Weight Watchers digital transformation initiative has had its ups and downs, but CEO John Chambers is upbeat about getting the message across to clients and prospects going forward.

Source: Weight Watchers counts the progress on digital transformation – diginomica

One of the most read digital transformation use cases covered on diginomica last year was that of Weight Watchers. It’s a story of an organisation that has turned to digital in order to re-invent a business model dating back to 1963 when it was an innovator, but which in recent years had seen members turning away in their thousands.

That re-invention has meant investment in online programs and meetings, mobile apps to track performance and a hefty social media marketing presence, topped off by the global brand presence of Oprah Winfrey.

That hasn’t always gone entirely smoothly.

Online subscriptions fell more than 20% between the beginning of 2013 and early the tail end of 2015, from 1.87 million to 1.47 million. Meanwhile a major app upgrade over the Thanksgiving weekend last year was crippled by glitches that left users unable to log in just as they were confronted by the most calorific meal of the year!

This was in turn the prelude to the launch of a new point system, SmartPoints, which calculates weekly point allotments based on metabolic rate, height, and weight. That was bad timing to say the least.

But things appear to be getting back on track. The firm this week announced that it’s now got 1.7 million subscribers, up 4% over the past three months. That’s out of a total of 2.9 million subscribers worldwide and enough to allow CEO James Chambers to argue that the tech investment is paying off:

We’ve been going through a very significant technology transformation. And at the same time, we introduced an entirely new consumer platform back in January.

We’ve been probably moving very, very quickly to implement changes and put in a new innovation model, and have been really gaining ground and improving our digital products. But we did start with a fair amount of tech debt, and a fairly average experience to build off of.

So, between things like a different site look and feel and navigation, enhanced features like Connect, our journey tab with personalized messaging about how people are going through their journey and giving them badges and cues and little prompts to encourage them. We’ve really done a quick and I think strong job to improve that product.

It’s not a done deal yet though, he admits:

We do have a ways to go. We see a lot more upside in the fundamental strategy of bringing all of what we know, and all of what we do in the meetings business into our digital platform in support of both meetings members and between meetings as well as digital-only subscribers. I think that’s the differences between the two businesses – lot of priority around meetings and driving some real significant enhancements;  similar, on the online side, but still more work to do.

But there has been progress across 2016, adds Chambers:

In December of 2015, we launched our new holistic consumer program, Beyond the Scale, into all of our major markets. Beyond the Scale includes SmartPoints, our new food plan, as well as a more integrated role for fitness, increased personalization, and a focus on motivational strength and positive mindset, all of which were derived from our consumer insights work and delivered via our new innovation model.

Since the launch of the new program in December, we have added a number of new features and enhancements, including offering new members orientation calls with our coaches, incorporating motivational messages, and adding personalized achievement screens in our app, when members reach progress and behavioral milestones. Looking ahead, this continuous innovation will add enhancements and features to the Beyond the Scale platform that can further drive member engagement and growth.

We continue to see strong member engagement measured by usage of our mobile tools and attendance at weekly meetings. Connect, the social media platform embedded in our app has created a more powerful, more connected social experience, where members get encouragement, positive affirmation and inspiration. Connect is a clear example of our strategy to strengthen and differentiate our experience by leveraging the power of the Weight Watchers community through technology.

Getting the message right

A key success criteria going forward now is getting the message out to existing and prospective clients. That’s going to mean invesmtent in marketing, of course, but it’s also about making sure the messaging is correct, says Chambers:

When you get the message right, whether it’s a promotion team or a digital ad, or a TV ad, when you get the theme correct, when you get the message correct you see a tremendous amount of response. That having been said, it’s a pretty tricky category to consistently deliver the right kinds of messages. So we do have routinely things that work better than others as you might expect and we had a couple of themes here that weren’t as strong.

We have begun to do our message development, our creative execution process, in a very different fashion, on much more of a global collaborative basis, pooling the insights, and learnings and execution paths from all of our markets and building things more collectively. [That’s] not to say that the output will be exactly the same in every market, but we’re taking full advantage of the experiences and the talent we have around the globe to drive for a higher degree of consistency, and the impact of our marketing message is a critical priority.

A key part of that messaging will, of course, be built around Oprah, an aspect that has enjoyed mixed fortunes to date. When the TV star took a 10% stake in Weight Watchers, the market was ecstatic. But that early enthusiasm hasn’t entirely translated into long-term results. But Chambers remains a fan:

Our partnership with Oprah Winfrey has accelerated our transformation by amplifying the impact of our new Beyond the Scale program. For example, the now famous Bread ad telegraphed to audiences that the new Weight Watchers food plan is liveable, not restrictive, and still delivers weight loss. Consumers felt Oprah’s joy and connected with her, and with Weight Watchers.

Going forward, I believe for the Oprah Winfrey Weight Watchers partnership, the best is yet to come. From our earliest conversations with Oprah, our strategic priority has been on maximizing our potential for winter 2017 and beyond. As you recall, we featured Oprah in our2016 winter season marketing efforts, as she invited consumers to join her in her Weight Watchers journey and shared her early experience with SmartPoints.

Since then, our joint strategy is to focus Oprah’s efforts on internal member engagement, examples of which include our Better Together referral program and Sweepstakes, meeting drop-in, and member conference calls. We believe this strategy will allow us to maximize her marketing potential for the upcoming winter season 2017.

My take

Tracking Weight Watchers digital transformation is a long game and one that highlights both the benefits and the bumps in the road of such investment. So far in 2016, there have more encouraging signs of progress than in 2015, but there’s a long way to go yet


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