6 Ways Social Media is Like Ironman

by Eric Harr on November 2, 2011

“I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.”

~Thomas Jefferson

HAVE YOU EVER HAD A MOMENT when everything came together? When all the hard work well and truly paid off? When the reality shot so far past the expectation that it brought tears to your eyes?

That happened to me on October 8, 2011.

I finished this year’s Ironman Triathlon World Championships in 9:01:34, good enough for 40th overall (and 9th American) out of 1,900+ competitors. My family witnessed everything. The backbreaking sacrifices we made for this all year came out at the finish line on Ali’i Drive, in a long, emotional embrace–and a torrent of tears.

Ironman is a heart-stirring and awe-inspiring display of the strength, courage and indomitable will of the human spirit. It takes place on the Big Island every October and consists of a 2.4-mile rough-water swim, a 112-mile bike ride on a road that cuts a swath through the legendary lava fields and a 26.2-mile marathon, much of it along the barren and exposed Queen Kaahumanu Highway. This road gets so hot that it’s been known to melt the rubber clean off a runner’s shoes. This year, pavement temperature was 135 degrees. It felt like 140. At one point I thought: “Crikey O’Reilly. What in the heck am I doing out here? Why didn’t I take up chess, or cricket…or curling?”

The answer of course is: self-discovery. I learned more about myself in nine hours than I have in nine years. This event has a way of doing that: it strips everything away and reveals your “true self.” It’s why people are so fanatical about it.

Now, I know it’s a facile analogy–not to mention corny and trite–to compare athletic events to life: e.g. “Why Marriage is Like the Marathon,” “Why Parenting is Like Base Jumping.” But, over the past year, I have been patently engrossed in triathlon and social media, and I found six striking similarities between the two.

Here they are:

1. Slow and steady wins the race.

Ironman is tough. If it weren”t, I suppose they would call it: “Aluminum-man.” I mean, let’s be honest: human beings were not designed to race all day in a place like Hawaii. We were meant to frolic in the ocean and partake of umbrella-festooned drinks.

The race was concocted by a bunch of moustachioed men in 1978, who were far too many umbrella-festooned drinks into a debate over which athlete was fittest: swimmer, cyclist or runner. So, they said: “Let’s put all of those events into one and we’ll find out! Now bartender, another round!”

Social media is similarly hard. Like Ironman, it requires a lot of work. Every day. One reason why most people don’t see results in social media is that they give up too soon. They see the jaw-dropping speed of these channels and are lured by the quick fix. When they don’t see stratospheric results, they give up … when success was likely around the corner.

Lesson: To achieve great heights, you must be in it for the long haul. Social media is not a marketing channel or a media. It’s a human relationship. As such, it takes time, patience and work. Stick in there. Slow and steady. You’ll get to where you’re going.

2. You never know who’s watching.

This was an interesting, and unexpected, one for me. Part of my motivation to break the 9-hour mark was to raise $1 million for CARE. We leveraged social media to do that. I knew a lot of people were paying attention, but I didn’t realize how much–and how passionately.

When I returned home, I had hundreds of people on training rides, and in my hometown, come up to me and say: “We watched you all day on the live coverage. It was amazing!”

I never knew these people were paying attention. They hadn’t messaged us in social media. But, they were there.

In social media, you might feel like you’re playing to an empty room, but you’re not. Most people are “watchers.” They won’t necessarily contribute much to the conversation, but they’re there–and you’re having an impact on them.

Lesson: Don’t be a caution expert and let fear dictate your decisions. In social media, and in life, people won’t remember your failures; they’ll celebrate your successes. Dream like you’ll live forever, but live like you’ll die tomorrow. If you pour your heart into social media, you’ll produce “share-worthy” content, which unlocks the real power of social media.

3. Have a plan, but watch the data.

Ironman, like social media, requires serious planning! I spent months planning everything down to the minutest detail: I knew where to line up in the swim; what feet I would draft; how many calories I would take in on the bike; how many watts I would produce; what pace I would run, and so on. Most of it materialized perfectly, but here’s the critical caveat: if I weren’t watching the data and assessing in real-time, I would have bombed.

Here’s an example: for some reason early in the bike, I was having a hard time holding my goal of 300-310 watts. I was only supposed to take in 400 calories an hour (which I was doing), but I also knew that to drive up the power, I needed to eat more. I doubled my intake (to 800-calories per hour, which is slightly insane. But, that’s what the data was telling me!). And, it worked. Within minutes of eating more, my power meter showed 300+ watts.

Lesson: Spend the necessary time designing a well-conceived social strategy for 2012. But once it’s underway, watch that data–and be willing to shift course based on the numbers. I cannot over-emphasize how important that is. If people aren’t retweeting your content; if your LinkedIN ads aren’t pulling; if your videos aren’t being shared, then mix things up!

4. Efficiency trumps effort.

I felt like a svelte, unstoppable Gladiator warrior when I arrived in Hawaii. I think I may have had 10-pack abs. But, when I saw some of my competitors, the finest triathletes on the planet, I lost a bit of my swaggery confidence. These guys were clearly fitter and stronger than me. They looked like absolute machines. I mean, their ears looked muscular! But, on race day, I left them in the proverbial dust. Why?

Efficiency. I channeled my effort into forward motion more effectively than they did.

Lesson: Ironman, like social media, is not about how many hours you put in; it’s what you put into those hours. Strive to be efficient with your time. Use tools like Hootsuite and e.gg timer to do more in less time.

5. Without purpose and passion, you’ve got nothing.

Twenty minutes before the start of the event, with the helictopers buzzing overhead, tens of thousands of people cheering–and the most difficult day of my life beckoning–I had to remind myself why I was there. For me, it was to honor my family and try to break 9 hours and raise $1 million for CARE. That focused my mind, calmed my nerves and put purpose and passion into every move I made on race day.

Lesson: Know why you’re engaging in social media. List three things you want out of it in 2012. Knowing that will better define your strategy, your tactics and how you measure success.

6. When you don’t think you can take another step, take another step.

Ironman tested my soul, and I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t think about quitting a dozen times on the marathon course. But, in those moments of nagging doubt, I said to myself: “Just run to the next aid station, to that guy holding the ice–and then decide if you want to quit.” When I got there, and the guy greeted me with a smile and ice, I realized it wasn’t so bad. So, I ran to the next guy at the next aid station. Before I knew it, I was running down the finishing chute on Ali’i Drive high-fiving the crowd in a blaze of glory!

Lesson: Anything worth doing is hard. Sometimes it tests our soul, whether it’s parenting, work or a sporting event. But, let me tell you this, and I know it to be true, because I’ve seen it first-hand: you are far more powerful than you realize. You are. You may have forgotten it, but you are. I saw 70-year-olds finishing Ironman. And, I’ve seen all kinds of people, from all walks of life, succeed magnificently in social media.

If you take a long-term approach, watch the data and come from the heart with passion and noble intentions, you’ll succeed in social media. It make take more time than you thought, but you’ll get there.

Just take it one step at a time.

Like the post? You’ll love the book! Eric Harr is the Founder & President of Resonate Social Media, a leading, integrated social media agency in San Francisco. He is an award-winning TV host on CBS News and the best-selling author of the new book “The REAL TRUTH About Social Media: 8 Timeless Truths Uncovered & 8 Monumental Myths Revealed” available in electronic and hard copy (pre-order).

Previous post:

Next post: