Publicity, Sponsorships, and the Social Media Quagmire

Update: Thanks everyone for the great feedback, whether here or somewhere else! Please continue to provide it at any time. There are a couple of things I wanted to mention that arose from that feedback. 1) In the interest of transparency and full disclosure, any social media post I make specifically for a sponsor or any recommendation I make for a sponsor’s product will be hashtagged with #sponsoredpost. Sometimes I might still tag a sponsor on an otherwise normal post, but the litmus test will be me asking myself (and honestly answering) “would I have made this post if it weren’t for a sponsor relationship?” 2) I’m of course open to supporting great causes. If anyone has one in mind please feel free to message me.

Let me start this post with this: I have no idea what I’m doing. I majored in electrical and computer engineering, the one thing at NC State where they required us to take both a public speaking and a writing class because they thoroughly expected us to be completely socially inept and incapable of basic communication. So I lack authority on this topic almost to the point of it being comical that I’m writing about it, but I have learned quite a bit and put a good deal of thought into this over the past year or so. I wanted to pass along those thoughts and my experience. Hopefully it might be useful for anyone in a similar situation, or even interesting for anyone who is not. Discussion, feedback, comments, advice, etc. are all welcome and appreciated.

I’ve actually been meaning to make this post for quite some time, but wanted to be sure I could put real thought into it. The usual priorities (family, work, training… sometimes sleeping), and of course making the very posts that I’m going to discuss in this post, didn’t leave time for doing that. In the meantime, I’ve seen other perspectives on this topic covering a wide spectrum (Bobby Geronimo’s scathing post and Dakota Jones’ satirical take both come to mind).

This post isn’t about what other people are doing, though; it’s not my place to say what other people should or shouldn’t be doing. One of the people I’ve looked up to and admired for years is Jared Campbell, who I think has a rather minimalist approach to social media and publicity. I also have a great deal of respect for Jamil Coury, one of the people mentioned in Bobby Geronimo’s post. He has an immense love for the sport, is living that out daily, and a lot of people get inspiration from that. I also of course owe him a great deal myself for two loops of navigation at my initial Barkley attempt in 2015.

But again, this isn’t about other people. This post is just about the path that I’ve taken, for now, and how I ended up on it. At times I feel like the punk band that signed with a record label, but so far I don’t regret where I am.

The Conflicting Cultures of Ultrarunning and Triathlon

Before I go further, I want to quickly note the somewhat obvious differences between the two sports I’m involved in. Ultrarunning has a rather pervasive anti-corporate culture. And I completely relate to that. It’s a sport built largely around self-sustenance and being free of any sort of influence or obligation. Experiencing that feeling is a huge reason I run. Races are largely an excuse for people to experience that together and to see just how much they’re capable of without a lot of the usual supports found in other races.

This is the scene at the 2017 Barkley, typical for most ultras. Photo: Conrad Laskowski

In triathlon, the vast majority of the people out there are still there to find and test their own limits. There is a much larger chunk of the community, though, that does it largely to brag about doing it. The actual quote posted in Ironman merchandise tents, made by the Ironman founder, is “Swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, run 26.2 miles BRAG FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.” That bragging doesn’t end with the races; it expands to the gear. The expensive bike isn’t just to go faster; for some it’s just to say that they have it.

This is the scene at the IM 70.3 World Championship in Chattanooga, typical for all Ironman events. I’ll admit, I wasn’t able to resist a couple of the TN flag items.

I operate at the intersection of these two sports: one that largely eschews commercialism and one that embraces it. And it’s largely due to that that I’m writing this post: I’ve wrestled heavily with how to fulfill the expectations of one culture without alienating the other, or worse, alienating myself.

The Past – Anti-Corporate, Social Media Recluse

I was the kid in middle school who absolutely refused to wear Abercrombie & Fitch, Aeropostale, Hollister, and whatever else the cool kids were wearing back in the 90s. Even as a teenager, the logic of me paying someone else a premium in order for me to advertise for them blew my mind. “No mom, buy my clothes from Goody’s instead and then use the savings to buy me that sweet seafoam green ’93 Taurus.” Once I got to high school and realized I might be able to make it the rest of my life wearing nothing but shirts from races, I thought I was in the clear.

Don’t mind me, I’ll just be chillin’ over here in my UBS / Paine Webber Relays shirt
Wait, you mean UBS and Paine Webber are companies?! You leave me no choice.

This viewpoint continued through college and right into the start of my ultrarunning career. When Facebook started I caved to peer pressure and reluctantly joined. I shared a pretty bare minimum and managed to avoid all other social media. My closest friends and family had trouble getting personal info out of me… no way I was going to tell a bunch of random people on the internet what I was up to. Twitter? What can I post about in 140 characters? My lunch? Why on earth would someone want to know what I had for lunch?

