How SoulCycle's instructors spin a smart social strategy

SoulCycle can seem less a brand, more a cult, only with Skrillex blaring.

With 38 locations (and counting) and 50,000 riders a week, SoulCycle’s new age, hardcore brand of fitness has a lot to do with its success. But it’s not just loyal customers that wax poetic about SoulCycle’s benefits that the brand has to thank — it’s its equally loyal army of instructors, who, thanks to a robust social media marketing strategy, double up as really good brand managers.

“Since our launch, it’s all been about how do we build a community and how do we cultivate a community,” said Gabby Etrog Cohen, vp, public relations and brand strategy at SoulCycle. “And we want to make people feel that community digitally.”

SoulCycle instructors are mini-celebrities, followed on social media by avid fans, who switch studios for them and think of them as more akin to life coaches and role models. Jenna Garofolo, who has been SoulCycling for two years, said the studios will really get you attached to favorite instructors. She follows her favorite, Akin Akman (also model Karlie Kloss’s favorite), religiously on Instagram and Twitter. Akman is so huge he has his own fan club, @AkinsArmy. “He has his own brand separate from SoulCycle,” said Garofolo. “When you go to their classes, you want to know more about them. So you look them up.”

SoulCycle embraces this social media fandom, although it is curiously controlling of them. (SoulCycle refused to make any instructors available for discussion and admonished me for directly contacting them via Twitter.) Instructors get their own page on the official SoulCycle site, which features two menus — one showing the recent music they are listening to; the other, their social feed, featuring Instagram, Twitter and Facebook posts. “Hot” instructors — the popular Charlee Atkins (over 4,000 Instagram followers) or Stacey Griffith (7,000 Instagram followers) — get hundreds of likes and comments on social media, with diehard riders telling them how much they love them and how “soul” has changed their lives. The main SoulCycle account will often retweet instructors’ tweets.

Instructors use their social media accounts in many ways — to update people on schedules and classes, to post pictures of their incredibly fit bodies, or just to share bits of their lives with them. The mothership encourages it, said Etrog Cohen. “Of course we help our instructors on social media,” she told Digiday. “We don’t want to create transactional relationships. People want to get to know them.” Using instructors as brand ambassadors also works well with SoulCycle’s larger marketing strategy, which has almost entirely relied on word-of-mouth. Instructors, however, aren’t explicitly told they need to have a social media presence — but it’s definitely “encouraged.” 

SIPPIN’ on SUPERB SMOOTHIES on SUNNY SUNDAYS at SALUD in-between SOULCYCLE! Come hang @saludnyc A photo posted by Mantas Zvinas (@mantaszvinas) on

The brand has found that mobile is an important way to connect with customers. Now, 50 percent of bookings happen on mobile, so, on Thursday, SoulCycle is finally releasing an app — a move that Etrog Cohen said was a long time coming, especially since competition to book the hottest instructors and the best studios is at an all-time high. For so long, riders have had to sit at their computers or pull up the site via mobile Web on Mondays to book classes before they sold out that the brand finally felt it was time. The brand also maintains an active presence on almost every social media platform.

Thomas Galgano, social marketing manager at Huge and himself a SoulCycle fanatic, said he’s been following his instructor, Mantas Zvinas, since he started cycling.

“The brand is set up so you know it’s a class, but it feels like a personal trainer,” he said. “There’s a personal relationship, they’re friendly, they’re your friends.” Galgano has gone to the same instructor since he started. (“I only cheated once!” he said.)

Image via Instagram/Matt Fraher