ReadWriteBody is an ongoing series where ReadWrite covers networked fitness and the quantified self.
Under Armour, the fitness-apparel maker, has made its first big move since buying MapMyFitness 14 months ago. It unveiled a new app called Record at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week—one that breaks interesting new ground on the social-fitness front.
When I first tested Record, which is free and available for iOS and Android, I found it to be a mostly unremarkable redesign of MapMyFitness’s existing workout-logging apps. It’s actually a gender-neutral overhaul of Under Armour Women, an app the MapMyFitness team created to test some new concepts, and it draws heavily on the MapMyFitness team’s earlier work, including MapMyFitness’s login and social network.
But in one crucial way, Record breaks from MapMyFitness’s social architecture—and that could prove key to helping challenge users in their workouts. (Not to mention in pairing MapMyFitness’s digital savvy with Under Armour’s mindshare in locker rooms and elite training centers.)
The big innovation: Instead of filling your feed with exercise updates from friends who use the app, Record will send you just-in-time updates from Under Armour’s stable of athletes with whom it has endorsement deals.
“One of the things I realized when I got to Under Armour is there wasn’t one place where you could get information about all these athletes,” says Robin Thurston, Under Armour’s senior vice president of Connected Fitness (and former MapMyFitness CEO). “They had an e-commerce site but they didn’t have a content site. All of that content will live on Record. If we do an in-the-gym training plan, that athlete will have a profile on Record.”
And that won’t just be a static profile, Under Armour hopes—its athletes will be broadcasting updates through Record to everyday exercisers who look to them for inspiration.
Friends Don’t Let Friends Slack Off
Since I first started to wield apps in my battle to get fit, I’ve gotten by with a little help from my friends. MyFitnessPal, RunKeeper, Nike+ Running and others all have social features that allow us to link up with others trying to lose weight or exercise more.
The notion is that by sending us a cheer when we work out or giving our workout logs a thumbs-up, we’ll stay more motivated and more loyal to the apps our friends use.
In the years since those apps were first conceived, our thinking around social networks has been transformed. When fitness apps first popped up on our smartphones, Facebook, with its two-way friend requests, was our dominant model.
Twitter showed the social world a different mode of connection—the follow. You can follow an account on Twitter, with no obligation in return—aside from the online etiquette some insist on of “following back.”
That’s why journalists and celebrities have flocked to Twitter, which provides room for both intimate friendships and a broadcast-like distance from fans.
In a similar move, Under Armour has overlaid a new concept of following athletes, trainers, and other fitness celebrities in Record, with no requirement that you become “friends.”
Finding Fresh Inspiration
This could solve a problem I’ve encountered with these fitness apps: What if your friends’ workouts aren’t, well, very interesting? (I often worry mine aren’t, though when I’ve tried to pull back from posting, enough people tell me they like my updates that I keep on broadcasting my activities.)
Most of MapMyFitness’s competitors still stick to the friend-request model. It’s a tough road to overlay a social graph on top of all the other connections we have, and none seem to have become the dominant player in terms of connections. My friends all seem to use different apps.
Strava is a significant outlier here. That fitness app uses following rather than friend requests, with privacy controls on who can follow you. Given its popularity with elite runners and cyclists, this makes sense: You might not know an athlete socially, but you want to follow their conquest of a particularly tough uphill climb.
I’d likely center my fitness activity on Strava if I were more into running or biking. As it is, I’ve broadened the range of exercise I pursue to include Olympic lifting, yoga, interval training, and more. I’m constantly looking for new ideas. So if Record can show me interesting athletes to follow, I’m on board.
The problem with Record’s initial version—technically 2.0, since it’s a reboot of Under Armour Women—is that I haven’t found a lot of people I want to follow. I’m not a professional-sports fan, so the football and baseball players or Olympic competitors endorsed by Under Armour don’t interest me. (I’m probably an outlier here.) I’d like to see more personal trainers or nontraditional fitness figures in the mix.
The most powerful thing will be when Under Armour starts to blur the line between fitness celebrities and everyday athletic sorts—the kind of person you spot at the gym and chat up to find out their workout secrets.
As LinkedIn has found, it’s a big job to shift your users from one social model to another. Under Armour was smart to do this in a new app, rather than to try to get MapMyFitness’s existing users to change their behavior wholesale.
There will certainly be a place for the concept of mutual “friend” relationships in fitness apps. Fitness information by itself seems fairly safe to make public. You’re not invisible in the real world when you run down the street or lift weights in the gym.
But where fitness data blurs into health or other personal matters, we may want to keep our circles closer. My food diary on MyFitnessPal is friends-only, for example. (I’m having homemade tabbouleh and chicken for lunch, if you insist on knowing.)
Friends still play a role in Record: You can now issue challenges to them, aiming to best each other in distance, number of workouts, or other measures of performance. Again, there’s a time and a place when personal connections, not the more distant follow relationship, make sense.
Where Under Armour will have to tread most carefully is with promotional and commercial content. Social networks with follow models are very friendly to the notion of “native” advertisements which appear in a stream of content, and that seems to be part of the plan with Record.
Because I couldn’t find many interesting accounts to follow on Record, I ended up following various in-house Under Armour accounts, which have been barraging me with deals. (I spent an embarrassing amount of money on Under Armour kit last year, so I’m all set, thanks.)
Under Armour will need to carefully recruit more athletes and fitness celebrities to use Record and broadcast their activities, photos, and messages to users. The app’s new social concept is spot on—but ultimately a social network is only as strong as the community on it.
Screenshot via Under Armour’s YouTube