Op-Ed: What brands should know about online fitness communities

10 Dec 2020

By: Sport Industry Group

As the UK moves out of its second lockdown, but with restrictions still in place, Joe Weston, Director, We Are Social Sport, looks at how online fitness platforms have helped the public find a sense of community throughout 2020, and what brands can learn about the phenomenon.


The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the most significant disruption to sport since World War Two. Many sporting enthusiasts, team players, and gym goers have had their regular exercise routines thrown out the window. But people's passion for sport hasn't disappeared; they still need to compete, challenge themselves, achieve - and to be part of a tribe. 

Desperate for connection amongst a sporting network during the pandemic, we’ve seen the rise of the ‘individual athlete’ - sports enthusiasts who are using platforms like Zwift and Strava to track their progress, strive to break records, and connect with likeminded people in the sporting community.

While apps and platforms like these wouldn’t traditionally be considered a social network, they are now somewhere where people engage with one another (and with brands), spend time building connections and even look for purchase recommendations. They offer an opportunity for sporting brands to make new connections at a time when the ‘traditional’ approach to sports marketing has become a challenge to say the least. 

Here’s what brands need to know about these growing communities:
 
They are here to stay

A recent survey showed that fitness apps grew nearly 50% in the first half of 2020 and 60% said that they enjoyed home workouts so much that they plan on cancelling their gym membership. Strava added an incredible 1 million users a month during the first lockdown. These platforms are bigger than many realise and offer more targeted opportunities for sports brands than many ‘mainstream’ social media platforms. For example, cycling apparel brand Le Col saw 10 times more engagement per Strava club post versus Instagram when they ran a sponsored challenge on the app in 2017. 

People are looking for connections  

As group sporting activities IRL are restricted, people are using an online sporting community to socialise with one another. Around 8% of Zwift’s usage now comes through its social mode, up from 2% before lockdown. Weekend club rides and social get-togethers have moved online, allowing users to participate in the same experience while remaining physically apart. This behaviour offers brands the opportunity to form new online groups based around shared interests, or use features like Clubs on Strava to engage directly with their community.

They’re a place for positivity

With doom and gloom spreading across social media, these apps tap into our craving for positivity. They are designed to boost morale and offer support and praise for individual sporting achievement, no matter how small. Individual sporting passions unite people together. This sense of positivity means that brands who get involved need to strike the right tone; encouraging, driving, supporting - not just a bland sales pitch. 

Incentives work  

People in these communities are driven. They’re competing against themselves and others, and are constantly striving for a sense of achievement. Brands can tap into this sense of competitiveness with promotions. For example, Sweaty Betty offered a discount on their clothing via Strava when an athlete completed their challenge, a clever way of incentivising the community, while boosting sales and exposure.

Creativity matters

Cycling alone in your living room can get old quickly - Zwift recognised this and uses popular elements attached to gaming as a way to revolutionise solo training. It’s the creative element of these platforms that keeps consumers interested in the longer term. Brands should learn from this - running the same promotion month after month might be easier, but it will be more effective to keep things fresh and creative. 

Connection with others is at the heart of sporting experiences - it’s a driving force, a motivator and gives people a sense of belonging. It’s clear that in these disconnected times, people have found a new way to share their individual achievements and experiences with others. Fitness apps offer relatively untapped targeted marketing opportunities; those who move now can firmly establish themselves in these growing communities.