All social networks live and die by user engagement.

As Facebook puts it: “advertising revenue could be adversely affected… by time spent on our products.”

This is how most social media operates, which is partly why today it’s mainstream to consider social media toxic. (Even social media networks themselves are full of articles about how to leave social media.)

But not all social media companies have the goal of monopolizing their users’ attention. Strava, a social network based around fitness, which has 41 million users, takes a vastly different tack.

“We’re not just trying to get you to stare mindlessly at your screen,” says Strava’s CEO James Quarles.

Other tech companies understand this too and have advanced the concept of digital wellness. Facebook re-tooled its algorithm to have more human contact. Apple and Google added time limits for apps, helping people nudge themselves to a more healthy relationship with tech and social media. But nowhere is this effort more apparent than on Strava.

“We love that for every minute someone spends using Strava they spend 50 minutes doing something else,” Quarles told Yahoo Finance. “We’re trying to learn from the lessons of quality vs. quantity.”

Quarles would know. Before Strava, he spent six years at Facebook where he was a VP at Instagram.

“Relative to other places,” Quarles says, “it’s a very uplifting and positive place — and not by coincidence.”

That’s because everyone who comes to Strava is interested in fitness.

“The world we’re in is a vertical social network, where everyone self-selects in,” Quarles says.

For many of them, they’re interested enough to pay, which has been rare in the social media world.

Generally, social media has been free, making money by running ads.

Strava won’t say how many of its users pay for its subscription services, which come in three different packs, combinations of which users can buy to suit their needs for $2 per month each or $5 per month for all three. Some third parties have tried to estimate the number of paying subscribers, with Outside magazine recently finding that around 5% of users (sample size: 500) were paying members.

Clearly, that’s one reason why CEOs like Quarles prioritize growth so much.

Niche social media has an advantage over the big players like Facebook and Twitter

The scope of Strava’s mission is by no means small. Its goal, according to Quarles, is to become the “home of your active life,” which is an ambitious proposal. But it’s not anywhere near as ambitious as Facebook’s goal to connect everybody on earth or Twitter’s goal to be the digital public square. The lack of hubris is one of the reasons that Strava has become so popular despite being niche.

“We aren’t trying to do the job of non-athlete networks where we get into other content types,” says Quarles. “Our goal is to get you active and get you to put down your phone.”

What that means in practice is that Strava is a place where you can input activities like bike rides, runs, walks, Peloton sessions, yoga classes — almost anything Quarles’ team can think of makes it onto the app, thanks to partnerships and connections to almost 400 devices from Garmin, Peloton, Wahoo, FitBit, Apple Watch, and more.

An activity page from Strava that’s sponsored by Suunto. It’s another way the company makes money. (Strava)

All of this is aggregated in a social-media timeline as well as an individual’s page. It has the multiple functions of a training log, a guidebook and map of things to do, and a fitness-specific Facebook, complete with friends, posts, photos, pictures, and the ability to comment on them and give them likes, which are called “kudos” on Strava.

Unlike the big players of the social media world, the focus on fitness gives the app a much different feel, one that seems more intimate and reliable.

“I worked at [Facebook and Instagram] and they’re seeing a trend there for groups and private messaging,” says Quarles. “When your network size gets too big, your comfort level to ask questions falls and you become more of a consumer than an active participant.”

And if you ask the community on Facebook what the best running shoes are, there may not be that much credibility in the answers. But if you ask it on Strava, Quarles says, you’ll get much more thoughtful and trustworthy answers.

Avoiding the pitfalls of the social media giants

Strava is acutely aware of how a social network needs to keep its users active, both literally and figuratively, to reach its goals, which include profitability.

One of the difficulties that Strava and other social media companies have is finding the balance between big and small. Users want a place that’s intimate and personal but connected; vibrant and active with things to discover, but also not like an invasion of privacy or impersonal.

This is especially key for an app that is based around GPS tracking. After all, you don’t want everyone to know where you are at all times. Strava is trying to balance the personal and private with the broader community

“We want to build discovery and training,” says Quarles, laying out the two parts of the app. The training part is personal, because it has your GPS data, so it’s generally insulated from the public, except maybe for professional athletes who use the platform. Next door to it is a “discover and explore-based experience.”

