Marketing that prospects can't resist

How did I find out about my new club? As someone who covers fitness, it's my business to know about the hot new clubs, but in New York City there are plenty of trendy health clubs. The club I chose to join, quite frankly, created an image that set it apart, and it has never wavered. Its staff members are regularly quoted in top magazines. One of its branches has hosted press gatherings for a major sporting goods manufacturer and given attendees free classes and a sweatshirt emblazoned with the club logo. How could I not have formed a positive impression that would ultimately convince me that this was the gym I wanted to join?

While most small clubs don't have the manpower or the budget to do things like that, any club, regardless of size, can market itself effectively. It is imperative to self-promote.

"Promotion is a way to make yourself well known and well thought of," says Klaus Hilgers, president of Epoch Consultants, in Clearwater, Fla. "If a club doesn't promote, it'll just disappear."

Promotion also helps you keep your membership base hale and hearty. "If you want more members, you've got to promote," says Hilgers candidly.

But how do you promote on a shoestring budget and, more importantly, how do you determine if a promotion has worked? Actually, the process of assessing your promotions is quite straightforward.

* Look at your hard numbers. This is the most basic and telling assessment tool. "Assess how much money you're spending on promotion and the kind of promotion you're doing," Hilgers explains. "Then look at how many new members you're getting." According to Hilgers, "if you do a direct mail to a cold public, you can figure on getting about a 1/2 to 1 percent response rate. If it's below 1/2, something is wrong."

* Rely on your sales staff. "When a person walks in your door, your salesperson should ask: 'How did you find out about us?' " Hilgers advises. "This way you can actually track how people have heard about you. It's the most basic thing you can do."

* Survey, survey, survey. "The reason some promotions don't work is because most small- and medium-size clubs do not survey," Hilgers claims. "They do what is called shotgun marketing, throwing something out there to see if it will stick."

Before clubs can market themselves, they need to survey their public. First, ask questions such as: What would make you choose one club over another? What do you think the benefits of working out are? If you could improve anything about yourself, what would it be?

The plusses of surveying are twofold: One, the answers can provide you with the information you need to promote your club effectively. Two, the survey gives you the chance to get people to walk through your front door. How? In exchange for answering survey questions, offer people a two-week pass to your club. "If you get people in for two weeks, and you can't close, then you've got a sales problem, not a marketing problem," Hilgers says.

* Promote consistently. "In order to become a brand, you have to promote on a consistent basis and you have to promote a consistent message," Hilgers says. "A lot of clubs change their message all the time instead of sending out the same message over and over so it becomes familiar." One time, the club may promote to the family and the next time, to singles. One time, it'll extol the benefits of working out; next time, it points out the consequences of not working out. The result: "You don't identify with the club," Hilgers explains. "Branding has to do with differentiating yourself. That has to do with the quality of the message you send out."

* Test your promotional campaign to a small audience. "Send out assorted promotional pieces-a hundred of each-and see which one gives you a better response," Hilgers suggests. "The one that does is the one you put your money behind." Or walk around your club and ask members what they think of a particular ad you're planning to run. Assess your promotion with the help of a focus group, or send staffers out to the mall to get input.

* Be tenacious. "You have to keep analyzing how effective your promotions are," Hilgers says. "You want to look at them all the time. You may discover new things that can strengthen them." For example, you might find that using the term "shape up" instead of exercise would be more effective.

* Track positive media mentions. Good public relations are important, so send press releases to local media. "PR gets you third-party endorsements which create an environment of trust," Hilgers offers. "If you get written about in a local paper, that's a third-party endorsement which gives you credibility. A week later when the person gets your postcard in the mail, he thinks, 'Oh yeah, I just read about these guys.' "


Promotion 101

You've got to promote. That much you know. So how do you choose one approach over another? Which type of promotion will give you more bang for your buck? Here's an analysis of some common promotional tools:

DIRECT MAIL: The con for smaller clubs is that direct mail can be expensive, explains Klaus Hilgers, president of Epoch Consultants. Whenever possible, use the fax or e-mail. "When you get a person's name, get his fax and e-mail address," Hilgers advises. "If you have permission, faxing and e-mailing a person can be less expensive than direct mail. People have to start thinking in terms of using the Internet to keep their costs down." The pro to direct mail: "If you have a good piece that really communicates and makes a good offer that people respond to, you'll get more walk-ins and call-ins," Hilgers says. "It's that basic. The one stat you can always push up is sending stuff out to the general public. You always have control over that. And that is the one that really determines your future."

THE YELLOW PAGES: "Who knows who is going to the Yellow Pages these days to look for things?" Hilgers asks. "But in order to make yourself real to the world, you have to show up in places like the Yellow Pages, like the Internet, like a person's mail box. If you're not doing it, you don't exist and eventually you'll be out of business."

FLYERS: "Flyers work," Hilgers maintains. "The nice thing about flyers is that you can put them out by your reception desk and people walk out with them." Depending upon what you're promoting, have your front desk hand out the flyers. "Front-desk people should be one of your key promotional activities within your club," Hilgers notes.

Hilgers recommends making up guest passes the size of business cards. "Give them to members to pass around," he suggests. "A big flyer isn't easy to carry. Most people have a system set up for business cards, and it's usually easier to carry around and hand out."

BILLCARDS: These are expensive and their effectiveness is often determined by their location. "A billboard gives you a presence," Hilgers concedes. However, unlike direct mail (which you can follow up with a phone call), you can't control if you get a response to a billboard.

TELEVISION/RADIO/NEWSPAPERS: "Most media are pretty good tools as long as your message is clear," Hilgers says. Television can be costly for a small club, as can radio. But with some ingenuity, you can get airtime and print exposure gratis. Run quick announcements about club events. Promote yourself to the TV and radio stations, and try to land a guest spot on a talk show or in a news or feature segment. Get the word out that you're the expert on fitness in your area.

- C.W.