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WeightWatchers moves away from the "lonely experience" of digital and back to real world community

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan August 8, 2022
Come for the weight loss, stay for the community - and that means rethinking the approach to digital transformation at WeightWatchers.


WW International - the company formerly known as WeightWatchers - continues with the transformation of its digital transformation as it axes its loyalty program in the latest turnaround gambit.

Back in May, incoming CEO Sima Sistani took a long hard look at her new company and declared :

Twenty years in digital community building have taught me that nothing compares to IRL - in real life.

WeightWatchers attempts to go from being what Sistani calls “the original social network”, albeit one that centered around meeting rooms and church halls, to a digital leader in connected health have been, to say the least, something of a bumpy ride. Dubious rebranding exercises aside, the firm has come off the back of the height of the COVID crisis into a world in which people are keen to meet face-to-face again.

Having spent the past 90 days on a deep dive into the company’s current position, Sistani has some more thoughts on how the necessary omni-channel balance can now be achieved. While the past few years were all about moving as much over to digital as possible, there’s now a need for a more measured approach and a reassessment of priorities:

WeightWatchers of the past was a true phenomenon, a movement even. That pride and excitement for being a member was not for our science-backed number one, doctor recommended weight loss program, which it is, but rather because of the positive, empathetic community and coaching that brought the program to life.

The move to digital has been successful and 80% of the members now access WeightWatchers via a mobile first experience, but not enough attention has been paid to bringing what we do best in our workshops to the digital experience. That's what our product team is focused on delivering and where I am committed to fixing. It will take time to evolve, but I anticipate many wins along the way.

Digital discarded

Earlier this year, the firm canned its Digital 360 offering. Now there are more casualties of the new regime, most notably the Kurbo coaching program for kids and, perhaps more surprisingly, the Wellness Wins rewards scheme. Sistani explains:

We have evaluated the effectiveness of our in-app rewards program and made the decision to phase out WellnessWins. After years of building sticky gaming and social experiences, I'm confident that our path forward for driving better activation and engagement rest in native features meant to inspire and motivate. This is a muscle we will be flexing between our product and behavior science teams for our members to achieve better outcomes. In short, our team gained a lot of ground in the quarter, and it's because we are now committed to instilling a company culture, a bias to action, data informed decision-making and evergreen innovation. We are leveraging our data to identify and then encourage the behaviors that correlate with member success.

Another scheme for the chop is the PersonalPoints program, only introduced earlier this year, but which the data analytics says hasn’t worked:

We have been digging deeper to diagnose why PersonalPoints did not resonate with consumers and lagged behind our recent innovations. There are elements of PersonalPoints that move the science forward, such as the ability to deliver a program for members living with diabetes and a new point’s algorithm that incorporates the latest in nutritional science, including advances in fiber, healthy fats and added sugar.

The good news is that the science and the efficacy of PersonalPoints isn't a challenge. The challenge is that we added complexity to the experience when consumers were begging for simplicity. We launched PersonalPoints saying that no two people are alike, so no two plans are alike. But I believe White Watchers' super power has always been its ability to unite people into a community and the data supports this point of view.

Underlying all this is a message from Sistani that 2022 is going to be a transitional year and one in which everything the company does is measured against data:

The weight loss journey is hard. It can be lonely. The easier we can make it for people to comprehend and connect, the better off they will be. We are critically evaluating and testing ways to update our program, combining the best elements validated by data and behavior science to deliver an improved program experience that is simple, effective and engaging. In addition to food program evolution, we remain focused on creating a new app experience. Our tech and product teams are executing on the road map with a future pipeline around our three pillars of coaching, accountability and community.

This is delivering results, she adds:

Since I joined, we've already shipped feature improvements such as predictive food tracking, optimized on-boarding, weight tracker improvements and coming soon, nutrition label scanning improvements. So individually, these updates may seem small. It represents how we're modernizing the app and increasing our development velocity and delivering those quick wins.

For instance, a single UI update in the purchase funnel led to double-digit growth in our workshop take rate. While we execute on the product road map, we are also taking actions to stabilize sign-up trends in the back half of the year, including investment into a fall marketing campaign, particularly as we see increased efficiencies in social media and search as an opportunity to be a lever in driving our business.

My take

One thing that’s really interesting about WWI’s current position is a recognition of the need to get back to basics. Sistani says:

I don't think we did ourselves any favors by moving away from a clear weight loss message, and we're going to be leading more unapologetically about weight loss. 

That means a shift away from the ill-advised rebranding exercise of a few years back, she confirms:

We're embracing WeightWatchers. It's an important part of our heritage and our legacy. WW is still our corporate name and it's there, it's our nickname, if you will. But WeightWatchers - you’ll see that much more prominently,

Overall it looks increasingly like WeightWatchers is an unfortunate exemplar of digital transformation hellbent in pursuit of modernity, rather than supporting existing business model needs.  Digital subscriptions were down 13% year-on-year by the end of the latest quarter.  A course correction is badly needed and that means getting the human element back into the omni-channel mix. As Sistani notes:

[Clients] coming for the weight loss, but they're staying there because of the belonging, because of the connection because people are supporting each other through their weight-loss journey. That's the part that I'm saying is missing from digital. Digital ends up being a very lonely experience. And remember, we're coming out of two years of COVID, where people feel lonelier than ever, and weight loss is an emotional problem. In order to solve it, you needed emotional solution that's only something that other humans can provide… I spent decades building sticky social and gaming experiences that do just that bring empathy to online experiences. So what I'm saying that we need to bring more of that magic online. I'm not saying it literally. I mean it figuratively that we can build better community. You come for the weight loss that you stay for the community.

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