Whether your're a 'Net newbie or a Web vet, these tips will help you develop or improve your online presence.

When you visit one of the Brick Bodies fitness centers, you can take a tour through any room you like-without even leaving your chair. That's because the Brick Bodies Web site (www.brickbodies.com) offers visitors virtual tours through its facilities with the click of a mouse.

With this type of marketing capability at their disposal, clubs can't afford to ignore the Internet. If you're not online yet, now's the time. According to Jupiter Communications, a leading provider of research on Internet commerce, U.S. consumers are expected to spend $10 billion on health-related products online in 2004. Furthermore, consumers want instant customer service, and a Web site lets your prospects check out your facilities and even sign up, whether the urge strikes them at noon or midnight.

If you haven't put together a site yet, taking these seven steps will lead you to your Internet destination. And even if you have a site already, the tips below can help you make improvements that attract traffic.

Step 1: Find a designer.
Unless you're lucky enough to have a Web whiz on staff, you'll probably need to hire a Web designer to build your site. You may be able to find one by looking at Web sites for other clubs. Have you ever seen a fitness club site that was just perfect-good graphics, excellent content and attractive design? If so, why not contact the Webmaster and ask who designed the site? Many times, the designer also has a link to his or her own site somewhere on the page.

Finding a qualified designer is only the first step. You also need to find one who will work within your budget. Matt Carlen, director of RDV Sportsplex in Orlando, Fla., suggests asking designers in your area to give you a price quote based on the specs you give them (e.g., how much you can spend, whether you want something high-tech or basic, what kind of information you'd like to include, etc.). And if you're planning on building a mega-site like Carlen's $50,000 Internet extravaganza (www.rdv-sportsplex.com), designers will be more than happy to come to your facility and present their ideas to you.

When designers present their ideas, however, remember that a site needs to be more than just eye candy. "When looking for a designer, take into account several different skill sets," says Steve Malik, president of Athletic Net, which creates Web sites, conducts Internet marketing campaigns and creates e-commerce applications for fitness clubs. "You want somebody who does graphically appealing work, but you also want somebody who understands your marketing goals in having a site."

If your designer can do a turnkey job, which is something that Malik recommends, you can skip to Step 7 below. (A turnkey job would include all aspects of the project, from registering the domain name to uploading and maintaining the site.) In any case, your chosen designer should be able to assist you with all seven steps.

Step 2: Play the name game.
Next you'll need a domain name, which is part of the URL (or Web address) people must key into a Web browser to visit your site. It sounds simple: Just take your company name or another short-and-sweet moniker and stick ".com" at the end. Unfortunately, though, with so many companies going online, there's a good chance that your chosen name has already been snatched up by someone else.

To find out whether the name you want is available, check the Network Solutions Web site (www.netsol.com). Network Solutions is one of the companies in charge of registering .com, .net and .org names on the Internet. Just plug your chosen name into the space provided on its Web site, and in a few seconds you'll know if your name is up for grabs. If it is, you can register the domain name for a cost of approximately $35 per year.

If the name has already been claimed, don't despair. Try using .net instead of .com, changing the name slightly or using a hyphen. For example, even if www.healthclub.com is taken, www.healthclub.net or www.health-club.com may not be.

As a final resort, you can try a different top level domain (TLD). While .com, .net and .org (used for non-profits) are the most popular TLDs, every country has its own TLD. The Netherlands, for example, has .nl, and only residents of that country can register a .nl address. But some countries allow anyone to register an address in their TLD. For instance, the Island of Niue offers the TLD .nu (go to www.nu.nu to register), and Cocos (Keeling) Islands offers .cc (www.do-mains.cc to register). These TLDs work just like .com names; the downside is that they're are not as easy for your customers to remember.

Step 3: Find a host.
A Web site won't do you any good unless you have a host-a company, usually an Internet Service Provider (ISP), that rents space on its Web server for your pages and graphics. When people visit your site, their computers pull the pages from your host's servers. To find the best host, call around and compare prices and services. ISPs differ in the amount of Web space, number of e-mail addresses and other perks they offer for the monthly fee.

How much space you need depends on the size and complexity of your site. Most sites can make do with the amount of space that comes with the minimum hosting fee, but if you plan to execute a huge site with videos or animation, you'll need to check with your designer about the amount of space your site will require. Your Web designer may also be able to find and set you up with a host.

Step 4: Create your look.
You're all set up with a host and a designer. You've registered your domain name. Now comes the hard part: Web design. What goes on the site, and how should it look?

There are pros and cons to both simple and intricate Web design. A simple design with minimal graphics and animations downloads faster-especially important because visitors won't hesitate to bail out of a slow- loading site for greener pastures-but it may not express the high-tech image you want. On the other hand, Web sites with animations, video and sound aren't accessible to Internet users with slower modems or older Web browsers.

When deciding on how complicated to make your site, it's important to keep your target market in mind. When asked why he decided on a high-tech mega-site instead of a simple text site, Carlen says, "The demographic we go after is very technologically advanced. I think 80 percent of our members have at least one computer at home." However, the site offers something for surfers of all stripes, from slow-modem connections to high-speed DSL (digital subscriber line) connections, including both a high-tech virtual tour and a low-tech photographic tour.

