The Best Health and Wellness App Developers and Their Market Strategies

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Anastasia Osypenko
Market Researcher

In our previous post we examined the features of the most successful health and fitness applications. Their trajectories, in many ways, are shaped by the companies behind them. Applications made to manage health, stay fit, and become more aware of our minds and bodies have different business models and marketing approaches, these largely depend on who owns and develops them.

So, what can we learn from the success stories and then apply to our own projects? First, let’s find out who makes the best health and wellness apps.

The Health and Fitness App Market is Dominated by Sports Apparel Brands

Under Armour, Asics, and Adidas acquired top fitness apps and became the leading brands not only when it comes to running shoes, but also within the app market. Nike and Puma also have apps released under their own brand names. Nike even has a branded version of Apple Watch which synchronises with the Nike+ Run Club app.

The numbers are impressive: Under Armour bought Endomondo, MapMyFitness, and MyFitnessPal for a total of around $700 million; the Adidas Group spent $239 million on Runtastic; and Asics acquired Runkeeper for $85 million. Among these apps, MyFitnessPal was 2018’s top grossing app in the US.

On one hand, these apps are in competition with each other and with other, non-branded fitness apps. The competition pushes fitness app development companies to work hard on their services, investing more in the science of physical activity, engaging famous athletes to prepare training plans, and adding innovative new social features.

On the other hand, it may all come down to selling more shoes, apparel, or sports accessories. The user data collected by tracking apps can, and is, used for cross-marketing purposes.

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Tapping Into a Community Is the Key to Success

The biggest challenge, and potentially the key driving force behind the health and fitness app market, is the construction of an active community of users. In a practical sense, many of the features in such programs are very similar; users become familiar with these functions quickly and may then lose interest. To retain loyalty, app companies need to keep their users motivated – this is when an active community is very helpful.

Strava remains the only massively popular app independent of the sports apparel business. However, in 2019 the company partnered with New Balance to give rewards to active runners. Strava’s founders rely on the community-based nature and the app’s social features to keep their product at the forefront of the market. Building communities and effective communication with users is key to success. Runkeeper’s CEO admits that companies still don’t put enough focus on these aspects.

Manufacturers of Wearables are Involved in App Development, Will They Lead the Market in the Long Run?

Sports shoe brands aren't the only big players in the app game. Companies producing fitness trackers also invest heavily in the creation of mobile applications. Since the emergence of trackers in 2006, their market grew by leaps and bounds. In 2012, Apple introduced its smartwatches and in 2018, the global wearables market reached over $26 billion. Despite the popularity of Apple Watch, Fitbit still remains the most profitable wearables company.

At the moment, the situation with wearable technology is ambiguous. People keep buying trackers, but at the same time, the industry is moving toward the combination of all tracking features inside mobile apps. Even though wearables are currently experiencing more innovation than smartphones, it’s unlikely that the former will replace the latter. If anything, the opposite is true.

Fitbit, for instance, profits from both their trackers and the app. While the company still earns a lot and the number of users continues to grow, their revenue decreased for the third year running. This is happening, in part, because smartwatches and fitness trackers are less popular and are no longer the next big thing.

Smartphone applications that combine health and activity tracking appeared at the same time that wearables were introduced. But now the former get much more functions. The way forward for Fitbit and similar companies may be to focus on attracting users to their apps, not smartwatches.

It’s telling that Nike+, Endomondo, and FitnessKeeper, launched in 2006, 2007, and 2008 respectively, now offer much more than any wearable app does.

While people could measure their health and get fitness recommendations via smartphone since the earliest days of third-party apps, now they want a broader ecosystem. HealthKit and Google Fit, native applications for iOS and Android, which were only introduced in 2014, bridge the gap between individual fitness tracking and the whole healthcare industry.

What is also interesting is that new apps can gain traction no matter how many similar apps already exist. For example, the Azumio’s heart rate tracking program reached eight million downloads within nine months of its 2010 launch. In 2013, several solutions made by this health and fitness app developer experienced 45 million downloads.

Female Fitness and Meditation Set The Trends

According to data from US users, after MyFitnessPal, the most profitable applications are Calm, Headspace, Sweat, and BetterMe. They’re ranked among the top health and wellness apps because of revenue, the number of active users, and positive reviews. The first two programs derive from the concept of mindfulness and offer guided meditation, which isthe number one health trendthese days. The last two apps are dedicated to personalised fitness training and were launched by women for a female audience.

