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Designing A Virtual Community In the Age of Isolation

As we contemplate life at home away from others and communal events, we are all seeking ways to maintain a sense of community and connectedness. For many, fitness is a ritual that is not only essential to physical well-being but an important way to connect with and build community.

One business uniquely positioned to thrive in the age of isolation is connected fitness company Peloton. Well before the COVID-19 pandemic, Peloton was establishing itself as a new kind of leader, building a community of shared virtual suffering far from the sweat and germs of the local gym. With over 1.4 million users, Peloton has successfully become a hip fitness brand, a subscription business, a tech company, a broadcast network, a hardware manufacturer, and a retailer all in one. Yet this is just the table stakes for entry into the connected fitness market.

Peloton’s mission statement is to “use technology and design to connect the world through fitness, empowering people to be the best version of themselves anywhere, anytime.” Deconstructing that statement reveals the design challenge: maintaining engagement over time and helping users build a sense of identity and community. What keeps us coming back to a virtual community? How do you design the kind of experience that customers are excited to pay for, year after year?

Peloton’s bike and treadmill products and their associated classes are well designed, but the community experience earns only a passing grade. Let’s explore Peloton’s existing experience and the design decisions and behavioral nudges that digital communities can use to create a sense of motivation and connection.

Design For Social Reinforcement

We all care what other people think. A primary value of group fitness is social motivation, and this social reinforcement is the heart of the Peloton class experience. Instructors in a studio full of riders challenge you to ride along with them, keeping the energy and positivity up, and pushing you to achieve your best.

About 20 core instructors lead thousands of classes across various difficulty levels. Charismatic, diverse, and enviably fit, these instructors are almost celebrities in their own right. The pinnacle experience of most people’s subscription is getting personal recognition from a favorite instructor. If you are in a live class and achieve a milestone, you have a chance of getting your screen name called out and recognized by your instructor.

Yet as Peloton’s class attendance and participation grows (some live classes have 10,000 participants), the chances of getting called out get smaller and smaller. Aside from a virtual “high-five,” there aren’t many ways to interact with other members during class. There’s enormous untapped potential for connected fitness programs to become more robust social connection platforms.

We can look to the world of live game streaming to find cutting-edge tools and experiences that support large virtual communities. Tools like Twitch, Mixer, and Discord have helped create massive online groups that follow specific celebrity gamers and influencers as they stream content to these services. It’s not unusual for the top e-sports streamers to have tens of millions of live subscribers who pay these platforms fees to access their content. They may even pay additional micro-payments to have more direct and visible interactions with the celebrity streamer. Communities around these streamers can be very lively and generate significant loyalty, connection, and revenue.

The inclusion of a camera on the top of a Peloton bike and treadmill monitor is currently non-functional and foreshadows future business opportunities. I’m sure some would pay more for a class where the instructors could monitor your performance and engage directly with you, giving individual encouragement and recognition when needed. Creating more opportunities for social engagement is one key to building long-term loyalty in a virtual community.

Reward Good Behavior

Principles of gamification help foster motivation and behavior change. Gamification – incorporating elements of game playing into a product experience to increase engagement – is an area of expertise that crossed over from behavioral psychology, neuroscience, and game design to influence almost every mobile service and application designed in the past 10 years, for better or for worse. In the domain of fitness, nudging individual behavior change has the opportunity to generate largely positive individual, business, and community impact.

A key element of gamification is providing consumers with immediate “gains” of power and effect. This is emulated in consumer reward programs such as credit card points, supermarket loyalty discounts, and buy-1-get-1-free promotions. Peloton adopts the most basic accomplishment badges and minor celebrations but could take more cues from game design in improving small reward moments to amplify the gains that riders are making both individually and collectively.

Emphasizing gains and losses are effective motivating strategies for engagement. At the end of a ride, Peloton currently prompts you to review the class. Instead, it could share whether you worked faster or beat your friends or personal records – or if you’re close to doing so. Reinforcing a rider’s fitness improvement over their membership timeline provides a sense of progress that encourages more engagement.

Set Shared Goals

Shared goals are also central to a successful community. In addition to individual fitness accomplishments, working to achieve objectives as a group fosters loyalty and trust that keep people returning to one fitness program over another.

Could smaller communities establish themselves among Peloton users, with specific team goals? Could Peloton commit charitable contributions or social impact programs through rallying the community to ride for a cause?

Apart, Together

These days, we are all experiencing how digital experiences and communities struggle to be as effective and meaningful as their real-world counterparts. Yet as we enter an unprecedented age of remote engagement, there is clear opportunity and potential for such platforms to explore a richer palette of ways to connect, team up, encourage, compete, and befriend. This kind of robust virtual community can translate not only to better business, but better societal outcomes.

This article first appeared on Forbes.