NY Social Media Week: The Social Runner

The promised throwdown between Steve Lastoe of New York City Runs and Sean Haubert of New York Road Runners did not happen. But then, I don't suppose it was meant to. This afternoon's panel at Jack Rabbit Sports near Union Square was billed as a discussion of how the New York area running community uses social channels to share training tips, show off, and voice opinions about...everything. It was moderated by Karla Bruning, a journalist, blogger, and NYCRUNS columnist who is currently the sports editor for the Washington Times Communities. It featured Steve Lastoe, founder of NYCRUNS, Kai MacMahon, a tweeter @idiotrunner, runner, and social media guru, and Sean Haubert, NYRR's social media manager. 

To my mind, Sean was the biggest get of the event. As far as I can tell it's his job to absorb everything New York runners want to hurl at the Road Runners while also building a coherent social media strategy to get in front of some of these criticisms. He has to do this at a very well established, old guard institution that clearly seems to realize it needs to change while not fully understanding what, how, or why that change is perceived as so critical. You've got to feel for Sean. He's a good natured and affable guy who is likely the exact right face for NYRR to put on what is essentially a community outreach program in a rather pissy community. I was left with the impression that his presence makes NYRR more nimble and customer focused (and thank goodness for that).

Karla began the event asking about opportunities and risks of social media within the running community. Sean discussed his role at NYRR and their efforts to maintain better real-time contact with members while getting in front of potential crises. He described the PR challenge following the NYC Half Marathon lottery and NYRR's initial slow reaction to the anger building and being expressed online, especially on Facebook. Sean seems dedicated to avoiding another day like that day. He also seems tired, really tired, of Tshirt-gate and half marathon lottery discussions. Perhaps fear of another similar shitstorm will lead to real positive change at NYRR; I think it's already affecting their decisions and approach to customer service. Sean told the story of a flood of media interest when someone tweeted their intent to live tweet the NYC Marathon. This drove media calls and significant interest in discussing NYRR and social media but it was all based on a kind of crazy idea to run a race with 45,000 others while tweeting. I think it points to the media's fascination and awkward coexistence with social networks. Oh, and the fact that Twitter is so hot right now....

Steve raised the potential for social media to reinforce an already robust NY running community by providing access to information impossible to conceive of just a few years ago. New York City Runs was created, it seems, to fill a void that NYRR allowed to form. Without a strong social media presence, NYRR ceded what could have been theirs: a central meeting, discussion, and promotion location for all NYC running. Steve's site remains very much a work in progress, but he seems committed to responding to the desires and interests of the NY running community. Frankly, NYCRUNS offers the potential to be a true partner for NYRR. It's not there yet, but it seems poised to grow into a robust and active community that NYRR will want to talk to in some formal way. 

I appreciated Kai's perspective on information everywhere. He didn't really get the time to expand on his point, but his idea that there are really too many fitness-oriented social media platforms certainly grabbed my attention. Why dailymile and not Strands? What's the best use of Garmin Connect? To take this further—which we did not—what would it take for a dominant platform like Facebook to integrate all this functionality. Could dailymile et al simply become apps on larger platforms? Should they? The other big point here was the rise of Twitter in disseminating real time, local, and critical information to runners. From road and path conditions to potential running partners in a given location about to go running. Finally, Kai raised the idea that there is a gradual fatigue setting in from all this online "community" participation. That's a hard idea to consider in a group who elected to attend a discussion on social media and running, if only because there was nothing like a typical user or runner sitting in the room.

Kai also counseled caution about the many "experts" eager to offer advice, especially with respect to injuries. That same caution certainly should be extended to training advice, race strategy, shoe selection, and everything else we often feel qualified to discuss.

Karla led a discussion of safety that prompted murmurs of assent from a few in the crowd. I can certainly understand the desire to protect personal information and I think most organizations do as well. Fortunately, most of this technology is opt in and it's quite rare for personal information to be published without consent.

We then shifted to charity races and fundraising. Sean expressed real enthusiasm for Crowdrise and its grassroots fundraising model. In 2010, NYRR partnered with Crowdrise to raise more than $30 million during the lead up to the NYC Marathon. Impressive stuff, and I wonder what it augurs for the future of NYRR charity events. Steve and Kai discussed possible animosity between charity runners and "real" runners and while I know there's a real and perceived dichotomy there, it seems less pronounced than in the cycling world. I think this idea might be blowing up right now because of the incredible difficulty getting into premier NYRR events. I wonder if the perception is the same outside the NYC area.

In a discussion of groups and organizations using social media effectively, I was pleased that Steve singled out Inwood Hill Runners for mention. Always nice to hear props for the hometown team. Kai followed by mentioning Body Glide for their social media presence. And Sean discussed Ford's success with the Fiesta brand introduction.

The Social Runner was another chance for NYRR to present its new face to the New York running community. Sean clearly understands the point that if you keep people informed they won't react quite as harshly to even the worst news. Around this Steve, Kai, and Karla did a wonderful job fleshing out a discussion of the uses and abuses of social media. Karla deserves praise for holding the reigns at what might have become much too loose a discussion. The diversity of backgrounds and experience could easily have led to the panelists talking past each other. Fortunately, what we had instead was a thoughtful and relevant conversation about NYRR and the role of social media in the NY running community.