AT A MINIMUM, a simple and functional online presence is a strong marketing tool, and is expected by members and prospective members alike. "The most important part of any website project is for both the club and the designer to have the same vision of the purpose of the site," says Keith Trawick of Intrannuity, the interactive design agency behind New York Health & Racquet Club's (NYHRC) website at www.nyhrc.com. This requires designers to have a clear idea of the brand and the other ongoing marketing efforts of the fitness center or chain. As a result, a successful site launch benefits from several hours of pre-design conversation, followed by further discussion during the revision and testing phase.
What Web Companies Can Do
Apollo Interactive (www.apollointeractive.com) was asked to perform an assessment for Curves for Women's website and online marketing programs. Apollo is an interactive advertising agency, which means it works exclusively with the Internet as an advertising medium rather than print, television or radio. "We identified that their website at the time could be greatly improved to better reflect the brand and their highly effective television advertising campaign," says David Bohline, Apollo's chief operating officer. Apollo worked closely with Curves and its traditional agency to establish goals, requirements, benchmarks and measurements for the success of the site. "Consultation played a large role in planning the best possible online experience for members and potential members," says Bohline.
Some fitness centers look to take advantage of template website design options. HealthClubSites (www.healthclubsites.com) is a turnkey website solution for health and fitness business owners. "We have created a web-based system that allows the club owner the ability to create a full featured website, complete with content, in less than 10 minutes," says Glenn Steers, president of HealthClubSites. After the set-up process is completed, the facility can edit text, upload photos and add class schedules. The HealthClubSites website management system also includes an email management module, lead collection tool, online calendar, schedules, and a host of other website and marketing tools.
HealthClubSites is currently the preferred vendor for a number of fitness franchises, including Lady of America Corp. (www.ladyofamerica.com) and Slender Lady Corp. (www.slenderlady.com). It is currently being used by more than 500 health and fitness facilities worldwide. Some other fitness centers include Nevada Fitness Clubs (www.nevadafitness.com) and Nautilus Fitness & Racquet Club (www.nautilusfitness.com).
Steers says the company offers unlimited free website consultation to its clients. "Our system is ... easily managed, so we have a very low incident of customer support inquiries," he says. HealthClubSites also offers free marketing and usage consultation to customers.
While FitDV doesn't design websites, it provides content with its Online Magazine and Marketing Toolkit to more than 1,000 fitness center websites around the globe, according to President Shawn Vint. "For many that approach us and know they need a website in order to utilize our content, I'm always quick to advise a template," says Vint. "They are quick, easy, inexpensive, and they allow you to 'plug in' the tools you'll need to make your site functional, educational and profitable."
The first step at MembersFirst, provider of interactive websites, Member Relationship Management (MRM) software and outsourced Communication Management Services, is the discovery meeting to identify a fitness center's needs, which it has done for its more than 500 clients throughout the United States. The company's flagship MRM software product is an integrated application comprised of a suite of tools that enable the development and management of interactive websites and online communications.
Once the information from the discovery meeting has been collected and analyzed, MembersFirst then facilitates a review meeting to discuss ways it can help. It assigns a project management team to each fitness center, who is responsible for the complete delivery of the website, from the initial discovery meeting through implementation and beyond.
MembersFirst offers a support structure both online and via live technical assistance. This support includes initial training on the product, access to its Learning Center, a reference library of tools and best practices, free monthly webinars and educational newsletters. "For both the club to be successful as well as MembersFirst, consultation, education and support never truly ends," says Pete Diffendal, vice president of marketing.
Consultation between agency and fitness center can help to crystallize the desired objectives for the online presence. "One of the major drawbacks to creating an online presence is knowing what your website is supposed to accomplish, and also understanding what it clearly cannot do," says Steers of HealthClubSites. When instructing fitness center managers about an effective website, he says there are two fundamental objectives that need to be achieved by their website: getting members and keeping them. With those primary objectives in mind, a facility manager can then decide what information to place on the website.
Intrannuity typically advises its clients to be aware of three main objectives: new member sales, providing information to existing customers and providing services that allow customers to perform certain tasks. Trawick says each objective entails different information needs. For instance, the website should lead prospects through a tour -- designed to motivate a prospect to action -- while existing members need quick access to information like hours, phone numbers and class schedules. "Historically, the missing part has been the ability to provide tools that actually allow members to 'self-service' in real time," Trawick says. Self-service is critical for things like reviewing account balances/making payments, purchasing additional services or reviewing usage history. "Customers are now demanding 24/7 access to information, and clubs should do a much better job at meeting these requirements," says Trawick.
