How free online tools and “social running” are helping create fanatically loyal customers


My favorite gizmo is a 3-year old
GPS heartrate monitor that keeps
getting more valuable to me
because Garmin has recognized
the value of giving me free online
tools that keep me addicted to it.

A couple of weeks ago, I read an extremely fascinating article from Wired magazine about Nike+, one of those ideas that makes me marvel at how much brilliance is involved in making something that seems so simple and obvious.

I strongly recommend reading the article to anyone who…

(a) works in product development
(b) is in marketing
(c) runs or is into fitness
(d) is a metrics nut
(e) believes social media is “silly stuff” like Facebook and Twitter
(f) believes social media is only about sharing words and, perhpas, photos
(g) thinks an iPod is just for listening to music
(h) thinks that the key to successful products is more features
(i) doesn’t comprehend how companies can make money by giving away something free
(j) wonders why Apple and Nike are two of the most powerful brands in the world.

Here’s a sample quote from the piece:

What’s more interesting is what Nike+ isn’t. There’s no GPS that automatically tracks your routes—if you want to map your run, you have to do it manually on the Nike site. There’s no heart rate monitor, so even though you know how far and how fast you’ve traveled, you don’t know what level of cardiovascular exertion it required. “We really wanted to separate ourselves from that sort of very technical, geeky side of things,” (Michael) Tchao (a former Apple executive who now is general manager of Nike Techlab, a sports technology innovation group within Nike) says. “Everyone understands speed and distance.” In other words, Nike+ isn’t a perfect tool; it wasn’t designed to be. But it’s good enough, and more crucially, it’s simple. Nike learned a huge lesson from Apple: The iPod wasn’t a massive hit because it was the most powerful music player on the market but because it offered the easiest, most streamlined user experience…Nike has discovered that there’s a magic number for a Nike+ user: five. If someone uploads only a couple of runs to the site, they might just be trying it out. But once they hit five runs, they’re massively more likely to keep running and uploading data. At five runs, they’ve gotten hooked on what their data tells them about themselves.


Nike+ features include ‘social running’ (although they don’t call it that).

I’ll confess: I purchased a Nike+ device when they first came out, but I never made it to “five.”

First off, my “running” is not actually “running.” In the words of Ron Burgundy, “I believe it’s jogging or yogging. It might be a soft j. I’m not sure but apparently you just run for an extended period of time. It’s supposed to be wild.”

Second, I don’t typically like music with jogging (or yogging). For me, jogging is, more often than not, a quiet thing — a thought sorting-out activity, a cob-web clearing time. Once in a while, I get an urge for a jogging soundtrack, but not often enough to make an iPod a part of my routine. (I know there are devices now that use Nike+ without an iPod, but those came after my experience with it.)

Third, and this is the real reason: Back up there where Michael Tchao says, “we really wanted to separate ourselves from that sort of very technical, geeky side of things….” Well, I don’t. In fact, the technical, geeky side of things often gets me motivated to start back exercising when I go through periods of “letting it slide.”

My “gadget” in this case, is a GPS/heart rate monitor device, the Garmin Forerunner 301, one of several Garmin running devices. When I received the device a few years back (as a gift from some wonderful people I work with), my ability to even upload data to my computer was limited as Garmin was not then supporting the Mac OS. At the time, a third-party web application called Motion Based was the state of the art web platform for organizing and displaying data from the device. Soon thereafter, however, Garmin purchased Motion Based and tweaked it along for a couple of years.

Recently — and I assume because of the success of Nike+ — Garmin rebranded and rebuilt Motion Based into something that is actually rather remarkable, a web application that’s like Nike+ for the metric-obsessed: Garmin Connect.

I won’t go into a full review of Garmin Connect because, frankly, I’m neither geeky enough or a fanatical enough runner to understand all the features. However, below, I’ve posted a screen grab of one of many pages on the site — one that displays some of its “Wow!” factor. For instance, you can see on this page how it lets you “replay” your run — a push-pin moves along the route you ran and you can see the fluctuations in heart rate, speed, elevation. (It also displays other things that are over my head and perhaps are beyond the grasp of those who don’t work at NASA or the Olympic Training Center.)

Did I mention the web application is free? In fact, it’s a great example of that whole “power of free” thing working.

In this case the “free” model works because Garmin is a hardware company (like Nike and Apple). They (Nike+ and Apple were good teachers) realize that “content” (personal metrics) and “social media” (tracking all this data and sharing it with others) are things that add value to their products and motivates people to join a community with other customers who share a passion — motivating them to participate more (and buy more stuff). As with Nike+, I can share my running data with others (but, in my case, I choose not to).

Because of the free services Garmin provides me via Garmin Connect, I come in contact with the company almost daily in a way that provides me a valuable service — while proving them direct access to me in a welcome way where they can introduce me to new “pay” products and services. (Apple and Nike do the same — new shoes or special training programs from Nike or iTunes workout mixes and iPhone apps from Apple.)

One day, I’m sure Garmin Connect will make me want to purchase the next generation of device that will track even more data.

In the meantime, I’ll just keep letting them help me enjoy the product of theirs I already own.

(Note: I realize that some privacy advocates are wary of web applications that encourage individuals to share data that could hypothetically be used by insurance companies or other entities. Frankly, I find that aspect of this a little creepy myself — but that’s because I watched the movie Gattaca back in the day.)

One of the features of Garmin Connect allows the user to “replay” a run,
an animated review of the route and metrics related to elevation, speed, heartrate and other data.