I spent a lot of 2021 obsessed with one of the nation’s weirdest media mysteries: Who, exactly, was behind the Washington Post‘s Peloton account? Surprised riders were tweeting about a 143-year-old newspaper delivering a “high five” after a ride, but when I asked the Post about the project, it declined to comment or tell me who was behind the account. Months went by, and as one Post employee after another told me they knew who the Peloton maestro was but wouldn’t snitch, my bewilderment ballooned. Not only is its newsroom not particularly good at keeping secrets, but the Post has other audience-building initiatives whose purpose is not immediately obvious. Surely, I figured, someone would eventually narc.
Last month, that day finally arrived. The person I’d sought lo these many months was Ryan Kellett, the Post‘s then outgoing senior director of audience. (He’s since moved over to Axios.) Last week, Kellett finally gave me the debrief I’d been pining for since spring.
Washingtonian: Ryan. Do you actually own a Peloton bike?
Ryan Kellett: Yes. I bought a used bike during the pandemic. But I got started originally because there are bikes in the building at the Post. The gym is not sponsored by the Post, but by the building. And one day I walked by, and I was like, Hey, that’s a really popular thing that people do. Why don’t I just hop on one of these gym bikes?
When was that?
Maybe spring 2019.
Did you immediately start riding as the Washington Post?
I started under my own name. But sometime while I was actually still in person at the Post, I started riding under the Post name.
Was this an official project?
I’m in the unique position, or was in the unique position at the Post in that I oversaw our social accounts and all of our social platforms. The team has a long history, and I think you’ve written a little bit about this as well, of, you know, spinning up new things, and trying new types of accounts and different platforms. The big difference is that’s usually my team and not me. So when we try something new, like, Twitter Spaces came along, or Clubhouse, or whatever, I’ll be like, you go try this thing out, and report back. I looked at this one and said, Who, other than me would do this?
What made you think this was something the Post should look into?
Unfortunately, my brain is just wired in a way that I look at it as, How do we continue to support the brand of the Washington Post? And how do we bring in new subscribers and attract new audiences? So as an experiment, I look at it as a social platform. It very, very simple, there’s only two things you can do as a social platform: Number one, follow someone or be followed by someone. And then the second mechanism is a “high five.” When you’re riding, you can, if you tap the photo of someone’s leaderboard name, it has a digital image of a hand. You high five them and they can high five you back, because they get a little notification while they’re riding.
So the people who got high fives from the Post were people you rode with virtually?
Yes. I was usually riding in the morning right before work. I would have usually chosen a live ride, like a 20- or 30-minute live ride. And, you know, it would be those couple hundred or thousand, you know, thousand-ish people who might have been in contention. I don’t think you can actually high five a thousand people in a ride, you can’t actually tap the button fast enough to do that.
How did you decide who got a high five?
Oh, totally, totally random. You can split up the demographics. But I didn’t use that because the Washington Post shouldn’t be only high-fiving certain demographics, that sounds a little weird.
Indeed! So what is the value to the Post of this project?
As simple as it was, I looked at it and I had two thoughts. My first was, I was really interested in the fact that there’s this huge cult following of people who really love Peloton, that it inspires a passionate community of people. Any community of people on the internet is interesting to me as an audience person. I want to know what’s behind that. What drives their loyalty? You know, obviously, we would want people to have equally high loyalty to the Post. Is there a way to piggyback on some of that loyalty? Peloton reaches people when they are feeling really good and positive. That felt pretty interesting to me because news is not always the most positive thing.
If you read articles about Peloton, they’re really a personalities-focused community. There are different instructors; they each have their own kind of hook. I’ve always been interested at the Post to try to build up specific personalities, and you have different audiences hook on to different people. And so I don’t think we ever took that as far as, Hey, I’m gonna get Jonathan Capehart on the Peloton bike and you can high five Jonathan Capehart. That would be one way to go about this. But that’s not really what ended up kind of being interesting to me.
The second thing is fairly simple, which is that Peloton users are already familiar with subscriptions, they pay a lot of money to have a bike and or the app. They’re people familiar with paying for content in some way. And so from an audience point of view, I’m very interested because we also sell subscriptions. And we also really want to tap into people who, who kind of get value from that, from that ongoing content for lack of a better word.
Did you take away anything that you thought the Post could use?
Yeah, the personalities thing is that is probably one of the top pieces of that. Michelle Jaconi, we announced before I left that she was taking on a new personalities role. We were very interested in studying that space. The greatest engagement I found with the Washington Post and high fives came around live rides. Just the number of people who aggregated together to do something all at once and engage all in it in a single time. Oftentimes, a lot of our conversation is how do we make something last forever and try to repurpose it in 10,000 different ways. Peloton found a particular way to think about what it is to have a kind of live moment, and what kind of additional things you could add to that in order to make it feel special. Given how events and other things work at work in media today, I think it’s interesting to make something special only for people who show up and do it live.
Are there other companies that do stuff like this? I could see it getting to be a little bit weird if, say, Lysol high fives you after a ride.
Peloton controls their experience to a really high degree. They really curate and limit what you can do.
Did the Post have any kind of official relationship with Peloton?
So this was total guerrilla stuff from you.[Laughs.] Yes, that is part of it. It is often helpful to hear from the company itself. Reddit was a great example: the Post was talking to Reddit before launching our Reddit account. It’s not always that you’re doing it without the company’s knowledge. You can encourage the company to make things a little bit more media-friendly, because a lot of times social networks don’t want to engage with news partners in in certain ways. It’s been a couple years since there’s been a major social media platform that’s emerged, besides TikTok, of course.
Right. Which the Post has knocked out of the park.
Yeah, I think Dave’s done a great job. In many ways, the Peloton thesis was the exact opposite of the “Dave and TikTok” thesis. That strategy was what I call the Gene Park strategy, which is to have a specific name and face associated with with the brand. Whereas if there were a specific name and human associated with the Peloton account, it’s actually less fun. That’s another thing we think about: What makes sense for the actual platform that you’re on?
Is that why your identity was such a closely guarded secret?
I was not guarding it super-secretly. In fact, there’s a there’s a Peloton channel, a Slack channel, which I was a light participant in. But as you tweeted about it, that Slack channel really picked it up as their duty to defend to me, even though I didn’t ask for that at all. They really wanted it to be a secret.
So did Post management, or at least the PR department. How did the brass view this experiment?
I never did a presentation on Peloton. A lot of our other accounts, we periodically will gather up all the data and say, Hey, this is what we’ve learned thus far. We’re generally pretty data-centric. This is not one that ever got to that point. So there was never the opportunity for Marty Baron or Sally or someone to say, Hey, you know, this, this is such great data, we need to be doing more or less, or whatever it is. But in casual conversation, it’s on the list of things that we were doing, like, I think it was a little bit of a novelty.
Are you riding under your own name now that you’ve left the Post?
A version of my own name. I have no followers. I haven’t high-fived anyone in the last couple of weeks, mostly because I feel very tired of high-fiving people riding completely anonymously.
Do you plan an Axios Peloton account?
I don’t think that’s at the top of the list of my many priorities when I arrive. But you never know.