But in addition to the club services, Vint of FitDV stresses the importance the website plays in educating, informing and motivating members, and you can do this through content. "Without regularly updated content, none of these objectives can or will be met," says Vint. "If your site only tells members your hours, location and a little about your services, regardless of 'the look,' you will accomplish none of your objectives."
Trawick also recommends that fitness centers be cognizant of their overall marketing strategy when developing their websites: "A web presence must support and reinforce the larger marketing effort." He adds that this is especially the case in small or secondary markets, where a web-only effort cannot be relied on to drum up sufficient business.
With Apollo, driving new members and retaining existing ones are two core objectives, in addition to differentiating its client from the rest of the health and fitness world. "We are accomplishing ... these objectives through a public website, a members-only site and an online advertising lead acquisition campaign," says Bohline.
Such objectives are essential to a worthwhile web presence. However, Bohline says there are not must-have features, but instead, "must-have" execution. This entails identifying goals, requirements and measurements for success before beginning to develop a website. Also, you must ensure that the architecture and engineering are designed with the end user in mind, and that the design is appropriate for the audience. Content should also be created for the Internet medium, he says.
There are features that most fitness sites share in common. Steers of HealthClubSites says these include the following:
* Contact information page.
* Hours of operation.
* Programs and services offered (workout schedules).
* Facilities/equipment listing.
* Membership information and incentives.
* Contact or lead form.
"A club website should point out all of the services and features that the club wants to highlight within their facility," says Vint, and it should also "have quality content and fitness tools to bring both members and non-members alike to the site in the first place."
"Probably the best way to get members to visit your site often is to implement a 'Member of the Month' page," says Steers. Many fitness centers also offer a monthly contest, and the winner receives a page on the website with their bio and picture, plus free dinner passes (due to a partnership with a local restaurant), or other free products, possibly a free month of membership, a free personal training session (which could lead them to buy a package) or a free group exercise class (if you charge).
"An effective website must be informative and interactive to the members it serves," says Diffendal of MembersFirst. "What this requires is an application that permits two-way, interactive communications." For instance, MembersFirst's application enables interaction with facility personnel and members from any Internet-enabled browser. The facility can also offer news and announcements through email, newsletters and online bulletins; electronic surveys and discussion forums; class schedules; hours; staffing updates; customized email contact groups; monthly statements and reservations. Diffendal says that the adoption of a secure and private "Members Only" area can help to reinforce membership loyalty.
There is a clear requirement for a website to drive new membership sales. But, it is only one part of the buying process. "It's important to understand that you cannot 'close the deal' online," says Steers of HealthClubSites. "Your goal is to lead them to contact you either through phone, email or in person. It's after the prospect's initial contact that the sales effort begins -- never on your website."
HealthClubSites offers a "prospect pop-up" that collects prospects' full name, email and phone number on their first visit to the website. If they have pop-ups blocked, the contact page gives them an opportunity to inquire about the fitness center's services. Either of these tools records the information to the facility's contact database, and sends pre-programmed email "auto-responders" to the client and to the fitness center manager. Within the site's administration area, fitness staff can manage leads and send email blasts. A "free trial coupon" builder is also included.
Trawick of Intrannuity says a website can capture sales leads directly through a form where the prospect can request information. Furthermore, information can be obtained through offering certain tools -- for example, a Body Mass Index (BMI) calculator that requires some basic information to access, such as name and email address. Existing customers may also be prompted to refer other members when using specific tools.
At www.curves.com, the public website, sales leads are driven by encouraging users to find the Curves closest to them. There is an extensive franchisee database that provides phone numbers and addresses for each location. Searches and phone calls are tracked. At www.curvesinformation.com, the site serves as the "hard-core" lead acquisition micro site, and is tied into online advertising efforts. Also, banner ads drive users to the lead micro site, which is optimized to encourage users to fill out a form for a "free tour" or "complimentary fitness plan." Then, Curves' online advertising efforts are measured on a cost-per-acquisition goal.
Diffendal of MembersFirst says that some websites have the ability to capture sales leads via the following methods:
* SEO (search engine optimization) strategy (to get to the top of search lists).
* Capture prospective member profiles (request for information forms that feed directly into the fitness center's database).
* Deliver cost-effective promotional offers (electronic vs. traditional direct mail).
* Send email campaigns that match an individual's wants and needs.
* Add a virtual sales/marketing "person" to your team who is available 24/7 for prospects to experience the unique services your fitness center offers.
Once the website leads prospective members to your facility, it "allows a club to bring service into the sales presentation," adds Vint. "When you can point toward your website as an ongoing tool and resource to help them on this life-changing journey they're embarking on, it takes the emphasis away from price and focuses on your service and the ways in which your club will endeavor to assist them."
