With tens of thousands of running events in the United States each year, organizers face a growing dilemma: How do you stand out and bring runners to your race?
The answer often lies among participants themselves. Thanks to social media, runners have become highly visible fans for the runs they love.
Race directors have taken notice and turned that enthusiasm into the best kind of advertising: word of mouth. Race ambassador or race advocate programs, which rely on volunteer runners, have become a popular—and relatively inexpensive—way for organizers to publicize their events.
In return for their efforts, runners receive prizes such as free race entries, running gear and gift cards. Many programs give their ambassadors special codes to distribute to the runners they recruit. When those runners register for the race, the ambassadors get credits toward specific prizes.
“It’s a good way for the people who are already strong advocates for our race to be rewarded,” says Alexa Strobridge, regional brand manager for Life Time Athletic Events, which organizes the Novo Nordisk New Jersey Marathon & Half Marathon.
The Pioneer Programs
The ZOOMA Women’s Race Series was one of the first running events to have an ambassador program, says ZOOMA founder Brae Blackley. When she started the program six years ago, her goal was to increase registrations.
Since then, it has grown from just a marketing strategy into a close-knit community of women.
As a result, Blackley has relaxed the program’s requirements over the years. The biggest change is that ambassadors no longer have to refer a certain number of runners in order to get a free race entry. If they are selected to be an ambassador, they can compete in one or all three of the races free of charge.
“We’re in a friendship as opposed to a business relationship,” she says. “It’s more like a club.”
Blackley used to have a point system with lots of prizes, but it became too much to manage and took on a negative tone. Some ambassadors who brought in a lot of registrations viewed the program as a job and complained they weren’t getting enough in return, she says.
“You want people to be promoting participation because they believe in it and the mission, not because they feel like they have a job to do,” she says.
Blackley looks for women who are good race promoters and have a positive attitude.
“Most of our ambassadors have blogs or are very active on social media,” she says. “They are already very passionate and inspiring other people to run. It’s a natural fit.”
ZOOMA ambassador Erika Howder, 45, of Arlington, Va., says before becoming an ambassador for any race, make sure you are doing it for more than just a free entry.
“If you don’t think a race is good enough to pay for, you shouldn’t be an ambassador,” she says. It’s also important to look at the requirements and make sure you have the time to do them, she adds.
ZOOMA is not the only race series with an evolving ambassador program. The Hot Chocolate 15K/5K Race Series began one in 2012, but organizers have made a lot of adjustments to it since then, says Josiah Ragsdale, experiential marketing supervisor with RAM Racing.
At first, organizers focused on high-profile runners to promote the races, but it became apparent the events needed supporters who had strong local running connections. Because the events are only once a year in each city, it’s important to have ambassadors who can ramp up excitement ahead of time.
“I don’t want people who are just social media-centric,” he says. “You have to be literally engaged in the community. I look for people that other people already know. They are active in running clubs. They produce local races.”
This year, the race series, which is held in 14 cities nationwide, has 90 ambassadors.
Ragsdale explains that volunteers have to dedicate about five hours a week over 10 months for activities such as race expos.
“I try and email everyone once a week,” he says. “I would say it is important to develop a strong sense of community, so you don’t feel like you are a supervisor and an employee.”
But the program is serious business, too.
“I bring back ambassadors year after year, if they enjoy it, and they have a lot of redemptions,” he says .
Such dedication seems to pay off. For example, one top performer recently earned a flight to a Hot Chocolate race with a friend, a hotel stay and other prizes.
A New Idea for Some Races
This is the first year the New Jersey Marathon & Half has an ambassador program, Strobridge says, and the 12 selected ambassadors must meet certain requirements to get rewards. For example, they have to organize two promotional events for the race, such as leading a group run or handing out flyers at their local gym.
Ambassadors are also expected to spread the word through social media. In order to get a free entry to the marathon, ambassadors must get five runners to register for the race. The more runners they refer, the bigger the prizes. Ambassadors who get 50 people to register receive a $300 gift card to the running store of their choice.
The hope is that the ambassadors will help draw more runners from outside New Jersey. The event typically has about 8,000 participants, and there is room to grow, Strobridge says.
Ambassador Elaine Acosta, 41, of Somerset, N.J., says because she is a member of the Raritan Valley Road Runners, involved with her local gym and active on social media, taking part in the program isn’t a huge commitment.
The rewards are fun, but she also enjoys helping other runners as an ambassador.
“If it’s your first marathon or half or first event, it’s good to have someone you can get in touch with for questions,” she says. “It can be intimidating.”
A Chance to Share a Message
Not all ambassadors are drawn to the program for the prizes. Corey Queen, 43, of Louisville, Ky., is an ambassador for the Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon and miniMarathon.
He says he enjoys his role because it gives him a platform to share his story. In 2010, Queen was 100 pounds heavier and suffering from severe sleep apnea. Queen was in such poor health, he feared he could die in his sleep. So he started running, and in 2011, finished the Kentucky Derby Marathon, his first marathon.
But he wasn’t managing his work stress well, and in 2014, he suffered a stress-induced heart attack at a work function.
His brush with death convinced him to quit his job. These days, Queen takes care of his four children most of the time and works a few days as a personal trainer.
“It’s a world of difference,” he says. “When I’m going to work I’m happy, and when I’m coming home I’m happy, instead of carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders.”
He frequently gets messages on social media from strangers who read his story on the Derby Marathon website and list him as their race ambassador. As a result, he has brought in some 50 race registrations. “I don’t really get caught up in it,” he says.
Queen, who will be running the Derby Marathon for the third time on April 30, hopes to especially inspire people who have just started running.
“I remember the first race I ever did was a 5K,” he says. “The first time I crossed that finish line and my kids were cheering me and my wife was cheering me. My wife tearing up. I have never forgotten that. I feel like everyone deserves that feeling.”