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A new pathway - the parkrun success story

Updated: Aug 11, 2020

Sixteen years ago 13 people got together for a run in the park, which unwittingly set off a chain of events which has created a massive success story in our world of events. Up until COVID shut them down 17 weeks ago, on every Saturday in 22 countries parkrun-ers have been coming together, turning this small group of likeminded people into a major global movement. An incredible 9,102,882 parkruns have now been completed, in over 3,843 locations, and it’s still growing. During this remarkable rise, and relatively early in the parkrun journey an Australian Tim Oberg decided to take a punt on bringing it to this side of the world. Back then parkrun had only just started to venture outside England, and didn’t necessarily look like the phenomenon it was to become. And it may have seemed unlikely to some, as back in 2010 the megatrends in our local market were that people were becoming less likely to sign up for traditional sports clubs, and even less likely to be volunteering to run them. But parkrun proved to be well-positioned to connect with people. And it continues to show us people still want to be a part of something in today's world, that we still want to sign up and consume sports-related experiences, it's just we want to do so in different ways.

From the 13 runners at the first-ever parkrun, there have now been over 600,000 parkruns completed in Australia, and nearly 400 locations.

Influential events - the good news stories

As you may know, I’m a big believer in the positive influence that events can have in our communities, and, of events to create communities around them. And there are many examples of this, and many stories that we can share about the value of our events, on many levels. Research into parkrun and the work we have done on other events provides us with evidence of this, but also, the proof of this influence is easy to see across each of the 3,843 locations across the 22 countries, each Saturday, and, across the year.

What can we learn? What can we share?

During this challenging phase for our industry, where its important to be learning and evolving, and also to celebrate our success stories, I caught up with Tim, to share his story, and that of parkrun in Australia. And I feel like there is so much to take away and use in your work.

1. Providers & Participants - a Shared Purpose

Ultimately and basically, it is critical as experience providers that we offer something that people are interested in. And that we build a relationship with those people, so that they don't just sign up, but that they show up again. So we all want our participants to shift from being ‘Aware’ of us to ‘Active’ with us, to ‘Advocates’ for us. Where our events have such a tight relationship with our participants that they become part of their lives. And in a very cool example of the connection that parkrun has with its people, Tim shared a great story of how the Highlands parkrun team was 'holding' LEGO parkruns during the lockdown!

2. A new pathway – the influence of milestones & moments

It is also critical as experience providers that we take people on a journey, from signing up to showing up and showing up again. And one of the features of parkrun has been the ability to provide a pathway for its people, attracting them to sign up, but also critical to its success, it inspires people to not only show up again and again but also to bring others with them.

3. Art & Science in Experience Design

To achieve this, it is always important to use both the learnings from our previous experiences and our evidence, to evolve what we offer. And by focusing in on some key moments along the parkrun journey, parkrun makes the overall experience matter more. This has come from the real-world learnings taken from the hundreds of thousands of parkruns, along with a greater understanding of the science behind participant journeys. For example, as Tim called out they have looked at thier data and found important moments in an experience, and milestones (of around 12 parkruns), where a participant becomes more connected and likely to maintain that connection with them. It’s a good target for parkrun providers to have in mind and a great example of applying the art and the science in designing (and re-designing) our experiences.

4. The Experiences of Value

Another masterstroke in the parkrun model which we can all learn from is the ability to provide elements that participants and volunteers* value, on the various levels that we can (and should) provide on. *as Tim rightfully calls out, a volunteer is a participant in parkrun, and that small distinction goes a long way to making the experience something that is rewarding for anyone who gets involved with parkrun. And it works, they keep signing up, and showing up again. However you participate in parkrun, it makes sure it delivers to your basic needs, addressing essential elements, without getting distracted by offering a lot of other services or interactions. Simply by organising the runs, and coordinating a group of like-minded people has a fundamental value to it. And without getting overcomplicated, parkrun also manages to provide to the 'higher level' needs, for social inclusion, for people to belong to something, to emotional values, and aspirational needs, for a sense of progress and identify. In recognising each individual participant, tracking and recognising their progress with times and t-shirts, are basic but powerful symbols that parkrunners experience each week, and value.

5. The Delivery Model – making it achievable, sustainable and scalable

As we know with our experiences, we need to have an influence in the wider world, to attract more people, more often. But also these events and programs need to be manageable behind the scenes, so we need to have the delivery model right. Now more than ever where we must invest in the things that matter, to invest our (even more) limited resources and money into the things that will help us achieve what we need. And again, we can take something from the parkrun playbook. 'Keeping it simple' as Tim calls out, to ensure we set up ourselves to be successful, and enable your providers to deliver meaningful (and manageable) experiences.

How can we use this?

Admittedly there is a lot of talk about creating 'meaningful experiences', and you and I do often see the positive influence of our events and programs. But there is often not a lot of recognition of this success, or, actionable advice on how to create or re-create these influential experiences. So I do hope you can take some meaningful and useful information away from Tim’s story, and the amazing success of parkrun. And if you want to explore how our new (COVID) Playbook may help you design (or rebuild) your event experiences, please just let me know.

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