Dear Running Community: What Are We Doing?

Preface: I'm not the kind of guy who does those "Open Letter To..." things...

But, lately it seems that product mentions from the running community have rapidly increased across my social channels. While a good number of the posts have been praise for their experience with a product, a vast majority are spun with product mentions, offers, discounts and other sponsored-like content.

As someone who is an ambassador for brands, and has done his share of product reviews (and spends most of his day job hours in the content world), the irony of this is not lost on the author of this article. Anyone who writes a blog desires that glimpse into a brand where few have access and be able to share that with their audience.  I, like many of my running friends, enjoy the access we get through interaction with brands.

However, it seems lately the story has changed. Somewhere the editorial integrity of honest content skewed onto some advertorially driven tangent. True review posts, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of a product, are being systematically replaced with more brand-friendly, “This is a really cool product” posts – many accompanied by some kind of coupon or offer. What’s even more alarming is the trend has found its way to what once were really quality bloggers. Sadly, I’m finding some of my favorite running-based writers have reallocated their editorial to what seems like: one part running, three parts product. It’s a sad trend that is leaving my social media feeds looking more like billboards and less about content that I care about.

C'mon, guys. What are we doing?

I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve been caught up in the fray. After all, there is only so much running one can talk about.  I’ve found myself, at times, hoping to get the scoop on a new product and share it via my social media for the pure effect of “being in the know.” However, it's a slippery slope between reporting news on a product and being on a brand’s leash. If you run in one brand’s shoes but are busy hyping another brand’s, it’s not illegal, but it’s crummy and people have long memories.

“But, wait!” You may be saying to yourself (or out loud – some folks do that). “Aren’t you a brand ambassador? What about brand mentions, I’ve seen you post brand affinity stuff, too.”

You would be right in that claim, I am a brand ambassador and I also post about brands I love. But, it’s about restraint and balance that allows me to focus on my message first and then allocate resources to helping communicate a brand’s message.

Let me break it down for you a few ways:

1) Regarding my brand ambassadorships: I have always tried to associate with positivity - after all, that’s what this site was founded on - and so I use that belief as a filter to select which brands I partner with (if they’ve reached out to me) or brands that I will actively champion. It’s just a way that I can feel good about what I’m attaching Always Running Forward to, and it helps to keep me accountable for why I started blogging. What that means is you will never see me represent a brand that doesn’t represent something I believe in (sorry, not sorry, Nike), or brands I have no business repping (sorry, Fixodent denture cream).

However, with the responsibility of ambassadorships comes the responsibility of product promotion. When promoting a product, I make sure to sequence the communication appropriately, so the good folks who follow me on social media aren’t inundated with post after post of brand promotion. Lastly, reviews are always my own and will not be influenced by a brand. That includes reviews of the brands I’m an ambassador for, because if you can’t be honest with your friends who can you be honest with?

2) I’m not advocating we turn ourselves off to anything brand focused. If you’re passionate about a brand or product and feel a deep connection, you should have every right to declare that. But, doing it to get the attention of a brand for free stuff? Eh. I just think the balance is a little off and would love to see us get back to why we got into this crazy sport. There are brands that I absolutely love and have no ties to, except that I’ve bought their products and love using them. Sure, I’m going to tell you about them, but don’t do it for the expectation of free stuff. I love Hormel chili! There, I said it and feel better for having said it.

3) Lastly, it’s all about sequencing. If you follow me on any of my social media, you’ll see that sponsored posts tend to come every few weeks with editorial or non-sponsored reviews in between. I make sure to keep sequencing consistent to: 1) not to wear out the effectiveness of what I'm communicating, whether branded or non,  2) respect the brands that have chosen to work with me by giving them 100% share of voice in that section of my editorial calendar.

I believe the responsibility to address these challenges lay within all of us. From brand, to blogger, to runner, to reader, there are methods we can all adopt to ensure the running path stays as clear as possible.

Bloggers

First and foremost, stay authentic. Remember why you got into this crazy world of blogging and running. Don’t let the arm of a brand or the possibility of getting something free be your reason to continue. Stop to think about what you are communicating to your audience. Why did you get into writing? My guess is you are passionate about the sport and like to share it with the world. With that there’s a good chance you’re hoping to score a little swag and there’s no problem with that. But, it’s important to not only believe in your editorial integrity; you have to make sure how you’re communicating that illustrates that integrity so readers don’t formulate their own (and sometimes wrong) opinion.

View your social communication through the eyes of your audience to see how ad vs editorial shakes out. Sometimes we get caught up in trying to communicate so much, we lose sight of the bigger picture. I’m guilty of it too and is something I’m actively trying to rectify.

Think about developing an editorial calendar to help list out what brands you are going to talk about and when, in conjunction with your non-branded posts. Use a scheduler like Facebook Publisher or Hootsuite as a means to stay on track with those posts. When the brands come calling, let them know when you can slot them in and other brands you’re suporting so they get a sense of how you run your operations. It’s also a super easy way to add professionalism to your personal brand.

When posting brand partner content, thinking about setting aside one day of the week that is reserved for brand communication, making the content episodic and something your audience will expect to see on that day of the week. Staying disciplined to that balance of content development will help you to continue to see the bigger picture and may help steer your future posts.

Lastly, please stop buying followers! Just stop. I know, around every corner of social media lay the beautiful sirens luring you into a wondrous world of audiences beyond your wildest dreams for a very small investment. Let me snap you out of that dreamlike state. The Internet has a hair-trigger tendency to call bullshit and very rarely are they without proof to back up their claims. Folks find out you’re buying followers to attract brands? Game over, man. Game over. 

