Racing a marathon and running a successful marketing campaign have a surprising number of similarities — in fact, here are 26.2 things they share in common, and the lessons they can teach us.
I’ve been running marathons since 1998 and working in digital communications and marketing since 1984 — two pursuits I’m passionate about that may initially seem quite dissimilar, but which really do have much in common when you begin to look closely.
The Importance of Pre-Race Planning
The marathon isn’t a race you want to run with no training or on a whim — and even if you did, the notoriously unforgiving distance has a way of giving runners back just what they put into it. Skimping on training usually spells disaster when it comes to marathon running.
Similarly, successful marketing is usually the result of putting in the necessary planning the way runners pack in the marathon training miles.
Let’s begin our 26.2 mile marketing marathon with our first steps and lesson number one.
Mile 1’s Lesson: Have a Great Training Plan
A time-tested training plan is a vital part of preparing for a marathon — whether it’s one of the popular multi-week plans from Hal Higdon, Pete Pfitzinger, J. Daniels, or a custom variation you’ve tailored to your own style of running.
Similarly in marketing, a proper and well thought-out plan is important when it comes to tackling any new campaign.
A good training plan in both running and marketing will help you get the most of our your race or campaign, starting out by setting benchmarks and goals to hit along the way as you build up to the big race or campaign launch.
In marathon running it’s often said there’s no substitute for getting in the miles, and with marketing too there’s no magical elixir or great secret about what needs to go into a top-caliber campaign, so it’s a matter of finding what works and making a concerted effort at every step of the journey.
A marathon training plan will usually cover the period of between eight and 16 weeks before your target race, and by analyzing how you handle the daily prescribed workouts, you’ll be able to gauge how prepared you are when race day comes around.
In marketing, how detailed and dedicated you are in following the planning process will have a direct effect on what happens on the day of the big campaign launch.
The runners and coaches who’ve devised top marathon training plans are similar to the marketing industry pioneers, experts and influencers who we can look to for guidance when mapping out a big new B2B marketing initiative.
Both marathon training and marketing planning benefit from relationship building, as runners will want to forge relationships with other runners using the same training plan, or sometimes even the author of the plan themselves.
Similarly, marketers will want to interact and learn from as many of the experts as possible who have devoted their careers to the powerful marketing methods that go into creating a successful pre-launch campaign plan.
The experience and credibility of the people you learn from and follow during both marathon training and marketing planning has a direct impact on how your training and campaigns will perform, so it’s important for runners to build relationships with people who have had marathon success.
For B2B marketers, it’s ideal to work with and learn from those who have planned and executed highly-successful and award-winning campaigns.
Congratulations! You’ve passed one of the biggest obstacles of running a marathon or creating a great marketing effort — getting started with those first steps. Let’s move on to another lesson as we reach mile two.
Mile 2’s Lesson: Know Your Running & Marketing Training Paces
Marathon training plans spell out the workouts that will best help prepare you for race day, with some days set aside for long runs, some for mid-speed tempo workouts, and others for faster interval repetition sessions.
Successful marketing plans also focus on specific aspects of bringing a campaign to the starting line, with preparations including the long-run equivalent of creating strong content or digital assets, a tempo-like initiative of finding and working with the right industry experts, and an interval-like burst of effort to plan for both organic and paid promotion.
It’s easy to get excited about a big name or an influencer with a large following, but neither of those will necessarily translate to your ultimate goal of delivering results to your organization. @martinjonesaz Click To Tweet
Well done! You’re already approaching mile three and a new running and marketing lesson.
Mile 3’s Lesson: Warm Up Before Running or Marketing
Especially at the top level of marathon running, a carefully planned pre-race warm-up is an important part of training, and chronologically the last piece of the puzzle before the starting gun goes off.
Elite marathoners work hard to keep their body at an optimal temperature up to the last possible moment, and during the 15 minutes before race time you’ll find them running their warm-up routines.
