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:
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.