Keeping it active means that lurkers and passive content consumers don’t really have much of a place on Strava — unlike Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, where you can just scroll your feed while not posting anything yourself. Strava has some content, but it’s not a big priority, though adding fitness-related content could seem like a natural fit for publishers.

For now, the focus remains on the users and user-generated content like posts and activities. Quarles wants people engaged.

“They want to be active,” he says. “People largely are there to encourage each other and witness the act of staying towards whatever goal they have, not for political rants or cat GIFs, or to be divisive.”

The self-selection process of users as well as vigorous enforcement of community standards has kept the company out of much of the troubles that other social media companies have had — and dealt with poorly.

The responsibility of having GPS data

How to handle the mountains of consumer data – particularly GPS data – the company holds was another point of deliberation. Strava has always let users easily upload, download, and delete data on their profiles — which was a necessity given how GPS files used to be uploaded via a cable before Bluetooth.

The control removes a small amount of stickiness Strava has, because it is possible to move your “active life” and its activities to another platform if you wanted to. But it is in line with Strava’s philosophy around data.

“Our overall mantra is to avoid surprises. Things should work the way we expect,” Quarles says.

Strava’s heat map shows the activities of its users all in one place. (Screenshot via Yahoo Finance)

Strava is not immune from controversy or surprises, however. It has inadvertently encouraged dangerous behavioraccidentally revealing a military base through its heat map, which maps anonymized data about where people do activities, and has been criticized for not having features like the heat-map be opt-in rather than opt-out.

Strava is quick to trumpet the tools it created in response to criticism, noting the zones of privacy that can mask where you live (so you can still participate in the competitions like fastest running or biking segments of a road or trail) or allowing your default settings to be private only.

“[We have been] communicating actively to make those as simple as possible,” says Quarles. “We don’t sell data to third parties for marketing purposes. Our business model is a subscriptions one so we’re not trying to harvest you as you surf around the web.”

Natural monetization opportunities

Strava does not share how many paying users it has or how things have changed since the company went from a $60-a-year Premium service to its Summit service, the à la carte offering — a move that Quarles says better shows the reasons why someone would subscribe, something that Strava still struggles with, he says.

But being the platform that houses people’s active lives has a few key advantages when it comes to monetization besides subscriptions.

One way Strava makes money is through relationships with fitness brands as people discover apps, devices, services through Strava. If you work out with certain devices or services like Peloton, Wahoo, or Zwift for example, and it’s displayed prominently due to Strava’s deals with these companies.

Though Strava doesn’t have a large content business, the fact that users are well-defined by their interests could facilitate more advertising — the target group is clear.

Asked if Strava could use the level of strong community — e.g. cyclists, runners, swimmers — to provide a higher-quality version of Craigslist, eBay, or Facebook Marketplace, Quarles demurred but pointed to the company’s data and how it could be leveraged in interesting — and anonymized — ways.

“We start from GPS graphs having lots of routes and clubs you should join and we have a lot of data around someone’s device, shoes, bike,” says Quarles. “Strava could very easily tell you the top 10 finishers [for a race or segment] and what shoes they wear, what devices are most popular.”

The future of Strava

Going forward, however the goal for the company remains focused on growth. The rate is currently around a million new users per 45 days, Strava says.

The second priority going forward for Quarles is to make sure Strava communicates better with its users to show what the app can do. (“Too many people haven’t had enough experience with the best parts of Strava,” says Quarles.) The third is to make more features people find useful, something that seems obvious but something that Strava has struggled with.

At the end of 2018, Strava said its growth was getting steeper. (Strava)

Strava may not be a substitute for other social media platforms, but its more wholesome take on online communities may provide lessons to the big players — and inform some of the directions social media might go, whether that’s the niche model that requires less to get a network effect or subscription-based ones.

As of now, it has neither interest in getting acquired or going public, Quarles says. The company has raised $70 million in its 10 years and claims to be on a path to profitability with the endgame to becoming the “next great sports brand of the 21st century.”

“We’re growing efficiently, but we’re not trying to get to profitability at the expense of playing offense,” says Quarles. “As we execute our plan over the next few years, we don’t have many costs. It’s ultimately user-generated content and community.”

Ethan Wolff-Mann is a writer at Yahoo Finance focusing on consumer issues, personal finance, retail, airlines, and more. Follow him on Twitter @ewolffmann.

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