It’s great to have folks be interested enough in your message that they stick around (I’m extremely appreciative of that),  but you don’t live and die by your numbers. It’s what you’re producing is what matters and that story is near and dear to you. After all, that’s why you’re creating and sharing it.

Brands

Back in the early days of brand ambassadorship and influencers, all a brand needed to do was send out some free swag and ask the blogger for a review. Unfortunately, those days are behind us. With the proliferation of social media channels and formats, the crackdown by the FTC on what constitutes an ad vs. an organic post and an unruly, bloodthirsty Internet, brands have to be more accountable to ensure their efforts are not going to waste. It’s hard to believe but the running community is not that big and as the running boom recedes, the community continues to get smaller. What that means for a brand is that it's imperative to know who’s talking about your product, when, how often and what else they are talking about.

Let's talk about audience for a minute, because this one drives me crazy. You (Brand) have to look past the size of a blogger’s audience and instead look for the quality and authenticity. The market is saturated with bloggers who are more than happy to say what you want to them to do. But, is sacrificing authenticity for reach really something you want to do? If you’re evaluating someone who has a site that looks the side of a NASCAR racecar, then you may want to dive deeper into their content before selecting them.

Bloggers with smaller social footprints shouldn’t be overlooked, but again look at the quality of content. Take for instance, LaCroix Water’s micro-blogger approach. They are specifically looking for quality, not quantity and have began a campaign to bring those mircro bloggers forward.

http://digiday.com/brands/the-lacroix-guide-micro-influencers/

Have you selected your ambassador team? Awesome! Work with your ambassadors to develop actionable goals, not just giving a requirement for the amount of posts. Continue to let your ambassadors talk in their voice and let them be honest. But, it’s also important to know who’s posting and when.  After all, it’s your message you want them to communicate, so be there for them. Take the time to work with your ambassadors to see what other brands they are supporting and develop an editorial schedule that ensures only a few bloggers are talking up your brand at a given time. Doing so will stretch your message even further and give you a little more share of voice in that blogger’s personal editorial calendar.  Finally, do periodic check-ins to ensure your team is posting the right information (and staying within FTC guidelines).

How about influencers? Personally, I question anyone that outright calls himself or herself an influencer. I mean, if their stuff is good people will notice and share. Is an influencer even an influencer? What makes them influential? Are they a subject matter expert? Do they resonate with you in a way that makes you want to stop and say, “I’ll buy what they are offering?” Or, do they just like to talk endlessly, wearing you down?

I’ll keep saying this: Look at their content. What does their content do? Does the content provide thought-provoking elements and/or is it gratifying to read? Or, is the content solely focused on selfies and "me" posts? I’m not judging, but know what content you want to align with. How do you see your product as a subject to that influencer's message? Is it prominent or are you good with letting the influencer do what they want with it?

 Sadly, the content that lives on the site a lot of influencers I've evaluated lacks in the depth department. Of course, there are folks out there who are really doing it well and have really strong content that provides in-depth reviews, perspective and honesty (DC Rainmaker is one of the better ones out there). I’ll leave it up to you to find the not-so-great ones; there are enough out there and they are pretty easy to find.

Also, according to this Digiday article, the threshold of influencers is nearly upon us and brands/agencies are wising up. So, we'll see what the future has in store for influencer marketing.

http://digiday.com/agencies/confessions-social-media-exec-no-idea-pay-influencers/

But, most importantly, brands. If you take away anything from this post it’s this: Stand for something. Social media is one of the only places you have the potential to be human, so make sure you know what you stand for. After all, you’re asking bloggers to communicate on your behalf. If you don’t know what you’re all about, then how will they know?

Take for instance, a national running shoe brand that has me perplexed. I have no earthly idea what they stand for, except that they send bloggers places to collect one or two pieces of general content. When looking at their website or any external communication, there’s no mission statement, no defined point of who they are, or what they care about. Personally, it makes them look like they don’t have their act together and therefore; I don’t believe what they (or their ambassadors) are selling.

The Entire Running Community

Look, friends, this post isn’t intended to stop the influx of product placement. Brands will continue to reach out to bloggers and we will continue to accept products and share our thoughts. But, is there a way we can all work together to make this work better?

I don’t have all the answers, nor do I want you to believe I do.  But, I know what I see and more than enough fellow runners have seen it, too. I’m just hoping that we can all get back to focusing on what we love and focus less about the perfect branded Tweet, Snap, Facebook or Instagram post.

You, the reader don’t have to settle for this. The reason many of you read blogs and watch videos is to get information or to hear about a race experience. Our responsibility as bloggers is to give you that experience. Sometimes it will come with a brand message, but if that’s all you’re seeing from a blogger, well is that runner a blogger or a billboard?  We need to keep each other accountable to keep the running community strong.

With all of that said (and I hope you’re still with me):

Here is what I propose, let’s take a day to #JustBeARunner. This one day, we in the running community will just be runners. No brands, no sponsored posts, no shout outs. We’ll just run for the thrill of the sport. #JustBeARunner Day will be dedicated to just the runner and the run.

This is not intended to penalize brands or runners; rather we’ll just take the day to indulge in the persona-lness of the sport and to share that exhilaration.

I hope this post isn’t taken as an attack on anyone as that is not my intention. I’m just tired of seeing the clutter and as I mentioned before, others are too. My hope is with this post we can all take a step back and focus on the organic awesomeness that is our running community.

Run fast. Run smart.