RunKeeper’s Mad Dash to the Marathon Finish: Of Foot Injuries, Viral Video, and Dressing Up as an iPhone

If you’re out watching the Boston Marathon on Monday and you see a giant iPhone limp past, chances are it’s Jason Jacobs inside.

Jacobs is the hyperkinetic founder and CEO of Boston-based FitnessKeeper, which makes a highly popular run-tracking application for the Apple iPhone 3G called RunKeeper. (He was also a panelist at Xconomy’s recent Forum on the Future of Mobile Innovation in New England.) As of yesterday, the free version of RunKeeper was the 17th most popular free health and fitness program in the iTunes App Store, and the $9.99 Runkeeper Pro was the 34th most popular paid fitness app.

But after Monday, the app’s ratings may go even higher, thanks to a fascinating publicity stunt—sorry, “social media campaign”—that Jacobs and his high-school pal David Gerzof, who teaches a social media class at Boston’s Emerson College, described to me this week. It’s actually a cool case study in the power of Web video, charitable giving, a group of ambitious college students, the Twittersphere, and a guy in a funny costume to build excitement around a piece of software. But whether Jacobs himself will still be walking on two feet by the time the stunt is over is an open question—as this YouTube video, published today, explains.

RunKeeper on the Apple iPhoneFirst, a bit about the software: The RunKeeper app uses the iPhone 3G’s built-in GPS chip to measure how far and how fast a jogger (or hiker or biker) has traveled on each outing. It also creates a map, accessible on the RunKeeper website after your run is completed, showing the exact path you followed, complete with little mile or kilometer markers. It’s a great tool for tracking the distance you covered on each run and the pace you kept.

And because the RunKeeper website makes it easy to share the data on your runs with friends via Twitter, e-mail, or your Facebook or MySpace profile, the app also helps you tap into a network of friends or fellow fitness enthusiasts who will, in theory, cheer you on. (Although they might just be disgusted at how much exercise you’re getting while they sit at home reading Twitter.)

The paid version of RunKeeper differs from the free version in only two respects: it’s ad-free, and if you’re wearing headphones on your run, a voice will tell you how far you’ve gone every mile, every kilometer, or every five minutes. The voice is female and sounds dauntingly fit—like a somewhat mean aerobics instructor, which is probably the perfect tone to strike in this context.

Jacobs, a Babson College MBA graduate and longtime runner, has been operating FitnessKeeper on the cheap. He’s the only full-time employee, and most of his team (he’s outsourced a lot of the programming work to Boston-based Raizlabs) is working for equity rather than cash. That means he hasn’t had a lot to spend on marketing and public relations.

Jason Jacobs - RunKeeper social media videoEnter Gerzof, who runs Brookline, MA-based public relations firm Big Fish Communications, got his master’s degree in marketing communications from Emerson, and has been teaching two classes a year there since 2002. “We work mainly with startup companies, and often times I find companies way early, before they have the resources to take on Big Fish,” Gerzof told me this week. “FitnessKeeper happened to be one of those companies.” Gerzof knew all about RunKeeper, since Jacobs, who’d gone to high school with Gerzof, had called him a couple of times for advice on marketing.

Gerzof says he recently persuaded the Marketing Communication department at Emerson to let him start a course on social media and Web marketing. Through the Google Grants program, he’d obtained funding for a class project in which teams of students helped local non-profits design free keyword-based advertising campaigns using Google’s AdWords service. “But I also wanted to give them some real-world experience with for-profit companies, since that’s where most of them are going to go to work,” says Gerzof. “These scrappy startups are happy to get whatever help they can get. So I went through my contacts, and Jason instantly popped off the page.”

Jacobs agreed to let a team of five Emerson students in Gerzof’s class—Sam Citron, Cassie Kling, Alleigh Marre, Carly Narvez, and Greg Townsend—turn RunKeeper into their capstone project for the spring semester.

Jason Jacobs in the iPhone costumeSays Marre: “We bounced around a bunch of ideas. Our biggest challenge wasn’t necessarily getting Jason a fan base, since he already has a ton of followers on Twitter, and he does a really good job of staying in contact with users. We decided that we needed to figure out a way to connect with brand evangelists, and get them really excited about something that RunKeeper was doing. So we ultimately decided to do a promotion around the Boston Marathon.”

The team’s idea was to have Jacobs run the marathon in an iPhone costume—while, of course, wearing an actual iPhone with the RunKeeper app going—and to chronicle the preparations, the race, and the Emerson project itself in a series of edgy Web videos, the second of which is out today. (Click to page 3 of this article to watch the videos. A third video will come out shortly after race day. [Update, April 21, 2009: the third video is now up as well.])

Jacobs committed to the project about three weeks before marathon day. Which is where the story starts to get really wild. Jacobs says he ran in the 2007 Chicago Marathon and finished “in a pretty decent time,” despite the 90-degree weather. But he had to pull out of the 2008 Chicago race because of an overuse injury (plantar fasciitis) in one foot, and he hasn’t done any serious marathon training since. His Chicago time didn’t qualify him for the Boston race. Luckily, he was able to obtain a coveted marathon bib (the number is 22790, in case you want to track him on Monday) through Boston’s Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital when one of the people running for its fundraising team had to pull out. Not so luckily, he reinjured his foot during a recent 12-mile training run. So he’s been going to rehab and staying off the foot, and will be running the 26.2-mile race in what could charitably be called non-peak condition. (“Delusional” might be another word for it.)

“It’s an extremely aggressive timeline,” Jacobs acknowledges. “There are all kinds of logistics that need to go into it from a marketing standpoint, and I’m already undertrained, and now I’m battling this injury. I would have been worried just from an endurance standpoint, but I can’t even worry about that now, because I have to stay off my foot between now and the race. There was so much drama that we made the decision that we were going to film the process of pulling together the campaign.”

