Julie Anne Eason
Prospective members can get a good idea of what to expect from your fitness center just from browsing your website. Are you focused on the customer, or do photos of equipment dominate your homepage? Is there direct contact information for your facility's decision-makers, or are comments dumped into an information or sales email account? Good customer service starts with making good first impressions, and it may be time to ask what your fitness center's website is saying.
When it comes to building a customer-friendly website, you can spend a lot of money and a little time, or invest a lot of time and little money. Alan Hill, president of FitnessWebsiteDesign.com, suggests finding a middle ground. "It's important for club owners and managers to understand how a website works," he says. "If they want to make an update to their group fitness schedule, for example, and they hired an outsider to do everything, they are going to have to pay for the update and wait to fit into the designer's schedule. They lose control over their own business. It is vital that someone on staff is capable of performing basic updates and maintenance." Many web-hosting plans offer easy-to-use templates and a live coach to help guide you through any tough spots, so there's no reason to fear working on your own site.
No matter who actually builds your website, you still have to decide what to put on it. Most businesses have websites that are little more than electronic brochures, but you can make your site so much more.
Content tone and topicsYour website's ultimate goal is to attract as many viewers as possible; viewers mean potential members, and that your current members have another connection to your facility. The way to attract viewers is through high-quality, up-to-date content. Content is deemed high quality if it is useful and viewer-centric. "Most club sites I see focus on the facility," says Hill. "They describe the square footage and the fancy machines. Casual visitors to your site don't care about that stuff yet." They want to know what your facility can do for them. How you will help them lose weight, get fit, decrease stress? What will you do to make sure they stick with their fitness plan? Will you offer support services like massage or physical therapists, childcare or nutrition counseling? They want to see ordinary folks who are achieving their goals. Most of all, they want to know that your members are like them, that they will belong.
The first step in building your content is assessing your target market. Who do you want to attract? The deconditioned? Families? Older adults? The corporate crowd? Your copy should reflect the needs and desires of your target market. To attract families, talk about your extended childcare hours, family fitness programs, after-school activities and discounted family rates. Photos on your site should also reflect your target market. Inspire without intimidating your prospects. If you want to be an all-purpose facility with a balanced cross-section of members, make that clear on the home page, and then create sub-sections for different groups. Let's face it, an overweight businessman is not going to respond to the same sales pitch as a 22-year-old hardbody. You need to speak directly to your prospects. Make them see that you understand exactly what they need, and that your fitness center offers the key to their goals.
It's not advisable to hire a designer to write your site's content. "Most designers are trained in the visual and technical elements of the web," says Hill. "They know how to program flash animation, but usually know nothing about marketing or writing great sales copy." Hiring a separate copywriter or marketing consultant is a wise investment. They are trained to use words to attract and convert customers, and know how to get your site ranked high on search engines. They will also be able to help you track your results and improve your site in the future. Sometimes it only takes one or two little changes to a headline, a service or layout to make big changes in your bottom line.
Once you know the tone you need to reach your audience, you have to decide what to talk about. First, start thinking like a prospective customer. What kinds of things do they want to know? Then, start writing. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Nutrition. How can members eat to reduce stress, build muscle, lose weight, have more energy?
Popular diets. Review the latest weight-loss fads. Do they really work? Are there any dangers?
Weight lifting. Explain the difference between machines and free-weights. How can members start a program safely? How many days of rest do they need? Provide a list of workouts (but don't give too much away!).
Calorie usage. Long, slow cardio vs. high-intensity intervals? What's the fastest way to lose weight? How many pounds can members lose per week without sacrificing muscle?
Goal setting. What are reasonable goals? How can members stick with them over the long haul?
Member success stories. Testimonials, journals and blog entries show real members toughing it out through plateaus, celebrating milestones, and being supported and cheered on by your staff.
Capture leadsThe No. 1 way a website helps attract members is through lead generation. You must have a way to capture contact information for as many casual visitors as possible. The easiest way to do this is with an opt-in feature, where visitors can enter their names and email addresses to get on your mailing list. They won't do this without an incentive. So, make an offer: "Sign up for your free weight-loss report" or "Add your name to our mailing list and receive our monthly e-newsletter full of helpful information." Hill says that e-newsletters aren't pulling as well as they used to, so come up with something unique, like a PDF report or valuable discounts on products and services. The important thing is to give your prospect something that they can use right away, whether or not they join your fitness center. By helping them find solutions to problems in their lives, you are building trust and credibility. As a bonus, they are likely to tell others about your useful tips and hints.
