Loyalty points or even money are not enough to keep people using fitness trackers

Social connections as a motivator. flickr/Marco Verch, CC BY-SA

The market for activity tracking devices has proved a difficult one. One of the major fitness device manufacturers, Jawbone, has recently announced a layoff of 15% of its staff. Fitbit, the market leader in these devices has seen its share price drop to nearly 50% of its peak just 4 months ago.

The challenge for all these companies has been how quickly users who buy a fitness device stop using them. With Fitbit, this “abandonment rate” is about 50%. This rate does go down however, if users have linked with others through an app. In recent research at UWA, we have also found that people who take part in an “activity challenge” where staff are motivated to get 10,000 steps a day for 4 months, are less likely to give up if they are a part of a team than if they participate as individuals. Even in a short term and organised activity, nearly 30% of those that signed up dropped out before the end of the challenge and stopped using their Fitbit devices.

Attrition of members of teams and individuals in activity challenge. author

It is always going to be hard to keep people engaged with maintaining increased activity, let alone use wearable devices to track it. Devices need charging, get lost, or stop working, or the wearer simply loses all motivation to continue using them. Here, motivation is key and a theory called “Self Determination” goes a long way to explaining why relatively few people will persist with using wearable devices and what potentially can be done about motivating others to not give up.

Self determination theory divides motivation up into two types. In one, called “intrinsic motivation”, we are motivated to do things simply because we get pleasure from doing them and the motivation is driven completely from internal drivers. We are also motivated however by external factors and this type of motivation is known as “extrinsic motivation”. If motivation is to influence behaviour, it is most likely to happen if it is either intrinsic, or if the factors that are driving extrinsic motivation have been completely integrated by the person concerned.

One of the main factors that will affect integration of external factors of motivation is having that motivation be driven by a shared network of people. This is why Jawbone and our own research at UWA have seen a lower drop-out rate of using wearable devices when people are part of groups than when they are participating on their own. Apart from “relatedness”, as this social interaction driver of motivation is called, we become more motivated if we increase our self-control over a behaviour and our skill at carrying out that behaviour.

Knowing what we do about motivation, attempts to increase the public’s adoption of fitness trackers will only succeed if the approach increases one of the drivers of motivation. The australian airline Qantas announced this week a plan to launch a private health insurance plan called Assure which will give members frequent flyer points for paying their premiums but also for wearing a fitness tracker and recording their activity. The problem that they will face with this approach is that financial rewards are not sufficient to keep a person motivated to maintaining a behaviour like tracking their fitness. This is especially the case where personal information is going to a company that is involved in determining if health-related payments are going to be made in the future. If Qantas, and other companies offering similar schemes, want to engage their customers with increased activity, they will need to concentrate on the social elements of that engagement. This is especially the case if they want their members to persist with tracking their activity for longer than a few months.

In another attempt to link walking to rewards, a startup is offering a cryptocurrency reward that is tied to the number of steps that a user walks. In this scheme, 1 Bitwalking dollar will be paid for approximately every 10,000 steps tracked by an app on the user’s phone. The Bitwalking dollars can then be traded for cash or used to buy goods online. The initial challenge for the developers of this currency will be to get enough businesses interested in accepting Bitwalking dollars. The even bigger challenge however will be, as it will be for Qantas, to maintain motivation and through this, participation.

The problem with both the Qantas health insurance idea and Bitwalking dollars is that they are a type of loyalty reward scheme and these schemes in general are very hard for businesses to make work. If a loyalty scheme that accrues benefits to a member simply by shopping at a store or using a service will rarely work, asking the member of a scheme to actually do extra activity to receive benefits is going to be even harder.

There may well be ways of increasing the public’s motivation to wearing fitness trackers. Unfortunately for companies like Fitbit and Jawbone, although we know what might increase this motivation, we don’t yet know what will definitely make the majority of customers keep walking and keep using these devices.