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This October I captained Team Diabadass, the first-ever all-diabetic team in the 223-mile Capital to Coast Relay, the longest single-state relay in the United States. My observations as a guy who does wellness marketing for a living:

1. It’s all about the headline

When we first decided to field a team of diabetic people in the Capital to Coast Relay, it didn’t escape our attention that we were the first ever team of diabetics to complete the race. In fact, that was the point.

Nearly all of us had run marathons and completed triathlons before. Believe it or not, there are quite a lot of diabetic marathoners and triathletes out there. That’s an accomplishment, but it’s not a headline.

On the other hand, an all-diabetic team running the longest single-state relay? That definitely got a lot of attention. And our mission — #CureDiabetesIgnorance — got even more attention. As active people with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, we’re heartily sick of the stereotypes. We’re not unmotivated, we’re not undisciplined, and we certainly aren’t sedentary. That slogan resonated powerfully with people in the diabetic community.

Lesson learned: Get clear in your wellness marketing on what really makes your fitness or healthy lifestyle or employee wellness company stand out in your community of interest.

Is your fitness center uniquely qualified to work with a particular population? Has your top yoga instructor taught classes in every state in the U.S.? Does your karate dojo feature Nebraska’s first sensei with Crohn’s disease?

Because let’s face it: without your headline, you’re just another gym, another weight loss program, another healthy lifestyles program — and not that special.

2. Everyone loves an underdog

We were the last team to finish the Capital to Coast Relay, at 40 hours and 9 minutes. While there are elite diabetic athletes, and we had a few on our team, most of our members are everyday runners. And of course, we had to take time to address low blood sugars and push through high sugars. Fueling for us is mandatory, not something we can blow off to save a few extra minutes. And then we had to face the same issues that every runner in the event faced: heat, humidity, dehydration and more.

But we were still the first diabetic team to ever complete the race!

This got me to thinking: you don’t have to be the very best at what you do in order to win the hearts of your fans, supporters, or customers. In fact, sometimes it’s a little better if you’re “busted” or “misfit” somehow.

Lesson learned: Used strategically, being an underdog is a selling point. Are you the independent gym who’s still there after a flood of franchised competitors have come and gone, the thriving yoga studio in an otherwise unexciting strip mall, or the healthy lifestyles outfit hidden in the back of a medical office complex?

Trumpet the fact that you’re local, you’re independent, you understand your community like no one possibly can, and you’re making it work despite the vast resources of the big guys.

3. Give to get

At C2C, our team of diabetic runners had just turned the corner to cross the finish line. We were feeling pretty good already — and then we felt great,  when we realized that the last six teams to finish had waited for us, and were cheering us on as we crossed.

We had all helped each other out on the 223-mile course, donating water bottles and gels, warning of hazards, and literally helping illuminate the road at night. By the time we all finished, we had all faced wild dogs, snakes, fire ants, dust-choked country roads with no signage and sometimes no pavement, no bathrooms, 95-degree heat and 80% humidity. We were family.

Your nutritional counseling business will face “down” business cycles. Your weight loss center’s image may need a makeover. Your chain of health clubs may lose members as they age and become less active. Don’t hide in your office trying to figure it all out by yourself.

Lesson learned: You’re not alone. You’re part of a bigger community full of people who share your mission to make the world a healthier place. Don’t be afraid to reach out, and be generous with your time and expertise when you have the opportunity to pay it forward.

4. Think big. No, bigger than that.

I knew I wanted to do something epic, and after I decided to tackle the Capital to Coast relay, it wasn’t hard to find others who wanted to join in.

I knew lots of diabetic athletes from the Diabetes and Exercise Alliance, a grassroots non-profit that I founded devoted to mixing diabetes and exercise. I invited half a dozen who instantly accepted. One member’s kid came up with the initial concept for our logo. Several others joined the team, and helped get sponsors, media coverage, raise funds for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and line up supplies for our big adventure.

On a lark, I invited four people I didn’t know that well. Dave and John were members of an elite diabetic running team. Josh had just 3 months earlier completed a 260-mile ultra distance run from Austin, TX to Camp Sweeney, a summer program for kids with diabetes. And Doug was the first type 1 diabetic to run solo across the continental United States.

All four accepted. That instantly grabbed the attention of the media folks I was trying to get to cover our event. Were they interested in our all-diabetic team? For sure. But some of them were a lot more interested when they found out that that one of our runners had crossed the entire U.S. — solo and another had done a record-setting solo run right here in Texas.

