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Diabetes costs our country billions of dollars. Clubs can help lower these costs by helping diabetics.

The final Marketing Tutorial of 2001, like the other Marketing Tutorials this year, outlines how a serious chronic medical condition can provide a marketing opportunity for club operators. Identifying a niche market and offering that market a specific program with a low barrier to entry can be a powerful way to drive new members through a club's doors. With that in mind, this month's tutorial will explore diabetes programming.

Diabetes: A Growing Public Health Problem

Although it doesn't receive as much publicity as cancer or heart disease, diabetes affects roughly 16 million Americans. In fact, according to 1996 Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics, diabetes was the seventh leading cause of death listed on U.S. death certificates, with almost 200,000 deaths reported annually. It is believed, however, that such statistics are underreported.

Diabetes carries a heavy cost — and not just in terms of loss of life. The CDC has calculated that the health care cost for someone with diabetes is almost five times higher than someone without it.

These numbers will only get worse. Diabetes is on the rise. It increased six-fold from 1958 to 1997. And the CDC reports that the number of Americans diagnosed with diabetes will soar 165 percent over the next 50 years.

Despite the fact that diabetes is an increasingly serious public health concern, few people are aware of the damage the disease causes. Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness, kidney failure, leg and foot amputation, pregnancy complications, and deaths related to flu and pneumonia. People with diabetes are two to four times more likely to develop cardiovascular disease. Plus the risk of stroke is two to four times higher for diabetics — 60 to 65 percent of whom have higher blood pressure.

Diabetes and its complications have the greatest impact on the elderly. More than 18 percent of adults over the age of 65 have diabetes, and death rates among middle-aged people with diabetes are twice as high as those without.

In addition to not knowing the effects of diabetes, most people don't understand the disease itself. People with diabetes have either a shortage of insulin or a decreased ability to use insulin, a hormone secreted by the pancreas. Without insulin to move glucose into cells to convert into energy, blood sugar levels become excessively high. Over time this damages vital organs.

The two main classifications of diabetes are type 1 (insulin dependent) and type 2 (non-insulin dependent), with type 2 being the most common, affecting 90 to 95 percent of those with the disease. The two risk factors most commonly linked to type 2 diabetes are obesity and physical inactivity, both of which are modifiable.

Herein lies the tremendous marketing opportunity for our industry. Clubs can target people with type 2 diabetes, showing them how to control and delay the progression of diabetes by increasing their physical activity and decreasing their weight.

Programs for Diabetics

A diabetes-focused program should be used for external purposes only, to drive potential new members through the club's doors. Certainly there may be existing club members who have diabetes, but they are already in a regular exercise program.

The best type of program to run for diabetics is a 30-day membership. Clubs can offer this membership as either a free trial program or as a paid program. I recommend the latter because this program increases the quality of the participants. People willing to pay are more serious about participation.

When establishing the price for the program, charge at least 10 percent more than the average monthly dues of your regular membership. Therefore, if a regular membership at your club is $49 per month, you should charge at least $55 for the one-month program. This ensures that participants value the program. Also, if participants are accustomed to a higher fee, they won't resist on price when later asked to convert their trial membership to a regular membership. To reduce the barrier to entry, a conditional money-back guarantee can be combined with the fee. (I'll address this guarantee later.)

Diabetic programming doesn't require any special classes. Diabetics will get results if your trainers simply create programs for them using your strength and cardiovascular equipment. Your trainers probably already do this for new members.

Naturally, your staff must make sure the participants are comfortable and safe. Your professionals should provide each participant with a basic fitness assessment, a complete equipment orientation and at least two follow-up appointments to review the pieces of equipment prescribed in their fitness program. Trainers should also give participants a short handout with general healthy eating guidelines and portion control suggestions. After all, diet is a major contributor to blood sugar levels. (If you need help gathering this information, go to www.cdc.gov and do a search for “nutritional guidelines.”)

In addition, you should monitor participants by keeping their program cards in a separate file located at the front desk or the fitness desk — just as long as an employee is at that desk at all times. This strategy helps to maintain customer contact and allows staff members to identify individuals who aren't regularly using the club. Trainers should follow up with these people and encourage them to get back on track.

