Life Time Fitness recently faced a social media issue that many other clubs will face if they have not already—an employee tweeting something unflattering about another employee. In Life Time’s case, a cycling instructor tweeted a picture of a McDonald’s bag on another employee’s desk with a comment about how this lunchtime fare did not fit the Chanhassen, MN-based company’s brand as the “healthy way of life company.”

Life Time has a social media policy, a company representative says. However, most health clubs do not, says Darren Kincaid, a certified digital marketing consultant for WSI Pro Marketing in Smithfield, VA, even though he estimates that about 75 percent of health clubs have websites and Facebook accounts and about 50 percent are on Twitter.

“Social media has come upon businesses so rapidly that most companies are trying to grasp how to engage in it,” Kincaid says. “Most clubs have a social media presence, but they don’t have a policy that instructs and guides employees on what to do and what not to do.”

In today’s business environment, businesses must publish and execute a social media policy, he says. All employees should be required to read and sign this policy, which should identify who within a club is allowed to engage in social media related to the fitness facility. In addition, certain tools allow managers and supervisors to review posts before they go online.

Once club operators establish a social media presence, they can discover perceptions about their club’s brand and their competitors’ brands through eListening, also known as social media monitoring. After doing so, club operators can define their social media and marketing strategy and possibly discover new revenue channels, says Keith Vera, a marketing strategist for Penton Marketing Services in Washington, DC. (Penton Marketing Services is a division of Penton Media, which owns Club Industry.)

eListening audits will reveal positive and negative customer reviews, so club operators must learn how to handle the critiques carefully and sensitively, Kincaid says.

“If you greet an emotional response with another emotional response, then you will have a bad outcome,” he says. “Also, if you are on the defensive, then it sounds like you are admitting that you are guilty. That can ultimately be worse for your business.”

One way for club owners to protect their brand and reputation is by setting up an official business page at review sites such as Yelp, Google Places, Bing Local, Yahoo Local and City Search. To get a better rating, fitness facility operators should consider running internal promotions to encourage members to review their club on these sites, says Leslie Nolen, CEO and president of the Radial Group, Dallas.

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A staff member should be assigned to read the customer reviews, Nolen says, to see how to improve their facilities. For example, one of Nolen’s clients swapped out the white towels in the locker room with gray ones to deter theft. The plan backfired when the members vented on online review sites about the club’s “dirty towels.” In another instance, a club prided itself on customer service, yet the members had nothing to say about it online.

Many clubs spend a lot of time on Twitter and Facebook, but they do nothing with the online review sites, Nolen says.

“I’ve found that these are the ones with the greatest payback, hands down,” she says.

Health club owners should monitor online reviews as well as invest in search engine optimization (SEO), Vera says. The search for health clubs is competitive, and good SEO allows club owners to reach potential customers when they are searching online for fitness services or the top-rated fitness facilities.

“By positioning your website in the golden triangle of search, which is the upper third of Google.com or Bing.com, people are more likely to click on your website and then come into your club to sign up for a membership,” Vera says.

This approach has worked well for Justin Merrill, who owns a fitness club in Wellington, FL, and helps manage BestGymWebSites.com and SoVi Digital. As a club owner, he tried a variety of promotions for his club, from postcards to newspaper ads, but he did not see a return on his investment until he spent more time on SEO marketing for his website. Prior to doing so, he received one or two leads per month from his website. He now gets from 30 to 50 leads monthly, and he saw 10 times his investment when it came to new memberships. He now spends about 90 percent of his marketing and advertising dollars online.

Some club owners may be tempted to replace their website with a Facebook page, but Vera advises against it because social media platforms are not advanced enough to meet all clubs’ needs.

“If you have a true marketing focus and an end goal in mind, then those types of platforms are limited with what they can offer,” Vera says. “Clubs are much better off trying to incorporate social elements into their website than trying to fit their website into a social media platform.”

David Buzo, one of the owners of marketing company MONA Group, Charlotte, NC, agrees that while a website can serve as an effective sales tool, Facebook can help boost membership.

“People are much more likely to join a gym if it has positive reviews and a lot of likes on Facebook,” he says.

By establishing and maintaining a presence on social media platforms, health clubs can connect with their members, create brand awareness in the marketplace and learn what their members are saying about them.