Case study: Launching a new brand online


In May 2012, Skyhook was hired by the newly created Phoenix Marathon to help them launch their brand online.


The Phoenix Marathon was started in 2011 by a small group of volunteer enthusiasts who wanted to give the east valley community something to come together for. Believe it or not, the first race didn’t even have a full marathon – the longest event was only a half-marathon. Most of the work during the first year of the race was done by volunteers. The placeholder website was only a shadow of what it needed to be and most of the marketing was done through word-of-mouth and through a traditional “signs on street corners” approach.

After a larger-than-expected turnout for the half marathon race in 2011, the Phoenix Marathon was in its second year and ready to grow. It was time to elevate the vision for the race and bring in professional help to take the race to the next level.

The challenge

The new vision of the marathon directors was simple: turn the Phoenix Marathon into a “destination” marathon that could attract a national audience. Critical to this effort of course would be the website, which would serve as the public face of the event for anyone who was coming from out of state. Skyhook was initially hired to build a website, but we quickly diagnosed that much more would need to be done if the race was going to meet growth objectives.

What we did

We began our work by attending race meetings and meeting with race directors and volunteers from the year before. We tried to capture as much of the brand and vision as possible so that we’d be able to guide them on how to represent their brand online. Based on this input, we began to draft a roadmap that would guide our activities over the coming months and presented it to the team.

Our initial roadmap was centered around 3 objectives: Drive traffic/engagement, get visitors to convert into runners and streamline logistics/communication to lower cost and confusion.  As you can see, we had a number of tactics in mind to accomplish each of these objectives and they were laid out on an anticipated timeline.

We wish we could say that our plan was perfect and went off without a hitch, but marketing campaigns never seem to go exactly as expected. First there was feedback from the client on what they thought would/wouldn’t work, which we incorporated into our plan. There were also constraints on time and money that made some of our ideas impossible. Still, we ended up with a plan that was somewhat similar to what you see above.

What worked

Email campaign

Because this product had such a long sales cycle, email marketing was one of our best tools. We started by collecting the list of runners from last year and segmenting it to the extent possible by race length and by psychographic. Next, we established a baseline of emails related to milestones (pre-reg, end of pre-reg, marathon sold out, half marathon sold out, etc.) and scheduled them to be sent at the appropriate times. Finally, we worked closely with the race director to help communicate race information as it came up — things like “where will the finish line be” and “where to get on the bus,” which greatly reduced confusion on event day.

In addition to the “core message” in each of our emails, we added in content to promote sponsors, engage the community, solicit referrals and more. Each message was on-brand and concise. Overall, we sent over 25 emails during the 9 month campaign and enjoyed an over 40% average click-through rate with less than 2% of the list unsubscribing.

Facebook engagement

Running is a social activity. After identifying our target audience early on, Skyhook went to work brainstorming content that would engage that audience and lead to further brand awareness, interest in the marathon and ultimately bring more runners and supporters. With lots of help from our volunteers, we produced over 20 unique content pieces and curated over 50 more during the course of the campaign and posted them to our Facebook page. The response was overwhelming! Typical posts received upwards of 50 “likes” and at least a dozen comments. More importantly, page “likes” went from around 2,500 to over 6,000 which gave us a much bigger audience to work with.

PPC (especially the retargeting ads)

Competition for our target keywords was relatively low, so paid search was a very viable channel for this campaign. We advertised on words like “marathon in the spring” and “downhill marathon” and “boston marathon qualifying race” and enjoyed cost-per-click numbers of $0.50 or less. Combined with our well-designed landing page and careful split-testing, we were eventually able to get our customer acquisition cost below $8.00 per runner which was phenomenal compared to nearly $20 that was being spent in other channels. We found that the retargeting display ads in particular were highly successful because a marathon is something people think about for a long time before buying.

Mobile site

As expected, a huge portion of our traffic (over 60%) came from tablet or mobile devices — and that number was even higher on race day. So it was a really good thing that we thought to include a responsive version in our re-design of the site. We were delighted to see that once the mobile site was launched, our average “time-on-site” increased by over 20% and our “page view” numbers went up in a similar way.

What didn’t work

Search optimization

It was probably a little foolhardy to try, but with only 9 months before the race and really only 4 months before the end of registration, organic search optimization didn’t have time to be successful. We suspected that most work on SEO would be an investment in a future race, but the effort we directly invested didn’t result in much movement of the organic rankings at all. We continued to rank for branded searches, but there was very little new traffic contribution.

Leveraging volunteers

Our big idea was to save on content production costs by leveraging volunteers. That only partially worked. We quickly found that of the 10-15 volunteers who were supposed to work with us, only 2-3 were truly reliable. That’s understandable, of course — they were volunteers after all. However, we should’ve anticipated that better and planned accordingly.

There were other frustrations with the volunteer force as well. It was difficult to train/enforce brand standards. It was difficult to get content produced on a tight deadline. It was difficult to provide feedback and/or ‘shape’ the work.

What we will say about the volunteers is that they had passion! They were excited about the race, they knew exactly what would resonate with the audience and they worked really, really hard to move the brand forward.

Runner badges

This one goes in the category of “probably would’ve worked if we had better execution.” The idea was to create “I’m running” or “I’m sponsoring” or “I’m volunteering” badges of all shapes & sizes and encourage our runners/sponsors/volunteers to show them off on their own websites/blogs/facebook pages. That alone would’ve been a good idea, but the key was really to link back to the marathon, thus helping to drive traffic and build search rankings. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the badges designed/built soon enough, and we didn’t really push them at registration, so they never really took off.

Fully responsive site

Although our mobile site was good, it wasn’t great. We learned a lot on this one. For starters, we learned that we shouldn’t have just “dropped all the content into a line” on a mobile device because that led to things like 3 screens of “sponsor” names before getting to any actual content. We also didn’t really think about context — that you are probably much more likely to be looking for a map or logistical information from your phone than you are to be actually registering. If we were to do this again, we’d think more critically about the use case before designing the mobile site.


It was quite a privilege for us to be able to work on this project! The race directors couldn’t have been more pleased with our work, and the energy around our office during the campaign was palpable. In fact, 4 of our employees ended up running the race and some even donated time to volunteer in other capacities. At the end of the day, we’re very proud of this one.