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Gamification: how exercise tracking software helps make fitness the biggest business in sport

Monday, 15 May 2017 15:58   |   By Jonathan Powell

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The Strava exercise software app is gaining one million new members every 30 days, and counts its total in the “tens of millions” according to its co-founder Mark Gainey, who recently spoke to Yutang Sports at The Telegraph Business of Sport event in London.

Gainey says the capabilities of the app, and others like it, are facilitating the worldwide trend towards fitness as a sport, and as a ‘game’.

You could argue that fitness is the biggest business in sport, and has always been because it includes everybody.  Through technology the global sports industry is making rapid progress in learning about new social groupings or “tribes”, and what this means about how we engage with sport. 

The trend is toward the world of wearable devices, fitness apps and specialist studios. Personal trainers and age-group athletes double as social media gurus, who connect and share their experience and knowledge by blogging and posting to masses of followers online. They share a general message that ‘fitness is sport’.

But when it comes to running and cycling, the Strava exercise app stands apart.  It has become the ultimate ‘gamification’ tool for exercise. With its ‘segments’ feature and social network notifications, it goes way beyond tracking calories, total mileage and route tracking. It makes exercise fun. China has its own version of Strava – Xingzhe, which uses Baidu Maps instead of Google Maps to utilize GPS data.

Gainey describes Strava as a social network for athletes, where people are able to post details or maps of their rides, runs or swims, or their afternoons on the ski slope.

“We bring that community together, we allow them to compete to trash talk, to high five each other with ‘kudos’, all online, through our apps or website. It’s connecting the world’s athletes. We believe that a world that is more active is a better place,” said Gainey.    

Strava tracks speed and pace over particular ‘segments’, ranging from a few hundred metres to several kilometres, and ranks an individual's efforts.

Weekly activities and mileage are measured and viewable by anyone wishing to see them, anywhere in the world. Athletes give each other encouragement through “kudos” and comment on each other's efforts.

Gainey, from San Francisco, co-founded Strava nine years ago with Michael Horvath, after they were on a crew team together, and saw the power that came from the camaraderie, the support and encouragement, and from the competition.

“This is really where the idea came from. Our thesis was ‘how do you build these teams, whether virtual or real’? I think what we're seeing now is universal, across all cultures. It is that connection with somebody that you are familiar with.

“Sport by definition is competitive – even when someone says ‘I’m not competitive’ I don’t believe them. All of us have a little of it in us. In sport, there is a winner and a loser, someone who crosses the line faster than you, it’s all relative.

If you look at Strava’s history, we built that into the experience. It may not be the primary driver for everybody, but we know it’s a piece. So, we have leaderboards, anytime somebody goes out and rides or runs a stretch of road there are different segments that show up, and you can see where you rank.

“There is a global ranking, but you ultimately want to filter down to something that is relevant to yourself. This week we’ll have a global bike to work challenge, maybe 100,000 worldwide going out together and showing there is a different way to do it.

“All these ways, where it’s either competition against other people, or it’s competition as a group activity, it’s just one more incentive to keep someone active the next day. If we keep you coming back time and again, good for us, but also good for them.      

Gainey believes China can achieve its ambitious sports participation targets and says he has been impressed by the data from mass participation events.  

“There is learning evolution to understanding fitness and sport, and China, with the two Olympics Games, has changed its course. Just five years ago there are only 13 or 14 or so marathons across the whole country. Now there are over 100,000 events.

I preach patience. Strava is only eight years old - we didn't grow to millions of members overnight. We grew organically, the word of mouth caught on, and members stayed with us, stayed engaged.”    

Encouraging any populace to take up new sports works best if fueled by positive human emotions, says Gainey.

“You have a government that is mandating, saying ‘this is what we want to achieve, these are the goals we have,’ and I’d argue that is almost like a corporate employer saying ‘we want all our employees to be healthy, put your Fitbits on, and were now going to track you’.

But our experience has been that you have to reverse that psychology – it has to be fun. With our development, we could have gone really deep into the Strava experience, deeper analytics, more heart rate data, but we backed way off because, what we appreciated was that some of the most basic components of the activity is what gets people inspired to go back out and exercise again.

Something as simple as adding photography into the experience, allowing you to capture a photo on a ride or run, brings more “kudos” clicks than posting data from a 5km or 10km run. It is these elements of what spurs human emotion in a positive way, that drives the Strava magic, and you have to believe that this would be universal.”  

For potential brands and partners, the data created by the app is great insight into training patterns and lifestyle habits.

“If we can see what athletes are doing on race day, and we’ve got an ongoing relationship with all of our members, then we can understand the other 364 days. We’ve got a full-year picture, we know when you’re training and where you are. We’re not going to sell that data, but we’re clear, our customer is our athletes, so if a brand is going to work with us they’re our partner in trying to bring really great products and services to our athletes.

What we envision are opportunities such as ‘oh, you’re the event organizer, what other events should you be running throughout the year that might work well with these folks and their training schedule’. Or maybe you’re an apparel manufacturer; ‘let’s look at the miles that these folks are training any given season, and then look at how do you think about how you introduce new shoes at the right time and the right place.”        

Strava recently introduced blogging to its platform, allowing for more conversations around race preparation, and sharing of experiences.

“We want to introduce to the entire community, and we have started with some elite athletes and coaches to work out the kinks, to give people a sense of what’s possible. We’re seeing there is an upturn in desire for conversations. If you’re training for your first marathon, there are all these questions around preparation, and so we need a forum to allow interaction. If you’re an elite athlete you might be giving insight into your daily life. It’s another way to keep people active and engaged. It’s being that social network and creating those conversations, relevant to your athletic life.”  

Tags: Fitness

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