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Running Room Moves Communities Online

When it comes to offline community building around a brand, there are very few local examples as successful as “The Running Room”: But does this offline success translate into an equally persuasive online offering? Do they really “get” online?
If any of you are runners or even just like to walk your dog early on a Sunday morning, you will likely already know that the Running Room understands community building around a brand. Every Sunday morning at eight o’clock, outside of every Running Room outlet everywhere in Canada, there is a gaggle of hyped-up, spandex-clad runners in nice shoes and water bottle belts warming up for a run with their designated “community”. Whether you’re a slow 5K’r or a marathoner in training, there is a community of like-minded people waiting for you at the Running Room.
The Running Room, it seems, sells more than shoes. They sell a running lifestyle and they back it up by fostering an active community that lives this brand and congregates around their properties. In short, the Running Room is everything that an online social network aspires to be. Which made me wonder, what does their website look like and do they do as good of a job online as they do offline?
First, I need to be honest that I really did want their site to suck. It is always much more fun to write about a smart company caught with their pants down than to have to write about a smart company being smart. Unfortunately, this article will be the latter. With one notable exception, their site does a very good job of reinforcing their core offline values, online, and is a good example of a company leveraging their core strength through their online property.
Let’s look in more detail.
The Running Room
The homepage drives you immediately to the key content areas for their community (not their commerce): the “events” page, the community “forum” page, the “photos” page and other important pages designed to get you to put down the cheese doodles and go for a run. The “forum section”: is especially impressive with tens of thousands of entries around discussion threads on topics ranging from “running when you are pregnant”: to “the right foods for a 10 km run”: It’s not the slickest discussion forum I’ve ever seen but it is well organized and clearly well used by their core community. Even the marginal runners have a home, where posts like this one entitled “I finally got bleeding nipples again!!”: chum up the waters for the “run till it hurts” crowd. Everywhere it’s community first, commerce second.

The “members” area has some additional cool features like helping you to track your running achievements against plan as well as linking your profile to your IM and email addresses. This is an especially nice feature if I wanted to link up directly with your bloody-chested friend above for a nice run maybe with hot coals in your underpants, for example.
Ironically, my biggest complaint about their site is that I found it quite difficult to actually purchase something. The shopping experience was fine in and of itself, but as soon as I went to the checkout, I was forced back to “this screen”: which presumably is forcing me to create an account with them such that I can purchase this “Basic Pedometer for $29.99”: The problem is that it was all quite confusing and I wasn’t committed to having to register myself just so that I could get my pedometer. Clearly, this is a big area for improvement for them. Confusing customers at the till is certainly a practice to avoid and, for the Running Room, a bit ironic, given how well they have done at the hardest part of building an online e-commerce experience, which is building a loyal community.
While most companies build their sites around their commerce first and forget about their passion, The Running Room seems to have put their passion first and just need some coaching on making the commerce part work better.
All and all, I would give the an “A-” for their online community efforts. I felt as comfortable going to their site as I would going to their store at 8am for a Sunday morning run, which while not saying much for me personally, probably speaks volumes for the core community.