OVERLAND PARK, KS — Although it was created for college students in 2004, Facebook now has 300 million users worldwide and is a grown-up way for businesses to enhance their online marketing and brand awareness. Many fitness facilities use Facebook pages to promote events, build community among members, drive Web site traffic and even generate new member leads.

The key to hosting a successful Facebook page is being a good online citizen, says Barry Klein, owner of Elevations Health Club, East Stroudsburg, PA.

“Companies are making a mistake if they don't appreciate that it's social networking, but it's social first. You have to inform and provide value,” Klein says. “I equate it with going to a cocktail party and doing the same thing. You can't just go in and scream out a sales pitch or hand out your business cards right away. You schmooze and get to know people and take time to build up some level of trust.”

Klein says his Web-based new member leads are up five times over last year, thanks to a site redesign and the club's Facebook page. Elevations uses e-mail blasts and Facebook announcements to drive traffic to its main Web site. He says he appreciates using free social networking sites such as Facebook to communicate with prospects, as opposed to sending expensive printed direct mail pieces.

“Before, we couldn't afford to do outreach for nonmember programs, but now, the investment we're making to reach out to nonmembers is in line with our expected return,” he says.

Club One, an 18-club chain based in San Francisco, also uses social networking to communicate with members. Its Facebook page has nearly 1,300 fans.

“We use Facebook as a way to draw more members and promote a sense of community,” says Cinzia Bianchi, marketing manager for Club One.” If we have relevant news items on Facebook, we'll link it back to our site. Our members get it from all angles from us.”

To boost success story postings on its Facebook page, Club One sent an e-mail blast encouraging people to share their stories in return for free movie passes. The joint effort increased the response rate, Bianchi says.

The interactive nature of the Internet makes sites such as Facebook a perfect place to engage members in dialog, says David Fish, CEO of IMN, Waltham, MA, an integrated marketing service provider.

“In a sense, for fitness clubs, their social networking page with fans is a shared space, and culturally, it's not really owned by the club or the fan base — it's a collaboration,” Fish says. “And it's a place for people to post things like fitness goals that they wouldn't expect to find on the health club's Web site, which is more for reference. Social networking is a good place to get active, promote dialog and drive traffic to your site.”

He also recommends measuring click-throughs to gauge online content's popularity. This lets club owners do variations on popular topics and keep content relevant to members so they'll read it and share it with friends. Posting informational videos is another great strategy, he says.

“It's getting easier to post videos online,” Fish says. “They're easy to produce, and fitness clubs have people on staff, like personal trainers, who can shoot tips for videos. It doesn't necessarily have to be polished.”

The Navy is using its Fleet and Family Readiness Facebook page to post Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) videos on topics such as staying fit during the holidays and new programming offerings at local Fleet and Family Support Centers. The page has more than 9,000 fans.

Although some might find the Internet impersonal, Klein disagrees.

“People forget it's still people building relationships,” Klein says. “People probably thought when the phone was invented that we'd destroy human relationships. It's the same thing with Facebook.”