The ways in which fitness brands engage with audiences has evolved at warp speed in recent years thanks, in part, to rampant social media adoption. Digital disruption is not unique to this industry, but the opportunity afforded fitness brands is massive. This $31 billion industry has transformed from $30 monthly gym memberships into a lifestyle of expensive targeted classes and bootcamps. Intensely passionate communities have formed around types of exercise and activities, and members share details of every training session and achievement across all forms of social media. Fitness brands that don’t capitalize on the social opportunity in front of them will be left behind.
Community is a competitive advantage because members encourage, motivate, and help one another. As niche fitness brands scramble to leverage social community in original ways, they are seeing these groups of dedicated enthusiasts also act as a channel for attracting new customers and building lifelong customer value. People trust peers advocating for a brand more than the brand itself.
I spoke to executives from several top fitness brands to get an understanding of how they are maximizing the potential of social community.
Community Needs To Be Part Of The Company’s DNA
In speaking with these leaders, a common theme that emerges is that the importance of community is central to their company’s beliefs. “The Peloton community is core to everything we do. Our members are our biggest champions, our most ardent brand advocates, and a key source of new product feature ideas,” says Brad Olson, SVP of Member Experience at Peloton. He adds, “In fact, ‘Together we go far’ is one of our company’s core values because we know our community makes us stronger.”
Similarly, Joe De Sena, Founder and CEO of Spartan Race says,“Our community members go above and beyond supporting one another, pushing each other to their limits and beyond. We’ve fostered a community of millions that identify as Spartans, and they band together to overcome all of life’s obstacles.” If there’s proof of their passion in ink, De Sena adds that there are more than 11,000 documented community members with Spartan tattoos.
Barry’s Bootcamp CEO Joey Gonzalez highlights the importance of community to the business, saying, “Our community is a huge driver for bringing in new customers. Our clients become brand evangelists and want to share their experience with their own networks. Even celebrities willingly share by word-of-mouth and on social media.”
For SWEAT, parent company of Bikini Body Guide, community members become the primary educators for the brand. “BBG puts a lot of resources into educating their community so that they can pass along knowledge. This is an important cornerstone for the brand,” says Tobi Pearce, founder and CEO.
Simplified Community Participation is a Differentiator
In a world of competing fitness communities, brands need to strive to find ways to differentiate themselves and stand out from the field. For some, this means making it easy for for anyone to participate in the community.
“Since our founding, we’ve looked for technology that improves, rather than gets in the way, of people’s enjoyment of their sports. If you sweat, you’re an athlete. We want to eliminate hurdles for athletes to join our community regardless of the activity and the gear they use to track it,” says Strava’s CEO James Quarles. “We’ve also expanded activity types to include weight training, swimming, hiking, and gym workouts like Flywheel. If you sweat, you’re an athlete.”
SWEAT prides itself on making fitness an engaging and fun experience. Striving to be the largest women’s health and fitness app in the world, they focus on having many milestones along the way to give people reasons to celebrate. Features like progress tracking and ability to celebrate others are central to this effort.
Combining virtual community with physical meetups is also a key part of a winning formula. Given that much of the community interaction for fitness brands is virtual, live events play an important role in strengthening connections throughout the year. Getting community members together gives brands the added benefit of showcasing new product and feature releases in person. Spartan Race offers special programs and access for their community members at their races. Peloton hosts Home Rider Invasion, an annual pilgrimage to New York where members can take classes and meet one another.
Using Technology to Scale Community
Differentiation is not limited to mindset and values, it also comes in the form of technology. For Peloton, this means tight vertical integration. Owning the entire process, from hardware to software to retail to logistics, helps with brand- and community-building. As the go-to source for Peloton bikes, content, rides, and events, they maintain ownership and a strong brand image.
For Strava, a focus on technology has always been critical. Quarles mentions that, “Over time that has meant integrating with the best-in-class class devices, apps and analytic partners. Today, more than 300 pieces of hardware seamlessly integrate with Strava and 20,000+ developers build on our open API.”
Spartan uses video content such as live race streams on Facebook and special features on Spartans across the world. They also monitor social media trends and comments to ensure they are addressing the needs of their consumers and using feedback to enhance products. SWEAT found early on that app integration with Instagram was critical to scaling their community.
Community Building Tips for All Brands
The brands I talked to had some advice for brands outside of the fitness vertical who want to create a competitive advantage by fostering community. Authenticity is crucial to building trust and a sense of belonging. According to Strava, you should never use celebrities for celebrity sake. Brands should partner with celebrities and products that are already contributing to or part of their community. SWEAT also said that community needs to be part of a brand’s holistic mission, not simply an add-on.
Organic growth is also a key element to success. Spartan’s De Sena says, “Our community continues to grow organically because we’re genuine – we truly want to make the world a healthier place and support our community, and that shows through everything we do. My advice is to stay true to your brand and keep your voice and content real and in-line with your company’s mission.”
“A lot of our instructors—including me—are former clients that fell in love with the brand and wanted to work for Barry’s. As a result, our community has grown organically over the past 2 decades, and our instructors are proud to be leaders of the Barry’s Fit Fam,” says Gonzalez.
Strava also emphasizes the importance of evolving with your community. Quarles explains, “You have to know your superpowers–identify the things that the community sees you as doing better than all others and continually invest in them. For Strava that means ubiquity, authenticity, and metrics that motivate over time.” He sums it up, “Your goal should be to align the experience you create with your community’s needs.”
While the fitness vertical may be unique in the way community members support and encourage each other, this type of word of mouth marketing is an incredibly powerful tool for any brand looking to scale their audience.
This article was originally posted on Forbes.