Mode: Organization mailing list or CRM, Facebook
  • To: entire organization mailing list, Facebook audience
  • Subject: 
    • Announcing [organization’s] first virtual race!
    • Join X other racers
    • Join companies A, B, C
    • Compete with [company name] accounting, sales, engineering departments in our first virtual race!
  • Content: 
    • Media: digital bib or route or a Racery video, either our intro or extra features
    • Get X days of fitness, morale-boosting and competition. And help [organization] raise money.  
    • Join companies like A, B, C, that already have teams

One week before start 

  • Mode: Racery’s “announcement” dashboard, or racer contacts exported into organization CRM  
  • Focused on: Registered racers
  • Subject: We’re happy you’re racing to support [organization]!
  • Content: 
    • Media: image or table of leading donors or fundraisers
    • Wow, this is going to be a fun virtual race. Already, X people have signed up and Y have already contributed.
    • As you know, this is our first race, and we’re beating expectations. 
    • With your help, we’d love double the number of racers and donors. 
    • You’re signed up, help spread the word! 
    • Click to join the race: https://racery.com/r/NAME/#about
    • Click to donate: https://racery.com/r/NAME/#contributions 

2 days before start 

  • Mode: Email platform and Facebook
  • To: Everyone
  • Subject: Last chance to enter before [Race name] starts!
  • Content: 
    • Media: route image or image/table of leading donors or fundraisers, image of the current roster, messageboard activity, etc. 
    • Last chance to join before our first virtual race starts.
    • Wow, this is going to be a fun race. X people signed up and Y already contributed.
    • Click to join the race: https://racery.com/r/NAME/#about
    • Click to donate: https://racery.com/r/NAME/#contributions 

Afternoon of race start day

  • Mode: Email platform and Facebook
  • To: Everyone
  • Subject: And they’re off! XX miles logged, $$ raised — you can still join in on the fun!
  • Content: 
    • Media: screenshot of race map with avatars, or table of biggest donors or fundraisers
    • # of activities, # of people that have already submitted miles (percentage active this week participation metric feature?)
    • # new sign-ups since race began
    • We’ve got X racers already logging miles but it’s not too late for you to join the fun.
    • $X already raised. 


2 days after start 

  • Mode: Email platform and Facebook
  • To: Everyone
  • Subject: There’s still time to join [count] virtual racers raising money for [organization name]
  • Content: 
    • Media: screenshot of race map with avatars, or table of biggest donors or fundraisers
    • We’ve got X racers already logging miles but it’s not too late for you to join the fun.
    • $X already raised. 
    • Highlight a short quote about the race from one or two racers.
    • Click to join the race: https://racery.com/r/NAME/#about
    • Click to donate: https://racery.com/r/NAME/#contributions  

Community content during the race

Creating emails or social media posts throughout the race boosts competition and camaraderie.

Modalities

  • Racery announcement email dashboard to racers
  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • Slack

Messages

Your posts and emails can highlight:

  • post an image of racer or team avatars on the route
  • give a shout out to racers #1, #2, #3 in the leader boards
  • individual with the longest single day mileage
  • interesting Google Street Views
  • highlight interesting hashtags
  • highlight new personal records for distance or continuous exercise days
  • interview a racer who says “this has been so motivational!” (you’ll definitely hear this)
  • highlight interesting photos posted by Racers
  • highlight the most liked mileage log
  • using the admin race report, highlight interesting activities and their frequency

Charity-specific content

Post a big donation to Facebook

See a big donation come in? (Depending on your organization, “big” varies by race. Could be $100… could be $10,000. Probably worth waiting for a donation that’s either >$500 or 3-5 times bigger than the median amount of your first five donations!) 

You’ll receive a notification about the donation and can find this donation in the race’s activity feed (https://racery.com/r/RACE/#recent). To share the donation on Facebook, click the carrot top right on a big donation (illustrated below) and you can post a snapshot of the donation to your organization’s Facebook page. 

This recognizes the donation, nudges other donors to step up AND can spike new race registrations by 10%. (Note that, if “all racers” is selected, all racers will have automatically gotten a note about this donation and donor already.) 

When surpassing first significant fundraising round number

  • Mode: organization email provider, Facebook
  • To: All 
  • Subject: Wow, we just raised $X,000
  • Content: 
    • Thanks to a donation by [name], we’ve just raised surpassed $x,000.
    • This is our first virtual race and we didn’t know what to expect. 
    • So far we’re doing better than expected. 
    • Help us do even better. 
    • Think we can get to 2 x $x,000? 
    • How can you help? 
      • We’ve got Y donors. Spread the word and help us get 2Y. 
    • You can give in the name of all racers here (https://racery.com/r/RACENAME/#contributions-back-all)! 

A week before race end

  • Mode: organization email provider, Facebook
  • To: All 
  • Subject: One week left, help us reach $X,000
  • Content: 
    • We’re getting ready to wrap up our first virtual race.
    • We’ve raised X so far! 
    • Won’t you donate? 
    • You can give in the name of all racers here! (https://racery.com/r/RACENAME/#contributions-back-all) or use the pulldown menu to back a specific racer or team! 

2 days before race end

  • Mode: organization email provider, Facebook
  • To: All 
  • Subject: Almost there, help us reach $X,000!
  • Content: 
    • We’re getting ready to wrap up our first virtual race.
    • We’ve raised X so far! 
    • Every contribution counts. We’ve got X donors now and would love to get to Y.  
    • You can give in the name of all racers here! (https://racery.com/r/RACENAME/#contributions-back-all) or use the pulldown menu to back a specific racer or team! 

One day before race ends

  • Mode: organization email provider, Facebook
  • To: All 
  • Subject: Can we top $10,000?  
  • Copy might include: 
  • The race ends tomorrow at midnight. 
  • We’re at $8,785. That’s fantastic!!!
  • Let’s try one more push and get over $10,000.
  • We can do it? 
  • YES! If everyone in the race gives $20. 
  • YES! If everyone in the race sends out their fundraising link and gets two friends to give $10. 

7AM of your race’s final day

  • Mode: organization CRM, Facebook
  • To: All racers and everyone on the nonprofit’s mailing list
  • Subject: Twelve hours left, help us reach $X,000
  • Rational: in a few races with intense donor competition, we’ve seen donations double in the last 48 hours
  • Content: 
    • Wow, what a journey this race has been.  X participants. X donors. And $YY donations! 
    • (IF you’ve got teams or groups, highlight those numbers too!) 
    • Help us end our first ever first ever race with a sprint. 
    • You can give in the name of all racers here!