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The Electronic Sales Pitch

More facilities are using email to connect with members on a regular basis, and to establish important relationships with them outside the fitness center.

The big secret to sales success isn't a secret at all. Just about everyone knows that establishing relationships is the best way to create and build a profitable business, but it's getting harder to get face-time with potential clients. Text messages, cell phones, the Internet and email have all but replaced actual one-on-one conversations. With that in mind, the potential for the electronic sales pitch is tantalizing. Fitness centers can get their message out to hundreds of people with a click of the button, at virtually no cost to them. Unfortunately, most managers agree that, at this point, no cost equals no return. "We have not seen quantifiable results in mass-emailing prospects to get them into the gym, or to sell weight-loss supplements," says Scott Grzybowski, owner of World Gym Express of Fairfax, Va. "Our business is selling a service, and an upscale one at that, so [email] doesn't seem to work to sell memberships. As a matter of fact, we have offered several membership packages online for nearly two years, and no one has signed up." Kristen Jones, creative marketing director at Gold's Gym, Winston Salem, N.C., says her facility limits email sales pitches to people who have already expressed an interest. "The only prospects we do [get] via email are generated by individuals who have gone to the website for general information and have requested a response," Jones explains. Still, even in those situations, the deal is sealed with a human touch: "We always try to follow up with a phone call." So email can't sell memberships - yet. But it is still a powerful tool to help connect with members when they're not inside your fitness center, and help strengthen those relationships built on a handshake and a smile.

Testing the technology

There are several companies that offer sophisticated software designed specifically for communicating with members. However, World Gym Express of Fairfax has had better luck using a program they already owned and knew: Microsoft Outlook/Exchange. Grzybowski hired a well-known company initially, but ended the relationship after a rough six months. "As a small club, these high-priced management products just did not provide a bang for the buck," Grzybowski says. "Our email list is relatively small (around 500), so we did not see the need [to] invest money in a [new] product." Outlook was a part of the software suite already installed on their computers, so Grzybowski and his co-owner were familiar with the program. "It is very easy to create an HTML-formatted message/newsletter using Outlook," says Grzybowski. "We did not want to have to learn a new product, since we are responsible for this task." World Gym Express of Fairfax switched to a new, simpler management software that allowed them to export email addresses in the system. The result was a user-friendly, functional system with virtually no learning curve. This approach worked for Grzybowski, but larger fitness centers will likely find their email list may overwhelm the capabilities of traditional email programs. The services of a management software company can provide solutions for these facilities, and help manage their email communications effectively.

Build your list

There are many ways to build an emailing list, including purchasing them. Most fitness centers, however, find the easiest (and cheapest) way to build a list is to ask members for their email addresses. World Gym of Fairfax sends emails to former members in an effort to reclaim lost memberships. Keeping former members up-to-date on changes and improvements to the facility and your programming via email may be the impetus for lapsed members to return. Once you get members' email addresses, make sure they stay private. Think twice before selling members' information to other businesses, and set up your email blasts so members can't see anyone's email address but their own. "We send these emails out as BCCs [blind carbon copies] to everyone," says Grzybowski. "This [assures members] that we are not sharing anyone's email information."

Don't be a spammer

"There are 293 members on our list," says Jones. "However, we have 1,400 members; all of them just don't choose to receive the emails." Giving members the option to say "no" is extremely important, because nobody likes a spammer. Being a spammer isn't about sending emails people don't want to read. After all, it's annoying when your mom sends you sappy forwards every day about kittens and President Bush - but it's not spam because, in theory, you could ask her to stop sending them. (Whether you want to risk the inevitable month-long silent treatment is up to you.) Facilities can avoid spamming by allowing recipients to unsubscribe. "There is always an opt-out feature at the bottom of the email [we send]," says Grzybowski. It instructs recipients to "Simply hit reply to this email and type in 'unsubscribe' as the subject." Gold's employs a similar opt-out function.

Get on a schedule

People tend to trust what they can count on. They know they'll get their newspaper every day, magazines come at the same time each month, and the 6 o'clock news always comes on at 6 p.m. Getting members to trust your facility as a regular source of information depends in large part on the regularity with which they receive communication from you, email or otherwise. Keeping it consistent is not an option, but determining the frequency of your email schedule is. World Gym Express of Fairfax sends an email to members once a week. "More than once a week and people tend to ignore them (like spam)," says Grzybowski. "Less than once a week, and you seem to lose some members." Gold's Gym, on the other hand, has found success with a different schedule. "We send out monthly emails with the newsletter and group exercise schedule," says Jones. Maintaining a schedule doesn't mean you can't send special email updates as the need arises. Jones says Gold's Gym supplements its regular email schedule with brief bulletins about new club features. "Occasionally we will send out additional emails regarding new equipment, new programs, etc.," she explains.

Make it personal

You can do a lot to add personal touches to your emails. Gold's Gym assigned email duties to one staff member to ensure they all have the same "voice" and consistent content. World Gym Express of Fairfax uses eye-catching colors and an informal, chatty tone, and mentions individual members by name (see The Personal Touch). Consider making the emails focus on what you can do for the member, rather than the other way around. "Our emails provide a communication mechanism outside of the club, and we try to encourage everyone to lead a healthy lifestyle in each email," says Grzybowski. "How we can motivate them is always a theme."

Put people first

For the fitness industry, sales begin and end with people. Relationships, trust and service are the building blocks of a fitness center's success, but there is a place for technology. "Email contact is definitely a complement to one-on-one interaction," says Grzybowski. "Many times, an email may spark interest in a member, and we can have a one-on-one at that point." Email can deepen the connection your facility has worked so hard to make with members, and help your message stay with them no matter where they are.
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