First Rule of CrossFit…

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The CrossFit Games is an annual test of fitness designed to find the Fittest Man and Woman on Earth. The first ever CrossFit Games was in 2007: it was a two-day event, held on the dirt of a ranch in California, and was more of BBQ and beer-fest than a fitness competition. Fast forward to today, and the CrossFit Games involves over 300,000 athletes, is aired on ESPN, and had a 2017 prize pool of $2.8 million, with the winning man and woman taking home $285,000 each.

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2007 CrossFit Games

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2017 CrossFit Games

How did this happen? Yup, you guessed it – social media and digital business!

For those that don’t know, CrossFit is a fitness program and brand that is based on constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity. A representative, but nowhere near exhaustive, list of movements found in CrossFit include: running, rowing, jumping rope, pull-ups, burpees, squats, weightlifting, Olympic weightlifting, dumbbells, barbells, rope climbs, and the list goes on and on. Movements are mixed and mashed together in various rep schemes, weights, and time domains to create unlimited workout possibilities.  CrossFit affiliate gyms run group classes where all participants complete that gym’s workout-of-the-day together, but individuals scale the movements as needed based on ability level. (If I haven’t convinced you yet, check out the video below…)

What started in 1996 as a single guy, Greg Glassman, training clients out of his gym in Santa Cruz has grown to become a global fitness phenomenon with over 13,000 affiliate gyms worldwide (for reference, there are about 27,000 Starbucks in the world).

There are many factors that contributed to the explosive growth of CrossFit during the late 2000’s to today. Some will point to the 2010 partnership with Reebok that helped CrossFit gain exposure and reach the mainstream market. Others will say the fitness industry was ripe for disruption as people grew tired of the typical gym routine and were looking for something new. And others, including myself, believe the biggest contributing factor was the creative use of social media and digital platforms that connected and grew the community in new and meaningful ways.

In 2001, Greg Glassman created CrossFit.com (what we call “main-site”) where he started posting one workout per day along with video movement demonstrations and news articles. Anyone with basic gym equipment was able to complete the workout and then post their results in the comments on the main-site post. Main-site developed a cult-like following among first-responders, soldiers on military bases, as well as average Joe’s working out in their garages. Over time, gyms started popping up and following the CrossFit regimen – all that is required to use the CrossFit name is an annual affiliate fee.

In 2007, CrossFit hosted its first ever CrossFit Games to find the Fittest Man and Woman on Earth. The competition was open to anyone that could make it. A few dozen (mostly local) athletes showed up on a ranch in Aromas, California to complete three workouts in a battle for the title. The 2008 and 2009 CrossFit Games were of similar style on the ranch, but as CrossFit’s popularity was starting to grow, an in-person qualifying event was added in several areas around the USA. Again, anyone that lived closed enough could compete at a qualifier and the top athletes at each were sent to the Games in Aromas.

In 2010, CrossFit changed the format of the CrossFit Games and created an online, digital platform that made the event more inclusive, built up the community, and helped expand CrossFit – this is called The Open.

The Open, an online qualifier available to anyone, was the first piece in a three-part format that still is used today. During The Open, CrossFit uses live streaming via Facebook and its own platform to announce one workout per week for five weeks. All participants have until the end of each week to complete the workout and post their results to the platform. The platform includes a leaderboard that ranks athletes based on their five-week performance. The top performers move on to an in-person, weekend-long event, called Regionals. And the top performers at Regionals go on to an in-person, week-long event, called The Games.

The platform allows athletes to sign up for The Open and share with friends via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram that they are #InTheOpen. Athletes create a profile with their stats, such as max pull-ups, heaviest back squat and deadlift, and fastest times on some popular CrossFit workouts. This reminds me of our class discussion on how social media solves the social failure regarding bragging. I would never walk around telling people I can do 50 pull-ups in a row, but sharing this information in my online profile makes it acceptable and it’s celebrated. Also, similar to almost all other social media platforms, the CrossFit Games platform allows athletes to “stalk” each other…aka “leaderboard surfing”. As scores are posted for each workout, athletes are able to “surf” the leaderboard and see how they stack up against friends, family, gym-mates, and the top CrossFit athletes.

In addition to creating a digital platform, CrossFit has stepped up its activity on Facebook and Instagram since releasing the Open format in 2010. CrossFit uses social media to connect with and celebrate not only its top athletes, but also the every-day athlete. CrossFit’s social media activity is a constant feed of success stories from a CrossFit Games winner setting a new personal record lift, to someone losing 100+ lbs through diet and exercise, to an 80-year-old grandmother learning to squat for the first time in her life.

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Snapshot of CrossFit’s Instagram page.

The use of social media and its digital platform has allowed CrossFit to expand its reach and become more inclusive. This has removed some of the intimidation and hesitation people have when learning about CrossFit. I believe this is the main contributor to CrossFit’s explosive growth and community development over the last decade.

On a side note: Go Eagles!

6 comments

  1. Great post Matt! CrossFit is a very relevant example of how companies are taking advantage of social media platforms to build bigger communities. It’s also interesting to note how, by engaging their audience, Crossfit is incentivizing followers to recruit others to the program… for free!

  2. HenryChenChen · ·

    I agree with you conclusion, which social media and its digital platform allow such business as
    crossfit expand. Unlike the picture of fight club, business like crossfit need more audience, because
    been FIT is a cool thing for most of people, and taking advantage of the digital platform will help
    them to attract more business from the audience.

  3. Molly Pighini · ·

    Very excited about the Eagles win as well! It’s about time.

    On a more relevant note, I think this is a great blog post, revealing the use of social media and digital business from a unique perspective. I know very little about CrossFit, but it is clear that social media has been instrumental in its growth. I think you highlighted a unique point with your last note about intimidation and hesitation. I know, from the outside, CrossFit looks very intense. For most, it would be intimidating to just show up at a gym to try it for the first time. With social media, however, people can learn about the sport before trying it. They will have an idea of what is required and see that many different people are participating, which might reduce some of those fears. As in many businesses, technology like this creates an additional touchpoint with customers. At the beginning of the decision process, they might be more willing to participate. In addition, as time goes on, their relationship with the brand will be strengthened by the community/bond that they build through continued interaction.

  4. NIce post. I think you still could have focused a bit more about the digital strategy/ emphasis, rather than cross fit itself. Would have liked to know a bit more about how the digital affected cross fit and not just cross fit itself.

  5. phanauer1 · ·

    I really enjoyed your post, especially because CrossFit is something I’ve always been curious of because of it’s cult like following. Put in the context of social media and digital business, I think it makes a lot more sense as to why it is as popular as it is and in the way that it is. I also think that CrossFit is a great example of something that “grew up with the internet” – while there are definitely trends and workout fads that blow up on instagram or online now, things like CrossFit that have the advantage of being one of the first of the kind found on this platform are definitely bigger. Call it a first mover advantage in a way!

  6. JohnWalshFilms · ·

    Great post, Matt! I knew Crossfit had quite a digital community, but I didn’t realize how central digital was to its success. I think its interesting to compare the brand image of different gyms that Crossfit Competes with, such as Planet Fitness’ “The world judges; we don’t.” Many gyms seem to compete with CrossFit’s “Cult following’ with an anti-cult following campaign, and it will be interesting to see how sustainable Crossfit will be in their future marketing/digital community.

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