Analysis: How fitness players are buffing up on digital experience to maintain awareness

It has been close to two months since countries worldwide have implemented tightened social distancing measures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping people off the streets and in their homes. In some countries, non-essential facilities including gyms and entertainment venues have been ordered to pause operations until further notice. With people being confined within their homes, brands have turned to digital platforms to engage with its consumers instead.

Musicians are reaching out to their fans with Instagram Live sessions, nightclubs are hosting virtual clubbing experiences, and even theatre performances are brought to the screens with the free streaming of some of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musicals. The sports and fitness industry is no exception to this digital flux. With physical venues temporarily closed, sports brands and fitness centres have turned to digital platforms to keep their consumers engaged and active while staying safe at home.

One of the sports associations doing so is the National Basketball Association (NBA), which released its “Jr. NBA At Home” online series. The interactive show features NBA and Women’s NBA players providing basketball skills, drills, and physical training that can be completed individually and in limited space. It aims to help young players stay active and develop their skills in a safe and healthy way, and to date has more than 50 different workouts which have garnered more than 55 million views around the world at the time of writing. The association will also be releasing a work-from-home series on NBA TV for fans of all ages. 

Meanwhile, sportswear giant Adidas also ran its #HOMETEAM campaign, which saw the brand roll out free virtual livestreams across digital channels to encourage communities to keep active while staying at home. Hosted on Zoom and Instagram Live, the livestreams featured various sports and fitness personalities providing home workouts and nutrition guides. Venue operators, The Rink, which runs Singapore’s Olympic-sized ice-skating rink, has also launched its “Off-Ice Home Workout series”. It launched the first of a series of three workouts sessions with its skating coach Lucas, who is also Team Singapore’s athlete for short track speed skating. Subsequent sessions from its other skating coaches are now in the pipeline, according to Adrian Quek, rink manager. The workout sessions incorporate strength training, endurance, flexibility, coordination and conditioning work, and are specially curated by its skating coaches. The series, which is paired with a series of giveaway contests, ran on its Facebook page, and aimed to draw association to sports and fitness to the brand, as well as educate its skaters on the importance of staying fit and having fun at the comfort of their homes.

Fitness classes 

Fitness centres are also using digital platforms to continue engaging with its members and guests. Fitness First is one of such gyms to launch online classes. These classes are hosted on via livestream on its Facebook’s page, and are made available to both members and non-members. Speaking to Marketing, Anil Chugani, country manager, Fitness First Singapore, said it first saw a 17% decrease in club visits in February, compared to the same time last year. The gym then produced its original workout videos from Singapore within a week in preparation of closure. Fitness First suspended its services on 27 March, before the implementation of the Circuit Breaker period.

Fitness First also tapped on its sister brands in Asia such as FIRE Fitness, Fivelements, and Celebrity Fitness who launched free virtual classes via live streaming on social media. “This was an opportunity for us to showcase the strength of the Group and allow members to experience some different classes which we currently don’t offer in Singapore,” Chugani said. The first livestream kicked off on the evening of 19 March by its Thailand counterpart. Currently, it is also adding digital corporate classes to its mix.

Virgin Active too launched its online classes in March, after it decided to close its outlets. Ke Wei Chua, national marketing manager of Virgin Active, told Marketing that the gym has been planning online exercise experiences for some time as part of its global digital strategy, and recent events have expedited its launch. The online classes provided by Virgin Active are free for all its members, which can be accessed through the Virgin Active app or via its website. The gym also provides limited online workouts for non-members on its social media channels.

Meanwhile, fitness subscription company ClassPass has launched livestream workouts after more than 90% of its studio partners have closed their physical locations due to the social distancing and stay-at-home measures. ClassPass created a catalog of 2,000 audio and video workouts that are made available for everyone, and also helped its studio partners offer livestream workouts through its platform, which launched last month.

“Video workouts were not an original priority in our 2020 plan, but we have adjusted our product around the  needs of our members and studio partners, and are thrilled to see many members taking advantage of at-home workouts,” Mandy Menaker, senior PR manager at ClassPass, said. Additionally, ClassPass will be launching a global livestream workout titled “Together We Sweat” on 24 April, which will be made available for all. This livestream includes workouts from its Singapore studio partner Ground Zero, and will be streamed through the day via ClassPass’ YouTube Live channel.