For top marketing performance, before a campaign begins it’s not the physical warm-up routine that will help during an imminent launch, but the psychological boost that comes from having reviewed all of the planning you and your team have done, and ensuring that you’re in the most positive state of mind when launch time arrives.
The Right Race Equipment & Marketing Tools
Marketers and runners both need equipment to have the best performance possible, so let’s take a look at some of the lessons we can learn from our running and marketing equipment, as we move along to mile four.
Mile 4’s Lesson: The Shoe Hits the Pavement
For 99.9 percent of marathon runners — unless you’re Abebe Bikila who won gold sans shoes at the 1960 Olympics — wearing the right shoes will be an important part of your training and racing.
The time to learn which shoe works best for your feet is during training, keeping in mind that you should never allow yourself to make the rookie mistake of wearing brand new shoes on race day, even if they’re the same model you’ve used in your marathon build-up. Slight construction variations in shoes, along with wear patterns specific to your foot strike, mean that you should always race in a shoe you’ve trained in for at least a week or more.
The marketing tactics you’ll use in your campaigns represent similar important choices, and you won’t want to be trying unplanned and untested methods once your big campaign has launched — the time to test them is during your pre-launch planning phases.
Test your marketing tools and services on example campaigns, and use your team to uncover any shortcomings in the lead-up to launch, rather than in the days after your effort has gone live.
What’s that ahead — can it be the five mile marker already?
Mile 5’s Lesson: Wear Comfortable Shorts
Finding the perfect running shorts for your marathon is another seemingly insignificant equipment choice that can have a surprising impact on the outcome of your race.
Shorts that have too many seams or other uncomfortable construction methods are likely to make you more and more uncomfortable as the miles go by.
As with shoes, the time to try out different shorts is in the weeks and months before your race, so resist the temptation to race in those flashy new shorts you just got at the marathon expo the day before the race.
Marketers too need to find the methods that work best for them over the long haul of a modern digital marketing campaign — one that is likely to last substantially longer than even an ultra-marathon.
Try to find and use the marketing solutions that augment and work alongside your strengths, and hold off on those that just aren’t in-line with the way you and your team work, or your desired campaign goals.
Mile 6’s Lesson: Use Tried & True Socks & Techniques
You might think that something like the choice of which socks to wear — or whether to wear any at all — during a marathon is insignificant, however in distance running as well as in marketing, even the smallest details can over time and miles add up to being either great assets, or debilitating troubles.
Race in socks you know well from training, with the right amount of padding, wicking abilities, and other performance features for your needs.
Similarly with marketing, don’t neglect the small details with campaign components such as proof-reading, testing, private trial runs to gather feedback, and other aspects of strong project management that your competitors may be skipping over.
Mile 7’s Lesson: Wear a Race-Worthy Singlet
The shirt or singlet you race your marathon in should be comfortable, with a minimal number of potentially abrasion-causing seams, made from modern wicking materials, and since it’s such a visible part of your race-day gear, you may want to choose one that speaks to your own personal fashion style.
Elite marathoners are usually required to wear the singlet featuring their sponsors’ logos, but at all other levels you’ll have great freedom to choose in this area.
Some runners use an easy trick to give themselves a small but powerful edge during the marathon: simply use a permanent marker to write your name on the front of your singlet. I did this one year running Grandma’s Marathon in my hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, and I got more encouragement from supporters lined up to watch the race than I’d had in all my previous marathons combined.
In marketing, how you package your campaign is similar to the choice of which singlet to wear. Certain B2B campaigns will require you to use very specific sponsorship images and messaging, while other campaigns will allow you to have nearly free reign over how your efforts will look when entering the digital world, whether it’s social media video and messaging, paid search advertising, or the new audio branding possible with podcast marketing.
Mile 8’s Lesson: Utilize Timing Chip & Marketing Tech
When I first started running marathons in 1998, the ones I ran hadn’t yet adopted timing chip technology, where a small plastic clip containing an RFID chip is attached to a shoe, but not long after that nearly every marathon was using them, making it easy to record official times at checkpoints along the marathon course, and also helping family and friends wanting to track a racer’s progress during the marathon.