Step 5: Create your content.
There's a saying on the Web: "Content is king." This means that having easy-to-read, informational copy on your Web site is more important than the layout, the design and the graphics put together. After all, visitors come to your site for information-not to gaze in awe at a revolving exercise bike. That's why packing a site with newsletters, tips and schedules is the way to cybersuccess. Your designer may be able to recommend a copywriter who's experienced in Web writing, or you can find one through such sites as Content Exchange (see sidebar).

When writing copy, remember that people may be entering your site at a page other then the home (main) page. This is because search engines generally catalog all the pages on your site, so a search may bring up the URLs to your internal pages as well as (or instead of) your home page. Therefore, make sure every page includes a link back to your home page.

Also, when placing content, don't assume surfers will go through your site in the proper order and know what you're talking about on a specific page. Text should be broken down into manageable pieces (because surfers don't like to scroll down a long page), but each page should be able to stand on its own. Web surfers have little patience, so your copy must be short and snappy. "Don't overdo it with the text," warns Malik. "Use bullet points for key benefits."

As with any promotional materials, your site should concentrate on communicating the benefits of your club to the visitor. "The site should be written from a 'you' perspective instead of a 'me' perspective," says C. Victor Brick, president of Brick Bodies in Cockeysville, Md., which owns and manages fitness centers, sells fitness products and consults to health clubs. "Our site tells you what we can do for you. We don't lead with sales specials-we lead with fitness tips, nutrition tips, how to get in shape, how to do this, how to do that."

Other goodies you can include on a Web site include online registration, pro shops (for selling products over the Internet) and discussion boards. But whatever you decide to offer, to keep visitors coming back, you should refresh your content on a regular basis. "We reevaluate our site every six months," says Carlen. "We'll see that some pages are getting a lot of use and some are not and make changes accordingly."

The one thing a club should not include on its Web site, according to Malik, is prices. "You're not going to sell anybody on joining your club by visiting your Web site," he says. "Your goal is to bring people in the door of your club, so don't give them too much information."

And on the off chance that your visitors can't find what they want on your site, it's vital to include a way to get in touch with you, whether by e-mail, by phone or through a Web form, which visitors can fill out while visiting your site.

Step 6: Drive traffic.
On the Web, unfortunately, it's not a case of "If you build it, they will come." Getting visitors to your site takes skillful marketing. The first step in most marketing plans is to get your site listed in the search engines, which are programs that surfers use to find Web sites. These programs search sites for the keywords the surfer is looking for. You can ask your designer to take care of this aspect, or you can register the site yourself by going to search engines such as Yahoo and Excite and submitting your URL (Web address). There are also free services, such as Submit-It, that will add your URL to many search engines at once. Check out the sidebar Helpful Web Sites for more information.

Another way to draw people to your site is to trade links with other sites that your target market may visit. A link, which is usually an underlined word or phrase in blue text, is a connection from one Web site or page to another. Companies that cater to the same audience as your club may agree to place a link to your URL on their site if you promise to do the same. Best of all, it's easy: Just e-mail local hospitals, health food stores and other like-minded sites and ask them if they'd like to exchange links.

Other ideas for generating traffic are to offer e-mail newsletters to site visitors or run contests on your site. A caveat to this approach: Never send an advertising e-mail to a person who hasn't requested it. Unsolicited e-mail advertising, called spam, will only generate ill will toward your club.

The Web is huge-there are millions upon millions of sites vying for your potential customers' attention, with more popping up every day. This makes Internet marketing difficult, to say the least. The trick is to not confine your marketing to cyberspace, but to market in the real world as well. Even dot-coms know this, which is why Internet-only businesses such as Ask Jeeves, eBay and Yahoo have been blanketing the country with TV and print ads.

"We have our URL on every single thing we print," says Carlen. "We also got mouse pads with our logo, and advertised in our print newsletter that the first 250 people who registered online would get a free mouse pad."

Step 7: Keep it up.
Congratulations! It took a lot of hard work, but you now have a powerful online presence that will have customers coming back for more.


Helpful Web Sites

To learn more about such Web terms as host, ISP, URL, link, TLD and domain, check out WhatIs.com: www.whatis.com.

Want to promote your own site? An excellent tutorial in search engines and other aspects of site marketing can be found at The Art of Business Web Site Promotion: http://deadlock.com/promote/

Learn from two successful sites: RDV Sportsplex at www.rdvsportsplex.com and Brick Bodies at www.brickbodies.com.

Find an experienced Web copywriter at Content Exchange: www.content-exchange.com.

Steve Malik's Athletic Net has invaluable information for fitness clubs that want to build a Web presence: www.athleticclubs.com.

Submit your site to many search engines at Submit-It: www.submit-it.com.

Learn 26 ways to promote your site at The Web Marketing Checklist: www.webmarketingtoday.com/articles/checklist.htm.