What did Weight Watchers do this year to shore up against free apps?

By Jonah Comstock
09:14 am
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Jonah Comstock - MobiHealthNews Writer and Associate EditorFor MobiHealthNews readers in the United States, it's almost Thanksgiving, a holiday that's about being grateful but one that is also all about food. And for many of us, the days and weeks after Thanksgiving are the time to think about getting rid of all that turkey weight -- whether that means joining a gym, downloading a free food tracking app like LoseIt! or MyFitnessPal, or signing up with Weight Watchers. The worry at Weight Watchers is that option two is getting more and more popular.

Last month, Oprah Winfrey made a deal with Weight Watchers to buy 10 percent of the company. A lot of the reporting around the deal, and why Weight Watchers might be so hungry for a big celebrity endorsement, re-affirmed what MobiHealthNews reported in a post about free mobile apps that might be eating Weight Watcher's lunch. Outside of the Oprah news, Weight Watchers has responded to this pressure in a lot of different ways over the course of the past year. 

In January, a report from HealthTap showed that maybe Weight Watchers itself isn't doing so badly in the mobile app game after all -- or at least, it's still a popular recommendation for doctors. According to HealthTap's report, the top three consumer-facing iOS apps recommended by doctors were MyFitnessPal, Weight Watchers, and Lose It! (in that order), while the Android list had Weight Watchers in the number one spot, followed by White Noise Lite and Lose It! once again at number three.

The next month, the company partnered with Humana to integrate its weight loss program into various services for members, including its HumanaVitality wellness platform. Humana now makes the program available to its members in qualified employer-sponsored health plans.

In April, the company made what was probably its biggest non-Oprah news of the year: it acquired Weilos, a fitness startup that offered a picture-taking app to document weight loss through selfies. Weight Watchers bought Weilos for a price in the “single-digit millions” in order to “accelerate the product and technology development of the social networking and community capabilities that Weight Watchers members are looking for”, the company told TechCrunch. Another acquisition followed shortly thereafter, of Hot5 Fitness, which provides users with five minute videos, that vary in level, from beginner to expert, and include a mix of workouts, like yoga, cardio, and bodyweight.

That same month MobiHealthNews caught wind of a clinical trial Weight Watchers was embarking on to test the impact of including a connected scale in its weight loss offering. The Miriam Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island will play host to a six-month double blind study that will compare Weight Watchers’ online program with and without the addition of an connected scale and weekly email feedback on weight loss.

Between buying up fitness apps (it also picked up Wello last year) and experimenting with connected scales, it's clear Weight Watchers wants to compete with free apps by becoming more invested in the digital space. Likely the company hopes that by being as easy to use as its competitors, combined with its longstanding brand equity and endorsements from both Oprah and people's doctors, it can lure users back to Weight Watchers.

If that doesn't work, maybe the company can follow the lead of competitor NutriSystems, which is apparently worried less about apps because it sends users actual food in the mail. NutriSystems CEO Dawn Zier said as much on a conference call this year.

"We always believe that there’s a shifting of share and we believe that we are capturing some of that, but the reality is we have a product that’s very different than Weight Watchers,” she said. “We view free apps, which I think is an issue still being struggled with, as complementary to our products rather than as cannibalistic. The price point for our product is close to $300, and that’s a big difference. People signing up for our products know that they are committing to a $300-a-month product and are willing to do that. And as we like to say, ‘You can’t eat an app for lunch’.”

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