Community Building for the Undead


Photo by Digital Revelations Photography

A couple weeks ago, a few friends and I finally made it to our long awaited, first practice run for the zombie apocalypse.

Wait… let me backtrack. We’re big fans of the zombie culture. We’ve watched the movies and played the video games. So when we first heard that there was a “zombie run” called Run For Your Lives (RFYL) being organized in the woods north of Baltimore, we couldn’t pass it up.

As the weeks went by, we still didn’t know exactly what to expect from the unconventional 5K we signed up for. I started following them on Facebook and Twitter, and I’ve never been disappointed.

Their community managers are brilliant. Taking the persona of a zombie in their posts, they taunted us (the fans) with jokes, questions, and small clues indicating what we’d find in the obstacle course.

And we ate it up. It didn’t take long for thousands of others to join; it has approximately 67,000 followers with 14,000 currently talking about it, based on Facebook’s new Insights. The Facebook wall is open for comments and posting, and the RFYL managers do their best to answer all the posts. They allow and encourage engagement—positive or negative—which is a break from the norm of many paranoid businesses. Check out my taunt below:

Being the social-zombie nut that I am, I was captivated. The conversations were so honest and human (no pun intended), and I marveled at the success while having so much fun.

So I stalked them until they agreed to an interview. Derrick Smith, one of the co-founders, so kindly took the time to satisfy the social media junkie in me by answering some community management questions that we can all learn from:

Who’s behind RFYL?

Ryan Hogan and I were childhood friends, who wanted to create a small event to raise the profile of Ryan’s gear line, War Wear. We came up with the name, Run For Your Lives, before the concept. The next question was: what do you run from? As fans of AMC’s the Walking Dead, we netted out at zombies, and the idea grew from there.

How did you partner with Red Cross? How much did they raise from the race (signups and on site)?

It was important for our event to have a charitable partner, and we also wanted to make sure it was a local one that fit with our event, so we selected the American Red Cross Chesapeake Region, which will receive $1.00 of every ticket sold. For our 2012 Run For Your Lives events, we will be working with local charitable partners as well to give back to the communities we’ll be invading.

How did your other partnerships come about, namely with AMC’s Walking Dead?

As a startup company (Reed Street Productions), we sought out various partnerships when the idea came to fruition. Subaru (Mid-Atlantic) was the first to come on board. Once the idea took off and spread through word of mouth, online and in the media, phone calls and email from various organizations started flooding in.

How did you find your “voice” in social media? Did you experiment with what worked/didn’t work?

Early on, we decided our approach was to go against what conventional brands on social media do: talk down to their customers, and send our posts through 10 levels of approval before they go public, or pretend to be something that we’re not. We’re an entertainment company and we should be able to have as much fun as our customers do.

Therefore, we post what we feel like. Sometimes, the posts work. Other times, they don’t. But we don’t let ourselves get hung up on that. We post what we want because that’s who we are. We’re also not afraid to push back on our customers. If someone posts something stupid or rude, we’ll tell them that and then we’ll make fun of them. Our other fans jump in on the fun and bash any trolls that may visit our accounts.

It’s because of this approach that we’ve built TRUE loyal fans. Not B.S. marketing spin fans, but TRUE fans that are going to be with us for a long time. They visit our Facebook Page on a daily (sometimes) hourly basis just to see what’s going on. Right now, they’re demanding that we create a message board for them. That’s something that 10 layers of approvals is never going to get you.

What was your communications approach, in terms of traditional vs. social outreach? How did you figure out which methods to use?

Our approach to marketing was an integrated one that started with social media, in combination with traditional and non-traditional media outreach – to outlets from zombie-enthusiast blogs to Runner’s World and G4. Our event didn’t just appeal to just zombie-enthusiasts, so it was essential for us to branch out to mainstream media as well.

The event was a success. Although all of my flags were taken from zombies in the first obstacle (which consequently turned me into a zombie), I had a blast, and they did an excellent job making sure they thought of everything, building a huge event that everyone could enjoy. They took the positive and negative comments and immediately rectified any wrongdoings. They were sincere and helpful. Which is why we’re all going back (with a zombie-killing vengeance) next year.

The result was 9,700 tickets sold and about seven events booked for next year’s full-fledged zombie apocalypse. Like Derrick said, no business could’ve achieved that kind of success with a traditional top-down business approach.

I highly recommend checking them out and see the great work they’re doing. Steal the good ideas and practices for your nonprofit, and be unafraid of trying new things and having fun. Careful, though, the zombie virus is spreading, so be ready. 😉

By the way, I think I’m going to change my title to Social (Media) Zombie. What do you think?

Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse! That's me on the far right.

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