Marketing Outside the Box

Implementing guerrilla techniques can revitalize your fitness center's marketing plan.

THERE ARE THOUSANDS of marketing opportunities around you every day, but not all are as obvious as the traditional mailer, newspaper ad and yellow pages listing. Some of these marketing opportunities are hidden, while others are right under your nose. Many are outside of the traditional marketing "box" most fitness centers draw from, so you may be missing out on some good opportunities.

"Part of the problems we see in this industry is that too many operators don't realize the value of doing a full marketing campaign," says Casey Conrad, president of Healthy Inspirations and marketing consultant. "It is a cultural issue as an industry. We are so far behind other industries when it comes to customer service, branding and marketing - especially when it comes to thinking outside of the traditional box."

Putting the WOW! in Work Out World

WOW! Work Out World, based in Brick, N.J., is known for thinking outside that marketing box, be it with 3-D glasses or monkeys. WOW!, ready to launch a new monthly membership rate, looked for a unique marketing tool to help get its message out to the community. Its "over the top" marketing campaign was based on using car toppers - the mini billboard sign that sits atop a car. Car toppers, usually associated with cab companies and pizza parlors, have now crossed over into the world of fitness via WOW!'s new marketing message. The car toppers were personalized with the new WOW! monthly membership rate, along with the company's logo, its slogan of "Fun Fitness, Silly Price," and its toll-free phone number.

"We have a monthly budget of about $30,000 for marketing and advertising, and try to leverage that to project our brand and look for ideas that are silly and fun," says Steve Roma, chief executive at WOW! Work Out World. "Some of the ideas may not sell a membership directly, but things like the car toppers have a minimal cost and provide a 24-hour-a-day ad that spends time in our employees' driveways, stuck in traffic and all around town."

Bucking tradition

While not every idea has to be as extreme as those used by WOW!, the fitness industry may want to look outside of itself for marketing ideas. "Most club operators don't know what to do differently to help boost their marketing," says Conrad. "The system isn't set up for non-traditional marketing, and most [managers] certainly don't have the time to put together a plan that is outside of what they have normally done."

Paying attention to what works in other industries can be a great starting point for your fitness center. "There are plenty of ideas out there that other companies are using that can be applied to our industry," says Conrad. "Look at how AOL built its brand by giving away free hours on CD-ROM. I recently saw a great marketing promotion utilizing socks with a message. … These kinds of guerrilla marketing campaigns are out there; you just have to keep an eye out for them."

According to Jay Conrad Levinson of the Guerrilla Marketing Association, and widely recognized as the father of guerrilla marketing, these kinds of ideas can work well for most businesses. Best of all, they don't have to add much to a fitness center's marketing budget. "There are so many free and low-cost ways to approach guerrilla marketing because of their simplicity, common sense and record of being proven in action," says Levinson. "One of the main reasons that businesses fail is lack of marketing insight. To not take marketing to the street level and build a brand that resonates with people is corporate suicide in today's competitive environment."

Conrad agrees that operators tend to undervalue marketing plans when they should spend on them. Some, she says, may even be surprised by the return on investment. "Many of these guerrilla marketing tools are so low-cost that, if you get two members a month, they pay for themselves," Conrad says. "Many club owners will spend $7,000 on a treadmill that really doesn't do anything to bring in a new member. Yet, that same owner won't spend a few hundred dollars for a graphic designer and copywriter to put out a great marketing piece, or on a cost-effective guerrilla marketing campaign - that can be as easy as speaking in front of a group or using lead boxes effectively."

Going guerrilla

A guerrilla marketing approach is just part of your marketing plan, according to Conrad. It's one that should pull from what she calls the "five pillars" of marketing (see Casey Conrad's Five Pillars of Success). "It is important to build a plan on a monthly basis that draws from external marketing, internal marketing, guerrilla marketing, corporate marketing and community outreach," says Conrad. "We … have seen that if you run an ad, you get a certain response rate; but, if you run a synergistic campaign, those response rates climb considerably."

Mixing and matching your marketing plan is a key to a successful campaign, be it traditional, guerrilla or a mix of both. "The real key to marketing today is that ads, websites, Val-Packs, guerrilla tactics, etc., don't work when you try them as a single-weapon approach," says Levinson. "You really need to work all the angles to get your name in front of as many people as possible so when they are thinking of getting fit or joining a health club, your's will be the one they think of - that is the true value of a quality marketing campaign."

