IQ News: Cool Tool – Cyber Sweat

Netpulse finds a captive audience for its in-gym Internet service.
Giving new meaning to the term “captive audience,” San Francisco-based Netpulse allows users to access most of the Internet’s major features while working out.
The company provides equipment that attaches to exercise machines such as treadmills and stair steppers. A laptop-sized monitor is positioned in front of the user (for example, on a stationary bicycle’s handlebars), with the CPU behind it in the same box or lower on the machine.
Gym rats can get in touch with their “Inner Geek” by touching buttons on the screen to access various features and using a simulated keyboard on the screen. They can e-mail, surf the Net, shop on sites where they have established accounts or watch TV.
“We all know exercise is good for you, but it can be boring and seem like a waste of time,” says Jeffrey Cahn, senior vp of marketing and co-founder of Netpulse. “We wanted to provide something to be more productive and help the time go by.” So Cahn and his partners, who all worked at high-tech firms in Silicon Valley and were tired of being bored on the treadmill, went to work to develop an alternative.
They designed a system that would be easy for exercisers to use. To access the system, users press a large yellow button on the purple logon screen. The main screen is flanked by two vertical rows of buttons that take the user to e-mail, the simulated keyboard and other destinations.
It’s a simple interface, but there is a drawback: It’s just about impossible to type normally on the simulated keyboard, since it’s across from the user’s hands, not below them, making e-mail a hunt-and-peck affair.
Overall, though, the company successfully addresses the exerciser’s perennial problem of the boredom factor. Netpulse capitalizes on the “laundromat syndrome”: For the duration of the activity–in this case, an exercise workout–the subject essentially can’t leave and is eager for distraction.
“Our research shows that people use Netpulse for three main reasons. First, entertainment. They surf the Web or watch TV. They just want to zone out and let their minds wander,” Cahn says.
The second reason is motivation. It’s possible to track one’s progress as to duration, intensity and other elements of the workout using a Netpulse program.
Finally, people gravitate toward Netpulse to help increase their productivity, Cahn says. “Many people use the Net for research. By doing this while working out, they can accomplish something in addition to getting fitter. A worker can leave the office an hour early and spend that time on the gym treadmill answering e-mail,” says Cahn. “We say it adds a 25th hour to your day.”
The people who use Netpulse are an appealing group for advertisers. There’s a 50-50 gender balance, Cahn claims, and the audience is upscale, with high income and educational levels. These user demographics have helped Netpulse attract advertisers and sponsors. The company’s revenue model is a mix of banner ads, interstitials, rich media and sponsorships. The ads appear in the Netpulse banner that is always visible at the bottom of the screen, even when the exerciser is watching TV.
“It’s a sponsored medium we provide free to the exercise clubs and their members,” says Cahn. “It’s a broadband platform. We put a DSL line in every club; where DSL is not available, a T1.” This means advertisers are guaranteed that if they choose to run a rich-media ad, it will appear in broadband on every terminal on the Netpulse network.
Because the machines are in gyms, not people’s homes, Netpulse exists “in a retail environment. We can offer sampling opportunities in the club,” Cahn says. “For example, we had a promotion with Powerbar where we ran their ads. We’d have the trainers keep an eye on people using Netpulse, and when they’d get off the machine the trainer would offer them a Powerbar.”
Sounds great, but does all this do anything for the notoriously moribund clickthrough rate on banner ads? Partially because of the “captive audience” syndrome, Cahn says the answer is yes. “A major sponsor, iVillage, says we are one of their top three media buys for performance and clickthrough.” Other sponsors include WebMD, Webvan and HealthCentral. Partners include Chicago-based Bally, which operates more than 370 fitness centers in North America.
Gym managers say Netpulse is well-received by their clients. Heather Hopson, operations manager of the Seattle Athletic Club, says, “They like to surf, watch TV, and listen to CDs.” Though some people are a bit tentative about the technology, “the interest is there,” Hopson says. “It’s still fairly new. But it’s on its way.”