Strava and Communal Storytelling with Mark Gainey

We recently had Mark Gainey, CEO of Strava, on The Active Lifestyle Marketer and the content that came out of that episode was powerful. You can listen to the episode HERE. Mark is an incredibly talented entrepreneur and it was great having him on the show to share his insights and experience with us. If you work or play in the active lifestyle space you’ve probably heard of Strava, and if you haven’t you’ve probably been living under a rock and you need to check this company out. What they are doing in the active lifestyle space is incredible.

Strava is a software company. They are building a platform with the goal of making sport more social. Strava is the social network for athletes. In this article I want to expand on some of the things we discussed in our conversation with Mark and highlight what Strava is doing so well that we can learn from as active lifestyle brands. I also want to share where we think they could improve. There are quite a few things we can learn from this active lifestyle brand so let’s dive in and see what makes Strava so special.

Strava Differentiated with Cycling

At Tiger Creative we talk a lot about the importance of differentiation. In a world where new social media platforms pop up almost daily, creating a new and successful platform is almost impossible. You’re either competing with a thousand other platforms vying for the world’s attention, or you’re up against culturally entrenched behemoths like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. How can a start up be successful with those odds? You must differentiate. Strava took differentiation to a whole new level when they started, at least for a social networking platform. Not only did they set out to create the social media network for athletes and sport, but they focused on one single sport at the beginning, cycling.

Strava noticed a need in the cycling vertical. There weren’t any social network platforms specifically designed for cycling at the time so Strava went after that very specific vertical from the onset of the company. They knew there would always be room to expand into other sports, and that’s always been a goal and plan, but in order to differentiate they had to start somewhere.

Mark says that they noticed a few things about cycling that drew them to that vertical above other sports as a starting point. First, cyclists invest in their sport. Strava knew there they would be starting with an audience that spends money. Obviously if they were going to be successful this was going to be necessary to that success. You can’t build a business around an audience that won’t spend money. Second, Strava noticed that cyclists love data. When strava started there were great tools on the market to capture cycling data, but no one was doing anything with that data once it was collected. Strava saw an opportunity to track that data, socially share that data, and write a story with that data for every user. Lastly, Mark says that they noticed that cycling is inherently social. They found that cyclists love to go out and ride with their friends, so there was huge opportunity to create a social platform around the social element that was already inherent in cycling. These three things created a perfect storm of sorts and Strava has capitalized on the needs they saw in the industry.

Now, years later, Strava has expanded into running and triathlon. Even in their expansion plan, as they continue to add sports to their focus, they are differentiating. Now Strava is focused not just on cycling as a differentiator, but three of the most popular endurance sports, cycling, running, and triathlon. Strava has goals to expand into other sport verticals, but they are in this for the long haul, and so they are dedicated to creating a great user experience before they worry about quick and widespread growth across sport as a whole. Strava knows that they can’t be everything to everyone. In order to scale properly, they must make sure they are the best at what they currently do. Strava has done an incredible job differentiating and their success is in large part to their laser focused differentiation. But, that’s not all they’re doing right. Strava is also creating an incredible user experience.

The Strava User Experience

Strava is creating an excellent user experience. They are making sure that they are building a platform that surpasses user expectations before they start adding or focusing on new verticals. In order to create that great user experience they are doing something that seems like common sense, but more often than not gets forgotten in business… Strava is listening. They are listening to their customers and constantly making adjustments to their platform based on their customer desires.
The biggest example of this was Strava’s transition from a website based company to an app based company. Obviously an app is a representation of a website, but Strava noticed that users were spending most of their time simply using the app. After Strava released their app they were still trying to drive their users to their website, using the app as one tool to do so. But, they noticed that users were only or primarily using the app. Instead of trying to force their users to interact with Strava on the website, they made a slight shift and started focusing their attention where their users were spending their time. They listened, they didn’t change who they were, they didn’t change their purpose as a company, they just made adjustments to strategy to better fit how users were interacting with their brand. That wasn’t the only thing Strava noticed. They also noticed that users interact with the app in two very distinct ways.

This is a more recent example of Strava’s ability to listen as a brand. Strava noticed that their users were interacting with their platform for two different activities. The first, Strava noticed that users were interacting with their software to track their riding activity. Strava also noticed that users were interacting with the software socially. They noticed users would get onto the app to watch and interact with their friends activities. So, Strava began investing time an energy growing that experience. Today, you can go onto Strava and follow and interact with your friends and your favorite brands. You can read articles on healthy living, you can get training guides and information, learn about new events, and read reviews on the latest gear in the active lifestyle industry. Strava has become a active and social hub for the active lifestyle space because they listened to their users and they’ve created a great user experience. These are examples of how Strava has built a great brand and user experience by listening, but we think their greatest user experience is how they tell stories, or more specifically what stories they are telling.