The ability for prospects to interact with a website, and for a fitness center to obtain insightful customer and prospect information, is a distinct advantage the Internet has over traditional marketing methods. "The Internet has transformed itself from simply a repository of information into a social network, allowing for enhanced data collection," says Diffendal. Unlike traditional marketing methods, the Internet allows businesses to easily and quickly collect important information about those who visit their sites or express interest in their products.
"Perhaps one of the most important benefits of an interactive website is the ability to collect, analyze and react to member feedback and insights," Diffendal says. He says websites offer fitness centers the ability to do the following:
* Request, document and match fitness center services directly to members' interests, according to their profiles.
* Test and market promotional offers to prospective and existing members.
* Track online email campaigns per member (open, unread, undeliverable, opt out).
* Locate members who are at risk (improve retention initiatives).
* Survey members via quick polls and/or standard-length surveys.
Feedback does not create itself. "You are not going to get feedback unless you ask for it and enable users to send it to you," says Bohline of Apollo Interactive. "But when you do, you can expect a lot of it." He says, though, to be mindful that the type of person who offers unsolicited feedback is not your normal customer. "A more effective way to solicit feedback is to provide a structured survey or series of questions."
Fitness center management can expect their gathered website intelligence to aid in the development of marketing strategies. "If properly done, a club should be able to understand the ratio of prospects versus existing members that are using the site," says Trawick. Management should understand how users move through the site, and what areas draw the most interest. They should also know the full range of technical options used, such as browsers and operating systems. This is critical, as many new web features do not work for older browsers. He adds that a fitness center should also have the ability to get feedback on their facilities and programs.
"If you are getting a large number of viewers every month, which you will with quality content," explains Vint, "it will give you, first of all, an indication of how many new leads you should generate from your website each month." Facilities, he says, should generate at least 15 to 20 leads per month per location. If not, the facility ought to reevaluate its website. "You should also be able to track where your viewers are going within your site," adds Vint. "This will tell you what your customers' wants, goals, needs and desires are, allowing you to better tailor your facility services to suit them." Also, Vint recommends using polls and surveys on facility sites.
Besides establishing clear objectives, driving sales and staying on top of site feedback and statistics, a fitness center needs to make plain who is going to handle the site's content. "Do not skip the design phase just because a slick-talking salesperson claims that their company can 'create a great site,'" says Trawick. The facility should drive the creative direction of the site. Trawick adds that a designer should also use standard tools when creating the site to enable a fitness center to move it easily, if necessary.
The role of the fitness center in managing and updating website content depends on the site's complexity, says Trawick. For example, Intrannuity provides real-time management capabilities for things like updating class schedules, facility information and event registration. Sophisticated fitness centers use these features so that updates do not require changes in programming and/or design. For more simple sites, information is usually updated through the design company on an as-needed basis. "Maintenance is the true 'hidden' cost of having a web presence," Trawick says.
Curves' internal marketing department works closely with Apollo's account services department to manage and update the site. However, Curves also has content management tools that enable the chain's non-technical staff to manage the most frequently updated content without agency support.
HealthClubSites' website management system is geared toward simplicity so that fitness centers can manage and update their websites themselves, at any time, without any prior programming experience. In addition, Steers says that a good communication system is needed. Someone needs to be responsive to emails or submission forms that are being sent daily. Your email auto-responders and online coupons need to be kept current so that the specials they advertise are still in effect. It's also advised to include a current and functional class schedule and calendar of events.
Diffendal says that, depending on the website provider, a fitness center may have the ability to update its website without any assistance, or outsource all the elements of member communications. MembersFirst offers two types of service: a self-serve model called Classic Service (Member Relationship Management software application); and two managed-service models, one called Preferred Service, the other Signature Service. "The Managed Service model was developed to address two trends that continue to plague the club market today: time and expertise," says Diffendal. Under the Preferred and
"There is nothing worse than seeing stale, dated web content," adds Vint. "It reflects poorly on your entire organization." If choosing the self-serve model, Vint recommends putting a single individual in the facility in charge of regularly updating class schedules, new services and club community news. As far as fitness-related content, however, he believes outsourcing is the better way to go. "It's less expensive, better quality and should accomplish a lot of web objectives, if done right," he says.
While your website has functional roles, such as sales lead generation and communication with existing members, it also affects your fitness center's image. In the design and execution of your website, careful consideration needs to be given to how it will communicate your fitness brand. Trawick says it is crucial to choose an overall presentation that is in line with other branding efforts. "Most of the time, users will get to a club's site through some other marketing effort. When they arrive, colors and images should be somewhat familiar to the potential customer."
