American Marketing Association of Las Vegas

What Fitness Apps can Teach us About Customer Retention

Marketers can learn about customer retention and influencing consumer behavior from fitness apps. Here’s what you need to know.​

​Anyone who attends a gym with any regularity will probably bemoan the bump in attendance many gyms see after Jan. 1. The crowd of New Year’s resolvers is predictable and is a population that the health and fitness industry relies on for much of its new customer acquisition. Wearable devices like the Fitbit and mobile applications like MyFitnessPal benefit from the same seasonal surge of resolutions-based new business. Players in the digital health space are poised to turn those new customers into long-term business with a data-driven marketing strategy for influencing consumer behavior. The quest for loyal customers doesn’t end at a trove of data.

History suggests those seeking new gadgets or facilities in January to help them achieve their weight-loss resolutions tend to give up on their goals and stop using those products and services before April. Digital health businesses stand the best chance against churn after Q1 because their product is built to equip them with customer insights. “We have a lot of data that we can prove with statistical validity in the online space,” says Natalie Dix, director of marketing at Appuri, a retention platform for analyzing and acting on customer data. “Where there’s a critical mass of users performing similar or identical behavior patterns, we can use those patterns to test [consumer behavior] and ultimately incentivize a change of behavior. That’s really not possible with the same degree of statistical rigor in an offline scenario.”

Data Reveal Behavior Patterns

Appuri released findings about one of its clients, a fitness tracker app, drawing conclusions about new users based on interactions and behaviors logged in the app. Marketing Health Services spoke to Dix about the findings and their takeaways for marketers. The data show correlations between user behaviors such as food logging and retention. This particular app saw that users who logged their food intake within the first week of using the app were more than four times as likely to be retained than those who did not log their food. “That’s not to say there’s a causality,” Dix says, but rather, “we noticed a correlation, and that can be used to generate a lot of experiments.” Experiments, she offers, such as e-mail campaigns or in-app alerts reminding users to log their food with the goal of steering them toward long-term use of the app.

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Appuri also found that users of the fitness app were more likely to continue using the product when they had five or more “friends” on the app, as were those users with weight-loss goals in the range of five to 10% of their current weight. These results are not particularly groundbreaking—research shows that social influence and interactions with other users are important for encouraging continued use of such products. “The size of a person’s network in a community within a given system is an important predictor for other social benefits that can be derived from the use. […] Therefore, efforts in the information system design towards connecting new and old users should prove to be highly beneficial.” write Juho Hamari and Jonna Koivisto, researchers at the University of Tampere in Finland, in their study on social influence in exercise. “Human beings have a psychological need for experiencing relatedness … When these needs are fulfilled in a given context, the experienced relatedness may increase intrinsic motivations toward activities related to that context.”

Plus psychologists and fitness professionals alike have suggested that journaling and realistic goal-setting are conducive to successful weight loss. But the crux of Apurri’s experiments and the takeaway for marketers, says Dix, is robust segmentation. “You want to find with pinpoint precision the users who are likely to churn or disengage with your product and target only those users.” Where some marketers go wrong, she says, is with untargeted campaigns. Businesses that send win-back promotions or retention offers to everyone run the risk of an engaged user with high potential for monetization cashing in on the freebie.

Data Without Engagement is Dead

It would seem from the surface that Apurri’s research suggests health and fitness companies need only a unique product and data-gathering capability to begin changing the industry trend toward churn. But industry leaders Fitbit (the No. 1 free health and fitness app in Apple’s App Store) and MyFitnessPal (No. 3), show how essential marketing is to retention. Digital health venture fund Rock Health analyzed retention among Fitbit owners in 2015 and found that “more than 70% of Fitbit purchasers from the first three quarters of 2014 churned before the end of the year.” By contrast, MyFitnessPal has employed automation to focus on “lifecycle marketing” as opposed to just acquisition. The company’s engagement partner, Marketo, enables it, for example, to generate e-mail campaigns with recipes that match users’ tastes based on the types of food they log on the app, giving users a customized experience and encouraging their chances of a positive weight-loss experience with the app.


Predicting what users will want, such as a recipe or a five more exercises to train abs, is the real destination of data-driven marketing. It allows marketers to anticipate churn, reverse it, and nurture those user relationships that are already successful. Becoming a data-driven business in 2016 is easier than it may seem, Dix says. It’s up to marketers to use that data to bridge the digital divide between customer and business.

Author Bio:Michelle Markelz is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. She can be reached at

Categories: Communication,Digital/Technology,Marketing.