In many marketing campaigns, making it easy for customers and fans to share your digital asset and messages is also important — whether it’s a full-blown interactive big top experience like the one we recently launched for Content Marketing World — or a more traditional blog article or infographic.
Check out the full interactive experience by clicking on the image below:
Well done, marketers — the nine-mile marker is already in sight ahead!
Mile 9’s Lesson: Energize Along the Way
Fueling before, during, and after a marathon is an important piece of the racing puzzle, and also one you’ll want to work out and master before race day comes around.
Smart marathoners know which variety of energy gel or bars will be available at the aid stations along the course, and will either learn to run fueled by them during training, bring along their own favorite racing energy food sources, or have family and friends positioned on the course to have them ready.
A savvy marketing effort will also benefit from having pre-planned boosts of digital energy to invigorate and re-fuel a campaign as it progresses, which can come in the form of:
- Daily or weekly social media promotions
- Special events rolled out to coincide with your campaign
- Contests and polls that are scheduled throughout your efforts
Could it be mile ten already? Why yes, there it is now, along with another marketing lesson from marathon running.
Mile 10’s Lesson: Get a Phone or Watch Advantage
I ran my first marathon using a GPS training device in 2003, when I set my then state-of-the-art Garmin Forerunner 201 to help keep me on pace for my goal time.
Its tiny low-resolution black-and-white screen showed a rudimentary stick figure and noted whether you were ahead or behind goal pace. That day I saw only one other person wearing a GPS device.
Today however, it’s hard to find a marathoner who isn’t using one — whether it’s a sport-specific watch or pod, or a cellphone in an armband using a dedicated running app such as iSmoothRun, my personal favorite.
In the same way, successful digital marketers are always adopting new technologies to improve their efforts.
Some tools are built to help keep your campaign efforts on pace to reach your goals, just as in marathon running, while others are focused on planning or post-campaign data mining and analytics.
Finding the right marketing tools in an ever-expanding sea of choices can be daunting, however we’ve done plenty of research and in the following articles dig in to some of the most powerful utilities available for B2B marketers:
Mile 11’s Lesson: Don’t Forget Your Hat
A good hat is another piece of marathon running equipment you’ll likely want to have on race day, if not to keep out the sun, at least to soak up the sweat a race-effort marathon will produce on all but the chilliest days.
Another seemingly minor decision, hats have been known to play a factor in the outcome of a marathon. During the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon trials, famed runner and now top coach Alberto Salazar went to a level of preparation not previously seen, when on an exceedingly hot race day he provided his runner Galen Rupp with new dry icy cool hats at various points along the course. Rupp went on to win the race, and ultimately earned a medal at that year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“In today’s fiercely-competitive marketing world, a fanatical attention to the minute details can be all that separates a Cannes award-winning campaign from one relegated to the digital dustbin of marketing history.” @lanerellis Click To Tweet
Mile 12’s Lesson: Marketing So Bright You’ll Need Sunglasses
Sunglasses can of course help runners block out sun, but they can also help inspire and provide motivation, through the use of the many varieties of colorful lenses available.
For several years I reserved a special pair of sunglasses with yellow-tinted lenses for marathon day, and knew that when I was seeing the world through them that it was time to focus all my hard training on the immediate task ahead: hitting my mile splits, one at a time, through to the finish line.
In marketing, we may not have special sunglasses, but when campaign roll-out day comes, we can utilize a wide variety of special means of encouragement to help us focus on our goals.
For some this may be waking earlier than normal, doing extra exercise, eating in an especially healthy manner, or simply using music that energizes and encourages you to do your best work.
Mile 13’s Lesson: Your Unique Identification Number
In each marathon’s pre-race package you’ll find a number bib to pin to your singlet — a unique identifying number for race officials and spectators alike to track and chart your progress during the race.
