In the last few miles of a marathon, it gets tough. Real tough. But through the aching muscles, the sore feet, and the overwhelming urge to just stop running, one thing cuts through it all and keeps you moving one foot in front of the other — the spectators.
Whether they’re cheering your name, shouting “you got this!”, or simply applauding you as you pass — it creates an encouraging, inspiring atmosphere that keeps you going.
That sense of support and community is an important factor, it makes you want to go quicker, further, or more frequently — it motivates you to not give up.
It’s this idea of support and community that fitness-focused social network Strava has managed to capture in its service — a mobile app and online platform for athletes which was valued at $1.5 billion as of 2020.
But tracking workouts is something countless other brands offer — MyFitnessPal, Adidas Runtastic, MapMyFitness, Nike’s Training, and Run Club apps all offer similar services. Consumers have heaps of choices, so what makes Strava so special?
In this brand deep dive, we’re going to explore the story behind Strava and how an app that began catering only to enthusiastic cyclists managed to create a fitness-focused social network that now boasts 100 million registered users across the globe.
On your marks, get set, go!
Getting The Wheels Turning
Source: Business Insider
Strava was founded in 2009 by Michael Horvath and Mark Gainey — but the idea for it emerged as far back as 1996.
“You have to go all the way back to my college days when I was rowing on the crew team” explains Horvath. “What motivates you are your teammates and the people around you which drives you to push your limits. When I left that environment I thought ‘oh no, I don’t have my team anymore!’”
Before social networks, apps, or affordable GPS tracking had taken root, before they were even invented, the founders had an idea that was too ahead of its time to be implemented — a “virtual locker room” that could “recreate that feeling of being on a team even though we couldn’t physically train with our friends anymore. The impetus was trying to recreate that feeling of training with your friends to motivate you to new heights.”
The idea was shelved and Horvath and Gainey went on to found Kana, a consumer service software company that had its own successes during the late 90s and early 00s dot-com bubble. Both exited the company and, with the advent of GPS-enabled phones and tracking technology from brands like Garmin, they began to look at their old idea with a fresh new perspective.
“We now figured that the time was right to build Strava. We saw what Nike Plus was doing and that was good, but we saw a gap in the market. We wanted something that was aimed at the top third of athletes as opposed to the bottom third.”
Horvath and Gainey hired a small team of six to bring their old idea to life and Strava — which is Swedish for “strive”, in case you were wondering — was born.
In the beginning, Strava targeted cyclists. With the earliest version, users had to record their rides on a GPS-enabled device, like a Garmin watch, and then upload it to the Strava website. In 2011, they condensed their service into an app, which could circumvent the need for a sports watch by using a phone’s tracking capabilities. This was when Strava really started to switch gears and pick up speed.
Gainey explained, saying “Frankly, once you were downloading an app, your entire experience was going to be there—we had many members who weren’t even going to our website.”
From this point onwards, Strava focused on mobile.
In 2012, the brand introduced a separate app for runners. However, in 2014, the company backtracked and merged them back into the “single multi-sport system” that consumers use today — where any workouts can be logged from “canoeing to Crossfit to rock-climbing to wind-surfing.”
In these early days, the brand relied heavily on word-of-mouth in order to grow its membership base. Unlike other social networks, Strava was dealing with a much narrower audience at a time when mobile-first was still a risky and unproven proposition.
Their members were consumers who needed to be “pretty passionate about running or cycling” if they were willing to track their training. By creating a platform to facilitate “social interaction with like-minded people”, they were able to rely on the power of word of mouth, which could spread effectively across communities of runners and cyclists.
Strava offered an array of interesting features to those who were regularly clipping into their pedals or donning a pair of running shoes — the ability to simply map your run or ride, track your movement time, average pace, splits and elevation was supplemented by gamified elements like segments. These provide leaderboards on user-created routes (anything from a single hill climb to a whole marathon route) and award the fastest athletes digital cups and crowns as a reward.
Segments were the brainchild of co-founder Davis Kitchel, who “got tired of carrying sweat-soaked note cards in his jersey pockets.” Indeed, now runners and cyclists had proof of their achievements — “if it wasn't recorded, it didn't happen.” So, captivated by its multiple utilities and the prospect of verifiable bragging rights, athletes began to flock to Strava.
King Of The Mountain
As Strava grew in popularity it embraced the numerous ways that the community used the platform — allowing more and more activities to be tracked and adding in features, such as challenges, which are used to motivate users through milestones that fit their level of fitness and experience.
There is even a vibrant community of runners who use the platform as a canvas to create GPS art.
In 2020, Strava recalibrated its business model — switching to a freemium model where users could access a basic version of the app for free but needed to pay a monthly subscription in order to access the bulk of its tracking and analytical tools. This included the brand’s highly popular segment leaderboards, a key part of the app’s gamified user experience.
At the same time, Strava implemented a number of new safety and privacy features to protect runners with “automatic privacy zones around the start and finish of journeys” — a very controversial subject for the brand since its use of geo-data had been infamously thrown into the limelight when “exercise routes shared online by soldiers” were used to pinpoint the location of secret military bases.
Like many other mobile-first brands, Strava experienced an explosion of interest during the COVID-19 pandemic as restrictions on many activities lead to a sporting revolution. In April and May 2020, “the app saw 3 million people a month joining” and by 2021 revenues had increased by 70%.
Though the hyper-growth that rippled across the mobile economy led to a number of brands overreaching and needing to downsize by mid-2022 — Strava has held on to its gains and, with an ongoing fuel crisis, the brand may continue to see cyclists and athletes signing up.
