Going Viral With Social Media: #RunForBoston Case Study

Social media has leveled the playing field for audience reach

The news this week has been full of backlash for the Rolling Stone cover featuring Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. There is one face you’ll never see on the cover of any magazine – and one name you don’t know: Chris Field. However, his honest and powerful reaction to the Boston Marathon tragedy was seen by an estimated 26 million people across the world and was in a social movement that many felt honored to participate in: #RunForBoston. Maybe you were one of them. This is the story of how a genuine response to the Boston Marathon Bombing started a social media movement within 48 hours. 

The story behind the social media hashtag

Chris watched the news unfold on April 15, 2013 like the rest of us and felt compelled to be part of the healing effort. The next day, he started a page on Facebook called Run For Boston 4/17, with the simple request for people to run any distance that Wednesday, wearing the Boston Marathon colors, and post a photo to the page to show solidarity. He does not have a social media marketing department – or a staff at all. He had no budget, and initially shared the page with his Facebook friends only, fellow runners and non-runners alike. Within 48 hours, the hashtag would go viral on Facebook and spread to Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Pinterest, and be picked up by no less than 100 news stations worldwide. He himself appeared via Skype on several interviews on April 17, promoting healing and strength. Many interviewers expressed surprise that he was just one man, trying to make a difference; and not part of a larger company doing this work.

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The Run For Boston 4/17 Facebook page. 

Being real = the first ingredient for viral social media success

We now live in a world where one person has the ability to influence millions, in almost near-real time. The takeaway for all of us is that genuine response is the first step to potentially having a viral message. The #RunForBoston hashtag was later used and claimed by many people – and a viral campaign without a central company or website behind it can be extremely difficult to track. 

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Sample Twitter post from #RunForBoston

Making a difference = the second ingredient

The core message to be strong and show solidarity helped people process and heal from what happened. Asking people to act in a way that helps make a difference in their life is a second component of social media success for #RunForBoston. The number of people he reached with this hashtag is almost incredible:

  • Facebook – 2.2 million reached
  • Twitter – over 1.6 million reached
  • 164 mainstream news articles printed
  • Over 40 television news reports published
  • Millions reached through influential bloggers
  • One volunteer started a Google Doc asking for people to sign in when they ran, creating a database of runners over 7,000 big in about 3 days
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Photos posted from runners participating in #RunForBoston

Timing is everything = the final ingredient

It was just as important to end using the hashtag and promoting the page after 2 weeks as it was to respond to the bombing immediately after it happened. Chris didn’t try to do anything with this audience once it was over, other than publish a photo book with all proceeds going to the One Fund of Boston. No requests for email addresses, cross-sell messages – he had one clear focus, one clear message, and one clear purpose.

Never rule out the power of one voice

To put this effort in context, Rolling Stone has an estimated circulation per issue of about 1.6 million, according to Wikipedia. The Superbowl Blackout Oreo Tweet reached an estimated 24 million people – and they have a full-time staff of social media specialists and a war room that cost of $2 million and 2 years to create. Chris Field reached more people than either one of those brands in less than a week. One voice can reach more people than a big brand with a big budget and a big staff – as long as the message is right.

To view the whole case study, you can download the presentation on SlideShare.

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