Marketing consultant Casey Conrad gives her spin on what constitutes a great Web site.

Web site marketing. We're told it is the wave of the future. Of course, with the explosion of Internet technology and use by consumers, club operators have been forced to at least address the need of a club Web site. The question is, "Is your Web site a marketing tool for your club or is it just 'there' because you knew you needed to have one?"

There have been many recent articles on how to design a Web site (see April issue of Club Industry). Therefore, this article will focus on how you can take what you are currently doing with your Web site and make it better by incorporating marketing techniques.

At the most fundamental level, your Web site needs to accomplish two primary goals. The first goal is to keep your current members as happy, paying patrons. To accomplish this, your site can provide things such as a club newsletter; club event calendar; the ability to book personal training and spa services; interesting and new fitness information; question and answer sections; and links to other related fitness sites.

The second goal of your Web site is marketing, which generates new prospects who can be converted to happy new members of your club. Although a generation of new prospects ultimately delivers the most profits, few club Web sites attract nonmembers.

Notice that "using your Web site to sell memberships" was not one of the goals mentioned. This is an important distinction. Saying that you plan to use your Web site to sell memberships is equivalent to saying you plan on selling a lot of memberships over the telephone. That doesn't happen. Rather, you use the telephone to set appointments where your sales team can properly qualify, tour, present and sell a membership. Therefore, with your Web site you want to "sell" the customer on contacting the club so your sales team can set an appointment.

Customer contact happens one of two ways. Either the customer can pick up the phone to call (make sure to include your phone number on the Web site!), or he can request more information from your Web site, after which one of your salespeople calls him. If your site doesn't have an online form that visitors can fill out to receive more information, it should at least include an e-mail address so potential customers can send a message.

In order to compel visitors of your Web site to either call or request information electronically, you need to follow a simple four-step approach, which condenses but mirrors the components necessary for any good marketing piece.

Step 1: Have an engaging headline. The headline to any marketing piece is 80 percent of the ad's effectiveness. If you don't get the reader interested immediately, he certainly won't give you any more of his precious time. Headlines need to "scream out" a benefit to the reader. Specifically, it must offer some sort of solution to a concern, interest or problem the customer has and, ideally, it will be emotionally oriented, using words like convenience, friendly, fun and motivating. Furthermore, it will contain the word "You" as well as marketing power words like simple, easy-to-do, revolutionary, new, amazing and cutting-edge. Although these words sound sales-oriented, they have been proven to get a reader's attention. Therefore, at the top of your Web page discussing general club information, you would have a headline like, "A New Kind of Club That Provides You the Best, Most Comfortable Setting to Exercise In."

Step 2: Create interesting body copy that clearly conveys the benefits of your product to the reader. All too often club marketing pieces simply list out the features of the club. Unless you are trying to market to only those people who clearly understand what a certain brand of equipment or style of class is, this has little or no meaning to a new exerciser. By outlining benefits, readers can understand exactly what something is going to mean to them, making the purchasing decision that much easier. For example, don't use your site to announce: "Over 52 classes per week." The site should state: "Over 52 classes per week that provide you with tremendous variety to keep you motivated and the convenience of a totally flexible schedule to meet your tight time demands."

One additional and very important marketing technique that should be used when writing body copy for your Web site is to break up information with subheads that keep the reader engaged. After one or two paragraphs, a reader's attention can be lost. By using subheads that follow the same design rules as a headline, you will move the readers through the site to a place where they can take the appropriate action. For example, in the area that discusses daycare, you might have subheads such as "Flexible Hours to Provide You With Convenience," "Certified Staff for Your Peace of Mind," and "A Clean, Friendly Environment for Your Child's Comfort and Your Concerns." Of course, each of these subheads would be followed by a detailed description of how the club fulfills those promises.

Step 3: Get the reader involved when possible. One of the greatest benefits of a Web site that you don't have with any other marketing medium is the ability to get the readers mentally and physically involved. The more involved the readers are, the more likely they are to either call or give you their information. One way to get readers involved is by having a simple quiz that promises a prize for just trying. For example, at the end of your general club information, you can ask three or four simple questions about your facility, telling the readers that if they answer correctly, they will win a trial membership.

You could also offer a variety of basic assessments (stress, fitness level, health risk factors, EARQ [Exercise Adherence Risk Questionnaire]) online. At the end of one of these Web-based assessments, you could give the reader a free, more complete fitness assessment or a meeting with a nutritionist at your club.

Another way to get readers involved would be offering a virtual tour of your club. Internet-friendly people love things like this and it keeps them in your site longer. Make sure you browse other Web sites (both industry and non-industry) to get additional interactive ideas.

Step 4: Make an offer that gets them to take action! Now that you have gotten and kept the user's attention, it is time to reap the rewards by turning the user into a real live prospect who can be converted into a happy, paying member of your club. The only way to do this is by making an offer that gets visitors to either call or give you their information, allowing you to contact them. Here are just a few ideas to incorporate into your site.

One, if you have offered a prize such as a free trial membership or an assessment, ask visitors to give you their name and mailing information to receive it. Another approach that is a better qualifier than the free trial is offering low-barrier, low-cost programs. These might include a two-week short-term membership for $29, an "exercise at home" instructional program, or an in-home personal trainer for one visit. Although some of these ideas require a bit more thought and follow-through, what you get is a prospect who is already willing to invest both time and money for the benefits of a regular exercise program.

Still another approach to get site visitors to send you their information is to offer something free without them having them commit to exercise. Perhaps you have a brochure on the benefits of a regular exercise program. Maybe you have a booklet that outlines the findings of the surgeon general's report on exercise. Or maybe you simply offer them information on your club. Whatever it is, you need their information to send it.

Although the four steps for creating an action-oriented Web site aren't difficult, you have to go back to your site and apply them. Apply the four steps to every single area of your site that nonmembers will be browsing. For instance, pages that provide general club information, virtual club tours, staff profiles and membership types (not giving prices) are definite nonmember attractions. Nonmembers may even venture into areas that contain your club newsletter, class schedule and a question and answer section, making it necessary to create a call to action in each.

Make sure that each and every page uses quality, attention-getting headlines and breaks up large amounts of copy with compelling subheads to keep the reader's attention. Find lots of ways to get the reader involved and, finally, have a call to action in every section of the site.

Having a Web site allows you to be up to date with today's marketing world. Applying these powerful marketing techniques to your Web site, however, will allow you to get a lot more than just visitors to your site-you'll get lots of names, addresses and telephone numbers of prospects who can be converted to happy, new, paying members.