Sometimes, marketing can be bigger than just selling a material object. Sometimes, marketing can be bigger than increasing top-line revenue. Sometimes, marketing can rally together a hurt community. Sometimes, marketing can create life-altering moments.
For me, that sometime happened during the CommUNITY Rainbow Run on June 10, 2017 in Orlando, Florida — almost a year to the date of the Pulse Nightclub shooting which claimed 49 innocent lives and injured 68 others.
A quick backstory: that horrific tragedy happened two months before I moved to Orlando to attend the University of Central Florida’s DeVos Sports Business Management program. Regardless, the city was still reeling from those events once I got there and in the months that followed.
The beauty of the DeVos program was it put me and 31 sports-obsessed graduate students together in a cohort. Together, we took MBA-level courses full-time for a year and a half, all the while doing community service and fundraising for a networking trip to the Pacific Northwest.
Very early on in graduate school, sensing the pain in the surrounding Orlando community, a cohort member of ours suggested we host a 4.9k charity run to not only honor the 49 victims but also unite the entire community. And in a way, help heal the community and also celebrate the city’s response to the horrifying events — from the first responders to the output of support from the locals. Instantly, we all latched onto the idea and decided to host the event close to the one-year anniversary.
And that we did to a resounding success. In the end, we registered 830 runners to the first-time event, signed up 12 corporate sponsors, and donated all profits to the onePULSE Foundation started by the nightclub’s owner, Barbara Poma.
But even more than that, we created a shared experience that hundreds (including survivors, family members of victims, first responders, etc.) will never forget. It’s honestly tough to put into words, but the energy inside that event was truly palpable. I have not replicated that feel-good euphoria with hundreds of strangers before or since then.
Now mind you, I don’t think ANYONE of us in the 32-person cohort had any experience with creating such an event, little less one from scratch. Even without a concrete blueprint, we pulled together to make it happen. Why? Because when you have a special event of this caliber, you figure it out — somehow, someway.
Seriously, there’s no possible way we were gonna mess this one up, lack of event-planning experience be damned. If it took sleepless nights (it did), if it took going over budget (it did), if it took learning by fire (it definitely did) — we were going to make this the best event imaginable for the sake of the city that needed it so bad.
My contribution to the charity event was online marketing, which I took the lead on. Ultimately, it was on me to bring this completely-new event to the attention of the community and generate sign-ups to the 4.9K run. Here are the efforts I took to do that and help register more than 800 runners to it:
The very first marketing step was finding a reputable media partner. We felt that would legitimize the event within the community because unfortunately, a group of college students doesn’t always evoke trust off the bat. Building belief in the event was the chief priority, not only to register runners but also to earn the backing of corporate sponsors.
We found that perfect partner in Orlando’s Channel 9, which was the local ABC affiliate. Instantly, they were on-board with our vision and had full confidence that we could pull it off. Alongside the network, we produced radio and television spots that aired on their stations.
Below is one of the TV spots, built around our main campaign story “I’m running for __.” The story urged runners to explain why they’re entering the 4.9k:
The “I’m running for __” narrative was also pushed heavily on organic social. This was our attempt at netting user-generated content as would-be runners shared the below graphic, along with their reason for participating in the event inside the caption. Akin to our media partner, this word-of-mouth marketing was geared to validate the event.
Moreover, we also had a shoe-string paid media budget — I’m talking a few hundred dollars here. That left us with a tough decision on how to spend it. After mulling it over, we poured it into Facebook ads, since the platform’s older demographic overlapped with our target audience most closely.
Most notably, we boosted the official Facebook event page, and let me tell you, things really snowballed from here. From hereafter, the event was shared naturally amongst the community and the word spread far and wide.
EVENT DAY SOCIAL
Come event day, I seemingly ran a 4.9k of my own as I dashed throughout the racecourse to capture content. It reminded me of my journalism glory days only years earlier, live-tweeting games. No different this time around, I attempted to capture the essence of the event on our social platforms.
Without a doubt, the below image was my favorite of the day. For those unfamiliar, Barbara was the owner of Pulse Nightclub. This shot — Poma cheering on runners as they passed her nightclub — really tugged at my heartstrings. The image was later picked up by a slew of media organizations.
Come event day, I wasn’t alone in content capture. Armed alongside me was a photographer and videographer — both of which I hired myself. Once again here, funds were extremely tight. But with a little salesmanship (e.g. this event is for a bigger cause), the creatives agreed to assist for a price well below their working rate.
Enduring Eye provided the photos, while SwiftPro-Motion (also my personal barber) created the below video, which perfectly encapsulated the energy of the entire event:
The UFC DeVos graduate students that followed my 2017 class have continued to host the event annually — growing it bigger than any one of us old-timers could’ve initially imagined. Registered runners are now in the 2,000 range, sponsors have included the likes of Nike and Wal-Mart, and proceeds to the onePULSE Foundation are multiples higher.
Furthermore, organizing the event has become a real-world learning experience for active students, just like it was for us. My own experience planning the CommUNITY Rainbow Run was a second-to-none reminder that when you care deeply enough about something, there’s little that can stop you.
To this day, the CommUNITY Rainbow Run remains my proudest career achievement on so many fronts. Me, I always strive for my work to impact others positively, and up until now, I don’t think anything I’ve done has left a bigger dent than this — both for that whole city and future generations of DeVos students hosting the run.
And second, it really was an all-hands-on-deck team effort to create this event alongside my DeVos classmates (pictured below). It created shared ownership between us all and cause of that, the pre-event struggles hurt less and the post-event wins roared bigger. I’m forever chasing a team like this again, which I believe DraftKings can certainly be.