In the spring of 2010, David Hylton was taking part in FitBlog, an example of an emerging feature known as Twitter chats. David, who lives near Richmond, Va., had been blogging about running and had exchanged comments with another running blogger from Boston, Scott Miles.
“We thought, ‘Hey, wouldn’t this be great to do for running,’ ” David said. “We took the conversation offline, so that nobody would take that idea, and did a little bit of research to make sure nothing was already established out there. We didn’t want to step on anybody’s toes.”
The result, starting in June 2010, was #RunChat, a chance for runners to gather on Twitter and discuss all things running, from gear to injury prevention to marathon training. David and Scott pose five or six running-related questions that form the meat of an hour long session every Sunday evening – 10 p.m. Eastern on the first and third Sundays of the month, 8 p.m. on the second and fourth Sundays.
“It’s a great community,” said Eric Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Pro Compression, a maker of compression socks for runners, and a #RunChat sponsor. Pro Compression has created a custom sock for the #RunChat community and has agreed to sponsor four chats a year.
Eric reached out to #RunChat after talking with several runners who were Pro Compression customers and #RunChat fans. He said he’s happy with the return on investment he’s received from his #RunChat sponsorships, but he also simply likes the community. “We enjoy it,” he said. “I participate in the chats we sponsor.”
In an average month, the #RunChat tag averages more than 5,800 contributors and 39,000 tweets. An average hour-long chat brings together a community of more than 440 people with more than 3,800 tweets.
David, who I’ve known since his days working with my wife at the Lynchburg, Va., newspaper nearly 10 years ago, sat down recently and told me all about how he and Scott have grown #RunChat into a viable online enterprise with a broad range of sponsors that include start-ups and brands well-known in the running community, including Runner’s World magazine, Road ID bracelets and several regional races.
Q. How many people joined you on your first chat?
A. I wish I knew. In 2010, there weren’t many services out there that monitored hash-tags very much. Now there are endless amounts of services out there – some free, some paid and some a combination. If I had to guess, I’d say 60 to 70 people joined. We were very nervous about it. What if nobody shows up? But we decided, if nobody shows up, no harm, no foul. We just move along with our lives.
Q. How has the chat session changed from June 2010?
A. Honestly, the format then was almost the same as the format today. We start it off with: Give an introduction to yourself. And then we launch right into to Q1, Q2, Q3… Then we close it out with a brag. It’s the format that worked then, and it works now.
It wasn’t working on the night we chose, and we took it off-line, did a survey and came back Sunday nights. At that time, it was on twice a month, and it just really took off from there. It went weekly in April 2013.
Q. How did you drum up interest for that first chat?
A. This was before we had a web site. We both blogged about it. We didn’t really promote it that much on our Twitter accounts ahead of time, only two or three days . Even now, we don’t promote the chats too far ahead of time, because I think people will lose interest.
Q. How much has the audience grown?
A. Scott had about 1,000 followers, and I had 800 followers when we started. To me, that was a lot. To have 800 people following me was kind of crazy. It was just so funny how quickly our followers went up. In hindsight, I wish I had tracked the growth a lot closer.
Now, I have more than 15,000 followers, and Scott more 16,000. We have an account called @therunchat, where we centralize everything, that has more than 25,000 followers.
All that is organic growth. We’ve never put any money behind advertising on Twitter, besides our own time, of course. We’ve never put any sort of paid advertising to promote tweets, to promote the account. We’ve spent tiny, tiny, tiny bits on Facebook. We’ve probably spent $50 at most on Facebook with an ad.
All that growth with the accounts themselves is pure organic growth.
Q. So you didn’t contribute all that much to Facebook’s current market cap?
Next: David explains how Scott and he have honed and updated their business model as #RunChat has grown, including some important lessons to anyone looking to build a social following.
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