Without a number bib a racer would be what’s known as a race bandit — someone who’s jumped in the race without paying.
Marketing campaigns also have their own unique names and numbers, whether it’s an internal company code name, an official campaign effort name, or one of the identification numbers used by the various tools we use to track campaign performance against goals.
Whether you’re the top-seeded racer wearing the #1 from winning the previous year or #22839, it’s your job in both running and marketing to make the most of what you have from the position you’re starting in.
Marketing efforts can cause formerly small clients to achieve skyrocketing success when done very well, and for marathon runners one of the great unifying aspects is that everyone starts running at the same time and, theoretically, even someone at the back of the pack could win. There have even been cases where elite marathoners have shown up late to a race and gone on to catch up to the leaders after passing thousands of runners, something also sometimes possible in marketing.
On Your Mark — Get Set — Go!
Now that you have your training, planning, and equipment lined up and in order, let’s move on to strategy for actually hitting the starting line in both marathon running and marketing.
Mile 14’s Lesson: Starting Line’s Launch Day!
This is it! The months and seemingly endless miles of training are complete. Every pre-race ritual has been attended to, and you’re completely prepared to run the best marathon you can for the day.
While the starting line is a place to focus on the difficult task ahead, don’t forget to at least give some acknowledgement to all the effort you’ve made to reach this point, and to think of all those who have helped you along the way.
The energy and excitement at the starting line of a marathon, whether large or small, is one of the most amazing experiences in all of running, and smart runners won’t block it out entirely, but learn to feed on and draw energy from these magic moments.
Launch day for marketers is similar, as a time to focus intently on the efforts ahead, to recall the expert planning you’ve done to give your campaign the best chance of digital success, and to think of and thank the people who have helped you reach launch day.
Mile 15’s Lesson: Keep To Your Plan & Don’t Zoom Out
Going out too fast is one of the most common mistakes new marathon runners make on race day, as the pre-race excitement and pent-up emotions all let loose when the starting gun goes off, and hundreds of runners all around you dart speedily onward.
Knowing that most runners will start too fast, smart runners hold back and work hard to stick to their predetermined mile-by-mile pacing plan, whether it’s through using the virtual training partner on your phone or smart watch, sticking to a pacing group, or simply by starting out running at a pace that feels too slow compared to those around you.
Most marathons have runners line up in sections corresponding to their goal finishing time, with elite runners on the actual starting line, and others positioned at spots set aside for those expecting to finish in three, four, five or more hours.
B2B marketers can also learn pacing lessons from marathon runners, as during campaign launches it’s important to not unleash more than you have allotted for launch day.
Mile 16’s Lesson: Hydrate & Nurture Your Body & Campaign
As the marathon progresses, smart runners will know exactly where every water and sports drink aid station is, from studying official pre-race information, and they’ll follow the plan they’ve carefully laid out and used on long runs in training.
Knowing how to best hydrate your body with water and sports drinks, and how to keep it cool using the sponges and shower misters on hand at many marathons, are also areas savvy runners will have learned and perfected in training.
As marketers we need to hydrate our campaigns too, by doing everything possible to keep our careful plans on track, with the skill to make quick adjustments on-the-fly as needed. Keeping up on the latest industry trends can help keep your marketing skills nimble, and here are three recent article we’ve published to help in that regard:
Mile 17’s Lesson: Utilize Aid Stations & Social Platforms
More than just tables to grab water from, marathon aid stations represent the important passage of miles along the course — just like the official mile markers — often festooned with colorful and fun markings such as balloons or even particular themes.
Many marathons have aid stations that are run by various non-profit or corporate organizations, each with their own unique style and flair, sometimes including radio stations with live bands. There are also usually many unofficial aid stations along big marathon courses, with supporters offering runners everything from strawberries and candy to beer and tequila.
In marketing, the social media platforms your campaign will nearly always use also each have their own unique rules, features, and strengths, and it’s up to you as a smart marketer to know how to get the most from each one in the grand scheme of your marketing efforts.
