Strava's Expansion into Winter Sports:
How? Why? and What are the opportunities for Business and the Environment?
Whether you love it and use it, or whether you blame it for the mass-gamification of outdoor sports, their can be no doubt that Strava has changed the way we exercise. For worse or for better is up for debate.
As summer comes to a close and the days grow shorter, we take a closer look at how the company is expanding into winter sports, and what this means for the future of sports marketing and environmental fundraising.
First though, we need to start from the beginning.
Founded in 2009 by two friends from the Harvard rowing crew, Strava capitalised on the post-economic recession running boom and 10 years later was registering a million new members each month.
Offering both free and paid-for services, the website-turned-app enables athletes at amateur, professional and Olympic level to connect with their athletic community from around the world and, thanks to the introduction of segments, their own neighbourhood.
Using GPS tracking, users can measure their distance, speed, elevation gain, heart rate, cadence (steps per minute) and blood pressure.
Statistics that were once only available to athletes at the top of their discipline are now accessible to the masses. You can even calculate your functional threshold power. (neither do I).
In recent years, the app has launched a handful of new features which, depending on how you view them, have lead to the widespread gamification of outdoor sports.
Users can now undertake distance challenges (many of which are sponsored by brands) and can even become a ‘local legend’ of their neighbourhood; receiving a virtual-title on their profile if they complete a certain stretch of road/trail/field/hill/mountain the most frequently in a 90-day window.
With such a large number of users, and with the relationship between the athlete and their exercise growing more and more personal with each new feature, businesses have long been sniffing around for an opportunity to capitalise.
For sports brands, the emotional connection Strava creates with its customers has the potential to become a marketing-mecca.
Giving credit where it’s due however, Strava has always limited brand-involvement on the app and have maintained a vast array of features which, if we’re being totally honest, have no right to be on a free platform. Especially in an era of £300 sports watches and running shoes for not much less.
It is true that they allow brands to connect directly with potential customers, but this is in a controlled and often fun setting, with both the company and the consumer standing to benefit* from certain challenges and promotions.
In fact, so lucrative are the opportunities for brands that corporate behemoths such as Arc’Teryx, Mammut and Salomon have all sponsored special challenges within the last year alone. How much Strava benefits financially from these promotions is difficult to tell.
With 125 million snowboarders and skiers worldwide, it is no surprise that Strava has started making a notable foray into the snowsports community. (Picture those 125 million skiers as a dollar-shaped carrot at the end of a treadmill).
In February 2019, Strava announced a compatibility partnership with snowsports tracking app Slopes. This merge enabled Strava users to record their ski-days with increased accuracy whilst getting live stats on their smart watch. Users even have the option to relive their activity through a GPS replay feature. Which, of course, can be seamlessly exported to a user’s social media account.
Furthermore, the partnership with Slopes solved Strava’s long-term issue with ski-lifts. That is, the app was previously unable to distinguish between time and distance spent on the lifts, and time and distance spent on the slopes.
A seemingly minor issue but one that many users had been vocal about for a number of seasons. Especially when their app told them they were travelling uphill faster than they were skiing down.
Before merging with Slopes, Strava users had long been frustrated with ski lifts skewing their data.
Interestingly, when looking at why it took so long for Strava to merge with Slopes (or any of its competitors for that matter), we came across an issue that seems to be following Strava wherever it goes: the need for speed.
Although Strava was designed to help people get fitter and faster, a byproduct of this is that it creates incentive for people to try and go too fast.
Not much of an issue for sports like running and swimming, but when roads and expensive equipment get involved - you can see the problems.
In 2012 the company was involved in a wrongful death lawsuit in which it was blamed for promoting a racing culture and causing the death of a young cyclist.
The case was quickly dismissed by the courts but it does raise an interesting question: is Strava making people throw caution to the wind in order to get virtual validation from others?
