Decoded: How Strava Fitness App Uses Psychology to Create an Ecosystem of Motivation to Keep Customers Engaged

How Strava Creates an Ecosystem of Motivation to Keep Customers Engaged

Motivation is not a straight and narrow path. What motivates a customer to use your product or service today, may not be the same tomorrow. Learn how Strava confronts this challenge with an ecosystem of motivation rooted in behavioral science.

In this article, you'll discover: 

  • How to build intrinsic and extrinsic motivation points into a product;
  • The role of feedback in motivation;
  • The happiness principle's impact on motivation; 
  • How to incorporate these concepts into the workplace and product design.
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It's a foggy Saturday morning in Hong Kong as Ivan, King of the Mountain, steps out to defend his segment along the rugged cliffs of Dragon's Back trail. Last week, a fellow cyclist topped Ivan's Strava score, nudging the competitive athlete off the leaderboard's most coveted spot. 

On the other side of the Pacific, a similar fog settles into San Francisco as Ality slips on her shiny new pair of Nikes to join a Strava Club of fellow novice runners. She's not in it to win it, she's there for the good vibes. 

Ivan, a fierce archetype athlete motivated by internal drive and competition, and Ality, a casual runner motivated by social norms and exploration, are both captured by Strava's ecosystem of motivation. This ecosystem, says Delphine Dard-Pourrat, is what keeps users engaged and coming back to Strava, the next great sports brand of the 21st century.

So what are the behavioral economic principles behind Strava's success? We discussed them with Behavioral Scientist and dedicated Strava user Delphine Dard-Pourrat, CEO & Co-founder of Kensho Advisory, who holds an Executive Master's degree in Behavioural Science from London School of Economics.

She reveals that Strava keeps users coming back to the app using 3 techniques rooted in behavioral science:

  1. Ecosystem of motivation
  2. Effective types of feedback
  3. Happiness homeostasis

Build an ecosystem of motivation directly into features

Dard-Pourrat explains that motivation is not a straight alley; what motivates a person today may not motivate them tomorrow. To overcome the fluid and counterintuitive state of human motivation, Strava creates a unique combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivational experience to keep the ecosystem alive. 

Strava lets users seamlessly and unconsciously shift from one motivation to another. One day you're motivated to track your performance, another day to collect memories.

Dard-Pourrat puts it this way: "You are not going to be motivated all the time by the same thing. Sometimes you are tired, you are angry, or you had a fight with your partner. You never know what will be the very critical element of motivation, and that's why Strava creates multiple layers of experiences."

This concept comes from the Self-Determination theory (SDT), which states we have two kinds of motivation for action:

  • Intrinsic motivation: doing something that is inherently relevant or enjoyable, personal satisfaction. 
  • Extrinsic motivation: doing something because it leads to an external reward or a separate outcome.

Strava's ecosystem of motivation accounts for both intrinsic and extrinsic experiences to continuously stimulate user behavior and promote ongoing engagement with the app. Dard-Pourrat points to various Strava features that enable these modes of motivation and how they work in harmony.  

"Strava lets users seamlessly and unconsciously shift from one motivation to another. One day you're motivated to track your performance, another day to collect memories, and another day to seek acknowledgement from your community," explains Dard Pourrat. 

No matter what side of the bed you wake up on, Strava creates a reason for you to go back to the app time and time again.

