Every fitness club wants to be known throughout its community, but most club owners frown on spending a lot on advertising. Solution? Find creative ways to promote on the cheap. We asked top marketing consultants and club directors for their best (and least expensive) ideas:

MAKE PASSES STAND OUT

Every club gives out passes for free visits — and most of these passes end up in the garbage can. Wow! Work Out World, a Brick, NJ company that operates seven facilities, has found guerilla ways to distribute passes that makes them seem more worthwhile. WOW! minted 10,000 silver coins — which were passes to the club — and had staff members leave them on the floor or counter of supermarkets and in parking lots.

“You can't help but pick the coin up and keep it because it feels valuable,” says Stephen P. Roma, who goes by the title of WOW!'s “chief executive wow!zer.” Another successful technique was printing passes on the back of what looked like 100-dollar bills, which were crumpled and thrown on the ground in various locales around the community.

The most effective is to distribute passes in a form that is useful. For instance, looking at fireworks through 3-D glasses will enhance the effect. So WOW! had 50,000 3-D glasses made — on the glasses was a free pass — and distributed the eyewear on the Fourth of July. “It's all about how you deliver the pass,” Roma says. “We're giving people something at a time they want it. We're not giving them a beach ball in wintertime.”

GET GROUPS TO SELL YOU

Bob Verdun, general manager of the Canton and Weymouth Clubs in Boston, is always on the prowl for inexpensive marketing techniques. One of his most successful programs was called “10 for 10” — passes that allow 10 visits to his club for 10 dollars. Verdun gives these passes to local groups, such as Pop Warner teams, to sell in their fund-raising programs. The groups get the money, and Verdun gets an army of eager soldiers making door-to-door calls promoting his club. “A local town raised $4,000 to build a playground with ‘10 for 10’ passes,” he says. “It was a win-win situation.”

HELP OTHERS; HELP YOURSELF

Be on the lookout for unexpected opportunities to promote your club. When Verdun saw how local junior high and high schools were cutting back on gym programs, he volunteered to have his staff teach exercise classes at the schools for a week. “We also arranged a field trip where high school kids could come into the gym, work out, and learn about careers in fitness,” he says. “We ended up seeing not only hundreds of kids, but hundreds of teachers, who joined the club. That cost me nothing but staff time.”

PLANNING SAVES DOLLARS

Upfront planning for advertising can save money and bring better results. “No matter whether your marketing budget is $5,000 or $100,000, you need to figure out the best approach, lay the year out in advance, and treat the expenditure like rent or towels or any other expense,” says Jerry Davis, president of Davis & Co., an advertising firm in Virginia Beach. “If you don't, you'll be inconsistent with your program, not get as good results, and spend a lot more money.”

By planning the year in advance, you might realize you will run, say, 1,200 columns of newspaper ads. If you buy those ads upfront, rather than piecemeal, you can receive a discount. “If you work with the media, they might tell you if you run one more ad, you'll cut your costs by 25 percent,” Davis says.

MAKE ADS SMALLER BUT MORE EFFECTIVE

WOW!'s Roma found that a single ad in a newspaper, no matter how large, often got lost. Instead, it was cheaper and more effective to buy 10 to 20 one-by-one inch ads with just the WOW! logo (which was also a free pass) and scatter the ads throughout the paper. “This is a very effective way to brand the club cheaply,” he says.

USE THE RIGHT MEDIA

“All these TV and radio stations call on my gym all the time and the owners get all excited,” advertising man Davis says. “I tell them that 99 percent of the people who would see their ads on those places aren't close enough to use their gym.”

The better solution is to targeted media, like local lifestyle publications or inserts in local papers that serve a nearby geographic area. The best marketing vehicle Davis has found is direct mail sent to new move-ins every month in selected zip codes. In addition to a letter, the recipients receive a list of yoga/aerobics programs and a club newsletter.

“The newsletter includes fitness tips and pictures of members,” Davis says. “This is a successful technique, because people like to see photos of themselves, and prospective members like seeing pictures of real people. They know they won't be the only fat person in the gym.” A newsletter doesn't have to be printed on glossy paper, but if it's littered with bad spelling and grammar it will hurt more than help.

PARTNER WITH LOCAL FIRMS

It's not just your newsletter that can be an effective marketing vehicle. Initiate ad swaps with businesses that serve the same target market — a sporting goods store; chiropractic, massage or sports injury clinics; a specialty exercise clothing store or health supplement stores like GNC franchises. “Every one of these businesses may not have a newsletter, but you can propose ad swaps such as doing a bag-stuffer flyer in exchange for the ad that appears in the club's newsletter,” says Susan Carter, a consultant and author of “How To Make Your Business Run Without You” and “SPLASH Marketing for Overworked Small Business Owners.”

Verdun has offered to provide the paper mats to a nearby car detailing company for free — those mats, of course, carried the name of his gym. American Leisure, which operates 70 clubs, touted its New York facility by offering to pay for a year's worth of boxes of a nearby gourmet pizza shop. “On top of the box is our logo and a message that ‘this pizza comes with a free six pack — abs that is,’” says Mark Natale, executive vice president for American Leisure. “Inside the box is a pass for a free week of workouts.

GET MEDIA FRIENDLY

Some of the best free advertising is getting the local media to write about your club. The key is to pitch a health story with a good angle that will appeal to local features or health reporters. “For Valentines Day, it might be “be fit for your love,” notes Nan Andrews Amish, a health care marketing consultant in San Francisco. “For spring it might be ‘look great in your summer wardrobe at the beach.’”

Verdun runs numerous programs for members where he partners with local firms. Outback Steakhouse, for instance, cooks for members twice a year. But Verdun also programs for the entire community. He had celebrities, including a member of the Olympic Hockey team and the New England Patriot cheerleaders, read to the kids in childcare. He opened the event to the community and invited the newspapers. “Now we're looked upon as more than just a health club, but as an exciting place in the community,” he says.

THE LITTLE THINGS COUNT

When you call up the Canton Club and get put on hold, you hear a peppy recorded voice telling you about upcoming events. “That's free advertising that gets people excited,” Verdun says.

WOW! has nine vehicles and each car is a moving billboard. Every vehicle is painted in crazy colors with fire flames and includes the club's phone number and web site address.

GET COOPERATIVE

There are upward of 4,000 manufacturers' or distributors' co-op plans, spanning more than 8,000 trademarks. If you use specific products in your advertising materials or are willing to start using the products in your advertising, you may qualify for a distributor or manufacturer's co-op program, according to consultant Carter. Some programs pay 100 percent of your advertising costs; most have shared fund plans.

Research these programs by using the library's copy of Co-op Source Directory, put out by Standard Rate and Data Service Inc. Then call or write for a copy of the details of appropriate programs.

The potential downside of a co-op program: you are endorsing a specific product, such as gym equipment or tennis shoes. “Be sure you want to be joined at the hip with the products you feature in your ads,” Carter says. “Also, get the arrangement in writing so everyone is clear on responsibility and accountability.

REACH OUT FROM CYBERSPACE

E-mail can be a cheap and effective way to communicate with members and improve retention. The e-mail must be of value so it's not regarded as spam. WOW! sends e-mails to members during their birthday month, giving free gifts every week like a T-shirt, bottle of water, a session with a trainer and guest passes.

ONE LAST THING

“The best advertising will be undone if the person walks into the club and doesn't receive good service,” American Leisure's Natale says. “The advertising has to be supported by service or you won't accomplish anything.”