After the initial induction, the sales department should follow up with phone calls at the end of each week for the course of the program. (A 30-day program typically takes four weeks, so the salespeople should contact participants four times.) The salespeople should make the phone calls to establish rapport, and to gauge the participant's level of interest in joining the club once the one-month membership concludes.

Measuring Success

The goal of any short-term program is to provide a low-barrier call to action that attracts individuals who wouldn't otherwise have joined the club, then upgrading as many of those people as possible to long-term memberships. To increase your chances of converting short-term members into long-term, you must show people the benefits of continued participation.

Certainly some participants will feel better after a month of exercise. However, to improve the conversion rate significantly, you'll need a measurement tool that specifically relates to diabetes.

You can demonstrate results by giving participants a glucose test at the beginning and end of the month. Portable diagnostic machines can output results in just five minutes using a small drop of blood.

Your club can outsource the tests through a local health screening company or health care clinic, which will send employees to conduct tests using a portable diagnostic machine. Or if you prefer to run ongoing wellness programs, you can purchase diagnostic machines for around $2,000. You can use the machines to test cholesterol (total, HDL and Lipid) and glucose, for $3 to $11 per test.

With the machine, you can show a measurable difference by comparing glucose levels at the end of the program against levels at the beginning. Make people understand that the greater the exercise participation and the better the eating choices, the better chance of a change in glucose levels.

Lowering the Barrier

As we have discussed throughout these tutorials, you can increase the success of any marketing effort by lowering the barrier of entry for the consumer. This means making the program as simple as possible for people to participate.

Since you'll charge for the diabetes program, you can lower the barrier — while keeping the quality of prospect high — by giving the customer a money-back guarantee. Guarantees give the customers confidence in the program and remove fears that the club will take advantage of them.

Although many club operators cringe at the thought of a guarantee, a money-back offer can provide a win-win situation for both consumers and operators — if clubs make the guarantee conditional upon a minimum level of participation. For example, the guarantee could be: “If after participating a minimum of two times per week for four weeks you don't see your glucose level drop, you have the right to your money back.” A guarantee like this will help to increase participation. And if customers don't participate, they can't request a refund.

Scheduling the Diabetes Program

You should hold a short-term or trial program — such as the diabetes program — during a time that doesn't conflict with peak seasons or peak traffic times. Therefore, January, February and September should be avoided. In addition, depending upon your club's capacity level, you might want to run the program during off-peak traffic times. That way regular members won't complain about “nonmember” congestion in the exercise areas.

Where Do You Promote?

Since you won't offer the diabetes program to existing members, you should market through external programs and community outreach.

When marketing paid, low-barrier programs externally, newspaper ads or inserts work well, as they get a majority of the exposure. There is much dissent about which works better — display ads or inserts. Personally, I prefer inserts. Inserts seem to get more mileage because they drop out of the paper and are more likely to be saved, plus they give you more space to say what you want.

Inserts and/or posters in local doctors' offices also yield good results, usually bringing in a number of referrals. To get these marketing pieces placed in doctors' offices, call an office and simply tell the secretary about the program. Your goal is to get permission to stop by with some materials to distribute and/or hang in the office.

When conducting community outreach, put together a press release publicizing the diabetes program. You can take the factual information about diabetes provided at the beginning of this tutorial and use it as the body copy for your press release.

Before deciding on which marketing medium to use, remember what has worked best for you in your marketplace. Regardless of what medium you use, however, you still must follow the basic rules of creating a successful marketing piece: Write a compelling headline, state the benefits of the program, make the offer, have a call to action and make the offer better than risk-free. For a sample marketing piece, please refer to the insert on page 42.

A 16-year veteran of the club industry, Casey Conrad is president of Communication Consultants, a Wakefield, R.I.-based company that provides sales and communication seminars. She also heads a national franchise chain called Healthy Inspirations, Weight Loss & Lifestyle Centers. For more information about marketing diabetes programs, contact Conrad at (800) 725-6147.