Real-Time To The Rescue

I got the call at around 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 2. Sandy had just left millions without power. It was my close friend, Fred Macri, director of digital strategy and operations at the New York Genome Center, who was stranded at a friend’s place in New York City. 

“Sam,” Fred said, “The marathon’s canceled. We want to rally all of the runners to clean up New York. We need to come up with a killer social strategy.” 

Also on the line was Dr. Andy Baldwin, former star of “The Bachelor,” a Navy doctor, triathlete, and humanitarian -- and an active social media figure with 36,476 Twitter followers to boot.

Immediately, we began brainstorming. 

The start of #newmarathon

First line of order: create a hashtag: #newmarathon. “New” because it was New York, and because it was now a decidedly different kind of marathon. Andy tweeted it out. Within minutes, he garnered 58 retweets. Good sign. 



Next, we needed a place online for people to go -- a home for the movement. So we decided to create a Tumblr site with three simple instructions: tweet, clean up Staten Island, and donate. 

Once we had our digital hub, Andy sent out another tweet. This time, he got 72 retweets -- not bad. The campaign was picking up momentum. But it was still far from being a “movement.”

Here come the influencers

Every step counted. Andy enlisted Josh Cox, one of the world’s most best-known marathon runners, in spreading the word. PowerBar and Poland Spring signed on. 

Competitor magazine, a popular publication for running enthusiasts, wrote an article highlighting our #newmarathon efforts. ESPN reposted the piece on their site. Piers Morgan displayed the #newmarathon tweet on CNN. 

Andy started receiving messages from people in Afghanistan and all across the world. The idea was spreading.

The next day -- Saturday, Nov. 3 -- Fred, Andy, and hundreds of runners went into the trenches, working side by side with relief teams in Staten Island. #newmarathon continued to gain traction.

Later that evening, Alyssa Milano tweeted the campaign to 2.3 million followers. Then Troy Polamalu, strong safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers and seven-time Pro Bowlers, shared #newmarathon with his 506,675 followers. 

Hundreds of others started tweeting about it. Two television stations in Florida and California interviewed Andy. As the clock approached midnight, our #newmarathon idea was quickly transitioning from an inspired spark of mission-driven creativity into a veritable real-time movement across New York City and beyond. 

When goodwill trends

On Sunday, though -- the day our Tumblr site was encouraging everyone to pitch in -- the movement became real. 

Andy tweeted out a powerful photo, taken by Christina Wallace, of the marathon runners in full orange uniform, wearing their colors with pride, heading to board the Staten Island Ferry. He was met in-kind with hundreds of retweets.

More and more people started to use the #newmarathon hashtag. They told people where help was needed most, and wrote inspiring words that still make me proud when I read them today, like: “#NewMarathon – the race that will never be forgotten.” 

Later that day, #newmarathon started trending in New York. 

What we can learn from #newmarathon

The tremendous outpouring of goodwill from the running community that weekend was, to be sure, a (very big) group effort. Soon after the marathon was canceled, for example, the official New York Marathon began promoting the Race to Recover. #newmarathon, despite its thousands of tweets and hits on Tumblr, was not the only reason so many runners joined the relief effort. 

There’s no doubt, however, that #newmarathon played a meaningful role in creating a movement of marathoners across NYC to help clean up Sandy’s devastation. And there are several points that we can take away from the effort. To wit:

  • The mission matters. This was no ordinary call-to-action: we were trying to rally a distributed, international group of mostly non-New Yorkers to do something bold, and radically different than what they came to the city for in the first place. In other words, there was a mission of urgency, a real sense that “this has to happen.”

  • Influence matters. If we didn’t have Andy, his actively engaged community, and his authentic authority among fellow runners, along with people like Josh Cox, #newmarathon wouldn’t have had nearly the same power that it did.
  • Relevance matters -- and it has a deadline. Fred and Andy’s sense of urgency made everything possible. If we hadn’t come up with a Twitter hashtag and Tumblr page in a matter of hours and started spreading the word immediately, we might have lost the opportunity. We couldn’t afford to come up with the “perfect” campaign. Instead, we simply had to put our best ideas forward as they were arising, and lead with our creativity, passion, and sense of urgency.
  • Persistence matters. If we had stopped after the first couple of tweets “failed” to spark a movement, we would have never made an impact. But we kept tweeting; we capitalized on every little win, every victory, small or large; we kept emailing, connecting, pushing outward.

As I reflect on what happened that weekend, I marvel at the power of real-time media to organize and mobilize so quickly. Real-time is far more than a trend. It’s a reality. A reality that is not only unavoidable -- it’s defining a brand new way to effect real, positive change in our world.

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