Although Strava can, and does, encourage people to push themselves, the firm cannot be blamed for the actions of its users and the responsibility falls on the athlete to ensure they are completing their activity in a safe and reasonable manner.
Relating back to the world of snowsports, where snowboarders and skiers alike are seeking increasingly dangerous and ‘gnarlier’ descents, this issue of racing culture does go a long way to explain why Strava took 10 years to make a name for itself within the winter sports community.
In fact, when asked why they didn’t have any plans to partner with Strava, SkiTracks (a competitor of Slopes), had this to say:
“Unfortunately, we have no plans to connect to Strava directly in the near future. Our main concern (including Ski Resorts) is encouraging users skiing/boarding to race in segments in areas of the mountain not suitable for skiing at speed. We do not show a live speed display in Ski Tracks to try and discourage skiing at speed in public areas.”
Aside from the issues on athlete safety, it’s fair to say that Strava is quickly becoming the go-to app for snow athletes wanting to record their activity.
In February 2020 the company launched the February Snow Sport Challenge, with users invited to “test their winter legs and spend 10 hours on the snow.”
The challenge attracted just shy of 60,000 participants. To clarify, there was no physical or promotional reward for completing the challenge, just a virtual badge displayed on your profile.
In other words, that’s the equivalent of the entire population of Greenland skiing for 10 hours to receive an online sticker.
Unsurprisingly, Strava’s expansion into the world of snowsports has also attracted interest from a whole new range of potential sponsors.
Companies such as Red Bull, SportsShoes.com and Salomon are just a handful of the brands already making the most of the new wave of winter athletes downloading the app.
Salomon in particular, provides an interesting case study into the marketing potential of the Strava platform.
At the start of 2020, the iconic French ski brand launched the Salomon Nordic Ski Challenge, challenging users to “put their cross-country skiing skills to the test and cover 90km in a six-week period.”
Finishers of the challenge would receive a 15% discount off the Salomon website and the 5 top competitors would be invited to compete at the Red Bull Janteloppet race in Norway - one of the most lucrative races in the Nordic skiing calendar.
What’s more, as the weeks progressed, participants were able to compare their activities with professional Salomon athletes such as Sweden’s Jens Berman, USA’s Sophie Caldwell-Hamilton, and Britain’s very own Andrew Musgrave.
In total the challenge was undertaken by 43,000 users - impressive numbers for a sport with a significantly lower participation rate than its downhill brother.
Most impressive of all however, the Salomon Nordic Ski Club (launched alongside the challenge) grew from 0 to 6,000 members in under two months.
At it’s height, 1,000 new members a week were joining an online Nordic skiing community essentially governed by the Salomon ski brand.
In this club, participants shared photos, comments and messages of support with one another from all over the globe; creating an emotional affiliation not just with the sport they love, but also with the brand which holds a significant market share in its equipment sales.
Halfway through completing the Salomon Nordic Ski Challenge for myself, disaster struck.
A warm spell in late February followed by a cold-snap in early March turned the Nordic trails of southern BC to ice.
A normally pleasant descent from Lac le Jeune to the wooden cabin at the top of Stake Lake quickly escalated into a damage-limitation mission. I can still feel the dreaded scratching of ice-on-ski reverberating through my shins.
The next thing I knew I was checking for broken bones and wincing as the snowbank I had just head-planted induced a numbing brain-freeze.
Catastrophe averted, I sheepishly snowploughed my way down the rest of the hill; only realising the missing rearguard in my ski pole upon reaching the trail centre.
Upon closer inspection, the huge crack circumnavigating my left pole suggested a trip to the village ski shop was due.
A Spring cold-snap turned ski trails across BC, like this one at Stake Lake Nordic Centre, to treacherously slippy ice.
It wasn’t until three weeks after I purchased a new set of ski-poles that I realised I had chosen Salomon poles over a pair of similarly priced Rossignol. Both had been available at the store and both were like-for-like when it came to quality and weight.