How Strava Started with WHY in their Storytelling

In past articles we’ve talked a lot about the importance of crafting emotive storytelling to carry your brand beliefs. Simon Sinek calls this “starting with why.” Simon Sinek didn’t come up in our conversation with Mark, but it’s obvious that Strava has a very similar approach. They’ve just put their own ingenious spin on storytelling starting with Why. It’s genius because it fits their brand so well. During our conversation with Mark he said,

“Rather than focusing on what someone is doing, whether it’s riding, running, or skiiing, if we can understand the why, the motivation, that’s where the story gets interesting. Why does someone run, why does someone ride? When you think of archetypes or personas and understanding our community, we want to know what motivates them to upload and use our software. If we can understand that why, then we can better know how to continue to build products our users will love. Once we started to focus on the why we were able to realize that there are just some people that love competition. If you understand them then you can understand how to motivate them. But, that’s just one type of motivation. There are other ‘why’s’ within Strava. There are people that participate in sport because they love the social experience. They love hanging with friends. There are others who are just looking for self improvement, pushing beyond what they though was personally possible. Not only are we able to help them tell that story to themselves, and track that journey of self improvement, I think when we talk about how we want to market, Strava doesn’t need the limelight, but rather it’s the platform for all of this great inspiration to happen. We talk a lot at Strava about unlocking potential. How can we unlock the athletes potential?”

Strava starts with Why. They are interested in Why someone uses Strava, and it’s more important to them than what that individual does on Strava. Once Strava knows the why, they can build and expand on their software with those “why” motivations in mind. This allows them to craft an experience for their user that speaks directly to their users motivation. The quote you just read was Mark’s answer to my question on whether or not they implement archetypal storytelling into how they market. Because they are focused on the why behind their users, the motivations they observe ultimately create personas, a Hubspot term, and Strava can use those personas to craft and create better experiences.

It’s the spin on their storytelling though that we’re most intrigued by and it’s what we want to highlight and end with in this article. Because Strava is a social networking platform, they are able to story-tell in a unique way. At Tiger Creative we believe that your customer, user, and audience should always be the hero in all your storytelling efforts. We believe that you, the active lifestyle brand, are the mentor in those stories leading and taking your “hero” on a journey. We believe that your brand should rarely be the primary focus in storytelling. When we help brands story-tell we think about storytelling in these terms and with these things in mind. You can read more about this approach in these articles.

Strava is pretty unique in the active lifestyle space in that they allow their users to tell their own stories. Strava has built a platform where their users can tell their own stories. Strava is simply the avenue in which those stories can be told. Whether the stories their users are telling are stories of community and riding with friends, or stories of self improvement, the user is always the hero because they are telling their own stories. It’s ingenious, because their users are telling stories to themselves, the stories they want to hear. Strava can then take those stories and push them out to the rest of their audience as inspiration. Other users see those shared stories, and they’re inspired to go out and create more stories that are similar to what they’ve seen from other users. It’s a never ending storytelling cycle, and Strava simply acts as the avenue or vessel where these stories can be told. I’m not sure if this is a real term, but we like to call this “communal storytelling.” The early years of Facebook were very similar. Aside from having great leadership, which is obviously crucial, this is why we think Strava has seen so much success. They are targeted and differentiated in who they are and who they are trying to reach, they know who they are and what they believe as a company, and they allow their users to tell their own stories that are inherently driven by those users motivations, because their telling their own stories. All of these things result in a company that is growing rapidly and is seeing huge success. But, just like any company, we think there is room for growth and we see some missed opportunities.

Before we dive into the missed opportunities that we see, we want to communicate that we love Strava and we think that they are doing some incredible stuff within the industry. This is a company that knows exactly what they are doing, and their strategy for achieving their goals as a company are obviously well thought out. With that said, every company can always make improvements. Let’s pretend we were pitching new ideas for Strava growth. Here’s the recommendations we would make for Strava in their current state.

Strava’s Missed Opportunities

We’ll keep this first missed opportunity short because we know that Strava plans to add this feature at some point in 2017. Right now as a user I have the ability to add photos, but I don’t have the ability to add video. There is not a more powerful storytelling tool than video, and if Strava wants to empower their users to tell their own stories, the ability to add video is crucial. Especially as Strava becomes a place where users can get training tips and gear reviews. Video is a must, and I think once this feature is added we’ll see even more significant growth from the company.

We have already touched on communal storytelling earlier in this article. Sharing my activity with friends, family, and followers is powerful because it inspires those people to get out and tell their own stories. It doesn’t matter if it’s a story of self improvement or competition with another user. The next time you’re on Strava scrolling through your feed, pay attention to the feeling you get as a user. You’ll probably notice a feeling that you just want to get out and ride so you can share a story of your own. It’s a part of the Strava experience. Mark mentioned that you “join Strava.” You simply want to be a part of the community. But, we think there’s more opportunity for Strava to tell inspiring stories. Those user stories are so powerful, even though they are small screenshots of the overall story. There is opportunity to take real user stories, stories or self improvement, story’s of weight loss, story’s of healthy living, story’s of the athlete’s journey every amateur athlete is going through, and tell those stories in their entirety. When we follow someone’s feed we are only seeing small and incremental successes from the greater story.

What if as you scrolled through your feed you saw inspiring, real user stories of how “getting outside and being active has improved my life?” How connecting socially with other aspiring athletes has given me a sense of family. These coulee be simple one, two, three minute videos for users to consume dotted here and there throughout a Strava feed. We believe telling those stories would be a powerful way of getting people more active. And, because Strava already has plenty of data on every user, they could tailor what stories land on every person’s feed, tailoring the storytelling experience for every user depending on the personas that each user falls into based on their data. Now, stories of one users weight loss through cycling, or another user’s victory over cancer because of a new active lifestyle are inspiring to anyone, so it wouldn’t necessarily have to be perfectly targeted content, but because of the sheer volume of data Strava most certainly has at their disposal the options are limitless.