Community is Critical in Digital Fitness - Part 1

Going Virtual

“Of course!”  Of course that’s what you’re saying right now as you read this headline.  So why is it done so badly in reality?

In part 1 of this blog series, we’re going to look at why the role of community in digital fitness needs to grow.  In part 2, we’re going to do a market survey of the community features available in different digital fitness offerings today.

Let’s take a step back.  At Tribe we often say that community is the lifeblood of local fitness.  Whether it’s group bike rides outdoors, races, chatting to other guys in the gym, that post spin ride coffee break or the Crossfit BBQ.  Staying the course in fitness is hard, doing it with friends makes it suck less in the moment and reduces disillusionment and churn in the long term - it keeps you coming back.

Fitt Insider wrote a great article on community several years ago, citing more data and studies that showed that working out with friends was more effective than working out alone, and more recently highlighted a study on chronic loneliness, which fitness with friends can help address.

So what about in digital?  

McKinsey recently revealed that health and fitness apps that offered community outperformed the competition during COVID:

Seeing this, you’d think that every fitness brand is diving into community in their digital offerings, but that just isn’t the case.

In this blog we’re going to take a look at community in the digital fitness landscape - across Direct 2 Consumer (D2C), traditional clothing and boutique brands, and software platforms targeting fitness.

The most innovative companies for community in this space are, in my opinion, Strava, Zwift and FitOn.  We’ve created a detailed analysis of community features in digital fitness providers below, but here’s the quick summary for the three:

  1. Strava - Community is the whole value proposition, with crowd-sourced outdoor routes like Google shop ratings, as well as a social community and feed to build connection.  It’s become the place outdoor athletes keep score.
  2. Zwift - A massive 3D online video game for cyclists that hooks into digital bike trainers, where riders can complete badges, unlock new gear, ride together, race together, join teams and leagues, etc.
  3. FitOn - A surprisingly great free (base level) fitness app that has seen big adoption, members can do on-demand classes with friends over video chat, and post to groups like Instagram.

It’s perhaps ironic how similar some of the features and focus are for community in Strava and Zwift - both heavy on bike riding, one in real life and the other in a virtual 3D world.  Both also support clubs and leagues, which are often real life meetup groups of members.  So users can join a club and start seeing more relevant posts and reviews based on likely real world relationships they have without needing to explicitly ‘friend’ every other user.

In pure digital brands like Peloton and Tonal, gamification has been done much better than community.  I think this in part because connected fitness hardware is relatively expensive, and if you buy a Tonal you are unlikely to have any real life friends who also bought one.  This has meant that most connected fitness experiences have focused primarily on the single player mode with little attempt to add community features.  Peloton has added more recently (see below), but they came much later than the core experience and in my opinion still feel like a bit of an after thought.

But what have the traditional brands done in digital community?  Not a lot.  Many have focused on Facebook groups, completely separate from their own apps or how they deliver content.  Community has meant things like seeing someone else on a Zoom gallery view, possibly a leaderboard.  For many services, the answer has been zero, as brands have pushed out on-demand offerings on things like Vimeo that have close to zero community features.

We think this is a missed opportunity for brick and mortar / local fitness brands, because they already have strong face to face community from classes together in real life.  Part of the challenge is that the generic video tools like Zoom and Vimeo aren’t designed for fitness, and the don’t really have any concept of community (or using gamification to drive it).  Lots of boutique brands have challenges and competitions in their studios to spice things up, but the digital apps based on things like Mindbody are primarily focused on bookings and payments.

Some brands like Orangetheory and Barry’s have tried building their own video-centric fitness apps, but as we have studied in an earlier blog, the software development cost of building out the features you see in a typical connected fitness platform are very high - tens of millions of dollars.

At Tribe, we believe that bringing community into digital fitness is critical to having a successful digital offering, and that requires a mix of intentional culture and the tools to enable it.  Gamification with programs, challenges and badges (just like the connected fitness vendors) compliments community, which needs to include friends, followers, messaging, feeds, commenting, likes, etc.  Community can be both real-time (during class) and asynchronous (for on-demand and just like Facebook groups), but automating the connection to gamification greatly reduces the operational burden of keeping a community fresh.

The more you can automate the bridge between gamification and community, the more sustainable and evergreen the community in your digital strategy is likely to become.

That’s what we’re building at Tribe, contact us if you’d like to know how it could upgrade your digital strategy.

If you’re interested in the ground reality of community in current digital fitness offerings today, take a look at part 2 of this blog.

Justin Marston

Thinker, writer, innovator, runner, Star Wars fan

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