Steers emphasizes the importance of branding: "It's important to have strong corporate branding, even if you just have one club." A strong, effective logo says that you're successful and projects your corporate confidence. Look at large corporations such as IBM, Microsoft and AOL. "The larger the company, the simpler and cleaner the corporate branding is," says Steers. Your company's branding should feature prominently on your facility, your website, your stationery, your staff's attire, etc.
One objective of Curves is to differentiate. "I cannot speak to all fitness brands, but Curves [was] such a groundbreaking and unique concept that it was essential that we did something very different," says Bohline. "Curves is for regular women who have been ignored for years by the health club industry. Curves makes an almost spiritual connection with its members that is truly unique." Apollo communicated these things through design, color palette, photography and flash movie messaging. The Curves home page features an interactive marquee that plays different flash-based movies that convey messaging. Right now, there are three movies playing: the first one is called "Fat Pants," and it coincides with a new weight-loss program. The other two movies are changed regularly. Users can control the marquee and skip forward and backward through the messages. They may also click on the marquee to link to more information on the site. Apollo also created a flash movie that describes the 30-minute workout in the "Is Curves Right for Me" section.
Brand also comes through the choice of advertising used on the site. At the beginning of September, the NYHRC website homepage posted an advertisement called "Make a Splash!" introducing a special offer for the chain's new East Village facility. Site visitors could click on the ad and then submit their details.
Trawick says that all web advertising should be in line with the entire marketing program. The internal marketing department of the fitness center would provide the original artwork, and then the design company can optimize the ad for the web. "A club should avoid the temptation to get crazy with extensive Flash and other web gimmicks," Trawick says. "Most of the time, the simpler and less cluttered a site is, the more likely users are to explore it."
The Internet is a different medium, and merely reproducing offline marketing materials online does not work. "Unlike other forms of media (TV, radio, print), the Internet is a medium in which users are actively searching for information of value to them," says Bohline. Based on this, you have to design websites appropriately. "Most people do not want to 'read' on a website," Bohline says. The messaging, features, advantages and benefits you are trying to convey to the audience must be done through design, graphics, multimedia and concise copy. You should allow users to navigate, by choice, to more detailed content -- do not put all of your content on the home page.
"The best advice I can give is to use the K.I.S.S. principle: Keep It Simple, Sweetheart," says Steers. The biggest mistake made today in many websites is that they try to do too much. The more "junk" you put on your website, the less likely the information of value to a particular customer will be found. Make sure you are clear in your communications. Ask a friend or colleague to proofread your work, and see if they can understand what you're trying to say.
Trawick of Intrannuity echoes the need for simplicity, and avoiding clutter and special "web-effects." He also urges the use of approved "web-safe" colors, and standard "web-safe" fonts for text.
The initial draft of text for the website should be written by facility management to capture the spirit of the brand and marketing. Trawick recommends that a professional copyeditor review all text, and make grammar corrections. He also urges people to check that all images used on the website are fully licensed and not just copied from other places. He further warns fitness centers to avoid websites that are created using "cookie-cutter templates; a club loses a lot if their site looks and feels just like their competitor's site," he says.
Keep your objectives in mind at all times. "A website is created for the [fitness center member]," says Bohline. "Not because you think it is cool. Not to satisfy the artistic expressions of the art department. And certainly not to win awards. Most poor websites are done for all of these wrong reasons, and do not connect with the target audience."
Steers reiterates the objectives of "getting and keeping members." He adds, "If you keep that in mind, and keep your website attractive, clean and simple, you will create an effective website." He says further that an effective website means nothing if no one goes there: "You must promote and advertise it, or no one will ever benefit from your club's site." Make sure you add your website's address to your storefront, staff uniforms, stationery, voicemail messages and all of your external advertising. "This," says Steers, "will ensure that potential and existing members will have all the information they need to use your club to its fullest potential." FM
Pete Diffendal of MembersFirst says a fitness center's online presence should be matched to the three core areas of the membership lifecycle: recruitment, engagement and retention. In determining their objectives, facility management should consider the following:
* Ability to be found (search engine optimization)
* Ability to capture prospective member information and profiles
* Ability to present a common voice and image to the market
* Ability to communicate membership campaigns to prospective members
* Ability to interact and communicate with both prospects and members (public and/or "members only" areas)
* Ability to learn about events and activities
* Ability to register for classes, personal trainers, etc.
* Ability to effectively target members based on their interests
* Ability to survey members to ensure you are meeting and exceeding expectations
* Ability to collect and analyze member feedback
* Ability to maintain constant communication and interaction with members and prospects to promote frequent involvement
* Ability to develop non-dues revenue (profitability)
* Ability to commonly brand multi-facility companies
* Ability to manage staff and certifications
* Ability to collect, analyze and determine the effectiveness of membership campaigns and other initiatives
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