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berlin marathonHere’s a good example of how going free can boost a mobile startup’s profile. RunKeeper Pro, a popular fitness app that normally costs $9.99, announced its first free promotion yesterday and saw a huge spike in downloads — this morning it climbed to number six on the Apple App Store charts, passing the “lite” version of iPhone game sensation Angry Birds.

RunKeeper was created by Boston startup FitnessKeeper. Runners can use it to track their distance, time, pace, and more. The app wasn’t exactly obscure before this — high-profile promotions include a partnership with location check-in app Foursquare as well as chief executive Jason Jacobs’ decision to run the Boston Marathon dressed as an iPhone. Jacobs said RunKeeper Pro was downloaded 171,000 times yesterday, more than 10 times what’s normal.

The free promotion strategy is a common one. The goal is to get your app into the top-selling lists of the App Store, where the increased visibility will keep the downloads coming. In RunKeeper’s case, Jacobs said this was a good time for the promotion because people are feeling motivated around New Year’s to get fit.

But how is FitnessKeeper going to make money from all these free downloads? Jacobs told me:

For where we are now, the most important thing for us heading into 2011 is building a big, engaged community that is actively using RunKeeper to help achieve their fitness goals. We do plan to monetize along the way, but our biggest objective is building a large, engaged userbase that is getting great results. The bigger and more engaged that userbase is, the more possibilities there will be down the road to monetize in interesting ways that bring even more value to these users.

RunKeeper will be free until the end of January. You can find links to download the iPhone and Android versions here.

FitnessKeeper has raised about $1.5 million in funding from O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, Launch Capital, and others.

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