Horvath believes that within a decade the platform could reach “1 billion users” and the brand is leveraging this latest surge of momentum by drawing up plans to eventually go public.
But what can you learn from this fitness tracking front runner? Let’s find out.
What Can Your Brand Learn From Strava?
1. Your Brand’s Community Is An Asset
Strava understood that runners and cyclists were already active in offline communities. Athletes of all stripes eagerly talked about their runs and rides, shared tips and tricks, and would heartily recommend new products or services that could help them train.
As such they built their strategy with this in mind, understanding that they would “need to grow more slowly than something that goes viral like Twitter.” But they were running a marathon, not a sprint and by building tools that allowed the multitudes of talkative, competitive communities of athletes to take their activities online they were able to rely on that steady growth.
As any social network grows, it is eventually able to leverage a factor called “the network effect” — this is the term that economists use to describe “a product that gets better when more people use it.” Think about any social media network and the reasons why you joined and there’s a strong chance you signed up because your friends, family, or colleagues were on there.
The effect, like a snowball rolling down a hill and picking up more snow as its surface area grows, is self-perpetuating — you joined because your friends joined and now your other friends are joining because you’re on it, and eventually your grandparents are signing up and sharing Minion memes.
As Strava grew, athletes could be relied upon to switch from competitors like Nike Run Clun or MyFitnessPal simply because more and more of the runners and cyclists in their social circle were on Strava.
By creating a platform that fostered community and gave athletes ample tools to measure their activities and share them with friends, Strava was able to rely on word-of-mouth marketing until it reached a tipping point where its own popularity was enough to draw in more and more users.
Takeaway: A brand’s community is an extremely valuable asset and can help grow your business. By creating an environment where your most loyal and enthusiastic customers are encouraged to become brand advocates, you can leverage one of the most effective and trustworthy marketing methods — word of mouth.
If your brand is a social network or community hub, then the network effect is a powerful force to take into consideration, but remember it’s a double-edged sword. As your users are peeled away by competitors or loss of interest, there’s a chance they might influence their friends to do the same.
2. Embrace Gamification
Strava isn’t the first mobile brand to weaponize gamification in order to create what is known in the industry as “stickiness” — which is when an app has “a loyal audience, low churn, and high engagement.”
Strava, like Duolingo and Forest, has a multitude of features from personal best medals and segment crowns to challenges and progress bars for weekly, monthly, or annual mileage goals. It all contributes to a user experience that amplifies progress when it is made and motivates the user to come back for more.
By embracing gamification, Strava has been able to expand the ways in which consumers can apply its services to their needs. For beginners, these features help to motivate and track progress. For more experienced athletes, they create a platform for competition with other users.
These can all contribute to creating what in the video game industry is known as a compulsion loop — a chain of activities that feed into one another, where the final step creates a sense of reward or achievement that then encourages repetition of the loop.
Takeaway: For Strava, gamification is a natural fit because the app involves many activities that can already be performed competitively. However, with a little creativity, gamification can be applied to many brands, regardless of what their core service is.
Indeed, it can pop up in places where you might not even recognize it as gaming. Charlie Brooker, the creator of Black Mirror, describes Twitter as “a massively multiplayer online RPG, in which you choose an avatar and act out a persona loosely based on your own, in order to gain followers. It’s a video game.”
Think about McDonald’s highly successful and controversial Monopoly partnership, where customers can collect tokens or win rewards when purchasing their meals. This alone turns each trip to the fast-food giant into a game of roulette and, just like real gambling, it creates that compulsion loop to have just one more spin.
While we don’t recommend exploiting consumers, gamification can be leveraged to make your brand more engaging and fun, make the customer experience more rewarding, and help retain your customers or users.
3. Address Data and Privacy Concerns
It should really go without saying but all services that handle their users’ data have a duty to keep it safe and secure — and to only use it in ways that have been consented to. Many big brands that have made their millions by leveraging user data are now perceived as untrustworthy by consumers and lawmakers across the globe are creating legislation and regulation that gives more power to individuals in how their data is used.
Aside from accidentally revealing the location of secret US military basis in active conflict zones, Strava has managed to avoid too much negative press in how it handles user data and user privacy, but concerns do still exist.
Indeed, all of the activities that you share on Strava are public by default and the process required to make your account completely private is an arduous one. Regular and routine runners or cyclists may not realize that anyone can peruse their activities to see where they’re going and at what times.
Rightly so, some users are concerned, and while Strava offers a suite of privacy controls, many believe they do not go far enough in protecting its members.
Takeaway: Mishandling user data is a huge breach of trust that can fundamentally damage your relationship with consumers — making your privacy controls and data policy as transparent as possible is the best way of making sure you avoid trouble.
For Strava there’s a tricky balance between privacy and the motivational community that they’re trying to foster on their platform, so while locking everything down might not always be the solution, it’s vital that you give consumers control and make the process of changing privacy settings clear and easy to do.
Proactivity is important here — making changes only once a problem has been brought to your attention by consumers when potential future customers could be reading about your mistakes in the news is something you want to avoid.
Strava demonstrates just how powerful communities can be when building a brand. Indeed, their marketing campaigns are decidedly low-key for a social media platform that boasts 100 million users — with a market valuation in the billions. This is because they can rely on the communities they’ve fostered to do most of the heavy lifting for them.
This approach was drawn from an in-depth understanding of their target audience — Strava’s founders knew that dedicated athletes would promote their service if they made it fit their needs and address their concerns.
While not all brands can rely on their own customers being such powerful advocates, their story highlights the importance of knowing your target audience, understanding how they’ll react to your brand, and building a strategy based on those insights.
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