If you’re a marketer trying to talk to health and fitness enthusiasts, you’ve likely noticed by now that fitness has gone social in a big way. The latest fitness apps and gadgets are making use of social networking to get their users talking about and invested in their fitness activities.

So just how have these companies tapped into the power of social — and what lessons can you learn from their social success? To find out, we talked to three socially-savvy fitness companies — Fitocracy, RunKeeper, and Jawbone — about how their users have embraced social.

How Social Fits In to Fitness

“The social features of Fitocracy are the heart and soul of the entire experience,” explains Brian Wang, co-founder and CEO of Fitocracy, which runs a fitness-tracking app and a website by the same name. “A lot of people miss out on a very important point about achieving successful outcomes when it comes to health and fitness, which is people need to be in the right environment. They need to be surrounded by the right people, the right discussions, the right culture to help them rethink the way they approach their own health and fitness”, says Wang. “So social with Fitocracy is incredibly important, because users rely on others to give them the sort of support that they need or feedback that they need as they’re moving along their fitness journeys.”

The idea of going on a fitness journey with the help of a social app may seem grandiose, but social motivation has become a core component in many fitness apps. These apps aren’t just jumping on the social bandwagon because it’s trendy, but because it works. Users that take advantage of social features are more likely to stick with fitness programs and meet their goals.

“In the early months of RunKeeper we made it possible for people to post their runs to Facebook and Twitter,” says Erin Glabets, Content Manager for run-tracking app RunKeeper. “We’ve found that people were getting encouragement from friends — sometimes some heckling — but people who were active on social channels also had better engagement with the app. People who have at least one friend in the RunKeeper app are three times more active than people who don’t have any friends.”

That’s not the only benefit RunKeeper sees in social activity. Users who connect their RunKeeper accounts to Facebook are 70% more likely to go out for their first run, users who share activities are 40% more likely to keep using the app, and users who post regularly to Facebook average 150% more activities than users who don’t.

Jawbone, maker of the UP activity tracker, has also seen increased engagement from their more social users. “We find that UP users that have teammates [friends] work out 20% more and walk 10 more miles per month than UP users without teammates,” says Brad Kittredge, Director of Product Management for UP at Jawbone. “Your social connections have a huge impact on your behaviors. We’re trying to harness the positive effect that social relationships can have in encouraging and motivating you to achieve and sustain the lifestyle you want.”

Using Social as Motivation for Healthy Behavior

Staying in shape is a goal many people have — but not all succeed at it. Motivating users to stick to health habits is what these social fitness apps do best. “The moment you step outside the gym and you’re done with your workout, for most people, they forget about it,” says Wang. “They don’t wonder ‘Am I doing better?’ or ‘Am I progressing?’ With Fitocracy, people will bring you back to that moment. They’re going to ask you questions or say something about it and then your mind is back to thinking about it.”

Wang adds that this social interaction around getting fit is vital for success. “You’re now engaging in discussions where you’re thinking about your health and fitness, thinking about how you’re exercising, thinking about your diet. There’s this kind of social grasp — you have in the back of your mind that friends expect you to stay active and want to see how you’re doing. You don’t want to let them down — you don’t want to have them see you fail.”

Erin Glabets echoes this sentiment about social interaction and fitness. “People are motivated by what their friends say and think about their workouts,” she says. To get that social grasp going, the RunKeeper app makes a special effort to highlight achievements that are worth bragging about, like if you’ve done a longer run than usual or run faster than usual. This info is automatically shared to your circle of friends so runners can get social encouragement to keep at it.

Why Fitness Needs a Special Social Channel

You’ll notice that we’ve talked about social networks within these fitness apps more so than the apps sharing to outside social networks. That’s because all of these apps have found they get the best social results when they’re working with a fitness-focused community. “We’ve found with many of our users, they’re in situations where their friends on Facebook don’t care too much about health and fitness,” explains Wang, “so it’s not an appropriate venue or platform to talk about that stuff.”

“We have noticed sometimes people will comment that sharing from other apps can feel spammy if it’s just tossed into a general social network setting alongside other life updates,” says Glabets. “But we’ve seen the benefits of really focusing on social in the app with people who are doing the same activities, who care if your mileage today is really a jump from your mileage last week, and that can really relate to those things and can encourage you. It’s really putting together people of like-minded interests who are pursuing the same things in fitness.”

“Facebook doesn’t serve all of our needs,” Wang continues. “It’s a very catch-all environment and as a result there’s a ton of noise. So I think there’s space out there for vertical social networks that focus on particular social areas that will touch on people’s lives and interests in a way that Facebook or Twitter cannot.”

But this doesn’t mean that the health-conscious audience that you’re looking to reach isn’t on Facebook. Because they’re so socially motivated, they’re more likely to be on social networks. All your brand has to do is be there and talk to them in a tone that fits with other activities they’re involved with.

What do you think about posting fitness updates to Facebook and Twitter? Share your thoughts in the comments.