Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Fitbit Aims to Hook Consumers With News Feed, New Partnerships

  • UnitedHealthcare program offers incentives for meeting goals
  • Wearables maker seeks to bounce back after stock’s decline

After a tough 2016, Fitbit Inc. has a plan to keep users hooked to its devices for the new year. 

Taking cues from the addictive nature of Facebook and other networks where people connect with friends, Fitbit is rolling out new social features on its app, including a news feed where users can share exercise summaries, read health-related content and join like-minded communities. The fitness-tracking wristband maker is also upgrading its personal-trainer app, Fitstar, to give users custom recommendations based on historical Fitbit data, the company announced at CES in Las Vegas on Thursday.

“The top priority for us to be a ‘need to have’ versus a ‘nice to have,”’ Chief Executive Officer James Park said. “We’re trying to work towards a vision over some period of time where people say it’d be crazy to leave the house without a Fitbit because of the impact it’s going to have on my health. 2017 is going to be key.”

Park has been talking about turning Fitbit into a software and digital-health company for years. It could use a boost; the San Francisco-based company slashed its holiday-quarter sales forecast in November and reported a decline in Asia-Pacific sales. Amid investors’ concerns about the company’s long-term trajectory, the shares plunged more than 70 percent last year.

Amid waning demand for wearables, Fitbit has clung to its spot as the market leader, though it faces growing competition from Apple Inc. on the high end, China’s Xiaomi Corp. on the low end, and multiple players in between.

Financial Motivation

At CES, the consumer electronics industry’s annual conference and showcase for new products and partnerships, Fitbit also unveiled an alliance with UnitedHealthcare Motion wellness program that will let participants use Fitbit’s Charge 2 fitness tracker. People can earn as much as $1,500 in health savings accounts or reimbursement credits each year if they reach certain fitness metrics. Fitbit activity trackers are already used in weight-management and corporate wellness programs. But this is the first time the tracker is being directly integrated into a health plan’s design to give users a financial motive to get fit.

“This is one partnership with one insurer, but if this could become a model, there’s a lot of upside in selling trackers,” said Joe Wittine, an analyst at Longbow Research LLC.

Some competitors have had an even more difficult year than Fitbit. Jawbone has fallen into deeper financial trouble. Pebble Technology, a smartwatch pioneer, sold itself to Fitbit for less than Pebble’s debt and other obligations.

Park said consolidation is inevitable as the wearable market matures. “Trying to develop a connected device in the health industry is a really difficult task that requires a lot of distribution partnerships and scale,” he said. “There’s only going to be a few select winners.”

Fitbit lacks the resources to create apps for the health-care industry, he said, so it will invite third-party developers to do the job. The company also plans to partner with popular products and brands. Fitbit has made one such deal with Peloton, which makes an indoor-cycling workout bike. The company also has an accord with Habit food plans and VirZOOM, a virtual-reality gaming company.

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