With new app, Facebook brings social insights to consumer health

Facebook (S FB) is wading into the health tech space. The social network announced Tuesday that it is partnering with GE (s GE) to launch a health app called HealthyShare that lets people add health and fitness goals to their timelines so that friends can help them follow through.

Launched to coincide with the London 2012 Olympics, the app includes a range of fitness and diet challenges, as well as workouts sponsored by Olympians Michael Johnson and Summer Sanders and Olympic hopefuls Kevin Durant and Alex Morgan.

Using the Olympics as a social catalyst, Linda Boff, executive director of global digital marketing of GE, said, “It’s a platform that helps people get motivated and lean into better health.”

For GE, which makes a range of health tech products, including MRIs and CT scanners, and Facebook, which counts nearly a billion people among its users, the partnership makes sense.  Aside from the PR value the app gets them ahead of the London Games this summer, both companies have an interest in consumer health. Through its Healthymagination campaign, GE already funds health research and offers workplace and consumer engagement programs. Earlier this year, Facebook announced a program that lets people share their organ donation status with their social networks.

As the popularity of health apps and fitness trackers such as MapMyRun and Nike’s Fuel band have shown, this is an area in which consumers are willing to spend their time and money. It’s also an area that’s attracting more and more attention from entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. In New York, for example, two health tech incubators, StartUp Health and Blueprint Health, announced their first classes of graduates in the past six months. Facebook and GE would do well to tap into the momentum that’s already underway.

Facebook users can already share their fitness goals and milestones with friends through various apps and trackers. And some Facebook users look to Facebook friends to keep them stick to diet programs. But Kevin Knight, who works in creative strategy for Facebook, said the HealthyShare app bakes in social insights from Facebook researchers and internal anthropologists to make it more effective. For example, he said, the app rewards users with points for both doing an activity and liking a friend’s activity because research shows people are more likely to succeed when they build off each other’s successes. The app also prominently displays all the friends who have joined the app, as well as their activities, to give members more “social proof” to keep them motivated. (That’s the same basic principle behind sponsored stories and other marketing efforts on Facebook.)

Given Facebook and GE’s obvious technical and engineering muscle (not to mention corporate bank accounts), I was surprised that the app doesn’t include any “quantified self”-type features that would let people track their progress in a data-driven way. People can share information from Runkeeper or Nike’s Fuel band, but there’s no plug in, so it’s not automatic. I was also surprised that the app doesn’t include incentive features (beyond social incentives) like those from startups DailyFeats and EveryMove, which give consumers real-life rewards for accomplishing health goals.

But Boff said the companies’ interest in health is “long-term” and that this app is just the beginning.

“[The app] was launched with maximum accessibility in mind,” she said, adding that it’s just “step one.”