Had I pledged my subconscious allegiance to the Salomon brand without realising? Did the aforementioned Strava challenge have anything to do with it?
It’s not inconceivable to imagine newcomers to the sport (of which there have been many in recent years) will be automatically drawn to Salomon simply because they were familiar with the name and had a positive relationship with the brand in the past.
As my somewhat egotistical business professor reminds me every Thursday afternoon, the best type of advertising occurs when the consumer doesn’t even know they’re being targeted.
Although I normally discard this advice as just another perverse advertising method, their may well be some truth in its effectiveness.
Strava enables a very authentic form of subliminal marketing and many users are blindly unaware that their brain is making positive relationships with brands that appear on their feed and that encourage their recent increase in fitness or loss of weight.
Once an idea is in someone’s mind, it can be very difficult to shake. Marketing lives and dies by this.
Subconsciously, if a consumer’s brain is making a connection between recent weight loss and new Nike shoes, for example, the individual is unlikely to go out of their way to choose Adidas the next time they shop, especially when given a choice between the two.
The two phenomena (Nike shoes and weight loss) are unlikely to be related yet the individual will feel little reason to fix anything that’s not broken, as it were.
Back at the ski shop, I had no reason to choose Salomon over Rossignol or visa versa. (They’re even both French!)
As perfect substitutes go, I couldn’t think of a better example. In fact, if I were to draw a cross-price elasticity of demand model for Rossignol and Salomon ski poles, I would expect their relationship to look something like this:
I’d even go as far to say that the cross-price elasticity of demand would be as close to 0 as two products can get without being perfect substitutes. (After all, Kilian Jornet does wear Salomon).
ECON 1900 aside, the potential of Strava as a marketing tool for sports brands is not to be underestimated.
But, just as Strava’s platform provides an opportunity for businesses to reach pre-cultivated customers, the app provides the same opportunities for other organisations, namely charities.
It comes without surprise that people who spend time in the outdoors are more likely to be passionate about the health of our planet and the wild places we love.
This relationship between athlete and nature is even more prevalent amongst winter sports; with skiing and snowboarding standing to gain very little from shorter and warmer winters.
Just this season, ski resorts across the French alps were forced to helicopter-in tonnes of snow just to keep their operation running. The irony is past comical.
In January 2020, Strava collaborated with the Protect Our Winters (POW) campaign to raise awareness of the imminent threats facing our planet in the coming years.
The ‘Crush it 4 Climate’ challenge asked participants to spend 8 hours outside within a 4-week period to receive a special-edition badge on their profile.
The collaboration proved a roaring success, with 435,000 users signing-up and encouraged to make a donation towards the POW campaign - with each dollar donated being backed by POW’s corporate partners up to $500,000.
As the owner of a small business and as an active participator in sports, I have witnessed first-hand the potential that both sports and business can have on influencing people’s actions and behaviour.
When combined, as was the case in the ‘Crush It 4 Climate’ campaign, the impact can be immense.
Could this collaboration pave the way for a new breed of environmental fundraising? One that merges the finances of corporations and the emotional connections of sport?
I’d sincerely like to think so. And if it does, I believe Strava is in the perfect position to facilitate it.
Just imagine Strava challenges in which environmental organisations are the beneficiaries instead of handing out half-hearted discounts to gear-rich and cash-strapped runners.
Or a scheme in which a company donates 1p for every activity completed on Strava within a 7-say period. In 2020, this would equate to a donation of £190,000 - such is the weekly usage of Strava.
Not only would the company in question be provided with the advertising opportunity of a lifetime, but it would also raise awareness amongst the athletes taking part.
The more I think about it, the more I realise how creative the donation campaigns could be. “Kayak for Koalas”, “Windsurf for Wind-farms”, “Run for Rhinos”… or even better: “Run from Rhinos”.
In the summer of 2020, I turned one of these concepts into a reality and launched a Strava club for my second-hand outdoor shop.
