New technologies allow users to do things like racing their real bikes against other real people in a virtual world. In fact, a new study outlines what motivates people to use these online platforms. The findings offer insights for future iterations of these technologies—and how to market them.

At issue are “mixed-reality sports“: augmented reality platforms that incorporate virtual, online elements and real-world athletic endeavours.

For example, Zwift is a platform that allows users to ride their real bicycles, but transfers their efforts to a virtual space depicting real-world courses, giving them the ability to race against other cyclists who are not physically present. Bill Rand, a co-author of the paper and an associate professor of marketing in North Carolina State University’s Poole College of Management, commented:

“We know that mixed-reality sports are attracting a lot of users. We want to know what benefits people see in these technologies. What about risks? And how do those risks and benefits affect their actual use? This matters because once we understand why people are using, or not using, these technologies, we can figure out how to make the technologies appealing for users—and also how to market them more effectively.”

For this study, the researchers conducted a survey of 284 Zwift users in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The survey collected data on each study participant’s background, their motivations for using Zwift, any concerns they had about the platform, and the extent to which they felt they would continue using Zwift in the future. The researchers were then able to review each study participant’s use of Zwift for 30 days after taking the survey. The study design allowed the researchers to identify any relationships between a study participant’s motivations, perceived risks, their expectations for using Zwift, and their actual use of Zwift. One of the things researchers found surprising was that users were simply not motivated by competing against other users within the game environment itself. Rand also commented:

“The Zwift platform is designed specifically to enable competition, either informally amongst friends, or informal races involving many competitors. However, we found that even the people who take part in the formal races are not strongly motivated by these in-game contests.”

Instead, researchers found that four other drivers were associated with Zwift use: health consciousness; using Zwift to train for real-world competitions; socializing with others; and the ability to customize and upgrade their gaming experience by modifying their jerseys, “earning” access to new bike styles, and so on. According to Daniel Westmattelmann, corresponding author of the paper, an assistant professor of sports management at the University of Münster and a former professional cyclist:

“To provide a more profound explanation of the quantitative results, we also conducted 14 interviews with platform users. It was fascinating to see that even elite athletes who have won Tour de France stages, for example, are strongly motivated to use the platform more intensively because of customizing or socializing elements.”

The researchers also found those study participants who had privacy concerns about Zwift engaged with the platform less frequently.

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