My unwillingness to share info was a bit ironic. I’m a data scientist, and I want as much data as possible on everything possible so I can find useful patterns (with one use case actually being to tell companies who to target with what marketing). Perhaps it was actually because I knew the extent of the things that could be done with my data that I was loath to provide it.

I can’t make this stuff up: my first Facebook profile picture was of me hiding in a fort I made at our place in college.

When I started racing again, I was largely oblivious to social media and its role in the sport. What I did know, is that I looked at the people with all the fancy gear and the logos all over their shirts and wanted nothing more than to beat them. Especially in triathlon, where I was on my 12 year old Craigslist special racing against their suped-up bikes with aero wheels.

I think I’ll fill my trophy mug with the tears of all the people whose bikes cost more than the combined value of every car I’ve ever owned.

Above: 2015, Below: 2017

The Transition Period

Social Media Acceptance

I finally relented and signed up for Twitter sometime before my 1st Barkley attempt, mainly so that friends and family could follow me in the race easier. It wasn’t until after my spectacular failure at my 2nd attempt that I realized I could actually use social media for more than reporting major life events to close friends and family. I was blown away by the number of messages of encouragement I received, and stories of people telling me how my 5th loop start had inspired them. At that point I thought, “ok if what I do can actually provide motivation to others, I guess I’ll share a bit. Worst case, no one cares but I’ve at least created a record of stuff for me and my family to look back on.”

I only got one more book, but I didn’t know the real outcome of this moment until after the race. Photo: Leon Lutz

I still kept my social media usage pretty minimal, though. I did start to notice that people liked pictures, and Instagram seemed to be the easiest way of sharing pictures publicly, so I made an account. Then leading up to this year’s Barkley I started to get a lot of people asking me similar questions. I had never, ever wanted to start a blog, but after some convincing by my friend Anne (from fANNEtastic Food) I again relented and made a blog before the race. Again, I thought the worst case was no one would care but I’d at least get all my race reports collected in one place. Best case, people could come get those common questions answered here.

And so there I was, a week out from Barkley with an actual social media presence.

Sponsor Exploration

As I progressed in racing, I realized two things. The first is that doing this stuff can be expensive. Gear, nutrition, entry fees, travel… it adds up quick. The second is that if I wanted to test myself against the best, I couldn’t do it in triathlon on a Craigslist special. You can’t fight physics. A faster bike goes faster. I can’t emphasize enough how much I prefer that aspect of running, where essentially everyone is on a level playing field if they can afford a pair of shoes, but my preference doesn’t make me go faster either.

Wait, you mean super fancy expensive shoes matter now too? #%#$@

After qualifying for Kona I decided I wanted to give one or two more years to find the upper bound on my potential in triathlon. And I wanted that to be limited by my own capabilities (and time), not by my equipment. I didn’t want to be talking in twenty years about how good I’d have been if I’d had the chance. I also didn’t want to be telling my kids in twenty years that they didn’t have a college fund because dad wanted triathlon gear.

I first reached out individually to some of the companies that I had already come to trust for my training and racing. For example, I had come to rely on Hammer’s products pretty heavily, all my interactions with them had been positive, and I already told anyone who asked what I used. I had worked hard to get to where I was, and I figured if I could essentially continue doing the same thing, but do it publicly and receive a benefit for doing it, why would I not?

I felt I was also in a place where my results were good enough for me to apply for teams, which would provide benefits from all the team sponsors, so I sent in a few applications. I actually ended up with a few options and went with Team Every Man Jack specifically for the people, rather than the benefits. There’s a strict no elitist jerk rule on the team and everything I could find on the team remarked how they were a great group of guys who were outstanding ambassadors for the sport. I was sold, and my life as a sponsored triathlete began.

I think this was my first sponsor post. I still had no idea what I was doing. That anti-chlorine shampoo is for real miraculous, though. 😉

Learning by Doing

I’d like to quickly restate the main thesis of this post: I have no idea what I’m doing. I at least now know what I don’t know, though, which is half the battle. When I started with sponsors and social media, I had no idea what I was even supposed to figure out. The initial shock of having people I haven’t met care what I’m doing, and then having companies actually provide me with things and knowing they expected something in return (but what?!) put me into a mode where I took a shot in every direction hoping I’d at least hit the target once. It was similar to my panic when I first got into Barkley: “What should I do? Run all the hills? Which hill? There’s a hill, I should run up it!”

In thinking about this, my mind went back to my control systems engineering days. I was behaving like an underdamped system (shown below). The dotted line is where you want to be. If you try to run straight to it your momentum carries you past it, but being slightly underdamped and overshooting a little is actually the quickest strategy for converging to the dotted line. Whether it’s the best approach depends on how harmful it is to overshoot.

