Smash your race marketing with tips from the running industry

BUPA Great North Run places still available

Cameron Lund looks at some of the key players in the running industry, how they market their events and what others can learn from them.

What can running teach us about great marketing? As a digital marketer and someone who has spent countless hours pounding pavements, these are the kinds of questions that keep me up at night. Whether you think that’s cool or a little bit sad, my pursuit to answer this question has yielded some findings that will be of interest to anyone who is looking to grow their business. Whether you’re a restaurateur or selling a new brand of sticky tape, all the methods detailed below can be applied to any industry and achieve great results. So lace up those brain trainers, and let me run you through my findings.

Following some analysis of major running events in the UK, I’ve noticed that they often have great visibility online because they naturally adopt best-practice marketing techniques. In the examples used below, you’ll see how the Great North Run has produced great content to achieve rank for high-value keywords, how the Virgin Money London Marathon has maintained excellent search rankings by creating mutually-beneficial relationships, and how Hackney Moves fostered a spirit of inclusivity to drive social engagement.

Let’s take a look at how they did it.


Leveraging mutually beneficial partnerships – Virgin Money London Marathon 

Running events are very popular amongst charities due to the significant amount of money raised by race participants. Few races do this better than the London Marathon, which raised a whopping £64m in 2019. But there are many other organisations that benefit from being associated with this prestigious event, including commercial partners like New Balance, media partners like the BBC and the various councils that are involved. These mutually beneficial relationships are critical to the widespread promotion of the race.

Collaborations of this nature are a dream for search engine optimisation. The London Marathon has encouraged a multitude of high-profile websites like, and to link to the Virgin Money London Marathon website. Every link from reputable websites like these is a digital vote of confidence, ensuring the marathon site remains ever-present on running race related search terms around the world. reports that the London Marathon site has almost 10,000 link partners, which illustrates how many connections they have made along the way. This allows them to dominate search engine page rankings, achieving a #1-3 spot for approximately 160 running related keywords. This kind of exposure leads to thousands of organic clicks to the website every week.

Whilst this level of exposure would be ambitious for a normal organisation, the rewards of cultivating mutually beneficial partnerships are available to everyone. There are very few businesses that work independently of others, so taking a moment to note down entities that benefit from your service will usually present a wealth of opportunities. Suppliers, commercial clients, partnerships and even long-serving customers are all there to help promote your organisation. This can be in the form of a link to your website that will boost your ranking, a social post, or just having them generally shout about the great work you’re doing.


Building a spirit of inclusiveness – Virgin Sport Hackney Moves Festival 

Hackney Moves is a ‘festival of fitness’ that takes place over a weekend every Summer in East London. It started out as a race called ‘The Hackney Half’ in 2014, becoming an instant success after 9,000 runners crossed the finish line in its very first event. It has since gone from strength to strength, almost doubling race participation over 5 years with the help of new management under Virgin Sport. Of all the great things they’ve done to improve the race, their marketing strategy is perhaps the most crucial to the event’s growth.

Throughout all the online content created and shared by the Virgin Sport marketing team, there is one consistent theme; the people. Honestly, go onto their website and try to find an image that doesn’t have a runner in it (It’ll take you a while). Where they could have chosen to share images of the route, running gear or professional athletes, they made a clear choice to emphasise the importance of the every-day person. This has built a spirit of inclusiveness for race registrants through design, making people feel comfortable engaging with the brand. You can see this reflected in the steady build of @VirginSport Instagram followers, increasing from 2,000 to 20,000+ between 2017-2019.

This has done wonders for the event’s awareness. A growing social following broadens the content distribution when users comment or share posts, and the longevity of the content also increases as each post makes its way onto the feeds of their followers’ connections. When more people view a brand’s content, it increases the likelihood that other websites will link to the brand. It also increases the traffic to the brand website. If Hackney Moves wasn’t an event that promoted inclusivity, it’s likely that Virgin Sport would have missed out on thousands of valuable social likes, comments and shares that have contributed to their success.

If building a social following is on your to-do list, think about how you can encourage people to play a more active role in engaging with your brand. Focusing on the people using your product or service and reflecting that in your advertising is one way to do it. Can you think of others?

Building hype with great content – The Great North Run 

Running events like the Great North Run are lucky because they are intrinsically exciting. Attendees are guaranteed to witness high emotion, record attempts, crazy costumes, success stories, injuries and much more. That said, the race only takes place on one day and there is a lot of marketing effort involved in getting people there in the first place. This is largely done by the Great North Run marketers hyping up the event with great content. It’s time very well spent according to Google, who regularly tell marketers that “creating compelling and useful content will likely influence your website more than any other factor”.

The Great North Run team have spent a lot of time thinking about what topics would get people involved, allowing them to produce a range of high-quality posts that appeal to a broad audience. This has included:

  • Training tips
  • How to get kids involved in running
  • Exercising during COVID-19
  • Promoting similar runs
  • Recipe inspiraton
  • Weight-loss stories
  • Fundraising attempts
  • And loaaaaaaaaads more...

By taking the time to think about what is interesting to potential runners, the content team were able to build the hype around their event and get traffic flowing into the website. It addresses a range of running-related keywords and topics that are picked up by search engines, and their efforts have resulted in the Great North Run being a page one Google result for anyone who searches “UK Half Marathon”. This isn’t easy, considering they’re in competition with 500 other UK half marathons taking place every year.

Whilst running may lend itself to engaging content, any business can employ this tactic. Restaurants can talk about menu additions or guest experiences. Bars can explore the history of new beers on tap or jump on the latest reasons to celebrate. Clothing stores can go into detail on their latest product ranges and why they’re the next big thing. The content opportunities are there, if you give yourself time to realise them. Furthermore, this is a simple and age-old approach. Rather than focusing on the more technical aspects of marketing like SEO audits, just get stuck in with writing about your product or service in a way that will generate some hype.