It's the Platform, not the Coaches

Digital Fitness

I’ve had two conversations over the past week that have inspired this blog:

  1. Talking to a potential investor, he said that, “the vast majority of people delivering online [fitness] classes are poor at delivering them … local ‘creators’ will create a less than ideal/optimal experience which forces the brands to put more money into training/managing that content which harms their broad unit economics.”
  2. Talking to the CEO of a top 20 US gym brand, “as I said on a panel recently, as leaders in the [local fitness] industry, we just aren’t sure that we can be successful in digital.”
I fundamentally disagree with this defeatism about online at the local level, and in this blog I’m going to set out why.

There is member demand for classes from local coaches.  We see this time and time again:

  1. A VP at a top US barre brand said to us several weeks ago, “We thought that after Covid was over, local online classes over Zoom were going to go away.  Now we’re realized that they’re never going away.”
  2. Head of digital at a top US boxing brand: “In all our members surveys, we find that members want to take classes from the coaches they know, not just our headquarters studio.”
  3. In response to member feedback, both Orangetheory and SoulCycle have moved towards enabling local coaches to lead online classes in OT Live and SoulCycle Studio Stream.
  4. Empirically, the vast majority of the top brands are still doing live video chat classes (typically Zoom) from local studios.  

Why is this?  Because relationships matter, authentic high fives help people push harder, and centralized content libraries from interchangeable coaches are not engaging long term - as well as having been commoditized on YouTube.

So why then is it so hard to be successful at online classes at the local level?  The vast majority of coaches have two options for online classes:

  1. Video Chat:  Typically Zoom, an amazing platform for business meetings (we’re a customer), but not designed for fitness.  Zoom has challenges including:
  2. Tends to look like amateur hour, as the video quality and angles aren’t great, the audio and video go out of sync, and the quality isn’t good enough to make recordings available on-demand.
  3. There’s little interactivity - the coach can try to watch the participants in gallery view, but there’s no metrics, no gamification, no tracking of PRs, no challenges, no other ways to interact during class.
  4. Video Libraries:  Typically Vimeo, a great platform for hosting video clips (we’re also a customer), but also not designed for fitness.  Video libraries have their own struggles:
  5. It tends to cost significant money per video to produce these videos, but there’s a near infinite quantity of free fitness videos on YouTube to compete with.
  6. There’s almost zero interactivity - the whole coach relationship is totally lost - at best the coach can see that you watched a video and send you a nice message.

Here’s the thing - nobody can be truly successful with Zoom or Vimeo for online fitness classes.  Barry’s has some of the best coaches around, but their Barry’s At-Home classes on Zoom do not reflect the premium nature of the Barry’s brand.  Barry’s X feels more premium, but the class experience itself is still essentially video chat today.

So what is it that makes Mirror, Peloton, Apple, Fiture and other direct to consumer digital fitness services feel premium?  Is it the the coaches?  No, it’s the platform.

I’m now the owner of a (used once, ridiculously discounted) Peloton Bike+, and I can say firsthand that many of the Peloton coaches don’t feel that different to elite local coaches I’ve met from Austin.  I took an online spin class from a coach at RIDE in Austin over Vimeo a few months back, there was zero interactivity and it was single camera in an empty room, but the coach herself was amazing.  A few months back the COO of a boutique brand in NY told me that many of their coaches have Broadway or other performing arts experience.

Sure some local coaches do get stage fright in front of cameras and may never excel at it, but there are plenty of other local coaches with big personalities who can rock it in front of camera - with or without some quick training.  And of course, all the Mirror, Peloton, Apple, Fiture and other coaches come from somewhere - often Nike as well as Barry’s, SoulCycle, FlyWheel, … some of the original boutique elite brands.

You could put Cody, Robin or any of these coaches in front of Zoom for an online fitness class, and I’m convinced it would feel like amateur hour.

You could put many of the local coaches I’ve seen in Peloton’s studio, and they could deliver classes every bit as compelling as Cody, Robin or my current favorite - Ben Alldis.

So what is it about the platforms that make direct to consumer fitness experiences feel more premium?

  1. Slick User Experience:  The whole app or user interface feels integrated and well designed, clothed in the brand of the company.
  2. Gamification:  Most have some form of metrics - heart rate, cadence, power, resistance, force, …
  3. Connected:  Many have smart exercise equipment that often tie into the class with auto adjustment (Peloton, Hydrow, Tonal, …).
  4. Content Management:  Programs, collections, categories, similar classes with recommendations, …
  5. Production Quality:  The video quality is high - in picture quality, audio / video sync and multi-camera (typically with a full production team).
  6. Music:  Has to be included for completeness, it’s hard and expensive to do right, but for many users it’s not as critical as the others in this list.  (And let’s be real here, many boutique studios illegally stream commercial music over Zoom during online classes - but the result still feels amateurish.)

The Achilles heel of these direct to consumer platforms is that their centralization and the scale they need to make sense of their per class overhead costs drives impersonality - like watching CNN, not attending a small audience guest lecture with friends.

Couldn’t the larger brands build this type of platform?  Well Equinox and Xponential have certainly been trying, but it’s a massive undertaking that consumes a lot of cash (like $7M+ per year), and none of the boutique brands are truly going to pivot into being software companies.

But for at least 99.9% of local fitness brands, it’s not even possible to consider this custom build option.  Some hire TV crews to create higher production quality on-demand content, as this is way easier than building a software platform, but the result still ends up feeling impersonal like watching Beach Body.

Tribe’s mission is to be the platform that levels the playing field for local coaches.

In practice, this means:

  1. Interactivity:  Adding metrics, leaderboards, challenges, programs and even a connected fitness framework.
  2. Community:  Building on the existing friendship groups and coach relationships in local studios, to take class with, high five and challenge each other.
  3. Coach Empowerment:  So they have the right data at the right time to have meaningful moments with members in classes, and studio tech to guide them through classes.
  4. Production Quality:  Improved video quality and multi-camera options with automation so it’s sustainable, as well as new (legal) options on the music front.

True omnichannel at the local level has the massive advantage that members really (real life) know the coach and other participants, but without a platform that empowers the relationships in digital, the class experience just feels some mix of amateurish and impersonal.

At Tribe we often draw analogy to e-commerce.  At the start it was dominated by pure play direct to consumer websites, but with the birth of platforms like Shopify, local and smaller merchants have gone after e-commerce in force.  The number of merchants on Shopify in 2012 was just 41,000, but by 2020 it had grown geometrically to 1,749,000.  The products of small merchants weren’t inferior, they needed an e-commerce platform.

A metaphor that resonated with a local fitness leader today in my conversation with him was race driving.  Elite local fitness studios have great teams - the equivalent of drivers, operations, mechanics, marketers, sponsors, etc.  But (outside of Formula One) racing teams don’t get into car manufacturing - they tune and enhance a car, but start from a baseline manufactured car as a platform to build on and customize.

If you’re figuring out your online strategy as a local fitness brand, don’t spend a ton of money reinventing the wheel or ‘settle’ for a plan that’s doomed to failure.  Give your coaches a platform designed specifically for online and omnichannel fitness, on which they can truly shine.  We’re ready to help, and we believe in local coaches in online and omnichannel fitness.

Justin Marston

CEO
Thinker, writer, innovator, runner, Star Wars fan

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