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Tech-Savvy Marketing Can Boost a Fitness Facility's Profile

Taking advantage of Internet services such as blogs, networking sites and email can help your fitness center with its marketing and sales efforts.

Your fitness center may have wonderful equipment, a great location and well-qualified staff, but that won't necessarily bring people in the door. Everyone says word of mouth is the best marketing tool, but what external things can easily and inexpensively be done to facilitate that? The Internet is a great resource, and many facilities are using it to attract and retain their membership base. "It [offers] unlimited access, day or night," says Steve Tankersley, owner of CrossFit Flood in San Diego, Calif. "[The Internet is] never closed."

Jenn Jacobs, director of operations at WTS International, Rockville, Md., uses the web in her company's marketing efforts, but she recognizes that without that "special something," a facility may not reach members on a personal level. "In my view, the tipping point occurs when guests or members feel that there is an emotional connection with the location," she says. "Marketing plays a critical role in [this]. ... The marketing element needs to capture the essence of the connection that members and guests have with the location."

Networking sites and blogs

Your facility most likely has a website, and you may have placed ads in the paper or on radio. You may even send out press releases to the local newspaper or news channel. These are all great ideas, but tech-savvy managers are also trying venues like Facebook, blogs, YouTube and email marketing - all free services. "Marketing is all about multiple touch points for the consumer," says Tankersley.

WTS manages a facility that offers website links to training segments on YouTube. Another facility started a Facebook page, invited its members to become "friends," and now has a thriving blog connecting members to other members, trainers and management. Says Jacobs, "We have a few facilities that have started doing this, and it has been successful. As long as the [page] is consistently updated and monitored, this is a great new marketing medium." Managers need to continuously monitor whether the information posted to the blog is appropriate, and check on the appropriateness of any links.

Facebook, YouTube and blogs are great resources for Internet users who are already members, but, says Jacobs, "We have not seen a direct correlation between the blogs or Facebook ... and first-time users." However, says Ellen Barrett, an industry consultant, embracing technology has helped make her business a success, including attracting clients to her former facility in New Haven, Conn., selling fitness DVD downloads and now her new mobile phone marketing plan. The promotion of these endeavors increased due to Barrett's website and fitness blogs. "The big thing is that people can forward and/or print out these messages," she says. "I also get immediate feedback via email, and that really helps figure out what the public is interested in."

"I like [an Internet presence] because you get first-hand information," says Tankersley of CrossFit Flood. "People do find us through our blog [at crossfitflood.typepad.com] and online postings [of exercise instruction videos]. Blogs are motivating on several folds. Some [people] who are introverted and quiet may have a hard time verbalizing something in the gym, but love to blog. ... [So many members] read our posts and comment on them in the gym."

Optimizing websites

A website is most effective at attracting first-time users when it is part of a larger advertising campaign. "If your website is highly optimized and viewed on the first page of Google (which is not easy to accomplish), then you would be more likely to capture first-time users," says Jacobs. The website www.crossfit.com has surely benefited its affiliated locations, such as CrossFit Flood, but the facility doesn't rest on CrossFit's laurel's alone. "We have several domain names that take people to our site with the right key words, as well as search engine optimization," says Tankersley. "The last data I heard was that Crossfit.com had 3 million unique visitors each month, and about 20 to 30 percent of those who find us, find us through CrossFit first. Our blog and website are the only marketing we do."

Once people have found your website, you need to draw them in immediately. You want the look of your site to match the feel of your facility, and content is the most important thing for first-time users (and even returning users). "With any website, the navigation needs to be simple and straightforward," says Jacobs. "While having a fancy splash page makes for an aesthetically pleasing site, most users are referencing a website to immediately get the information that they want. The bells and whistles lose their appeal when it stalls the acquisition of information. Keep it simple."

Also of interest to members are things like promotions, contests, surveys, etc. Display these or a link to these prominently on your home page, and update them weekly to keep people interested. You'll also find that online program registration works well as a marketing tool. When members can register for a cycle class or training session online, they will visit your site with greater frequency, and see more of your promotions.

Energizing email

In addition to website promotions, email promotions work well, too. Programs that capture membership email information and provide templates to customize your message are great tools. Use them to send out monthly e-newsletters, quick promotions and surveys. If members decide that they no longer wish to receive the emails, they can easily unsubscribe.

WTS uses this type of service with many of its sites, and finds it successful. "We limit our email blasts to once per week. Since people opt into the email distribution list, most individuals want this information. However, more than once per week tends to lose the intended impact."

Barrett also has success with email. "I send out an email blast about twice per month - any media that I've received or interesting fitness statistic or promo for an upcoming event or appearance. ... It's a newsletter and a billboard."

Barrett is expanding from the computer to the mobile phone with a new and free feature called Get Fit from your Mobile Phone. "I've secured a sponsor and am working with a company that has had a lot of success doing mobile phone 'fan clubs' for musicians. ... This is for reaching a younger audience; teens, college students and 20-somethings are very into their mobile phones. ... I'm trying to be proactive and not run away from technology, but instead embrace it."

Spreading the word

Blogs, networking sites, email blasts and websites can all get your current members more involved in your facility, and talking to their friends and family about what they've read online. Members can also easily forward these informal news items or fitness tips to non-members, which brings your facility unlimited free publicity. Taking advantage of these new technologies is simple, and often free. If your market includes young people or tech-savvy adults, adding these new marketing techniques to your plan can reap great rewards.
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