Image: https://www.quora.com/What-are-over-damped-critically-and-under-damped-systems

So in a lot of my initial posts, I was just tossing stuff out and hoping it was right. On sponsor posts, I was tunnel-vision focused on trying to help the people who were helping me. Once I slowed down and looked back at some of those – yeah, I overshot a few times. The one below is a great example of one I’m not very proud of in hindsight. Is anything in that post untrue? Nope. Did I take a really cool picture of me and my dad and re-purpose it for marketing? Yup. One of my good friends actually called me out on that post, which is something that I’m extremely grateful for when done privately and constructively. It provides a bit of damping to ensure the overshoot isn’t too far. (The really cool thing about that picture, and the reason my dad sent it to me, is that this is at the spot where I would collect my final page before finishing Barkley 28 years later).

I also increased my general social media activity, as my initial sponsor posts were pretty direct and I knew really missed the mark of my original goal of social media: to provide motivation and knowledge to people who cared to follow me. Some people watch the Super Bowl just for the commercials, but I don’t think my posts are quite exciting enough for that to work. I think I’ve gotten better at merging the two types of posts, but I never want sponsors to become the reason that I’m using social media.

At this point, I feel I’ve at least made it past that peak overshoot and am starting to converge.  Hopefully this post will help someone else converge at the right rate and avoid having to learn too much from their own mistakes.

The Present – Selective Corporate Partner, Social Media Journeyman

Over time I’ve added a few more individual sponsors. Each one has resulted from first identifying companies that I already believed in and relied on heavily (e.g Chopt, Ultimate Direction) or that would be highly beneficial to form a relationship with (e.g. Georgetown Sports Massage), and then thinking of whether there’s a way that I could help them. I’ll never make a secret of where my support comes from, and the full list (in addition to the Team EMJ sponsors) can be found here on my Partners page.

Ultimate Direction wasn’t yet a sponsor during this year’s Barkley, but I had been relying on their vests for three years. Photo: Tyler Landrum

Most relationships do have terms that say what I’m required to do (e.g. X posts per month) and what I get in exchange (e.g. $Y of product), but for the most part I’ve found things to not be so formal and contractual as long as both parties feel that they have each other’s best interests in mind and are doing what they can to help. If the relationship is a strict quid pro quo arrangement, then honestly it’s probably not the best match. Yes, there have been companies that I’ve sought out that didn’t feel I could provide value to them (George Dickel and McCutcheon’s… just think what we could have done together!). The reverse has been true as well. Adding extra companies that aren’t a great match just dilutes what I’m able to do for those that are important to me.

This is gold McCutcheon’s! Absolute gold! (I don’t drink coffee, but I think the way a lot of people feel about coffee is how I feel about apple butter).

One thing I’ve realized is that it’s not just about getting free stuff; it’s in my best interest to see these companies succeed. They make what’s best for me, and I want them to be able to continue making new and even better stuff. Plus, I genuinely want other people to know what works best for me, as they might find it also works great for them and save them some time and cost on searching and trying stuff (I don’t get any sort of kickbacks for people clicking on any of my links or using any of my codes, with the exception of the Hammer code that’s only posted on my partners page). Gear and nutrition are very individual, though, and two people won’t necessarily find that the exact same approach is best for them.

To that end, I absolutely use everything I ever mention, and would be using it whether I was posting about it or not. I try to make posts showing me actually using the product and/or explaining how I use it. Early on, during the overshoot, there were some posts along the lines of “I used my X from Company Y to do Z! What a great product!” Now, I try to aim for just pictures with captions that say “I did Z!” It’s pretty obvious what I’m using and explicitly pointing it out has probably been annoying at best and insulting at worst. A few times people seem to have even been personally offended, like when someone called me a corporate shill on Twitter for the post below (strangely, the Twitter account was deleted later that same day).

The Future – Corporate Mercenary, YouTube Sensation?!

Nope, not at all. I certainly hope not; that’s just not me. Social media is absolutely a love / hate relationship at this point. I probably wouldn’t even have Twitter (definitely not Instagram or a blog) if it weren’t for running. At my core, I’m still a geeky introvert who would rather spend all my computer time either writing code or playing WOW. I want to use social media as a tool for communicating who I am, without letting it change who I am.

Image: https://no.pinterest.com/Noxfae/

At times I even still wish Barkley remained a little-known event in a little-known sport. Something I love about some of my favorite races (e.g. Barkley, TWOT) is their small community and low-key feel, but I don’t think that means the races should be hidden to enforce the preservation of that feel at the cost of preventing others from having the opportunity to enjoy them. If they do become a bit too big or well-known, limited entry with priority to vets can be started, and it’s also a great opportunity to start another race. And fat ass events and casual trail runs will always be great anywhere any time (and is all I did my first couple of years in the sport).