Studies have proven that the simpler your opt-in process is, the more likely people are to use it. Most people don't want to give out personal information like mailing addresses and phone numbers. Really, all you need is their first name and email address. Make sure they know you won't sell, rent or give away their personal information to other businesses. No one likes to sign up for extra spam.
Use autoresponders to convert prospectsOnce you have a prospect's name and email, follow up immediately and frequently with appropriate email messages enticing them to come see your facility. "Make this process as easy as possible on yourself," Hill says. "Use an autoresponder." Autoresponders allow you to enter pre-written letters that are sent on a regular schedule. For example, as soon as someone signs up, they should get an instant "thank you" email, plus whatever free report or newsletter you promised. Then, over the course of a few days or weeks, they should be sent more targeted letters that provide useful information, as well as offers to entice them into your fitness center.
Autoresponders streamline the process by sending everything automatically. If a prospect signs up at midnight, they get their "thank you" right away. You don't have to take time out of your busy day to send out batch emails and check for new prospects — it's all done for you.
Use portals to draw from other sites"A portal website is especially useful for fitness clubs," says William Gill, president of UVWebworks.com, a design service specializing in fitness center sites. "A portal gives the user the ability to personalize the site, add instant feeds, easily change content and, most importantly, link into other local and national businesses that may have quality prospects for you." This means that you have a great tool for sending out up-to-date information and services to your members. Blogging is easy with a portal, so your trainers, nutritionists and members can keep journals. RSS feeds mean members can get instant updates on their laptops, cell phones or PDAs. If you have to cancel a class, there's no problem getting the word out. "It also allows your personal trainers to be in constant contact. They can set up personalized workouts and send them to clients instantly," says Gill. "All this individual attention is very appealing to prospective members. They feel like you are taking a serious interest in their progress. Which, of course, you are."
Another great feature with a portal is syndication. You can syndicate your content, and it will be picked up and placed onto other websites. For example, if you have a great series of articles on weight loss, those articles can be linked to other websites for doctors, chiropractors, even local or national newspapers. There is no limit to the exposure your site could receive. This adds to your credibility, and brings you more prospects from other sites. "Seasonal content works great," Gill says. "You could write an article about workouts to get ready for ski season, and syndicate it to ski shops. So, people who weren't even looking for your site will find you anyway because of the valuable information you provided."
The idea is to affiliate your fitness center with as many area businesses as possible. Health food stores, sporting goods stores, municipal health initiatives, physicians, schools — they are all possible sources of new members. "Just about anyone in the world could wind up linking to you, so you can't skimp on the content. Find a few employees who like to write, or hire a freelancer to ghostwrite some articles," says Gill.
A basic portal website will cost between $1,500 and $2,000 dollars; a fancier one will run about $5,000. There is also an annual fee to cover hosting and software upgrades. The templates are easy to use and customize. All the layout work is done for you, so you save the cost of hiring a designer.
Keep it simpleIt's tempting to use every tool available in a designer's arsenal to create a flashy website, but all those bells and whistles — music, flash animation, roll-over images — often distract from your site's main purpose: to attract and keep customers. "I actually turn away clients who insist on using music and animation on a fitness website," Hill admits. "It's annoying to most viewers. And it's very costly. I've seen clubs spend $15,000 dollars for a site that does no better than one that costs one-tenth the price. Simplicity is best."
And don't fear the writing part! You don't need to sound like Shakespeare, just communicate a message. Write in a conversational tone, like you're talking to a good friend. Keep your message short and to the point. And, remember that, since you're writing for the web, you have the option to link to other pages with more information on certain subjects.
If you keep your target market in mind at all times, finding new and creative ways to solve their problems and make their lives better, you will end up with a high-ranking, attractive site that will have prospective members lining up outside your door. And, once they are members, your site will serve as a great customer service tool with program updates, facility news and more.
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