The marketing of fitness and recreation benefits is getting personal.

It's not something you'd want to tell a child, but it's something that bears repeating to every health club owner and recreation department head: "People don't care about you; they care about themselves." So says Terri Langhans, a former CEO of a national advertising firm who is now a speaker and author on the subject of marketing. As callous as that may sound, it's a cold, hard truth in a competitive marketplace in which public and private businesses and agencies of all sorts are vying for consumers' collective time and money. It's also a tenet of target marketing, a trend that involves a range of strategies - from old-fashioned direct-mail advertising and door hangings to the cultivation of viral marketing outbreaks - designed to elicit a reaction from specific user groups.

Jodi Rudick, president of The Advisors Marketing Group, an Oceanside, Calif.-based consultancy, offers an example of a marketing message that fails to recognize that trend. "Think of a recreation brochure that has a photo on the cover of a toddler swinging on a swing-set," she says. "If I'm not already familiar with that organization, and I'm, say, an empty-nester who is looking for activities and recreation for myself, it's likely that I'm just going to toss it. It doesn't matter how nice the picture is; it doesn't look like it's talking to me." The trend in marketing - regardless of the industry or even the target market - has been, and will continue to be, toward exact communication with members of a specific audience, the replacement of broader strokes with finer points. "It's been proven that one-size-fits-all marketing doesn't work anymore," Rudick says. "We want stuff that looks like it's made just for us; we want it super-customized, almost micro-niched."

Langhans draws an analogy from nature to illustrate a flaw in the traditional forms of marketing used in the health and fitness industries. "A flower does not attract bees with a long list of pollen attributes," she says. "The trick is to connect your products and services to something that the target audience cares about, and it's not you; it's the benefit."

Most fitness service providers by now at least understand the importance of target marketing, though identifying that target, creating the tools to reach the target, and ultimately hitting the target remain challenging. Even the target-finding/archery analogy may be off the mark. "Marketing today is not about preaching information to your customers, but rather about getting them to pull information toward themselves," says Rudick.

There is the not-so-small matter of determining the ideal audience for your marketing efforts. Langhans says one of the most common questions she fields from facility operators is, "How do I go about marketing X - marketing this fitness center or this rec department class?" She interrupts them there. "Don't tell me about your program," she says. "Tell me about who you are trying to attract. Until you have laser-like focus on who it is you're trying to attract, figuring out what to say is irrelevant."

In Bolingbrook, Ill., the "who" is often teens, says Kim Smith, Bolingbrook Park District's marketing and communications manager. A grassroots marketing campaign designed for teens has been under way in the district for some time, unbeknownst (until recently) to Smith. "Our mascot is Parkie the Pelican," she explains. "We had a couple of kids on staff who had started their own Parkie the Pelican page on myspace.com. When we found out about that, my thinking was, 'If they're doing this already, let's just have them do it under our direction. Let them work for us, because they can probably do it more efficiently and quickly than I can.' "

This year, the district - an eight-time National Recreation and Park Association Marketing and Communications KUDOS Award-winner for its efforts to communicate the value of recreation to the public - plans to initiate a "tech marketing committee" composed mainly of teenage staff members. "We have all these teens right here as resources," Smith says. "They're good kids and they're employees. Why not have them lead a committee where the focus is trying to reach teens through technology like Facebook or text-messaging?"

Rudick gives her own kudos to health and fitness providers who are delving into targeted Internet marketing. Why? Because, she says, such people are surprisingly few. "I can create my own video with whatever message I want, post it to YouTube, and that information may travel virally in a way that is not at all controlled by traditional marketers," she says.

The mere presence of a company or department web site that effectively conveys the benefits of the services or programs offered can, with little effort, attract a desired consumer segment. "We just had two people come in for the first time - new moms, probably in their mid-30s," says Celia Kibler, owner of Funfit Family Fitness Centers, which has a video embedded into the company's homepage that immediately shows off a Funfit facility through an interactive parent/child workout video. "I asked them, 'How did you find us?' and they said, 'We just did a web search.' Now they come in, take a couple of classes, and boom, they're customers. What did that marketing cost me in the long run? Not much."

The prevalence of social networking sites, blogging, text messaging and communication through other remote mediums means consumers are able to extend the word-of-mouth marketing concept to virtually infinite levels. For facility operators, that organic sort of market presence can be very good, or, in an instant, disastrous. "There is a new transparency in which I, as a consumer, can go online to chat rooms or blogs and virtually go behind the scenes of any health club and find out if, for example, there have been any breakouts of bacterial infections there," says Rudick. "Before now, customers were beholden to the images put out there by marketers. Now they can talk honestly about service and quality. For companies to succeed, they're going to have to almost over-deliver on the promises they make in their marketing in order to make sure that the buzz is positive."

