SparkPeople's app is free again as the weight loss company steps up its mobile strategy

By Jonah Comstock
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SparkPeopleOnline fitness and weight loss community SparkPeople has made its app Diet and Food Tracker (now known as ) free once more. For about the past two years it has been $3.99, but it was free from 2009 to 2012. The move signals a shift in thinking from web-first to mobile-first for the company, according to Chief Operating Officer Dave Heilmann.

"From a development point of view, we've always been a mobile-second approach: We design a feature for the web, make sure it works well, and then port it to mobile," Heilmann told Babyforyou.net.ua. "Starting January 1st this year, we've become mobile first. We're building a future with mobile in mind so it works well on web and mobile."

It's an interesting move for a company to take a revenue-generating mobile app and make it free -- especially one that already made the same transition in the opposite direction five years ago. Heilmann said there were both financial and consumer-focused motivations for the move.

"It was a nice source of revenue for us. It complemented our sponsorship revenue. But we started to feel we were losing share in the diet space to companies with free apps or a free app and a free site," Heilmann said. "Our site was still free, but you had to pay for the app and we think that cut down on some word of mouth and things like that."

SparkPeople brings in about 75 percent of its income through sponsorship and advertising. The other 25 percent comes through a combination of paid apps, books, and device revenue -- including Sparkpeople's branded version of the Pebble activity tracker from Fitlinxx. Heilmann said the Spark Activity Tracker has been a large revenue source, but not "competitive in the broader market. He hopes having a free app will help encourage adoption of the tracker.

"We still may do some other more targeted paid apps in the future," Heilmann said. "But we had a nice year on the sponsorship side. And we are looking at the future of sponsorships and realizing, we need to be strong on mobile. Companies like Facebook and Twitter now get 50 percent of their sponsorship revenue from mobile apps."

Having a free app allows the company to focus more on its mobile-first and mobile-only user, so recent updates have involved putting more features from the website into an easily usable form on the app. Whereas before the app was mainly a tracking tool and calorie counter for users of the website, the iOS version now includes educational and community features of the site as well. Those updates will launch on Android in about a month.

The move to a free app has had a marked effect on downloads, Heilmann said, jumping the app from #125 to #10 in the free health apps category on iTunes on the first day of promoting the app to members. The goal is to catch up with and stay ahead of competitors like LoseIt! and MyFitnessPal, he said.

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