The goal of the club was to raise funds and awareness for the reintroduction of Eurasian beavers back into the UK. And, for each new member that joins, my business donates 50p towards the Devon Wildlife Trust and their UK Beaver trial.
Soon after, I decided to add a second feature; for every 10,000km that the club members complete, the store will donate £10 towards the reintroduction of British beavers.
So far the club has proved a success, with a modest 25 members and counting from across the UK and as far away as western and eastern Canada.
What’s more, the club enables my business to connect with like-minded athletes about what matters to both of us; the health of the planet and outdoor exercise. Both of these are core to the values of my store.
On top of this, Strava allows me to be creative with the way I communicate with my customers.
As the patron of the club, I can post blogs about recent sporting events, update members on fundraising progress, and even have the option to schedule a club-only sporting meet in the real world.
All three features are free to use and are a magnificent tool for a small business looking to grow sustainably whilst creating a loyal community of kindred-spirits along the way.
(If anyone reading this has a fund-raising concept they think Strava could implement on their platform, please don’t hesitate to contact me and I will do my best to forward it over to the features team at Strava.)
With Strava hoping to cement its place amongst winter sports worldwide, we want to finish by looking at how the company could extend their influence even further.
First and foremost, the lack of representation for many of the more specialised winter disciplines is something the company will be wanting to address.
Every four years we huddle-up by the fire and watch the Winter Olympics capture our imagination. Yet barely any of the sports we see are represented on Strava.
Daredevil disciplines such as bobsled, skeleton and the luge are all non-existent on the current platform. This could be explained due to the shear danger involved in these sports and the risks associated with Strava’s aforementioned ‘racing culture’.
Nevertheless, the introduction of the less-competitive toboggan could be a fun and popular addition to the app.
Wall mural at the Canada Olympic Park, Calgary. Home of the 1986 Winter Olympics and the infamous Eddie 'The Eagle'.
Curiously, the death-defying sled disciplines are not the only sports missing out on Strava.
Telemark skiing - the majestic hybrid between alpine and nordic - is also excluded from the current version of the app and participants must select between either of its distant cousins. Neither of which are comparable in terms of the skills required and cultural origins of telemark skiing.
This results in telemark skiers being unable to connect with fellow athletes from around the world in what is an already rare and highly-specialised sport.
Fascinatingly, this issues leads us to the question: does Strava have the potential to bring sports, such as the endangered art of telemark skiing, back from the hypothetical dead?
I have attempted to answer this question in a separate, more in-depth article in which I discuss Strava’s potential ability to kickstart participation in niche sports. (To save you the time, I genuinely believe it could).
On the topic of niche sports, activities such as fat biking, ski mountaineering and snowshoe running are all excluded on Strava’s current platform.
Fat biking in particular, with its rapid popularity growth in recent years, is more than unique enough for it to be considered a different activity than road and mountain biking respectively.
Snowshoe running meanwhile, having tried it myself, is certainly a different kettle of fish compared to snowshoe walking.
Once again, the addition of these winter sports - as exotic as they might be to many readers in the UK - would certainly win the hearts of many current users and would certainly pave the way for a new wave of athletes joining the app.
From a business perspective, adding niche sports such as telemark skiing, snowshoe running, ski mountaineering and fat biking would undoubtedly attract interest from the brands which supply the (eye-waveringly expensive) equipment for these activities.
Snowshoe running at Stake Lake, Kamloops, Canada. Harder than it looks.
Finally, with more and more people taking up winter sports each year, Strava could roll out a safety awareness program to help people make smarter decisions on the slopes and in the backcountry.
Specifically, avalanche awareness and emergency rescue training could be distributed to app users before and even during their ventures into the outdoors.
Even if the advice given is basic, the margins between life and death in the outdoors at any time of year, not just winter, are painstakingly fine.
Strava’s primary goal is to improve people’s lives through health and fitness. Could it one day have the ability to save one?