In 2009, Harvard Business School student Will Dean thought that he could attract 500 people to enter a challenging race which included mud pits and man-made obstacles. Dean submitted his proposal to the annual Business Plan Contest and made it to the semifinal round. Why didn’t he win? Harvard business professors judged the plan too optimistic and did not believe a market existed for this type of event.

Undaunted and determined to succeed, Dean brought in a business partner, Guy Livingstone, to help him move forward with his plan. They based their organization on the success of similar events in Europe and proposed a $20 million opportunity including the launch of 20 events over five years. With only an $8,000 marketing budget, Dean and Livingstone relied heavily on Facebook and other social media to spread the word. In May 2010, the first Tough Mudder event was held in Pennsylvania, having sold 4,500 available slots within 35 days.

Over the past two years, Tough Mudder has grown exponentially, with 28 events planned for 2012 throughout the United States and numerous others planned internationally in Canada, Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Each event attracts between 15,000 and 20,000 participants over a two-day weekend, and participants pay between $90 and $155 to complete a 10- to 12-mile challenge course.

The Tough Mudder Facebook site has more than 2.2 million followers.

Clearly, this is a success story for a small, entrepreneurial business. However, let’s focus for a moment on the role social media played in this success — an $8,000 marketing budget is a menial amount from which to have such staggering marketing success. There is no doubt that social media have changed the way businesses market their products. The 2012 Social Media Marketing Industry Report shows the popularity of using social media outlets as part of the marketing mix. Ninety-two percent of the marketers surveyed use Facebook, and 72 percent of respondents indicate a desire to increase their Facebook usage and presence. YouTube was also cited as a popular marketing tool, and 76 percent of marketers indicated a need to increase their YouTube activity. Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs and Google+ were also identified as important tools in the social media world.

Perhaps most telling from the 2012 report are the results marketers feel they gain from the use of social media. Respondents reported increased exposure, increased traffic, increased brand loyalty and improved Internet search rankings as some of the major benefits of integrating social media within their broader marketing strategy. Additionally, for those businesses that had integrated social media into their marketing mix for at least three years, 58 percent reported a marked increase in sales.

While the Tough Mudder is an example of the benefits of fully integrating social media into your business marketing strategies, its success has also carved out a niche within the action sports market for entrepreneurs throughout the U.S. and Maine where a number of similar muddy, obstacle-type events now exist. For instance, Maine companies Tri-Maine Enterprises and Aura360 Ventures recently launched the Raid Series. In July, Sunday River will host its third Tough Mountain Challenge. Likewise, the University of Southern Maine’s sport management program owns the Into the Mud Challenge, a 2.5-mile muddy obstacle event, which is managed by students in the program’s event management course.

USM sport management students run all aspects of the business, including marketing, promotions, website, course operations, sponsorship, registration and media relations, while trying to capitalize on this unique niche market opportunity. And, with a minimal marketing budget of only $200, students become well-versed in getting the most out of a variety of social media platforms to market and promote their event.

In 2012, the event’s second year, more than 650 participants registered for the race, and $12,000 was raised for the USM sport management scholarship fund — nearly doubling results from the first year.

The skills and experience gained in the four short months of organizing and managing the Into the Mud Challenge will benefit these students for years to come. However, perhaps the broader take-away is the realization of what can be achieved with limited resources if you understand how to use the tools provided by the vast array of social media outlets. Developing creative strategies to tap into and connect with millions of daily users on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can help a small business grow and achieve in ways simply not possible just a short time ago.

Social media developments over the last five years have provided a range of new tools as well as changed the way consumers seek information and communicate with the businesses they patronize. Businesses must recognize that this is a two-way street and use multiple, complementary platforms to build relationships and connect with consumers in ways and places that match their busy lifestyles.

Dr. Heidi M. Parker is an assistant professor of sport management in the University of Southern Maine’s School of Business. She is a member of the North American Society for Sport Management and previously served as the vice president of inclusion and social justice for the National Association for Girls and Women in Sport. She has presented and published numerous research articles on the broad topic of sport consumer behavior.

Dr. Joanne Williams is an associate professor of sport marketing in the University of Southern Maine’s School of Business. She is a member of the Sport Marketing Association and has spent numerous years working in the sport industry, including as tournament director of the McCalls LPGA Classic in Vermont.