Trends & Features

Virtual vs Reality

Virtual and Reality are no longer separate entities. All sectors and all businesses now recognise the role digital plays for their customer. Things have changed, and digital innovation is fast-paced, but with change comes opportunity.

Impact of STRAVA

An example of the pace of growth is brilliantly illustrated with STRAVA, the social fitness network used to track endurance training and racing, which was first launched in 2009. STRAVA has revolutionised how we participate in endurance events such as cycling, running and triathlon, with five million users in the UK alone. Speaking at Active Network’s Race Director’s Lunch at this year’s London Marathon, sports agency Limelight Sport’s Rick Jenner, highlighted this, pointing out that 40 per cent of the Virgin London Marathon runners would share their run on STRAVA, adding that for brands to reach their customers it makes sense to reach them through STRAVA, and other channels like this.

The virtual running world is thriving and as the saying goes if it’s not on STRAVA it didn’t happen. The New York Road Runners, organisers of the ‘real life’ New York Marathon and a host of other events, are leading the way with free virtual races ( virtual-racing) where runners race in their own time and receive a medal and a T-shirt. The only requirement is that they upload their run to STRAVA. Rather than worry about taking users out of their events, they use the virtual races to boost their ‘real life’ events, offering a free spot for the New York Half Marathon to the tribe of virtual runners, as well as access to the brand’s virtual training. Forward-thinking brands, including Enertor, makers of high-performance insoles for runners, have capitalised on this, with their Running World Cup, launching in 2018 and drawing in 81,000 competitors. Virtual racing and training is a feature in cycling, too, with training apps such as Zwift, also feeding STRAVA, and Peleton, cleverly combining virtual classes with their indoor cycling equipment.

Moving in a Different Direction

In the world of fitness and health, gyms are perhaps under greater threat from digital offerings. The rise of online trainers, and personalised apps providing tailored workouts and nutrition direct to the users can provide a direct replacement to the gym. Freeletics now has 36 million users, and recently received $45 million in funding to develop its app and reach even more users. “There are many people who aren’t comfortable with the gym, for example, many women (as Sport England’s This Girl Can revealed) feel intimidated about exercising in public, for fear of judgement,” says Jenner, Director of Strategy and Insight at Limelight Sports. On top of this research from Attest Global Lifestyle Report ( uk-vs-us-a-look-at-5-globallifestyle- trends), consumers are taking more interest in their wellbeing, they’re becoming more actively involved in protecting it. Forty-three per cent of UK Millennials are finding ways to practice self-care without having to consult a professional, for example by using health apps.

Mass participation events are also threatened. The success of what Jenner calls the ‘experience economy’ can be seen with the growth of outdoor and live events in the world of music. But for those in sport there should be no complacency. Jenner cites research from Maru/Blue which shows that live events such as music and cultural events are thriving (65 per cent plus rating the experience as excellent), whereas in sport and mass participation the excellent rating is just 50 per cent or lower. (As an aside a potential opportunity is combining the two, for example, Chris Evans’ event Run Fest Run, held in May 2019).

Whether running a gym, organising an event, or selling a product or service, brands need to keep the bigger picture in mind, and importantly, “understand and engage with their audience, explore new partnerships and business models, and collaborate,” says Jenner. “They should always remember what their customer wants, and look for ways to add value and enhance the experience.”

In the gym space there are good examples of brands doing just that. Banantynes are making the most of the opportunities that technology provides by collaborating with the MyZone app to record workouts both in the club and outside, with tech that records personalised data, and shows customer’s heart rate on a big screen as they participate in classes. The New Zealand fitness company Les Mills, innovators in the 1990s bringing us licensed classes (including Body pump) now provide an ‘immersive’ fitness experience (lights/music/ interaction) in their spin classes in their LA studio. Brands such as Cross Fit and F45 have created thriving communities that translate both on and off line.

The Power of Storytelling

Limelight Sports, a sports marketing agency specialising in participation, run many big sporting events, including cycling, running and triathlon. A key part of their marketing is good storytelling. “It’s now accepted that the hard sell doesn’t work, and brands need to have engaged their audience with great stories,” explains Jenner. “Brands such as Inov8, operate as a publisher by sharing their real-life athlete stories, and this helps them to engage with and go direct to their customer.” The stories brands share need to demonstrate the value that is being added. “When someone enters on an event like the London Marathon, they start a journey and achieve something amazing. Brands need to think about what value they can add to the whole experience?”

Using storytelling through multimedia platforms is vital. Brands can adapt the Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook – a slow burn approach to sales popularised by entrepreneur and best-selling author Gary Vynerchuck in his book with the same title. “This is about content, content, content, sell,” says Jenner. Vaynerchuk also explains to get that right hook sale, it’s not just about developing high-quality content, but developing highquality content perfectly adapted to specific social media platforms and mobile devices—content tailormade for Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, and Tumblr.

Put the customer first

Jenner emphasises that the customer is always a focal point and it’s vital to dissect their needs. “If you’re in the business of cycling, think about your customer, and where he is,” says Jenner. “Let’s say he’s a 45-year-old man. He’ll be at events, in cycling shops, on STRAVA, and on social media (which will be consumed on his phone on the way to work). What does cycling mean to him? What’s the role of cycling in his life?

“The reality is that digital doesn’t replace reality in the experience economy. Technology can be used to enhance the experience for an athlete, a gym goer, or a football fan. The truth is that the line between digital and real-life, between virtual and reality is seamless,” he adds. “This is reflected in job titles. In most sectors the title ‘digital’ as a prefix has disappeared (for example digital marketing is now simply marketing). In the business world it doesn’t pay to be analogue.”

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