We’re explored some of the best ways to achieve success using the top social platforms in the following recent articles:
Mile 18’s Lesson: Get a Boost From Your Fellow Racers
Even the most focused marathon runner will see and interact with fellow racers during the hours spent running, and these runners can provide valuable inspiration during the race if you leave yourself open to the connecting moments each race brings.
I remember running a marathon where a runner dressed in a full official U.S. Postal Service mail carrier outfit passed me mid-race, complete with a letter bag and black leather shoes. He drew cheers from the crowds and fellow runners alike, and ended up setting a fastest-known-time record for a marathon run in a full postal outfit.
Other years there have been people running marathons carrying full-size flags, and there always seen to be runners who race in costumes, such as Elvis impersonators or dinosaurs.
A difficult aspect of marathon running to prepare for includes the inevitable runners you’ll encounter who are having a much worse day than you hopefully are — balled up in agony on the side of the road as severe cramps make them cry and moan.
Seeing these runners is a humbling experience, as each one was previously out there faster than you until the wheels fell off or they became sick or injured. Taking lessons from them can help you appreciate that fact that you are still moving ahead, even if you may not be precisely on your goal pace.
Sometimes you’ll even pass one or two elite runners who have for whatever reason been slowed to a walk or jog, and this too can serve to help you reflect on the small victories you’ve had within the marathon itself — a lesson that also applies to marketing.
Some marathon runners thrive on camaraderie during training and while racing, while others prefer to train and run alone.
As marketers, we can universally benefit from relationship building, whether it’s through using industry experts in a campaign, or the interaction with new clients brought about by smart and well-planned marketing efforts.
Mile 19’s Lesson: Renew with Your Cheering Section
Having your own family and friends along the marathon course or at the finish will undoubtedly provide helpful cheering and encouragement during the race, so if you’re lucky enough to have them, take the time to thank them for coming out and supporting you on race day — if not during the race itself, once you’ve finished.
This holds true for marketers too of course, as the influencers, fans, clients, mentors and associates who’ve helped you and your campaign to succeed should also all be thanked, either in public, in private, or both.
Mile 20’s Lesson: Prepare For & Overcome Rough Patches
In running, hitting a rough patch is often called bonking, and in marathoning this can often happen around mile 20, especially with new marathon runners.
It’s important to have alternate plans and time goals in place, and the flexibility to adjust your desired outcome depending on how badly you may be bonking, or worse yet, dealing with an in-race injury.
On race day, smart runners will also adjust their pacing and finish goals when Mother Nature throws difficult weather conditions into the mix. A rainy, especially hot and humid, or particularly cold day will see experienced marathoners adjusting their goals to meet the conditions at hand — a task experienced B2B marketers will also perform when unexpected elements out of their control strike a campaign.
Having a plan b or plan c are parts of planning that will help should the need ever arise.
Mile 21’s Lesson: Precisely Monitor Time & Campaign Splits
Throughout your race, and especially as you near the final 10K of a marathon, keeping track of the time splits you reach for each mile — which will show how far ahead or behind your time goal you are running — is an important task, and one that gets progressively difficult as your energy levels fall during the later stages of a marathon.
Before smart devices and phones, I used a pen to write my goal time splits on my palms. Later, running companies began offering wristbands with goal mile splits for various finish times from around a 2:45 marathon up to 5:30 or so.
Today, it’s easier than ever to track your mile splits during a marathon, so there’s little excuse for not knowing whether you need to try picking up the pace, or dialing it down a notch in order not to burn out.
As smart marketers we also note and celebrate important milestones during campaigns, and use tools to measure progress throughout the life-cycle of our marketing efforts, whether it’s audience engagement, reach, or other performance benchmarks. Here are several recent articles we’ve put together to help you with these important marketing tasks:
Mile 22’s Lesson: Work with Groups and Influencers
Many larger marathons offer pacing groups to help runners reach specific time goals. The folks behind the CLIF bar helped pioneer marathon pacing groups, and for several marathons I ran alongside one of their excellent pacers — runners usually carrying a sign showing the pace group’s goal time, and sometimes also flags or balloons. Although their particular team is no longer in operation, others have taken up the slack.
