TrainerRoad: Value-Based Marketing with Emotionally Engaging Storytelling

On the 14th Episode of the Active Lifestyle Marketer, we interviewed Nate Pearson, CEO and Co-founder of TrainerRoad. A successful entrepreneur and passionate cyclist, Nate shares how the idea of TrainerRoad came about and talks strategy and tactics behind the company’s rapid growth. This article expands on the things discussed on the podcast.

The TrainerRoad Story

Nate started TrainerRoad in 2007 when he faced a dilemma of having to pay $20 for each CompuTrainer class while working at a low paying job. Being an active triathlete, Nate wanted to have access to coaching sessions without having to spend a fortune. He partnered with the coach at the CompuTrainer studio to write training plans and thus the company was started. Fast forward 5 years and TrainerRoad employs 55 people and is constantly expanding and growing.

TrainerRoad has mobile and desktop apps that collect and analyze athlete’s data, provide feedback, and create personalized training plans. The company targets people who prefer riding their own bike on an indoor trainer rather than riding a spin bike or stationary bike.

Even though the TrainerRoad team understands their audience’s needs, the app’s feature development roadmap is based solely on the team’s personal preferences for features. It’s the founders passion for cycling and deep integration into community that determines the future of the product. In that regard, the TrainerRoad origin story presents a stark difference to start-ups that were founded based on the identified under-served market or niche.

Currently, TrainerRoad integrates with Strava, Dropbox, and TrainingPeaks.

Driven by Purpose

The TrainerRoad success can partly be attributed to the company’s relentless dedication to purpose. As Nate points out, TrainerRoad aims to make cyclists faster. In other words, the company’s purpose is to help people get as fast as they can in the least time possible.

This purpose defines everything the company does: from product development to marketing strategy. Nate admitted that their audience’s entertainment isn’t on his agenda. He also accepts the fact that working out isn’t a fun game, but rather hard work that can at times be fun. This purpose-driven approach and honest view on sports appeals to cycling community members who are always focused on achieving goals.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the app is used by advanced athletes only. The audience includes beginners too, who get a big boost right away and then get addicted to getting faster. Ultimately, TrainerRoad is for everyone who wants to get faster.

You can see how the dedication to purpose that seems to be restricting at first glance, is, in fact, a very powerful way to attract the audience. Instead of trying to appeal to everyone on a surface level, TrainerRoad forms deep connections with the audience by sticking to their core purpose.

Value-Based Marketing

As an active lifestyle brand, the TrainerRoad team understands the power of community in the cycling world. The company employs various growth strategies that involve community on all levels. Yet the focus is on promoting the conservation and education of cycling rather than pushing the product. TrainerRoad makes a concerted effort to track product mentions and reply to comments. They also provide consistent support for those already using the app.

At the same time, the company avoids direct advertising messaging and doesn’t respond to best trainer apps questions. Their social presence is also restricted to comments that can add value to the conversation. This approach creates trust and stronger connection with the customer base.

Community is the only way for people to access objective insights and feedback without being bombarded by sales messages. When brands start advertising themselves on forums, they undermine the very essence of community and thus lose the audience’s trust. If you want to be seen as part of the community, you need to communicate with them on equal terms and provide value and support.

Creating value also lies at the core of TrainerRoad’s content marketing strategy. The team runs weekly podcasts, where they apply the latest research findings to their own everyday cycling practice and then report back on the results. The podcast content draws non-app users and offers value to anyone who wants to know how to be faster on a bike.

Additionally, the brand focuses on promoting brand advocacy through continuous product improvement and a great user experience. Nate mentioned that user experience is important, but TrainerRoad’s promotional efforts are always tied to the brand’s purpose. TrainerRoad understands their purpose and their goal is to provide the experience that supports that purpose. The brand assesses every product development or user experience request from the prism of “is it going to make people faster?”

Storytelling for Growth

In our conversation with Nate, he relays a clear hierarchy of priorities when it comes to the brand’s content marketing efforts. Despite the company’s success in community outreach and educational content distribution, the brand’s number one priority is the production and distribution of the so-called winner stories.

Winner stories showcase the athlete’s path to success in cycling. These stories feature some product placement, but the story isn’t focused on the product. These are well told stories with brand placement woven throughout the film.

An example of such a story is TrainerRoad’s YouTube video called, “The Chase.” “The Chase” is a long-form documentary featuring Justin Rossi. This is a story of an athlete who is trying to win and he happens to use the TrainerRoad app. The story focuses on Justin’s journey, and TrainerRoad simply serves as a background element used to help Justin achieve his goals.

While educational content builds trust, stories like “The Chase” help the audience connect emotionally to the brand. This approach to marketing is called “Hero’s Journey”, and we think that TrainerRoad should continue this type of storytelling on a much larger scale. From our conversation with Nate, it has become clear that the brand recognizes the importance of stories – his team is always on the lookout for opportunities to tell inspirational stories of athletes trying to get faster.

Our Recommendation Moving Forward

TrainerRoad seems to have it all figured out. They are a purpose-driven brand with a strong narrative. They take on the role of a mentor and supporter in the tightly knit cycling community, and they focus on providing educational insights with their content. The brand also recognizes the immense opportunity that lies in the field of brand advocacy and engages the audience with some real heartfelt stories of athletes’ struggles and successes.

We believe that TrainerRoad is on the right path, but in order to take their brand to the next level an increased emphasis on creating these stories would go a long way. TrainerRoad can learn a lot from some of the current leaders in the active lifestyle brand storytelling space – Yeti Coolers and Hoka One One being some of our favorites. The Yeti Coolers Youtube channel for example, is dominated by stories, and we believe that TrainerRoad can benefit from the same consistent “real stories,” storytelling approach.

TrainerRoad acknowledges the power of storytelling and its ability to build a deeper connection with the audience. So as long as the brand continues to produce powerful content pieces, similar to their widely acclaimed “The Chase” video, it’ll remain a powerful force on the active lifestyle market with an immense potential for growth.  Keep up the great work TrainerRoad!