Despite its penchant for creative, out-of-the-box marketing, WOW!'s Roma says that the company uses various marketing avenues to help promote the company's brand. "We do all the traditional things, as well, such as newspaper ads, direct mail, etc., but that isn't our passion," says Roma. "Our passion is in finding the fun things to do like the car toppers or utilizing a Segway [a motorized scooter] to promote a new club. I think it is a passion that sets us apart from much of the competition we face."

Roma says he also capitalizes on his staff 's enthusiasm and acceptance of the WOW! image to help some of these campaigns become a success. Prior to ordering the car toppers, WOW! management asked the sales staff if they would like to participate in a unique marketing promotion to help launch the new monthly membership rate. Initially, WOW! ordered 20 car toppers based on the response from the sales department. However, WOW! management could not have anticipated the response from all other staff members. As other employees saw the car toppers, they wanted to know how they could get a car topper, too. There were so many requests that a waiting list was created, and an additional order of car toppers was placed. In total, there are now 45 car toppers (i.e., mini-marketing machines) in transit, seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

"It really starts at the hiring level for us, and my son Steven Jr. gets all the credit for getting a staff that promotes our culture and that wants to get involved with building WOW!," Roma says. "Staffing is a part of a business that many business people - regardless of the industry - don't realize is also a part of the business' branding and marketing effort."

Stay focused

Regardless of the method of reaching out to perspective members, Levinson says that one of the basic rules of marketing remains in effect: "You must keep track of the programs you have in place, starting with asking every prospect, 'How did you hear about us?' If you are marketing correctly, you may have as many as six or 10 campaigns going on at once, and you must know what is working and what isn't, or else you may be throwing money away - and that is just bad business."

Ideas abound that may help a business build its brand and stay ahead of the competition - all for less money than you may imagine. The key is to keep an eye out for a good idea, and market outside the box.

Casey Conrad's Five Pillars of Success

When Casey Conrad, president of Healthy Inspirations and marketing consultant, builds a marketing plan for her company, or speaks in front of fitness center owners and operators, she stresses that five rock-solid pillars support an effective marketing campaign. "The most effective marketing strategies are built around multiple avenues - or pillars - with lots of sub-pillars," says Conrad. "This combination will create a diversity of audience and improve the response rate."

Here is a breakdown of the five main pillars:

  1. External marketing. This is traditional advertising, such as newspaper ads and direct mail.
  2. Internal marketing. This includes referral campaigns and retention strategies.
  3. Guerrilla marketing. In essence, this is grassroots marketing, including lead boxes, take-ones and more.
  4. Corporate marketing. Health fairs, brown bag lunches, email tips and other ideas make up corporate marketing.
  5. Community outreach. Much like corporate marketing, community outreach includes ideas such as sponsoring events, hosting blood drives, etc., that are intended to create goodwill, but not individual sales.

The Technology Touch

Many businesses have looked to the Internet to attract new business, and with great success. But there are some important steps to keep in mind to prevent your efforts from hitting the trash or the junk email file.

1. Send brief emails that drive the reader to your website.

  1. Keep up with your database - you'll need a lot of names to result in a few memberships. Also make sure you have an opt-out option.
  2. Don't send a sales pitch. Use your expertise on timely health and fitness topics. Education makes an impression and often gets forwarded.

What's Guerrilla Marketing?

Guerrilla marketing has grown into a discipline all its own. It covers everything from emails to signs stuck in patches of grass leading to the fitness center. The best part is that most campaigns are low-cost and many are free. "On our website,, we have a list of 100 different marketing weapons," says Jay Conrad Levinson of the Guerrilla Marketing Association. "Out of those 100, 62 are free. The key is to find the right five or six that work for your business, and use them in combination with each other and more traditional marketing strategies."

The following are three guerrilla marketing weapons that Levinson believes every fitness facility should use in its marketing mix:

  1. Get connected. Send brief, tip-filled emails that will drive the recipient to your fitness center's website.
  2. Write about it. Work with a local paper to have someone from your fitness center write articles or a column about the benefits of exercise. Make sure you get a reference to your facility and your web address in the author's bio.
  3. Speak up. Offer your services as a speaker for community organizations and local businesses. Remember that you are selling the benefits of exercise, not your business. This will build your expertise and value in the eyes of the attendees - but feel free to give out passes and coupons. Better yet, have people register and then follow-up with a targeted email, letter or call.
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