How New York's Marathon Organizer Is Running in the Wrong Marketing Direction

New York Road Runners' Top-Down Approach Undermines Its Most Important Asset: Its Community

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On Thursday, Aug. 23, the more than 40,000 people registered for the ING New York City Marathon received a startling wakeup call. In an email, the CEO of organizer New York Road Runners informed participants that , starting this year, there would be no bag drop at the marathon.

This did not go over well.

For participants, it means personal items, including dry clothes, will not be transported from the start and available for pickup after the race. The letter and an accompanying list of FAQs explained the efficiencies this would create for NYRR and its supporting cast of police, volunteers and Parks employees; and it made an attempt to assuage participants by saying there would no longer be a long walk and wait for baggage after a grueling 26.2 miles (a cause of complaints in past years).

Hours later, NYRR members (active and inactive, easily more than 100,000 people) got the same letter.

Social-media networks lit up with complaints -- and, importantly, snipes at NYRR. Almost instantly, another 34,000 heard the news via Twitter; Facebook runners joined in the discussion to the tune of tens of thousands; and the issue is still running through the blogosphere. By Monday morning, 1 million people had heard of or chimed in on the move. The conversation had gone global. Most of the sentiment was resentful of the move (as measured by social-media monitoring technology). And, already, a variety of service suppliers are taking to Twitter to offer solutions to runners. Meanwhile, the decision and the outcry made headlines from Running Times to The New York Times.

For the folks complaining, it was the last straw in a series of changes NYRR had made to their races without consulting the community. The backlash drove a clear drop in goodwill for NYRR. A few choice comments from social media: "asinine"; "pretty weak for how much you pay"; "I bet the elites will have their bag well cared for." The uproar grew louder Tuesday when a blogger posted that NYRR had consulted several supporting organizations privately back in January and simply closed ranks when the no-baggage idea was soundly rejected.

The point of the story for marketers is threefold. First, people expect transparency, consultation and collaboration in the internet age. At the very least, they expect advance or engaged communication on an issue that affects the community. For better or for worse, they will extend this unwritten contract beyond the social realm. Second, marketing can't fulfill on the brand promise without support from the complete enterprise. Third, classic operations-first mentality doesn't fit a social-media world. While we're both runners and Fred's a NYRR member in this year's marathon (not keenly affected by the policy, being a Manhattan resident), our fascination is with the marketing crossroads.

It's not a top-down world anymore.
Community engagement, and the sentiment that springs from it, bucks the expectation of corporate management. And when the community is enthusiast-based, the resistance to one-way communication can be fervent. The analog playbook says management decides what best for the operation. For NYRR, there's tremendous efficiency in doing away with the collection, carting and redistribution of personal items. However, that 's less important than nurturing the running community. The social playbook says management does what is best for the wider enterprise, including communities in brand decisions.

A community isn't a database.
This is where mindsets collide. NYRR is demonstrating the perils of a database mentality in which contacts are message recipients, and the top only listens when there are complaints. With a community, what counts most is how you communicate -- from when you prepare people for change to how you actually announce, explain and process it. It's a simple matter of courtesy, but a tremendously important component in social decision-making.

Given that its brand exists for and because of runners, a community whose connection is passion, why wouldn't NYRR connect, listen and respond to the community before a crisis point? Ironically enough, the New York Marathon depends on thousands of volunteers, most of whom are dues-paying NYRR members.

Community comes with a cost and a responsibility.
When courted with respect, a brand community self-perpetuates. When dictated to, it revolts. Now that companies are beginning to crowd-source key attributes -- ideas ranging from message to customer service to product development -- the most avid online consumers are becoming conditioned to inclusion. That expectation is setting a new brand standard.

Social washing isn't coming clean.
In simply providing an email and a hashtag (#nyrrlistens) for complaints, NYRR did what a number of organizations do now: Use social media as a catchment for scorn. Relegating social to the aftermath belies the power of the channel and opinions of the group. The approach rings as hollow as, "You're one of our most-valued customers … current hold time is 30 minutes." By contrast, soliciting feedback first, then explaining the final decision, shows people they're valued.

Marketers need to listen and engage before the crisis points in order to activate one-to-one brand ambassadorship on a global scale. Admittedly, this will take most companies out of their comfort zones, as it has with any quantum leap (consider electricity, oil-fueled transportation, and space travel). Ultimately, the social-media generation will force business to make media everyone's job, with a shared community connection from the start.

Steve Ennen is president of online monitoring company Social Strategy1, and Fred Pfaff is president of marketing/PR consultancy Fred Pfaff Inc.
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