Social media has created a lot of talk, hype and buzz in every industry, but what does it mean for the fitness industry? Despite initially not “getting” social media, I now understand the power today’s social media technology holds for enhancing the fitness industry.

Here are some interesting statistics about social media and the Internet that might help you “get it,” too:

  • About 90 percent of retail buying for non-food items starts online with people researching products, comparing prices and checking for deals. Ninety-seven percent of Internet users find local businesses by going online, according to a June 3, 2011, article in The Kiplinger Letter.
  • Of 1,166 consumers surveyed, 19 percent who had never purchased a coupon online from Groupon Inc. planned to try it in the next six months, according to a Bloomberg/YouGov Survey from last year. Ninety percent of respondents who bought a deal on Groupon in the past six months said they planned to do so again. Of 83.1 million Groupon subscribers, 23 percent said they planned to increase the number of deals they buy on Groupon in the next six months.
  • Eighty percent of management and director-level employees in major metropolitan markets are using LinkedIn.
  • The 40- to 50-year-old demographic is among the fastest growing segment on Facebook.
  • Young people like to “check in” on FourSquare and reap rewards for being the “mayor” of locations where they live.

Considering these numbers, doesn’t it make sense that your members and prospects are talking about you online with or without your participation? You need to actively participate to round out the conversation and share your story.

Social media can help you identify the people who love your business (advocates/promoters) and those who do not (detractors). That knowledge financially benefits you because it allows you to leverage both of those relationships. Even members who are neutral to your club can benefit you if you convert them to advocates. Once you have identified these groups, you can use social media to reach these groups much as you do with traditional marketing, public relations, service and sales.

In traditional marketing, you put out a message that you hope is compelling and wait for the participants to act. In traditional public relations, you put your spin on a story and hope it gives you exposure and credibility. In traditional service, you make people find you and tell you about their issue so you can respond. In traditional sales, you wait for people to call or come in and then you show them how great you are. All are easy concepts to understand. Social media is just as easy to understand.

Once Facebook members become your fans (thus publicly stating that they love you), you have to engage them in a relevant conversation so they emotionally invest and participate in the conversation. You can do so through videos, photos, essay contests, question-and-answer sessions, online seminars, updates that matter and special perks just for them.

A recent experience that Club One had on Facebook demonstrates how important this engagement is. Twice each year, we run a Commit to Get Fit program that offers a 20 percent discount for members who have never bought personal training. After we made the offer, more than 10 existing personal training clients complained on Facebook that we did not offer this type of program for our existing personal training clients.

Our Facebook response explaining that the offer was made to introduce new clients to personal training was not to the satisfaction of our existing personal training clients. The existing clients still felt slighted. So, we explained the reason for the offer in further detail, and we offered a coupon to our Facebook fans to get 20 percent off their next 10 pack of personal training. The result was happy members, eight of whom purchased a new package with the coupon right away.

We listened, responded and rectified. This is the power of Facebook. Without our involvement in that conversation on Facebook, we would not have known that we had unhappy members complaining about our practices, and we would not have been able to resolve the situation. Now, we have happy members who know that we want to increase the number of our personal training clients and that we appreciate our existing clients—and we accelerated or motivated further purchases by our loyalists. This is one of the many powerful applications of social media. Real-time dialogue, correction, service, sales, engagement—and brand advocacy. Using your members to tell your story to prospects and other members is more impactful than you telling the story.

Certain platforms can help you use social media. Club One uses Zuberance. (Disclosure: After being a long-term customer, I recently joined the Zuberance advisory board.) This platform “bolts in” to your website and allows for advocate identification, testimonials and sharing (referrals). With platforms such as this, you can determine who your net promoters are by asking: “On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the highest, how likely would you be to refer someone to this business?” Members who give you 9s and 10s are net promoters or advocates; those who give you 7s and 8s are neutral and those who give you 6s and below are detractors.

Knowing this data on a unique member basis is powerful. You can do a lot with each group to improve or maximize your relationship with them.

The net promoters are then asked, “What do you like most about Club X?” This testimonial is then allowed to be shared on various online channels (Facebook, Yelp, CitySearch).

Publishing these testimonials increases your organic online search presence, which allows more people to discover your brand. Members can share their responses with others in their networks through Facebook, Outlook, Gmail, Yahoo, etc. So your member survey now is a member knowledge tool that identifies how unique members feel about you. It also is a testimonial tool building your online reputation and a referral engine. It is exciting to learn about the personal perceptions of members, have positive testimonials posted online and generate new business all at the same time.

I only scratched the surface about the social media components you can use for a complete, integrated marketing strategy that can involve direct marketing, segmentation, lead/source tracking, positioning, daily group deals, call recordings, secret shopping, focus groups, member knowledge and more.

The best way to grow our businesses is to deliver beyond what members expect and then give them the opportunity to tell everyone in their network about it so we can offer similar successes to others. Social media is a new part of this. It offers a new world around how people consume information and determine which brands they want to connect with emotionally. The physical and online worlds are both part of a new reality in consumer behavior, and our industry is positioned like few others to fully benefit from this exciting new world of connection, service, sales, marketing, positioning and public relations. I say explore, try, be open and keep learning.

If you’d like to learn more about Club One’s marketing approach, sit in on the seminar that Kari Bedgood, our director of marketing and public relations, and I will be hosting at 10 a.m. on Saturday, March 17, at the IHRSA conference in Los Angeles.

Bill McBride, president and COO of Club One, San Francisco, started his full-time career in the fitness business in 1986. Prior to joining Club One, McBride was the senior vice president of sales and business development for The Sport & Health Co., Washington, DC. His background includes roles in sales, sales management, corporate sales management, general management, multi-site management, regional management, regional vice president and senior vice president. He has served as president on the board of directors for Mid-Atlantic Club Management Association and is an international presenter and industry-recognized expert in sales, sales management, general management, retention, club operations, service and leadership. He also is a member of the Club Industry advisory board. He can be reached at Bill.McBride@ClubOne.com.