The Coffee Shop Vs. Your Health Club

by Brian Smith on May 01, 2002

A few market research strategies to help you better understand your customers.

Every weekday, one of your club members is at Starbucks spending $3 plus tip in 15 minutes or less. Occasionally, she will buy a little something extra, making the monthly total $80 or more. How can the corner coffee shop possibly collect $80 a month for the daily morning fix when you have to justify $40 to $90 a month for a full-service membership to your fitness facility?

It’s because Starbucks (and a few other companies like them) has transcended simple price objections and created a loyal breed of daily customers by simply making them feel welcome and pampered.

Through a deep understanding of their customers—earned through extensive and ongoing market research—the Seattle coffee giant has become intuitive instead of reactive. While other companies are forced to wait for a customer complaint or suggestion, Starbucks senses the customer’s needs beforehand. This sixth sense gives them a sharp, competitive edge when developing new products and services, finding more customers and cultivating loyalty.

Let’s examine how you can use similar market research strategies to inexpensively and easily put those same advantages to work in your club.

Set Specific Goals

Always start by setting specific goals. Once defined, your goals will guide the rest of the project and ultimately uncover the answers you need to find. “To determine who my best prospects are and where they live,” is a precise goal. “To determine these prospects’ current attitudes towards fitness,” is another precise goal. Weak, vague objectives are always a waste of your time and money, so be exact and commit your research goals to paper.

Gather Information

Next, amass information as it relates directly to your project goal. You can do this a number of ways. For many clubs, informal, off-site focus groups are a great start. Instead of holding your focus groups at the facility, try conducting them in a coffee shop or local hangout. A relaxing environment should loosen up your participants and put them at ease. The more comfortable they are, the more helpful their answers will be.

It is very common for focus group participants to show bias toward what they think the group director or other group members want. When they give in to this perceived peer pressure, it clouds your findings. To prevent this from happening, as you write your questions and develop exercises, be careful not to lead. Another situation to avoid is the “loudmouth.” In a group environment, there will always be someone who is the most outspoken. As soon as he surfaces, thank him for his time and politely ask him to leave. You will never get the true thoughts and feelings of the group if that one guy bullies the others.

Limit your groups to between eight and 12 people, and try these exercises:

  1. Picture Association. Spread out 10 to 50 pictures cut from magazines, newspapers and direct mail. Ask your group participants to pick three or four pictures that mean something to them as it relates to your research topic. Once everyone has their choices, have each person explain what the picture represents to them. This information will begin to show you how they feel about your topic. Additionally, your participants will reveal key hot buttons.
  2. The Ideal (Fill-in-the-Blank). For example, if you are researching the viability of a new exercise program, ask each participant to describe the ideal exercise program. Where would it take place? How long would it last? Who else attends? Tape record or transcribe every word. Do not paraphrase. Use their exact words in your sales scripts and advertising to quickly build trust.
  3. Word Association.Type a list of 50 adjectives, nouns, verbs and adverbs that are representative of your topic. For research on customer service, for example, some word examples might be “friendly,” “responsive,” “available,” “fast” and “personal.” Distribute the list and ask your participants to circle the 10 that mean the most to them, relating to the topic. Design and implement new programs and services that match the chosen words and you will cultivate loyalty and friendship from your members.

Telemarketing and surveys are also great tools. Remember that it might be beneficial to look beyond your own members when conducting telephone or written surveys and focus groups. An outsider’s perspective is often a much-needed fresh look.

If you are working within a tight budget, instead of conducting all original research, you also can buy existing data and extrapolate what you need from it. By taking this shortcut, you typically save thousands of dollars and cut your project time by half. Through a number of companies you can learn what your best customers and prospects are buying, watching, listening to and more. From demographics such as age, income and education, to psychographics such as buying patterns and values, almost anything you might need is available from a marketing specialist (see Resources).

Using the Results

What can you do with all this information? Here are a few of many options. You are limited only by your creativity.

  • Design effective marketing that truly connects with your targeted consumer.

  • Find more people just like your best members.

  • Develop programs that really mean something to your members.

  • Design referral programs and contests that are fun.

  • Become intuitive to the needs of your members.

With the right information, the sky’s the limit!

Test and Refine

Once you have a new program or service ready, try testing it on a small scale. If your theory is right, then it is safe to move ahead. But, if it’s wrong or slightly off, testing prior to implementation gives you a chance to make adjustments. Test, test and test again before a full launch. Revise and improve. Implement the revised program and keep tabs on it, making more changes as needed.

Research is about gathering massive amounts of information, and then identifying what is related to your findings and how it affects your customer. As the data continue to branch in different directions, eventually you may find a totally revolutionary way to help your members and bond them to your business. Suddenly, it appears as if your club fits into the member’s life, instead of you trying to push your club on them. That makes a big difference! The point is to do whatever it takes to ethically uncover the information about your customers that empowers you to better serve them through your business model.

Hundreds or perhaps thousands of people work out in your club. They know a lot about you but what do you know about them?

IDEA Fitness Manager, Volume 14, Issue 3

© 2002 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Author

Brian Smith IDEA Author/Presenter

Brian Smith is the president of Red Hot Marketing, an Atlanta-based research and direct marketing company of his research report detailing the buying habits of health club members, contact him at (800...