Q&A: Triathlon Taren on algorithms, endurance content, Youtube, and what works
Does a huge following make you money? (Hint: it's tough.) Is triathlon too small? (Maybe.)
This weekend, we’re sharing this Q&A with Taren Gesell, probably better known to you as Triathlon Taren. Taren built a huge following on Youtube as one of the first vloggers and online triathlon personalities in the late-2010s—back before triathlon Youtube was really a thing. He’s since gone through a number of evolutions (both online and off) and is now working on the growth of his training app and platform, MōTTIV.
While I didn’t know much about him before coming to Triathlete, we’ve since worked together a few times on stories and projects, and he has consistently been one of the smartest people I know thinking about online content and our industry. One of the things I also learned, however, is that (apparently) a lot of people have a lot of opinions about Taren. [And that wasn’t even something we talked about in this conversation!]
If you’re curious about or spend a lot of time trying to make sense of the internet and our sports, then you’re going to find this conversation as helpful as I did. Do people really make money off huge followings? (Not as much as you’d think.) It’s been edited down for brevity and clarity—there was a whole portion I cut where we dove into the hits SEO has been taking—and I hope you enjoy.
Why don't we start with: How did you even get started? How did you become Triathlon Taren of YouTube?
Well, the starting point was literally zero subscribers, zero followers, zero knowledge of how to edit a video, to shoot a video, anything. I was shooting really crappy videos with a smartphone and a bunch of construction lights on my face, sweating in front of them. And it was just a hobby to learn how to edit and have some creative freedom. When did I like become “Triathlon Taren?” It probably didn't happen for another two years after that. After messing around for two years, I tried doing a daily vlog that I committed to Feb. 1 of I think 2017. And that was the thing that kind of snapped it into ‘Holy Smokes, this is going to be something.’ And within about three months, I had gone from about 2,000 subscribers to, I think, 10-15,000, and I did those daily vlogs for two-and-a-half years. That was the thing that made me, air quotes, become Triathlon Taren.
Why do you think daily vlogs took off?
Looking back I thought it was because there was this massive amount of desire to connect with people and that was what YouTube was going to be about. And that is true, that people do want to connect with others online and feel some sort of sense of community and understanding about other people.
But as I look back at YouTube's business model, the thing that they needed to do back then, when daily vlogs were a thing, like that Casey Neistat era, YouTube was in a situation where they had to make coming back to YouTube a habit. Prior to that it was a place that somebody would come searching for an answer, similar to what they would do to Google. Unless they had a question to ask, they would not go to YouTube. So YouTube needed to create that habit formation of coming every single day. So they started promoting all of these frequent content creators where it was easy to follow somebody's story.
By the time I finished two-and-a-half years later, that habit had been built with viewers and that tactic didn't work anymore. Now you don't see any vlogs taking off, but we're still in the era of you have to create content based on what the platform that you're on needs to promote from a business standpoint.
Everyone refers to this as the algorithm, kind of generically, but it sounds like you sort of stumbled into something that worked specifically on the Youtube algorithm back then, but then it didn’t, right? How much do you have to consciously change to stay on top of what that platform wanted?
Stay on top of what they wanted to promote? I still have to do it.
The first thing that I did, for the first two years, was I searched for underserved search terms. An example being I could identify that there wasn't a review for the Hoka Clifton 2. OK, so I went and immediately bought a pair, ran in them for two weeks, put up a video, bam. I got 30,000 views because I was satisfying those searches.
Then I figured out and kind of stumbled upon, hey, these vlogs work.
Then, basically since the end of the vlog until I would say the last year, figuring out the YouTube algorithm was pretty tough. But even as recently as fall of this past year we did a big analysis of what's working and tried to kind of back out from there what the algorithm is looking for. And again, had to completely redo our entire video format because what we're doing didn't work anymore.
We skipped so far ahead here, but: What is the algorithm looking then for these days? To me it looks like super short, IG Reel videos.
The biggest thing that YouTube is struggling with right now-slash-what is it looking for is a movement towards streaming being a thing. Many, many more people are watching on TVs, and that means that the quality has to be close to TV-level quality. This is why you see people like Lionel [Sanders] and Talbot [Cox, his videographer] doing really well, because he puts a lot of effort into getting a lot of footage for one video. And Lionel is extremely fun to listen to, it's engaging, it's super high quality. Lucy [Charles-Barclay], Lucy is just an animal and watching her train is very exciting and their pain cave is really, really pretty. And it's nice to watch. This is why we see the PTO having some really big breakout pieces of content too, because they put a ton of effort into it.