The Battle Between the Top Wellness Apps

The Calm app is the primary product of the company by the same name. It became the first meditation app to gross $1 billion, giving publicity to other products made by the company, such as their books on meditation. Headspace is a similar project founded by mindfulness and meditation experts.

Both apps use a premium subscription monetization model and leave the basic functionality for free. Just two of them possess 90 per cent of all revenue in the meditation app category, and they compete elbow to elbow with each other. However, both strive to outperform their rival.

It’s intriguing to see how their competition will develop since what they are selling is almost identical. They approach meditation slightly different, though. Headspace’s take is more traditional and the narrator gives more technical information about the process while Calm follows a free, modern style and the narrator does a lot of talking before getting down to the meditation itself.

The Top Mobile Health Apps for Female Fitness

As we mentioned, Sweat and BetterMe are market leaders. The Sweat app, created by the Australian fitness coach Kayla Itsines, made excellent earnings even when only an iOS version was available; revenue reached more than $14 million in 2016 and it was the greatest success in the fitness app category at the time. Other notable Australian coaches launched apps (12WBT, All Australian Beach Body) but didn’t manage to make their brands globally successful.

BetterMe, which was launched only in 2016, quickly became the second most popular health and fitness application. It’s actually a whole package of apps for workouts, weight loss, meditation, walking, and yoga. BetterMe also has a notable social media presence and weight-loss guidance is their main focus.

Both Sweat and BetterMe maintain their success with strong user engagement, motivating people to share their transformation stories and photos. Both use female images in the interface since their services are designed primarily for women. Interestingly, Sweat is closely linked to the figure of its founder, while BetterMe was initiated not by a coach who intimately knows the training process, but by a business analyst from Ukraine who knows the market well.

To Survive, Startups Should Focus on One Category

As we can see, there are particular categories for health and fitness app developers to focus on: activity tracking, training, nutrition plans and weight loss, and self-care and meditation. There are programs which try to combine as many functions as possible but generally, it’s not a good business idea. For new startups, it’s best to stick to one category and improve the health tracking features to optimal accuracy.

Our MadAppGang team has been developing a unique app for runners called SmartRun. As runners and passionate developers, we’re eager to make a product which is the right fit for running from a scientific point of view. We analysed the number of existing applications and came to the conclusion that most of them ignore the fact that heart rate zones provide the basis for healthy running activities.

We used the medically accepted theory regarding five different heart-rate zones, with each differing according to the intensity during physical activity. Activating all the zones to maintain a healthy lifestyle means varying the workout intensity levels throughout the week. This is because each of the zones requires the heart to work in a specific way.

To display the heart rate, we designed an animated element which looked like a battery indicator. Although it might appear simple at first, this element provides complex information to users including the user’s current heart-rate zone and the heart rate itself, a pulse indicator, and a guide telling the runner whether to slow down or speed up and how soon to do so.

The Future Belongs to Artificial Intelligence

The technology buzzword of people are now using (or maybe overusing) is AI. During recent years, artificial intelligence has been applied to any sphere imaginable and it’s commonly believed that this technology will bring people new tools for any activity. Every twelfth startup puts a certain focus on AI. It’s only natural to apply this technology to health and fitness apps because smart systems that learn from user experiences can give the most personalised data.

People seek training and nutrition plans that represent not just norms but can be adjusted according to life events and current performance and training results. There are several AI-powered fitness solutions out there already including Gymfitty, Freeletics, PerfectSquatChallenge, and FitnessAI. Funnily enough, they all position themselves as the first ever AI coach, designed to eliminate the need for expensive human coaches.

In these applications, the AI can chat with users to set training goals, track their movements with a camera during exercise, and adapt the program according to user performance. It’s too early to analyse their impact as they all are still at the user-testing stage, but it’s safe to say that nowadays, the best mobile health apps should integrate artificial intelligence.

Our running app SmartRun also provides training plans which adjust to individual users thanks to AI implementation. The app collects AI-powered feedback, learning how the user’s body and heart react to certain exercises. Based on this data, SmartRun suggests whether the user should intensify the training or do otherwise.

If you have a health and fitness app idea and would like help with development, drop us a line to discuss your project.

23 July 2019