On sponsorships, I never want to be using something just because I’m getting incentivized to do so. I race because I want to see what I’m capable of, and I won’t compromise my ability to find that limit by using something that’s not best for me. The data scientist and academic in me has researched the current companies I work with and I have high confidence they’ll help me reach my potential. Does this mean I’ll never use something I wasn’t using before getting sponsored? Not at all. Taking in new information and adjusting our views based on that info is critical for progress in anything (apparently no one has told Congress that). If someone comes to me and says “try this out” I’m of course open to it. And I know that my current sponsors appreciate knowing that my support is genuine, not just because I’m incentivized, and that I’ll provide honest feedback to help them continue to improve.

I recognize that the reason a lot of people supported me for Barkley is that I was viewed as the every man. I wasn’t an elite athlete with a long list of sponsors – I was just a guy with a job and a family who had worked my tail off. If I could do it, that gave a lot of hope to people for what they could do. I still come from that same background, though, and that’s largely what I still am. Yes, I have a few sponsors and a public presence, but nothing else has changed. I still work the same job, and it’s a great job, but it’s also at an early stage start up in one of the most expensive areas of the country and is the sole source of income for a family of five. If I can get some added benefit from essentially doing what I’m already doing, and then use the savings to take my son to a monster truck show, dang straight I’m gonna do it.

With that said, I still really have no idea what I’m doing. If you ever take exception to anything I do, or have any advice or feedback, please send me a brutally honest message. Let me know what you want me to post about, or what you’d like to see more or less of. But if it’s really brutal just please don’t tweet it to me, comment on one of my posts with it, or put it somewhere else public. That’s just mean. 😉

One final thing I’d like to mention goes back to the beginning of this (now lengthy) post: the added motivation I used to get from trying to beat sponsored athletes. Now I’m the sponsored guy with a target on my back. Honestly, though, I enjoy that. I’ll do everything I can to keep someone from beating me, but if they do beat me and they get an added thrill out of it, that’s pretty awesome.

12 thoughts on “Publicity, Sponsorships, and the Social Media Quagmire

    • September 26, 2017 at 1:10 pm
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      Hahaha For the Horde! I was on an alliance-heavy server, so sadly I never got the actual achievement… loved battlegrounds, though. Thanks, and glad you enjoyed it!

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  • September 26, 2017 at 3:10 pm
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    You and your fancy memes 😉

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    • September 26, 2017 at 3:31 pm
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      Haha I believe the Uncle Rico one is the first one I’ve ever actually made. The Arya Stark one is ripped from Pinterest (with attribution of course).

      Reply
  • September 27, 2017 at 9:26 pm
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    Great post. Interesting to get some insight into your thought/action process. Glad you decided to start a blog after all!

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    • September 27, 2017 at 10:08 pm
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      Thank you, glad you enjoyed it and hope I can keep coming up with interesting stuff to put on here!

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  • September 28, 2017 at 11:11 am
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    This is such a great post (and not just because you gave me a shout out – thanks!). Accepting appropriate opportunities we receive while also making sure to stay true to ourselves, and not to go over the top in terms of “selling” can be a hard balance to strike. It sounds like you are settling in to that balance quite nicely – and it was really interesting to read the evolution of your sponsored journey. Thanks for sharing it with us! (Also, that photo of your fort with the “no girls allowed” sign is amazing)

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    • September 28, 2017 at 1:34 pm
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      Thank you, and thanks for the help getting me there! I weathered many airsoft battles in that fort. It stood the test of time, never falling… until my roommates got tired of not being able to get to the front door.

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  • September 28, 2017 at 5:04 pm
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    Great post. To be honest I’d never heard of you until the 2017 Barkley (I’m a back of the pack UK runner who has ventured into the world of ultras via a couple of 50k races and I don’t really know of many US runners), but I enjoy your posts. I don’t really notice the sponsors too much so they can’t be overly aggressive on the sponsorship front. I like the fact that you seem to be an ordinary, down to earth guy and unlike most triathletes I know! 😉

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    • September 28, 2017 at 5:35 pm
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      Thank you, that’s great to hear! And haha most people hadn’t heard of me until the 2017 Barkley, although I know I had a few people at least in the UK cheering for me this year. Best of luck with your own running!

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  • October 20, 2017 at 3:47 am
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    Great post as always! Sincere, open, unfiltered!! Many thx John!! Keep on rockin!!

    I also very much enjoy your photos, writing you from Greece makes it is a dream for me to be able to visit your country side, to be able to breath some of the ari you are breathing especially during Barkley!! Anyways….

    Take care, all the best!

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    • October 29, 2017 at 6:26 pm
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      I think the feeling is mutual on visiting the other’s country side! Thank you, and all the best to you as well

      Reply

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