Thought Leadership
  • Content marketing

How to increase sports participation and build brand loyalty

Roger Barr
17th July 2017

Selling products is a tricky enough business – convincing people to change their long-term behaviour is an altogether tougher proposition. But by building a community around a personalised digital experience, organisations can harness the power of participation. 

Encouraging sports participation can pay dividends: Nike+ was instrumental in increasing the number of people running in the USA by 60%. In just three years it helped to grow Nike’s revenues by a reported $500m while reducing ad spend by $50m.

So it's no surprise that active lifestyle brands and sports organisations spend a great deal of time obsessing over declining sports participation. The problem is that competition for our leisure time has never been more fierce.

And while sports broadcasters have been quick to embrace technological innovation, the same 'broadcast' mindset has left many sports brands and organisations fumbling to make genuine, behaviour-changing connections with their audiences.

This is hugely important for driving participation because - as Sport England’s recent research proved - as they grow up, young adults shift their focus from sporting outcomes to personal outcomes. Being fit becomes more appealing than being sporty. And so we seek meaningful experiences that use technology to deliver a rewarding, personalised and socially-connected experience.

Young people's leisure activities in the UK: time spent per week [source]

Nike and Under Armour – motivating with digital experience

Nike was one of the first brands to understand the power of delivering an emotionally engaging digital experience. Its run-tracking app Nike+ used game mechanics to provide motivation, music to provide the connection and social integration to deliver the peer feedback. Within three years of launch, Nike’s share of the US running shoe market increased by 14%. PRTM / ECCP [slide share]

“There’s this massive shift that’s happening in the way consumers are interacting with their favourite brands... brands that do not evolve, that do not offer their consumer something more than a product, will be hard-pressed to compete.”

Kevin Plank, Founder & CEO of Under Armour

Denied first-mover advantage, sportswear upstart Under Armour went on a spending spree in 2013 to acquire its own digital community, spending over $700m – roughly six dollars per user – to acquire MapMyFitness, MyFitnessPal and Endomondo. Soon after, Under Armour overtook Adidas as America’s number-two sportswear brand.

Under Armour didn’t simply buy success. It understood that the key to engaging fitness freaks and casual sports fans alike is to treat them all as athletes – and it bought and expanded their digital ‘clubs’ to prove it. And the secret sauce? Simply doing physical exercise makes people more likely to share your message.

“Among students who had been instructed to jog, 75% shared the article – more than twice as many students who had been in the “relaxed” group… Exercise makes people share.”

Jonah Berger, Contagious: Why Things Catch On

This Girl Can – keep it simple, keep it social

Fortunately, you don’t need billions in the bank to create a community of athletes. When Mediablaze worked with England Athletics to activate the brilliant This Girl Can campaign, we focused primarily on Facebook as our engagement platform, with a lightweight, Wordpress-powered website providing evergreen advice content to help women overcome the barriers that stopped them running.

Key to the success of the This Girl Can Run social campaign was the focus on real life, with videos telling inspirational stories of everyday runners and their personal challenges. We also called out for followers’ motivational quotes, turned them into branded memes and saw them quickly achieve virality. Like Nike+, we helped bring our community into the real world, too, with hugely popular tie-ups including the Great North Run and Parkrun.

At the end of the six-month campaign, we’d grown a community of over 30,000 female runners - and over 35% said they were running more frequently as a result of This Girl Can. What’s more, 9 out of 10 said they’d recommend This Girl Can’s Running channel to friends and family. 2016’s annual Active People Survey found that 7.2m women were playing sport and doing regular physical activity - 250,000 more than when This Girl Can launched. Behavioural change achieved.

Speedo On: content + context

Social campaigns tend to have a limited lifecycle. They work well for small groups, but as your community grows, so Facebook’s Edge Rank stops your posts from reaching their audience. What’s more, Facebook’s rich audience data won’t do anything to track changes in sporting performance.

If brands wants to drive participation as part of a long-term strategy, they stand on the shoulders of giants like Nike+, MapMyFitness and Strava. These app-driven communities of runners and cyclists provide all the motivation, support and feedback that athletes need – whatever their level.

Mediablaze is full of swimmers and triathletes, so when we began working with Speedo, we already knew there was a gap in the market for a social network for swimming. And after researching the market more deeply, the opportunity turned into a pressing need. Participation in the sport was down - falling 24% in the UK in the past decade – while running and cycling were going from strength to strength.

Multi-sport apps like Strava treated swimming as an afterthought, but new swim-tracking wearables from Garmin, Apple and Fitbit were bringing swim data to the masses. We spent a year planning and developing Speedo On, focusing on delivering a truly personalised, content-rich experience with training plans, advice and beautiful data visualisation. We also ensured that, even in beta, Speedo On was compatible with a range of wearables. Further integrations are on the roadmap. You can read all about it on our Speedo On case study page.

“Speedo On could well come to rule the pool.”


Super-users were involved in giving feedback on the beta from day one. The response has been overwhelming. “Speedo On could well come to rule the pool,” gushed tech bible Wareable. “A huge gap-filler,” said rival site SportsWearable. “Once you sync Speedo On with any of the fitness trackers you own, it is a whole new ball game… we love it!”

Be there with your customers – and feel the love

While Speedo On is a newcomer to the participation space, it’s already clear that mixing gamification and social challenges is proving hugely engaging and motivating to its users. But it’s the platform’s personalisation that transforms it from a functional platform to a delightful one.  

Instead of having to navigate through an ocean of content, they are served the very best tips, advice and training plans based on analysis of their performance and preferences. And the more they use it, the smarter it becomes.

The first rule of building brand love is to be there for your customers – now we know that the second rule is to really understand where each individual's ‘there’ actually is.

Tom Dunmore is the co-founder and chief strategy officer of Mediablaze. Tom used to edit gadget bible Stuff magazine, and started running when he was reviewing the first Nike+ iPod kit in 2006. He hasn't stopped since.

Want to build your own digital experience and engagement platform?

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