It’s reassuring to be able to stick with your pacing group as planned, and equally frustrating to watch them fade into the distance ahead of you if you’re having a bad day on the marathon course.
As marketers we use influencers, industry experts, clients, customers, and sometimes fans to help us keep important campaigns on pace for hitting performance goals.
Mile 23’s Lesson: Marathon Mind-Tricks & Marketing Mantras
During the many hours spent running while training for a marathon, some runners develop subtle psychological practices to help them get through difficult patches. Some of these include:
- Thinking of (or actually listening to, if you’re in a marathon that allows headphones…) an inspiring song
- Repeating a personally-inspirational mantra, saying, or phrase
- Making note of an upcoming tree or signpost and focusing only on making it that far, and then repeating the process again and again
Marketers too can benefit from focusing, keeping a positive attitude, and mindfully working to build up and keep the energy needed when launching and running a modern digital marketing campaign.
Mile 24’s Lesson: Track Those Marathon & Marketing KPIs
Every marathon and marketing campaign will have certain very important key performance indicators (KPIs). For the marathon, these usually come at the 5K, 10K, half-marathon, and 20-mile marks.
Making your time split goals at these mileposts can be especially important in a runner’s mental efforts to stay on-track with reaching an overall race time finishing goal.
Similarly in marketing, hitting important KPI levels at various predetermined points along the campaign journey is especially important when it comes to reaching our overall goals.
Finish Line Fulfillment — Not the End But A New Beginning
You’ve come a long way now, and the end is nearing, so let’s take a look at how to get the very last drop of performance from your marathon and marketing efforts, and savor the hard-earned moment.
Can you believe that mile 25 is just up ahead now?!
Mile 25’s Lesson: Finish Line Celebrations
There’s nothing like the first glimpse of the finish line in a marathon, as it seems to induce your body’s final, hidden stores of energy to release — a boost that only seems to come out when the body knows its work will soon thankfully be done.
If a runner is ever going to feel a euphoric sense of elation, it’s most likely going to come while approaching the finish line of a marathon, knowing that nothing is going to stop you from crossing that line.
It’s a great time to savor the moment and celebrate the weeks or months of hard training and planning, and the same can be said for the end of a successful marketing campaign.
Mile 26’s Lesson: Take Time To Recover & Learn
After the many strong emotions of the finish line, whether they’re for celebrating a goal that’s been met, or disappointment in falling short despite your best efforts, the time will come when you can learn a great deal by examining in detail how your race went — what worked well and what failed.
Some runners like to write down their memories from a marathon as soon as possible after the race finishes, and marketers too can benefit from taking a look back once the campaign ends at what worked and what didn’t.
Having this first-hand analysis of our performance can be invaluable when the time comes to launch the next similar marketing initiative, or to run another marathon.
Mile 26.2’s Lesson: Go The Final Distance & Win Awards
With hard work and fanatical training, a successful marathon may involve setting a new personal record, winning an age-group award, or at the highest level even winning an overall race medal outright.
In marketing, a great campaign can continue on long after it’s officially concluded, by providing a variety of opportunities for derivative works through re-purposing, or even entering and winning various industry awards.
Running marathons can help elevate our lives, enhance fitness, and bring newfound depth to each day, and great marketing can do the same as we boost our marketing fitness.
Thanks for coming along for this 26.2 mile marketing marathon, and I hope you’ll find value in the lessons of each step we’ve shared on the journey together.
I’ll leave you with a link to a short video of the finish of one of the greatest races of all time, with running legends and former marathon world record holders Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia and Paul Tergat of Kenya battling to the very end during the last lap of the 2000 Olympics 10,000 meter final.