All you have to think is: If there's one word that satisfies the YouTube algorithm right now, it's quality. And that's not a secret. That's just hard work.
And, Eric [Lagerstrom] and Paula [Findlay], I think Eric probably does the best triathlon videos online, with the amount of effort that he puts in. It's absolutely incredible. That's kind of the level of quality, from a video standpoint, that you need, but you also need a high level of interesting story behind you. Eric and Paula, great story. Lionel, great story. Lucy, great story. What you don't see however, are the grassroots people, like say me or Noel Mulkey doing very well with just the grassroots stuff. And Noel would be an excellent example. Huge on TikTok, not such a big following on YouTube because it's not that super high-level quality from a production or a story standpoint.
So in our case, what we've looked at is: What can we do that is really high-quality? Well, I think the level of quality that we can keep really high is information that is 100% designed for a very specific person and tell it with as pretty a set of footage as we can. But it's hard. Like it is really hard right now. All you have to think is: If there's one word that satisfies the YouTube algorithm right now, it's quality. And that's not a secret. That's just hard work.
To make it in long-form video, you have to be basically a video producer or hire a video producer now. But Noel's a good example of what I'm actually seeing more when I scroll, grassroots, what would be short influencer content. I'm seeing that on Instagram and TikTok, shorter things that can get away with being more shot on your phone.
Yeah, those can still do really well. Instagram Reels, TikTok videos. The challenge with that is how do you actually turn that into anything besides a big vanity number? Because what sponsors are starting to realize is that you get a lot of awareness and clicks when you sponsor an Instagrammer or a Tiktoker, but you really don't get a lot of uptake in traction. The trackable sales that you get from those types of sponsorships are the lowest.
Speaking to one sponsor that I have, they said that the most amount of clicks goes Instagram, then TikTok, then YouTube, then podcasts. But the sales that they get from those clicks are exactly flipped. So podcasts generate the most sales, YouTube is second most, then Instagram, and TikTok is the least. So it becomes really hard when the easiest place to stand out and build big followings are the short snackable videos on Instagram and TikTok, but translating that into anything tangible, whether it's brand deals or a business that you create from it, is really quite difficult, because the sponsors that have historically done that and supported those influencers are getting pretty savvy.
So how do you build a business now out of online content, social content? It seems like it has to be tied to a coaching platform or merch or some thing you actually sell. It's hard to do it off just sponsorship deals now.
I'll be totally honest and say that we've lost almost every single one of our sponsors because there was that gold rush of everyone wanted to create an influencer marketing plan, right? And then they went and sponsored a whole bunch of influencers and then went, ‘Whoa, OK, this is really hard to track and to manage and actually know if we're getting any money back.’ We still have great relationships with most of the sponsors that left, because they spoke very openly about why. It's just a hard thing to do. So building money off of those brand deals or building a business off of those brand deals is getting quite difficult now.
Our answer was: I believe building a big follower base is 15 minutes of fame and it'll rise up and then, just the way the algorithms work, it's always going to come crashing down because people aren't going to be famous on social media for forever unless you're a Kardashian. So preparing for that downslide, how do you do that? Well, sort of what's always worked is you gotta build a business. And then the second part of that is, OK, well how do you build a business as an influencer? What I've found is we have an app that is like 4.7 out of 5 stars on Apple. Really good. The people who use it are like, ‘This is amazing, how do you not have tens of thousands of users?’ Well, the reason being, because the only person that's talked about our business and our app is me, because I got this big following, all I need to do is tell my followers about it, right? But then it becomes untrustworthy because the only person that's talking about it is the CEO and the founder. So I did help give our app a kickstart, but now that it comes time for us to scale this up, which is what we're doing in 2023, we have to treat it the same way that Eric Min treated starting Zwift. We have to get PR mentions and we have to build an ambassador program and we have to get reviews.
So did I build that app off of my following? Kind of. But the bottom line is that building a long-term sustaining business as an influencer, really hard.
This is not in triathlon but I was thinking about this girl who got famous on TikTok for explaining how Excel works and now she sells Excel courses and Word and Google Doc courses, courses are big, and she makes like a huge amount of money. But you have to have something to sell. That is the business, right? The social media fame is just the fame, the business is selling the courses or workshops or whatever it is.
