Sorting Through Mixed Facebook Messages

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Social media is a popular topic in our industry, but there still seems to be disagreement about how health clubs can really benefit from using sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

A quick glance at the schedule for the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) conference and trade show last week confirmed what most of us already know: Social media is a big deal in our industry. It was the subject of six sessions and one of the keynote speeches at the show, but there still seems to be disagreement about how health clubs can really benefit from using sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

One pervasive view is that health clubs need to use Facebook to reach Millennials, people born in the early 1980s up to the early 2000s. Since traditional advertising methods go unnoticed by this group, targeting them through social media has become necessary.

"Like it or not, we have to talk to Bieber," Philip Coady, president of Motionsoft, said during a session about using social media referrals to generate revenue. Coady was referring to Justin Beiber, of course.

But how does the social media strategy change if your facility isn't courting floppy-haired teen heartthrobs (or any other Millennials), and is instead trying to reach the fitness industry's other growing group, baby boomers? An audience member posed this question, saying that his club was more geared toward members over 45. Coady and Mike Manning, former CEO of The Rush Fitness Complex, Knoxville, TN, pointed out that Millennials will not be young forever, and making them aware of brands targeting older clientele cannot hurt, even if it might not help for another decade.

They also noted that people of all ages are joining social networking sites, so even though Facebook campaigns are more effective at targeting younger people, they can still benefit clubs that are looking for older members. (In fact, 40- to 50-year-olds make up Facebook's fastest-growing demographic.)

The potential impact of social networks was also the topic of Nicholas Christakis's keynote speech. Christakis, an author and Harvard professor, studied real life and online social networks. He found that in person, everything from obesity to emotions to drinking habits seem to be contagious among friends, but online friends are not nearly as influential.

Christakis said the effect Facebook friends have on a person is weak to non-existent, disheartening news for an industry that has spent considerable energy trying to figure out how to best take advantage of Facebook users and their friends, especially through referral campaigns designed to capitalize on the influence friends have on each other.

Confused about how health clubs should proceed? So was I, despite being a member of the technology-dependent Millennial generation that social media strategies are trying to target.  But there is a silver lining in the form of a few social media strategies and benefits that experts seem to agree on.

Facebook and Twitter are still crucial as branding tools because they allow you to share information about your facility or company, including news, programming and special offers, with personality. Christakis said that Facebook is most effective as a way to share information, so take advantage.

Social media sites also provide clubs with an easy way to keep track of what people are saying about their facilities and publicize positive feedback or directly address complaints.

Do not overlook the fact that social media is really just another way to be social and engage members. Ask questions and respond to posts. Share health and fitness articles you think members might benefit from reading. Use it to congratulate members on their accomplishments.

There are still many mixed messages when it comes to social media in our industry, but building better relationships with members is one way to use Facebook that we can all "like."

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