Growing the audience

Despite having to close its physical venues, many fitness companies are providing the online classes at no cost for non-members. Fitness First's Chugani said having an online, subscription based model is not part of its strategy right now. “By making our exclusive group classes available to all on Facebook Live and IGTV, we’re keeping our members engaged and active as they work from home, and introducing Fitness First’s trainers and culture to non-members through our online videos and conversations,” Chugani said, adding that it aims to retain as much value as it can for members.

Virgin Active also launched its online classes to serve and support both members and non-members instead of monetising its services. “If [the online classes] encourage others to join our Virgin Active family and live an active lifestyle, we would be heartened. But our priority is always to deliver feel-good exercise experiences anytime, anywhere,” Chua said. Similarly, The Rink will also be providing its workouts for free to all Facebook users, with the main focus of introducing its coaches to the wider community. This is so that when the opportunity to skate again arises, The Rink will be ready to offer them on-site, Quek said. He added that by reaching out to the masses, there is an opportunity to showcase its programmes and activities, benefits and offerings.

The Rink’s series of virtual workout videos and giveaways on Facebook is also its way of maintaining engagement with the public. It hopes that by doing so, The Rink can be at the top of consumers' minds after normal operations resume in Singapore. “Going online allows us to connect with our regular skaters and also the general public who are interested in alternative fitness classes. Besides, going digital encourages viewers to share the videos, thereby extending our reach and helping to garner more viewership, in turn keeping us in view and in mind, especially in the ice-skating rink space,” Quek said. Other than its virtual workout videos with its in-house coaches to connect with the public, The Rink is also looking to use partnerships, as well as digital engagement with JCube and other tenants, to ensure it remains relevant to consumers.

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Communication is key

Going online will mean less physical interaction with its members, but that is not stopping gyms from reaching out to their members digitally. Chua told Marketing that Virgin Active has been maintaining regular conversations with both members and non-members across its social media channels, with a range of topical content ranging from nutrition and diet, wellness features, and ways to manage stress and anxiety. "Frequent communication is key, and the content that we deliver ensures that we not only address, but support everyone during this time," she added.

Chugani from Fitness First echoes this thought and said while some brands may cut back on their communications and marketing during economic downturns, Fitness First aims to engage with its members and keep as much of its services available for them, albeit virtually. Some of the efforts of Fitness First include keeping its customer service in operation to handle administrative issues, as well as providing health-related content on its blog which is accessible to all. To further engage with its members, Fitness First has also launched a “30-Day Challenge” on its social media platforms where it challenged members to contribute creative home workouts using ordinary household items in place of gym equipment. According to Chugani, the gym has received more than 30 entries in one week.

ClassPass is also tapping on social media to reach out to its members. Menaker said the platform is experimenting with workout challenges on its social media platforms, as well as building fun Instagram templates that their members can share with their friends. She added that with many of its members sharing ClassPass' digital workouts via Instagram, the posts are great word-of-mouth advertising for the platform. Additionally, ClassPass has been using its email list to reach out to members and promote its virtual workouts. 

Challenges going virtual

Most people would find exercising at home different from working out at a physical venue or with a team, and recreating the experience is a challenge that many of our respondents face. The Rink, for one, is finding it challenging to deliver a personal touch when engaging with its skaters digitally, especially since its ice-skating rink has become a place for its skaters to connect and socialise. 

Chugani told Marketing that one of Fitness First's challenges going virtual was to adapt traditionally face-to-face exercise routines to be suitable to for home workouts. The trainers then did so by revising its live classes and scripts to include elements such as telling people to watch out for their ceiling fans or take smaller steps in more confined spaces. They also tried to be as descriptive as possible to people working out at home.

For Virgin Active, Chua said one consideration the team had was that not everyone has the resources to do a workout at home. “We have to bear in mind that not everyone may be used to accessing physical workouts through a screen, have space to workout at home, have equipment, or the necessary knowledge with smart phones/TVs,” Chua said. To tackle that challenge, Virgin Active’s online workouts are mostly non-equipment based and require little space without compromising on variety and intensity. The gym also made sure its online workouts are accessible on as many devices as possible, including phones, tablet, laptop, and smart TV.

ClassPass, on the other hand, found its challenge in having studio partners who are filming online classes for the first time. It has then created a set of guidelines and tips to help these partners launch their online classes. “An online class will never be able to replicate the energy, vibe and community of an in-person class, but we hope that the digital classes provide some temporary relief and a way to stay active for our members who are unable to leave their homes," Menaker said.

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