  • Kudos — get and give good vibes. The little orange thumbs up may elicit a feeling of extrinsic motivation, especially for Strava newbies who need positive reinforcement to motivate themselves into action. Kudos are given for the effort, not the result.
Strava members give and get kudos on published activities as a way to participate in the community
Strava members give and get kudos on published activities as a way to participate in the community. Source: Strava app
  • Feed — engage in social norms. The feed experience can promote motivation by way of social norms, shared expectations of acceptable behavior by groups. Users keep coming back to the social network element of Strava to continue a conversation or follow up on someone's activity. This motivation can become habitual. 
  • Segments — always a competition. Segments allow users to create portions of a road or trail where athletes can compare times. Athletes may be intrinsically motivated to blaze a new trail or secretly try to beat a top performing athlete. And extrinsically motivated to maintain their King of Queen of the Mountain status.
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Strava users can compete on segments, specific sections of a trail or activity, with themselves or other members. The Leaderboard portion of segments lets you track your placement among other athletes.
Strava users can compete on segments, specific sections of a trail or activity, with themselves or other members. The Leaderboard portion of segments lets you track your placement among other athletes. Source: Strava app
  • Memories — document experiences. A person's active life is journaled on Strava. This can make them deeply connected to the app and its historical data. Strava creates a hard-to-break habit of documenting action. As the quip goes: "If it's not on Strava, it didn't happen." Not logging an activity on Strava feels like erasing it from existence.
Strava users capture memories and experiences in the app, making them even more connected to the historical data.
Strava users capture memories and experiences in the app, making them even more connected to the historical data. Source: Strava app
  • Objective activity analysis — put personal bias aside and get motivated by raw data. Dard-Pourrat describes personal bias in motivation as an attempt to rationally define why we are or are not motivated. Oftentimes, we are wrong; humans struggle to objectively identify roots of motivation. Strava can flip this attempt at rationalization by objective activity analysis.
Objective analysis of a person's performance can motivate them to improve and engage even more with the app. Strava connects people emotionally to tracking activities and monitoring personal statistics using objective data analysis.
Objective analysis of a person's performance can motivate them to improve and engage even more with the app. Strava connects people emotionally to tracking activities and monitoring personal statistics using objective data analysis. Source: Strava app

"It's great to be able to assess what the difference is between the objective data and what the image of yourself you've created was because you're biased," says Dard-Pourrat. 

This objective activity analysis element of Strava provides motivation from surprising sources. A runner who feels lousy (subjective assessment) might go for a run and discover they actually beat their best score (objective assessment). While a cyclist in a great mood (subjective assessment) might find they dropped on the leaderboard due to low performance metrics (objective assessment).

The fact that one Strava user is motivated by positive feedback (wow, I actually did great on my run!) and another is motivated by negative feedback (what? I underperformed?) relates to the behavioral science concept to feedback.

Give the right type of feedback to motivate people

Commitment and consistency

When people actively and publicly commit to doing something, they are subsequently more likely to do it.

Back to Ivan and Ality, the two Strava users on different sides of the planet and different ends of the fitness spectrum. Despite their differences, both athletes are nestled among the app's ecosystem of motivation and are positively influenced into action by different types of feedback provided by the app. 

According to a research paper titled Motivation Resulting from Completed and Missing Actions, uncommitted and inexperienced individuals are motivated by attention to their accomplishments, while committed and experienced individuals are motivated by attention to lack of accomplishments. 

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Ality needs positive feedback about her activity on Strava to achieve extrinsic motivation. This may involve receiving a kudos on her ride (no matter her objective performance) and community engagement on her Strava feed. 

Strava provides this feedback loop within their ecosystem of motivation to give different personas the attention they need — positive reinforcement or objective data.

Ivan, on the other hand, is no longer motivated by feedback on his accomplishments. A simple kudos on a Strava post is not motivational. Ivan needs to be told what he didn't accomplish in order to be motivated into action. Strava achieves this by tracking his performance objectively and revealing a lack of accomplishment.

Strava provides this feedback loop within their ecosystem of motivation to give different personas the attention they need when they need it — positive reinforcement or objective data. The magic lies in Strava's ability to let users continuously self-seek that ever-yearning state of equilibrium. The app gives them the balance they crave even if they can't define that craving.

Create happiness through purpose and pleasure

For a social network, Strava is an overwhelmingly happy place. In a study conducted by Glasgow Caledonian University with over 8,000 participants, 89% said they were happier thanks to regular exercises, and 83% were motivated to exercise because of the Strava community. Whereas most social networks contribute to body confidence issues, 64% said Strava improves their self-confidence, and 47% said the Strava community helps them feel better about their bodies.

Why so happy? 

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