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I feel for Strava today. It’s an empathy built on common experience. We’re both, in our own way, trying to put a giant, recalcitrant genie back in a very small bottle.
In case you missed it, Strava just announced that the core service they provide, the very lynchpin of their platform, is going behind a paywall. The leaderboards are no longer free. You can read all about it here, but the details, for the purposes of this letter, are less important than the act itself, and why it was probably necessary. And, of course, what it has to do with CyclingTips.
A little over ten years ago, Strava started as a simple, experimental tool for comparing times on bike rides. It was, for a short time, a paid service. You got a bit for free, but for the full experience, it was a few bucks a month. But Strava realized it needed scale; it needed users. Strava is fun because other people are on it, because there are other people to beat or get beaten by, and so you need a critical mass of athletes to make it work. Making everything free gave Strava that critical mass. The segments and their leaderboards, a brilliant tool that allowed us bike people to race other bike people who weren’t even on the same ride, were now free to use.
On the Internet, we’re all used to free. Everything’s free. Websites are free. Videos are free. Newspapers, for a very long time, were free. This all gets paid for with ads.
Strava has about 180 employees right now. It has huge databases to run, engineering and development hurdles to leap over. That’s expensive.
So Strava turned to freemium. The core of the service remained free, but it added little paid tidbits on top. Some training tools, for example. The ability to analyze your rides in more detail. And it started to think of itself as a platform, an athlete’s brand, “the next ESPN,” one former employee told me a few years ago. A Facebook for athletes, perhaps? Who knows.
It started diverting resources to these goals. To creating ad products, like turning rides completed on a Wahoo a special Wahoo blue, and partnerships. To building a media platform, and an algorithmic feed, like the one you get on Facebook or Instagram.
It didn’t fix bluetooth connectivity issues with Apple Watch. Its complaint forums filled with bug reports and feature requests. It didn’t build the tools users asked for, the ones that would let them play with the vast amount of data Strava holds, or even play with their own data.
For the last few years, Strava made a go at all sorts of ad products and partnerships, alternative revenue streams, and it made the platform worse. Because they didn’t work for us, the Strava user. They worked for ad product buyers and partners and for the dream of an athlete’s social media app.
But there was a problem. Even at their peak, the ad products Strava sold were never particularly successful, never made up more than a paltry part of the company’s revenue. The freemium model didn’t pull in enough subscribers. Strava, to this day, is not profitable.
The announcement this week is an admission of this. Strava’s core business is selling a useful, fun platform to the people who use it and love it.
And this is where the correlations to modern media come in. The genie, in Strava’s case, was free access to its core product, the segment leaderboard. With Monday’s announcement, Strava just shoved that genie rather unceremoniously back in the bottle, to the tune of $5 per month.
The genie, in our case, is all of the content you consume online for free. Content that is not free to make. Our genie is content that informs you, that entertains you, that enlightens you, that makes you want to come back tomorrow and read again. Content that builds our audience.
That genie’s been out of the bottle since the days of dialup.
Like Strava tried to do, most media sells you, the audience, rather than selling to you. That’s what ads are, and they’ve worked for over a century. But also like Strava, much of modern media ended up far worse for it. When your cursory glance is worth as much as your dedicated attention – and, under an eyeballs-for-dollars ad model, it is – then content designed for cursory glances takes over. Once massive ad tech companies like Google and Facebook started grabbing 60% of global digital ad spend for themselves, a media outlet’s ability to monetize its own content dwindled even further. We don’t have enough of your data to sell.
Strava appears to have made the decision sometime recently to think of its users not as units to be sold but as customers. It’s the same decision we made here at CyclingTips a few years ago, when we started VeloClub. Now Strava works for its subscribers and its product will almost certainly be better for it.
We know that working for your audience makes for a better product. We know because, even though our content is and will remain free, it’s what we do. Members make CyclingTips better. For the price of a cup or two of coffee, you make us more creative, more willing to take chances, more willing to ignore the crassly click-worthy in favor of something deeper.
If you’re not a VeloClub member, consider joining. Same goes for other media that you enjoy, and apps like Strava that you use. Our friends at Rouleur are feeling the pain of closed newsstands, for example. They are not alone. Venerable titles like Dirt Rag have recently shuttered, pushed past the brink by an ad model that just doesn’t work as well as it used to.
Pushing the genie back into the bottle is good for everyone. When you’re there for us, we’ll be there for you.