Who Are the Virtual Runners?

Anecdotal evidence has long suggested to us that virtual runners are not the same people who show up on race day, but the sudden flood of virtual events in 2020 gave us enough volume (and enough motivation) to pull some new reports focused on virtual for our recently released 2020 RaceTrends Report.

Why does it matter? With reasonable concern about virtual fatigue, and decisions to be made about permanently including virtual options, understanding the virtual runner will be key in 2021 and beyond.

Profile of a Virtual Runner

While your everyday 5K runner may be feeling virtual fatigue and desperately hoping for an in-person option in 2021, it’s important to remember that only 10% of 2020 runners had participated in the same race in 2019. Who are those other 90%? While some are undoubtedly also more traditional runners, the data indicates that some of those new runners came not in spite of virtual, but because of it. Identifying those differences can help you build a robust virtual option for your future events, expanding your pool of participants beyond those who join your in-person event. Looking at virtual data from both 2020 and previous years, a few differences stand out:

  • Virtual runners are more likely to be women
  • Virtual runners are older
  • Virtual runners are social
  • Virtual challenge participants stray even further from virtual race participants

Virtual Runners and Gender

Women are more likely to participate in in-person events as well, but the gender gap widens significantly for virtual events.

In 2020, 65% of virtual challenge participants and 64% of virtual race participants were women, compared to 55% of in-person participants. While that’s notable, the real gap is actually a little greater: between 2016 and 2019 72%-75% of virtual runners identified as women. Although the sample size is much larger in 2020, previous years better demonstrate of who chooses to do a virtual event when in-person events are readily available.

Why it matters: In a word: SWAG. SWAG is a huge motivator for virtual events, but many standard t-shirts are sized and cut for men. If your primary audience is women, it’s important to keep them in mind when picking the swag to attract the participants.

Another note: virtual events also had more races where participants didn’t select a gender at all. Since virtual races usually don’t have awards, they’re a great opportunity to promote inclusivity by not requiring gender.

Virtual Runners and Age

Virtual runners are generally older than in-person participants, with 56% of virtual challenge participants and 53% of virtual race participants over the age of 40, compared to 46% for in-person events. Like with gender, the pre-pandemic trend is similar but more extreme: in 2019, 54% of virtual participants were over 40, compared to 42% for in-person events.

Why it matters: Virtual races can appeal to older athletes because the flexible schedule better accommodates the work and family obligations of older participants. Beyond that, it’s easier for virtual races to offer a variety of distance options, and with no need for time limits, races become something that everyone can successfully accomplish.

Virtual Runners and Social Activity

It may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that virtual racing – an activity that usually takes place solo – is more social than in-person racing, but that appears to be true. The type of socialization is different, but the popularity of groups and increased effectiveness of referrals suggests that virtual runners want the accountability of joining (virtually) with friends.

Team joining increased in 2020 when virtual races dominated, with 31.4% of participants joining a team when it was offered.

Even more noticeable is the rise of referrals as a source of registrations, with 17% of 2020 registration dollars coming from referrals compared to 7% in previous years. While some of that may be attributed to participants reaching out because they want the reward (refund or swag), the CPA (cost per acquisition) also fell from $1.02 in 2019 to $0.87 in 2020. It’s not only that more participants were sharing races with friends, it’s also that more people were eager to join their friends in a shared experience.

Why it matters: It may seem counter-intuitive to champion team participation for participants spread around the country, but it’s actually a valuable marketing tool and a way to make your virtual experience more fun and engaging.

Virtual Race vs. Virtual Challenge

As demonstrated above, the demographic shifts that are seen in virtual races are further amplified for virtual challenges. Perhaps even more than for virtual races, virtual challenge participants are often new to the sport, don’t consider themselves to be competitive athletes, or are uninterested in the environment of race day. They’re looking for something to challenge themselves and a way to stay active day-to-day.

How to Think About Virtual

For much of 2020, virtual events were a bridge to keep the industry running while gatherings were restricted. While that will continue to be true for many events in 2021, we expect to see a gradual shift back to in-person events. However, we expect to see virtual make up a greater share of participation in the coming years than the 1% it represented in 2019.

  • Post-pandemic, offering virtual options (add-ons to your in-person race, challenges during quiet seasons, etc.) is about expanding your pool of participants. Your in-person participants will likely return in-person, but you also want to have an option for them to get their mother involved, or for previous participants to join when they move away or have to work on race day.
  • Virtual can be a gateway. Some of these new virtual participants are happy with virtual and will want to continue that way. But others may be community members who were intimidated by a traditional start line, and virtual participation can help them to see that they are capable of the distance – and that your organization embraces runners of all levels.
  • Many races offered a virtual option in the past, but it was often a basic chance to contribute to a cause and get some swag, with no results reporting and no experiential elements. In the future, keep some of the more sophisticated virtual features that you added in 2020: virtual results reporting, an audio experience with RaceJoy, digital bibs, and participant uploaded photos. A few bells and whistles go a long way towards making people want to participate virtually.

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