The problem with the courses, which we had, we had template training plans, we had books, which made us decent money and we just took all that money and plowed into the app, because the only way that selling those courses works is if you're constantly bringing in new followers, and the second the algorithm turns on you and you get towards the end of that 15 minutes of fame and your follower growth slows, selling those courses becomes really hard because you don't have new people to sell them to.
And everyone already knows everything they need to know about Excel or whatever by then.
Yeah, and if there's good money in courses for Excel, somebody's just going to start an Excel YouTube channel, and all of a sudden that information's going to be free eventually.
Going back to the content question, when I think about triathlon content, the YouTubes, the sites, the social, even the legacy publications. It does feel like it's not as robust as, say, running. It definitely doesn't feel like triathlon YouTube or Instagram is anywhere close.
Even running isn't anywhere close. There's a metric that we look at as far as the amount of competition for all content that we create, for our market as endurance athletes, I’m talking cycling, running, triathlon, swim, run, duathlon, all of that, lump it together and it's bigger than email management software or project management software. It's a bigger market than that with less than half the competition. We're just so far behind.
If you were going to start a content outlet for triathlon, what do you think is missing right now? Not a training app or anything, but just content. If it's so far behind, what is missing? Is it magazines or in-depth stories? Is it all missing?
I think what's missing is an organized effort. If I were to say to you, Kelly, what start-up in endurance sports has really taken off in the last five years?
Zwift, maybe Strava.
While every other industry has hundreds that are trying to go at it. This is the challenge that we have in our industry. Really early I came into the industry, built this name for myself, and I was like, ‘OK, now why don't I find some coaches that I respect and want to work with and then we'll create content together. Maybe we'll create some products together.’ Because at the time I wasn't a coach and I'm like, ‘Hey, I've got this following. You've got some knowledge, let's do stuff together.’ Right away, I found that every single person who could join together to create something large and meaningful, just wants to do it on their own. They don't want to work with any other coaches because they don't trust any other coaches, they believe they're the best coach in the world. So nobody works together in the industry. And you get this incredibly fragmented content, where some coaches are maybe creating a podcast, and other coaches are maybe doing a blog but they're also coaching at the same time. And then pros are also kind of fragmented, because they've got big followings, but you know what pros are like, it's all consuming, there’s no way to make them turn a business into their #1 priority. So nobody's really looking at the content sphere of endurance sports as ‘this is the whole point of what we're doing.’ It's always an add-on to whatever their main focus is.
Obviously I came out of this massive company that thought we were going to do that, right? We're gonna all join up together and have cycling content and triathlon content and backpacking content, and it’s going to be this massive thing. And I don't want to say it didn't succeed, but a lot of people got laid off, right? And part of the argument was you could not make money being specific to triathlon, triathlon was too small, you had to be fitness-y or lifestyle training, that triathlon itself couldn't sustain a big enough audience. So we had to go broad, but the challenge is when you do that then you lose all of the people, triathletes, who actually want to know specifics about triathlon.
I think if you're creating a media publication in the form of traditional media publication, where you build a ginormous audience and sell ads based off of CPM rates, they're probably right.
But it’s a bad model.
In my opinion yeah, it's a bad model. It's a dying model. What does work is you create a really big audience and then you create a really good product off of it. You can create enormous businesses. If I go back to those two examples of project management software and email marketing software, there are businesses being purchased for $10-20 billion off of industries that have less search volume than our industry has. So there are more people in our industry searching for our content. There's no reason you can't make a good business off of it. You just have to treat it differently. That’s if it’s going to be content leading to something else that you build a product around. But if you’re just looking at content, then yeah the numbers are going to be small.
I used to go to YouTube conferences and I'd show up with my 100,000 followers and they'd be like, ‘Oh, I remember when I was getting started.’ And I was like, ‘Actually in my industry, I'm kind of one of the biggest really.’ And it was like, ‘Oh, that’s cute, maybe you’ll make it someday.’
That's the thing I keep coming up against, and I don't know the answer yet, but triathlon as just triathlon may be too small to support pure content, right? If it doesn’t sell something.
Something else. Yeah, I'd agree. And depends what you want. If you want to have a large self-sustaining business that doesn't require you to be the only person involved, that's where it starts getting really difficult. But if you want a Kevin Kelly 1,000 true fans sort of model, where maybe you make a $100,000/year, totally doable, but that's a very different model than growing something significant.
Who do you think is doing content in the triathlon space really, really well right now? Who has it figured out?