In other words, Jacobs and the Emerson team are intentionally positioning the RunKeeper videos in the realm of what you might call reality-show unreality. It’s a meta-media-land where the videos are partly about the making of the videos, complete with hand-held shaky-cam videography, rock music in the background, and confessionals where the students share their doubts about whether Jacobs can finish the race—or whether, indeed, the whole project is going to blow up in their faces. The campaign clearly and cleverly targets smartphone-owning twenty- and thirty-somethings whose tastes in video have likely been shaped by shows like “The Apprentice,” “The Real World,” and “Behind the Music.”

Taping a RunKeeper Boston Marathon campaign videoThe Emerson team plans to film Jacobs’ run from at least three locations during the marathon and produce a wrap-up video that will appear sometime after Monday. They’re also helping to staff the FitnessKeeper booth at the John Hancock Sports & Fitness Expo, a free event at Boston’s Hynes Convention Center running today through Sunday. And they’re promoting the whole effort vigorously on Twitter, on the RunKeeper website, and through e-mail newsletters distributed by Waltham, MA-based e-mail marketing company Constant Contact.

Of course, there’s also a charitable cause that gives the RunKeeper campaign a humanitarian spin: Jacobs is running the marathon as part of “Race for Rehab” team at Spaulding, which also happens to be the institution treating his injured foot. As of Thursday afternoon, Jacobs had raised $2,226 toward his goal of $10,000. (You can donate here.)

So, will Jacobs finish the race? How much money will he raise? If his foot holds up past Heartbreak Hill, will he survive the media attention, the hypothermia (Monday’s forecast calls for showers and a high of 46 degrees), and the race’s other hazards? Perhaps most important, will the madcap, last-minute marathon campaign boost RunKeeper’s brand, or just come off as goofy?

You’ll have to watch next week’s video and judge for yourself. “Honestly, my biggest concern about having Jason run 26 miles in an iPhone costume is chafing,” jokes Gerzof.

Whatever happens to Jacobs—and whatever kind of buzz the campaign generates for RunKeeper—the project has already been good experience for the Emerson team, and it illustrates how quickly savvy marketing professionals (and those who train them) are shifting toward Web-based communication. When these students graduate and put “social media consultant” on their resumes, they’ll have a real example to point to.

“It was nice not to be stuck in a classroom writing a media plan, like we’ve done in every other class,” says Emerson’s Marre. “It’s been really interesting to work with somebody on a real-life timeline and put things together that have the potential to be big for a real-life company.”

Says Jacobs: “These students have really stepped up. They are super into it, and probably doing five times the work that would be required for the class, and they’re not even getting paid. But we’re having fun and learning a lot. If I don’t finish the race, it doesn’t affect the story that much—except that the hero might not emerge victorious.”

[Addendum, 7:45 a.m. April 17, 2009: Mass High Tech also features Jacobs in a piece today about technology executives who are running in the Boston Marathon.]

Continue to page 3 to watch Runkeeper’s Boston Marathon videos.

For a full list of my columns, check out the World Wide Wade Archive. You can also subscribe to the column via RSS or e-mail.

Scroll down to watch videos.

RunKeeper Boston Marathon Video 1

RunKeeper Boston Marathon Video 2

RunKeeper Boston Marathon Video 3

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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  • I will definitly check out this application as soon as I exchanged my old cell for an iPhone.

    Feel free to check out my blog about running

  • A humorous addendum: Bet you didn’t know I’m not just a journalist…I’m the world’s fastest human!

    I had RunKeeper Pro going on my walk to work this morning — you can check out the map, the split times, etc here:

    Problem is, the GPS signal was weak, and has me jumping around downtown Boston. My walking pace is generally 4.0 to 4.5 mph, but if you look at the speed graph, I briefly peaked at 18.9 mph! Guess I’m in better shape than I thought!

    All of which goes to show you — fitness tracking apps are only as reliable as the underlying hardware. The iPhone has such a tiny GPS antenna that it’s never going to give you the world’s most reliable location readings.

  • Wade,
    Thanks for the great piece! The whole team, both Emerson and FitnessKeeper, enjoyed reading it immensely.

    We took a look at your route, did you remember to turn wi-fi off? Was GPS filter on medium? Those are 2 easy tips that lead to much improved GPS tracking in most cases. We have also made several improvements in our latest release (1.4.8), that have improved tracking quite a bit. This release is live on RK Free, and we have been receiving great feedback from our users. This release is not yet live on RK Pro (it is in the queue with Apple), which explains why you don’t have it.

    In terms of the underlying hardware, while the iPhone is a new platform and does have a few kinks to work out, it is actually pretty good overall, especially for a first pass. And the good news is it continues to get better with every new iPhone OS release (we have noticed significant improvements, even in the under a year that the iPhone 3G has been available).

    This is only the beginning of the smartphone revolution. Like any new technologies, things won’t be perfect from the beginning, but I think it is clear that the center of gravity is going to continue to shift from PCs and expensive standalone devices to the device that is in your pocket—your phone. These mobile devices are far more powerful than they have ever been before, and this is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is possible.

    On a lighter note, we’ll make sure to send you the 3rd and final video when it is completed!


  • Jason — thanks for the tips. The GPS filter was on medium, but the Wi-Fi was not off. I wouldn’t be surprised if I was getting positional interference from every Starbucks I walk past on my way to work (there are three of them!). I look forward to trying the 1.4.8 release. Good luck on Marathon day!

  • Mary Scott

    What a great experience for not only RunKeeper but for the students. As a business owner you have to continue to become more and more creative to survive. This story has inspired me to encourage myself and my staff to think outside of the box to develop our next marketing campaign.