Then a crisis struck. One of our strongest runners had to drop out a week before the race due to injury. We reached out to the Texas diabetic athlete community with an appeal for runners, and snagged a diabetic Ironman finisher — and even got a couple more diabetic runners as backups if they were needed. At the last minute!

Lesson learned: When you want to do something big, talk to people who share your passion, no matter who they are. Don’t be afraid to ask for the best. The worst that can happen is that they might say “No.” And they just might say “Yes.”

5. Partner with a charity

Part of our goal was to raise funds for JDRF, working towards a cure for Type 1 diabetes. It’s a cause near and dear to our hearts, of course — but it also connected us with people who share our passion. They helped promote our event and we were able to find volunteers and other helpful resources through our JDRF connections in Texas.

Working with a recognized non-profit also helps validate what you’re doing. It makes it clear to folks that you’re not just about making money — you’re about making a difference.

And it’s a great way to expand your network to people who share your passion for making a difference.

Lesson learned: Make your company a a force for good in your community. For more info, check out our recent article on Business Karma.

6. One post is not enough

Our team conducted an active email and social media campaign during the months leading up to the event.

For example, we posted weekly internet memes just to keep interest high and give our supporters fun stuff to share. The memes were entertaining, sometimes provocative, and ended up being forwarded, liked and reposted by lots of folks. Every time we shared a meme on social media, we included a link to our team’s event fundraising page. That way, we managed to cover the cost of supplies, van rental, and more. Don’t be afraid to try something silly and frivolous if it brings eyeballs to your fitness website or wellness business’s front door.

Each week, we also featured a different team member in our email newsletter. This served many purposes: to force us to update the website frequently, to give us new, interesting, and detailed content for the email newsletter, and to encourage people to click through to visit the website, meet the team, and donate to our cause. We learned quickly that without up-to-date content shared on a regular basis, our message quickly became stale.

Over time, we also developed a “second sense” of when we were overdoing it on promotion. If you promote your business or event too often, it’s as if you never promoted it at all. People tune the message out. Just below that threshold, however, it’s another story. We found that as the race date fell within two weeks, we were quite successful in using a “countdown” approach. In fact, most of our fundraising, volunteer, and virtual team sign-up activity occurred in the last two weeks.

One more thing: spread the word everywhere you’ve got likely supporters. Don’t limit your message to your website or your own Facebook page or email. Post updates in the groups you participate in. Volunteer to be a guest speaker. Think outside the box — for example, we invited everyone in our local community to join us on our relay team training runs and wore our team t-shirts.

7. And then the magic starts to happen

A coordinated wellness marketing campaign like the one I described above helps build interest step by step.

But the real magic happens when casual interest becomes self-perpetuating momentum. Sure, you’re still promoting your event yourself — but now, you’re just one of many excited about what you’re doing, and you’re riding the wave of excitement from all the people that support you.

Somewhere along the line, our endeavor took on a life of its own.  Team members came and went, but the team as a whole moved closer to the goal. As the event got closer, we started training seriously, long distances at all hours of the night.

And our outreach to sponsors, charity and media outlets began bearing fruit.

The Dallas Morning News ran a full-page story on us, split over page 1 and 2 of the Living section. We won several local sponsors and one, Medtronic, ran a story about our team in their corporate newsletter. One team member was featured in Costco’s employee newsletter. Both JDRF and the American Diabetes Association shared the story and included their own articles about it.

A local newspaper in Connecticut ran a piece on one of our runners. Even the Joslin Diabetes Center, the authoritative source on the latest in diabetes treatment and research, ran a story on us.

People we had never met showed up at the start line to cheer us on and met us with supplies at relay exchange points. Virtual team members in other states ran the same miles on their treadmills that we did on the road as a sign of solidarity with our cause.

The fact that it was getting bigger and more interesting…just made it even bigger and more interesting.

Media coverage, national awareness, donations from sponsors and supporters that covered all of our costs, plus research funds raised for a cause we care about. Not bad for Year 1.

Lesson learned: A marketing budget and marketing skills are important, but they’re not the keys. Real success requires all four of these things:

  • Vision, a sense of what’s possible
  • The ability to lay out a plan, execute it, and the faith to stick with it rather than abandoning it half-finished
  • The ability to tell when you’ve struck a spark with people — and to fan that spark into a flame
  • And absolute conviction about the importance of what you’re doing…

Something most of you already have.