In the context of target marketing, that means following through on promises to provide customers with a sense of belonging at your facility, advises Sandy Coffman, president and owner of the Bradenton, Fla., consultancy Programming for Profit. "The biggest mistake people make in this industry is to put a specific marketing message out there, and then they don't deliver on what they promise," Coffman says. The first step in any marketing plan, she says, is to look closely at your staff, their training, what kind of professional atmosphere you are trying to create and what kinds of programs you're designing and implementing. "If you try to skip step number one and go straight to step number four - a very expensive and effective marketing campaign - people will come to your facility and find that they are not getting what they were looking for," Coffman says. "Then you're hurting yourself, and you're hurting the whole industry."

Indeed, a marketing plan should exhibit consistency from the time marketing messages first reach their target. Rudick uses the example of a brochure that points local pregnant women to a web site for information about pregnancy exercise programs. While Rudick loves that degree of specificity in targeting customers, she warns that the brochure's ultimate effectiveness can be compromised if that potential customer visits the web site and is forced to navigate through a maze of program information that may be of little or no interest to a pregnant woman. "I should be able to tell you who I am - not the other way around - and then you can offer me things that fit my needs," says Rudick.

Marketers stress that knowing as much as possible about all potential customers - including their existing attitudes toward your facility, services or programming - is critical to the design of a successful marketing plan. But most fitness providers lack the kind of marketing budget to devise sure-fire marketing and advertising campaigns. Rudick offers a simple solution. "If you're trying to target young adults, and you have no idea what the heck is going on with today's young adults, one of the easiest things to do is an analysis of the publications or web sites that are already targeting that group," she says. "If you look through several issues of a magazine, you start to clearly see what messages those advertisers are using. If you know you want to reach more working mothers, start reading Working Mother magazine."

Even improved communications with staff can help fitness and recreation facility operators understand why customers are drawn to the facility or the programs within it. "Talk to your instructors - those people on the front lines," advises Langhans. "People may not tell you, but they will tell them, 'I almost didn't come for this reason,' or, 'I picked you guys because of so and so.' You have to get inside the head of your target audience, and that goes beyond demographics."

A marketing message that displays a misunderstanding of the desires and motivations of a specific target group can potentially result in far greater damages than just the inability to draw new customers. "People get into real trouble when they talk to stereotypes; that is the most condescending form of communication with consumers," warns Rudick. If facility operators or their marketing team have little or no personal connections to a target group, the solution is simple. "Talk to people," says Rudick. "It doesn't matter the gender, race, religion or cultural background - people for the most part are very happy to sit down with you and tell you how you can serve them."

While an intimate knowledge of the local population is ideal, some basic demographic data can lay the groundwork for an effective marketing plan. Bolingbrook's Smith dedicates a small portion of her budget to purchasing targeted mailing lists with basic data such as income levels and family size and composition. The department also draws demographic data about existing program participants from its online registration software. With such data in hand, mailings and even electronic marketing strategies can be far more effective.

"Bolingbrook has a very diverse population, and we may know, for example, that we want to reach the Hispanic market," says Smith. With such basic demographic data, "we can try to make all the promotions we distribute to those households bilingual." Smith also tries to include tracking devices - such as discount or rebate offers - in new promotional materials in order to gauge the effectiveness of a targeted marketing plan.

Funfit's Kibler, whose clubs offer fitness for children and their parents, suggests operators "go right to the source" with their marketing materials, "even right down to moms clubs," she says. "I can pay a moms club $150 a year to advertise in their monthly newsletter. You can't beat that. You're going straight to all those moms who are just waiting for something to do with their children."

With a little creativity and some footwork, that approach will always lead to results, no matter the type of fitness or recreation services an organization provides, says Rudick. "If you know you want to reach people who have been diagnosed with early-onset cardiovascular disease, then get those brochures about your cardiovascular fitness programs right to the cardiovascular specialists in your area," she says. "That's the kind of cross-marketing that costs virtually nothing, but really positions you as a benefits-based agency."

Coffman firmly believes that the benefits of recreation and fitness give marketers in the field an inherent advantage over those trying to shill products and services in other markets. "There's a lot of talk right now about our nation's economy and a recession," she says. "But the product in this industry is not at all overpriced, and it will continue to be the best value out there."