ReadWriteBody is an ongoing series in which ReadWrite covers networked fitness and the quantified self.

My Nike+ Running app is free, like most of the running apps I’ve tried. So how does Nike make money off of it?

It’s all in the shoes. Nike’s app asked me which shoes I run with, and when I’ve logged enough miles to run my soles into the ground, it gently suggests I get myself down to Niketown to replace them.

MapMyFitness, another big running-app maker, has now copied Nike’s moves with a new feature called Gear Tracker that it unveiled Thursday. You can now track the mileage you’ve logged on a particular set of kicks, and get reminders to replace them. MapMyFitness has partnered with Zappos.com, the Amazon.com-owned apparel store, to sell shoes.

If The Shoe Doesn’t Fit

This isn’t a shoe-selling gimmick, by the way: Runner’s World recommends replacing running shoes after 300 to 500 miles, something I didn’t realize as a novice runner. I found Nike’s nudge helpful rather than annoying.

And MapMyFitness isn’t doing this for the money—at least not the easy kind. While Zappos has a program to share a percentage of revenues with sites and apps that direct customers to it, MapMyFitness spokesperson Allison Glass tells me her company isn’t participating and that Zappos is keeping all the revenue.

A few years ago, most of the big running apps introduced premium subscription options, offering more advanced run-tracking features like live run broadcasts or more detailed analysis for a monthly or annual fee. Strava has done particularly well with its subscription offering, and MapMyFitness, RunKeeper, and Runtastic all have them as well.

Selling Fitness

But selling gear may be the real secret to making money in fitness. MapMyFitness and Runtastic have the most advanced strategies here.

MapMyFitness’s success at pushing fitness apparel and hardware is a big reason why Under Armour paid $150 million to buy the Austin, Texas-based company last year. Shortly before Under Armour announced the deal, MapMyFitness had struck a partnership with Brooks Running.

Under Armour is making a big move to sell more than just athletic clothing, including wearables like its Armour39 activity tracker and shoes, a market where it hopes to go toe to toe with Nike

Unlike Nike+, MapMyFitness’s Gear Tracker will track any kind of shoe—which is a sensible strategy for an upstart like Under Armour. Gear Tracker’s openness mirrors MapMyFitness’s digital strategy: Its application programming interface connects to a wide array of other fitness apps and devices—including Nike’s.

In contrast, there’s Runtastic, a fitness app maker which has put its brand on a number of devices it sells, from heart-rate monitors to apparel to bike cadence sensors to wireless scales. Some are just generic devices with the Runtastic name attached, while others, like the Libra scale and the Orbit activity tracker, are deftly integrated into Runtastic’s mobile apps and website. (The only thing Runtastic isn’t selling, it seems, is shoes.)

Collecting The Data, Sale Or No

The underlying thread here is that the savviest fitness-app developers are finding ways to link free software with paid hardware. Rather than slap tiny mobile banners on their apps, they’re getting directly involved in the sale, by tying shopping to specific moments in an active person’s life. Your shoes are worn out? Buy some new ones. Not making progress on your bike rides? Try a heart-rate monitor or cadence sensor to analyze your performance.

And ultimately it may not matter if MapMyFitness sells a lot of shoes, or gets a cut of the proceeds. Just knowing what its users are wearing could be invaluable market research for Under Armour as it tries to gain share of feet in the shoe market. 

Nike’s running-app strategy, which assumes people live in a Nike universe, works well for retaining current customers and prompting them to buy new shoes. But it closes it off to what’s happening in the world outside. Once people stop buying Nike shoes, Nike stops gathering data. And in a digital world, without data, you might as well close up shop.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

owen thomas

subscriber