Your fitness center's website may be the first impression a potential member has of your facility. You may decide to create and host it yourself, or to hire an outside firm. Either way, to make it effective and keep your members coming back, be sure your website is simple and up-to-date, and that you are using all of the technology available to your advantage.
Seven seconds. That's all the time you have to make an impression on potential new members as they view your website for the first time. "In today's highly competitive industry, having a better website may be the deciding factor in a prospective member's decision to choose you over your competitor," says Glenn Steers, president of Health Club Sites, Odenton, Md. "A good website should be clean, easy to navigate and well-organized, with attractive graphics and formatting." And, it needs to be well-placed on the search engines and have compelling content. Your site should be designed toward your target audience. If you are catering to a younger and more tech-savvy crowd, you may want to use more bells and whistles to make a flashier page. For older clientele, you certainly would not. No matter your audience, those fast moving and sometimes distracting additions can annoy members who use your website on a daily basis, especially if you have a slow-loading opening page (called a splash). Sometimes the design of your site must be toned down for it to be effective.
Make the Most of Your Website
- Keep your content fresh. When it is stale, people realize it, and you'll lose them.
- You probably only have three to four essential pages on your website, and a dozen additional pages with non-essential "stuff." Lose the non-essential pages.
- From a legal standpoint, always use disclaimers when making health claims, and have a lawyer review your content.
- Keep your navigation constant throughout the site. If you have a button taking people to a new page, make sure you have a button that gets them back.
- Use a consistent font and font size.
- Make sure your graphics are of good quality. If you allow someone to click and enlarge the detail of a picture, make sure that enlargement is clear.
- Your site should be optimized and indexable. The web is very competitive, and every business wants to be on page one of search listings. How will you get your business there?
First things first
The first thing to consider when designing a website for your fitness center is marketing. "It's marketing first, not design, that makes for a good site," says Louise Rijk, vice president of Advanced Media Productions, Natick, Mass. Why do you want to build your site and what are your goals? Who is your target audience? What do you want to include? Certainly you should include your contact information, programs and services you offer, hours of operation, class schedules and what makes your facility stand out among others. You may also want to offer special incentive coupons to get potential members in the door, staff bios, photos of past activities showing members having a great time and a calendar of future events. "We've seen a lot of changes [in website design] over the years," says Don Hoskyns, president and co-founder of Fitness Insite, Phoenix, Ariz. "At first, we put a lot of information on a page; now, things are simpler." So as not to overwhelm your audience, provide a little information on everything that is important to both current and future members on your home page. Use links that go to separate pages for each topic. Make sure your content is free of errors, grammatical and information- wise. Also, make sure your links work before you post your website back on the server. To go along with your content, use photos of members using your equipment, taking classes, etc., as opposed to static shots (always get a signed release to protect yourself from liability, and use a good-quality camera). Once you've determined what information you'd like to use, it's time to design your website. You may choose to design it yourself, to use an online website creation utility or hire a website designer. Find out about administrative updates, search engine registration, and other things that go into making your website both easy for your audience to find and use (remember those seven seconds), and easy for your website administrator to manage. Should you hire professional help, they will provide you with a content management system that allows you to manually make some changes yourself, such as job openings, new classes, etc. "It's very easy to do with [Microsoft] Word," says Rijk. "You can update things that change, and it's live on the site immediately." Should you decide to go it alone, those administrative changes can be more difficult. There are lots of cool ideas out there for web design. You may want your programmer to arrange for daily updates of scheduled activities, such as having your homepage post today's group fitness classes and other activities, as opposed to asking your website visitors to click on a weekly schedule. It's a nice way to get your members the information they want quickly. You may also choose to allow your members to customize your homepage for their needs, or your trainers to customize pages for their clients. "Interactivity is everything," says Hoskyns. "Everything is getting more individualized." From individualized workouts based on customer's goals, to nutritional tips, recipes, shopping lists and more, website designers have thought it through. You can even allow members to schedule appointments online, sign up for classes and, if you have one, shop your pro-shop for products. Your website can become a one-stop shop for your member's needs.
Getting it out there
No matter how great your website, if you aren't registered with various search engines, finding it will be nearly impossible for net surfers. Should you be designing your website on your own, you may choose to use a Search Engine Optimization firm to make the submissions for you. Should you use a website design firm, it may be part of your design package. It doesn't stop with registrations or submissions, however. Says Rijk, "You must make sure your website is indexable." When someone types in key words, such as your fitness center's name, the search engine sends out "spiders" to search for those key words. If you have designed your website where all the text is imbedded into a logo, or in moving, flashing parts (a common mistake for people who choose to design their site without professional help), it is not indexable because the spiders can't read text that isn't HTML. While you want your website to be attractive, it must also be usable for the consumer. Your banners must have HTML text over the top for it to be readable. If you use animation, make sure it is an external file so that there are no barriers to people finding your site. (If you have already designed your website in such a way that it is not easily indexable, you can hire a professional to rebuild it for you, but the cost of breaking it all down and building it back up will be about the same as starting from scratch.)
Managing servers and email
The maintenance of your server and your member's ability to log on to your website is key. It's not worth your member's frustration or your own to have a poorly-maintained server. Website design services often host your site on their server, making connectivity issues much easier for you. They provide the backups and generators should there be a power failure, air conditioning to keep the equipment cool and technicians to monitor that service. They'll also forward email from your website visitors to your email account of choice. And, your new email program may have the ability to communicate with your membership software to send out automatic emails for birthdays, announce special events and contact members who haven't visited your fitness center in a while. If you have designed and host your own website, there are companies that have this same capability. Richard Ekstrom, president of Retention Management, Cornelius, N.C., says this type of service is a huge benefit because it helps to focus on those who don't use your facility (surprisingly, about 60 percent of a membership base, on average), and encourages them to return. This encouragement may mean the difference between a member who gets value from their membership, and one who cancels it. "It's all about touch points and reaching out to members," says Ekstrom. "If you have 2,000 members, reaching out to 60 percent of them on a regular basis becomes a full-time job." Software that automatically connects with members can do that job for you. Email is the preferred communication for many members (and fitness staff) because making contact with members can be difficult via the telephone. With automatic email-generating software, members open and respond to the email at their convenience. If they unsubscribe or delete the email without opening it, the software can let the club know, so it will not continue to email obtrusively. Much like setting up a website, the ability to set up communications via automatic email is simple. Fitness managers can sign up in a matter of minutes on the software company's online portal. Your club management software provides the necessary reports for creating the emails. Once it's up and running, it is just a matter of weekly updates of new members which, depending on the club management software, can be sent automatically without any extra effort on your part.
An extension of your business
Your website's job is to lead members and potential members to your door.
The Internet side of your business is an extension of your fitness business, and you want to help your members be as successful using your website as they are using your fitness equipment. Think everything through from your member's perspective and your competitor's before starting your website's design. Keep your site neat and clean, with accurate information, and make it easy to find on the net. It's not just a matter of posting information out there. Your website's job is to lead your members and potential members to your door.