Eric and Paula is a format that I think is possible for people to duplicate. You can't duplicate Lionel's channel because you have to duplicate Lionel and that's not possible. Lucy, a little bit the same thing, like to duplicate Lucy is very difficult. Eric and Paula are regular people. They're sometimes a little bit shy, sometimes a little quiet, sometimes they struggle and they're very honest with that. The thing that they do is they marry an interesting premise—pro triathletes who are going to be open with their ups, their downs, their highs, their lows, their preparation—and partner that with amazingly beautiful content. I think that's why they have probably what I would say is the best metrics per subscriber of any YouTube channel. They don't have the biggest number of subscribers, but the engagement I see in their channel is unreal. It’s the first thing that I've ever seen take off like that. And that's including everything that Talbot has done and Lucy has done. The engagement that they've created is pretty exceptional in this sport. You go to any race and the amount of TTL merch [That Triathlon Life, their brand]. That's crazy. You do not see that with Lionel Sanders merch. You see that with TTL merch all over the place.
It feels very cool, like I want to be part of the cool kids.
And they make good stuff. They make really nice stuff. I think everything that they do is done incredibly well. It's not just launching some merch with a logo on a t-shirt. It's buying a really nice t-shirt that costs a lot. Maybe they only make $10 off of it, but hey, they got a lot of people buying those t-shirts.
Anything else I missed about endurance sports content right now that you’d want to tell people. Our audience is mostly brands, industry people, heads of companies, so I think they’re more curious about what direction are things going in.
Shooting from the hip, I think maybe stop trying to be a content producer and a media producer unless they're willing to go all in on it and actually create a media arm with people that are tasked with just doing media and that is their specialty and it's something that they're going to own. What happened with a lot of the brands was they said one of two things: We're either going to sponsor a bunch of creators—which I think is probably the future, is figuring out how do you get ambassadors and how do you do it at low cost and how do you do it organically, I think that's really the way to do it. But a lot of brands took the opposite view and said, we can do a better job, we’re going to do this ourselves and we're not going to have to pay anyone to do it. And that's how we got the hundred podcasts that have exploded and come and gone. In just the five years since we've started our podcast, we've literally been through three waves of podcasts.
They either have to go all in on it or not do it at all and just let the creators create and then figure out how to make that viable. Because there's so many brands that have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars just by trying to dip a toe in the water and thinking that it's easy.
This has actually been really informative, for me personally. These are really good points.
The Canadian said some smart things! I'll be damned.
The unfortunate thing is that it has probably never been harder. Because everyone is trying to be a creator. The amount of competition is so high. All of these platforms have nothing but options for what videos or what podcasts or what article to filter up to the top. And that means that the amount of work that has to go into it is astounding, is astronomical. We went from seven videos per week that took us about 20 minutes each to edit and growing like crazy, to one video per week and only growing at half the rate. One video per week that takes eight hours to edit, so three times more work for half the results.
It's hard out there right now.
Aside from triathlon, another sport I follow is CrossFit, which seems to be facing the same revolution. Same sponsor challenges, same challenges for the size of the sport. And amusingly, the channel most similar to Eric and Paula’s ‘slice of athlete life with amazing scenery’ is TeamRichey, not even a channel featuring a pro athlete, but a couple is what we in tri would call age groupers, living a lifestyle around their sport, sharing ups and downs, travel, and keeping it light. And also selling high end quality merch (HSTL). On the back end of a pandemic when most everyone is on the struggle bus now and again, relatability is important.
This was very helpful to have some insight into how brands are benefitting or rather, not-benefitting, from investing into content on all of these platforms. I’ve been following most of these channels for years, and the major difference between athletes/creators who are successful/prolific, is they have savvy for producing quality “high production” value content. But most pros can’t afford their own videographer, obviously, so they make a few videos, and peter out... but if brands understood the value of these athletes, and would support them, even a “limited series” run of 6-8 episodes leading up to an event would be awesome, but extremely time-consuming and expensive, and not much of a benefit in the short term for brands if their products don’t sell. I am curious about the predominantly game-based streamer Twitch, because their Creators just flip on “Streaming” and go, high production value is not a concern, because the fans eat it up. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could put some pro triathletes in front of gamers??? That could be life-altering, and cheap, just “day in the life” content... I think it’s worth investigating. In the mean time, I’ll keep buying Hed wheels, TTL gear, and follow Holly Charles on IG in between shooting slots on IG for Triathlonish.:)