Mass mingling builds close communities through social media

Mass mingling is the latest term to describe how people are using social media to get out from behind the computer and meet face-to-face for exercise and outdoor adventures. SNEWS talks to outdoor and fitness industry companies using this new method to gather folks to get outside and get fit.
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In 1995, MIT professor and philosopher Noam Chomsky warned that computers and other rising technologies would make people increasingly isolated.

“I think that the isolating effect of the new technology is a very serious problem,” Chomsky said in an interview with the Golden Gater newspaper, published by the San Francisco State University Department of Journalism. “I mean we’re human beings, we’re not Martians, and face-to-face contact means something.”

Chomsky would be relieved to learn about the latest catchphrase in the social media world -- “mass mingling,” which popped up recently on Trendwatching.com. Mass mingling is basically the idea that technology, especially social media, has encouraged more and more people to get out from behind the computer to meet face-to-face with other like-minded folks.

While people are venturing out with new friends through mass mingling, companies in the outdoor and fitness industries are benefiting as well, using social media to gather customers to exercise and explore the outdoors, which ultimately transforms a consumer base into a real community.

Making connections

“It’s making it really easy for people to connect,” said Chris Haunold, owner of Idaho Mountain Touring, an outdoor specialty and cycling shop in Boise with more than 800 members on its Facebook page. He explained that social media platforms are primary avenues for cyclists and outdoors enthusiasts to connect with each other and ultimately meet up for a ride or a hike, or to just hang out. “It seems like everything is communicated through things like Facebook,” Haunold told SNEWS®.

He recalled how, in the past, it was more difficult for a person to meet a new hiking or cycling partner, and sometimes the only option was to join an awkward social group. “Now people don’t have to join the lonely hearts outdoor club,” he joked.

For fitness enthusiasts, the Internet has played a crucial role in linking people who share common interests. “Just look at what’s happened with the Crossfit community,” said Dai Manuel, COO of Fitness Town, a chain of fitness specialty stores in Canada (www.fitnesstown.ca). Crossfit, a fitness methodology that combines weightlifting, sprinting and gymnastics, has exploded in popularity, and Manuel said Crossfit.com is a major hub of activity for devotees.

“I’m very active in Crossfit, and a lot of our staff members are certified coaches,” said Manuel. “If you follow the communities that have developed through Crossfit.com, people get together to workout and they talk about their workouts. The community they have developed, and how quickly it’s grown in the last five years, is a testament to what (social media) does.”

Just scan the Crossfit.com message board titled “In Search of Crossfitters” and you can find a workout partner in Hoboken, N.J., or Afghanistan. There’s even a Crossfit Facebook page (www.facebook.com/crossfithq) with more than 36,000 members.

Mass mingling is good for business

While individuals are mass mingling to meet new comrades, retailers are also tapping into social media to build stronger relationships among their consumers. Primarily, they use technology to promote events that take place either in the store or out in the field.

“Facebook is one of our bigger sources to drive traffic to some of our promotions,” said Manuel. “This past Saturday I was at an event at a club in Vancouver, and 80 percent of the 120 people who showed up got their invite through Facebook.”

Last summer, River Sports Outfitters, an outdoor specialty store in Knoxville, Tenn., established a sister website, Outdoor Knoxville (www.outdoorknoxville.com), to rally people around store-sponsored events, such as tutorials on paddling and bicycle maintenance, as well as more casual get-togethers.

“Social paddles on Thursday nights are always packed, and paddleboard Monday nights are crowded,” said Jim Sawyers, president of Bounce10 (www.bounce10.com), the e-commerce company that helped create the Outdoor Knoxville site.

Sawyers said that Outdoor Knoxville provides people a “meeting ground” to learn about events where they can participate in activities with others. “Maybe they’re not going to go on a big trip, but maybe it’s time for them to hone their skills or get together and socialize,” he said. “People are building relationships and a pool of people they can turn to if they want to go do something.”

Mass mingling speeds up

By using social media such as Twitter, retailers can build and maintain communities effectively, primarily because they can touch base with people frequently and quickly.

Luke’s Locker (www.lukeslocker.com), a chain of running and fitness specialty stores based in Dallas, relies on Twitter to organize its series of Luke’s Fit programs, which train more than 1,000 people for marathons and half-marathons. The store recently created a Twitter page for each of the five programs it offers.

“It’s a great tool to let people know logistical changes,” said Suraiya Culp, who handles marketing for Luke’s Locker. “If (there’s) lightning, you can’t run, so what better way to communicate that than to send a tweet. People can get it on their iPhone or Blackberry, and they don’t have to waste their time.”

Speedy communication is becoming an increasingly important aspect of mass mingling, said Jeff Risley, vice president and social media analyst for the Barkley public relations firm (www.barkleyus.com). “Meeting up is becoming more spontaneous,” he said, noting that people primarily use Twitter for last-minute meet-ups, or “Tweetups.” Also there are a growing number of mobile applications, such as Urban Signals (www.urbansignals.net) and Google Latitude (www.google.com/latitude), which people use to locate and meet like-minded people in real time, wherever they are. 

Risley said an increasingly popular application is Foursquare (foursquare.com), which allows people to “check in” to certain locations -- a retail store for example -- using a cell phone. Once the person has checked in, his or her friends (in an email address book, on Facebook or Twitter) can see where the person has just checked in and get GPS coordinates to the location. Risley pointed out that, when a person checks in, he or she can also send friends tips about the location, such as, “Hey, a group is getting together at REI to hike. You want to come along?” he said.

Foursquare not only links people, but also provides opportunities for companies. The application allows businesses to offer people specials, such as a discount coupon, when they check in. A person receiving the special offer can then encourage friends to check in, which drives traffic to the business. “If retailers aren’t tapping into things like Foursquare, they’re really missing out,” said Risley.

Breaking down barriers

Whether its Foursquare or Facebook, technology is basically breaking down barriers that prevent people from meeting each other. Perhaps the greatest benefit of social media is that it helps break the ice, and makes people more comfortable when trying to find new partners for exercise or outdoor activities.

The Tennessee Valley Adventure Group in North Alabama (www.meetup.com/TNValleyAdventure/) has seen a great increase in the number of women members since it was launched last year through Meetup.com.

“I often have people, mostly women, who say that the things we do look like a lot of fun, but they’re not sure how to get involved, or they’re not sure if they’re able to handle the hikes,” said Troy Fuqua, a consulting engineer who directs the group. “I tell them we’re not hardcore athletes. And we have a lot of ladies who are going forth and are now leaders in the group.”

In the past year, the group’s membership has grown from 193 to 623 people, and 54 percent of members are women. Fuqua said he has expanded the membership by partnering with other local organizations, such as the Sierra Club and local paddling and spelunking groups.

“The Sierra Club is really pleased we’re working together because we’ve brought in a lot of young people,” he said. And the people of North Alabama are pleased because the Adventure Group website is strengthening the local community of outdoor enthusiasts. “A lot of real strong friendships are made,” said Fuqua, adding that the friendships occasionally blossom into romance. “Some people even find that special person who cranks their tractor.”

Certainly, Noam Chomsky did not envision that computers would help many people get their tractor cranked. But it’s happening. And companies and organizations that serve the fitness and outdoor communities see technology as an effective means of helping people mingle.

“The goal is to get people outside,” said Sawyers of Bounce10. “Our motto is ‘Meet, Plan, Go.’ You meet online, plan something online, and then you just get outside. The goal is to get people out from behind their desks, even if it’s just to get a beer together.”

--Marcus Woolf

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