In the last 7 years, I’ve mentored over 500 fitness professionals looking to move their business from the in-person, time-for-money grind to the online fitness space. They are eager to gain more time and autonomy by creating products and services that help thousands more clients than they could ever hope to reach at their local big box gym.

The online fitness space for personal trainers is the most crowded it’s ever been, with more people trying to do it and more opportunities and tools available to make it happen.

More potential clients and customers are open to training over the internet or purchasing digital fitness products. And social media has facilitated a boom of “insta-famous” trainers who can market themselves for free using an iPhone, good lighting and a barrage of filters. The integrity discussion around perception versus reality is one for another time, but the bottom line is that personal branding carries a lot more weight than it ever has.

A Quick Overview of Online Business

Very few trainers have expertise above and beyond that of anyone else working in the fitness field. Most of us have the same general level of certification and the same number of basic credentials—meaning it’s going to be harder to cut through the noise with expertise alone or by having “the best” information.

Three ways you can—and should—cut through the noise are (1) with your experience in getting results for clients (successful clinical experience), (2) with the strength of your personality and (3) with your ability to leverage personal branding. We’ll talk about all three in this article, but here’s the bottom line: If you are a personal trainer looking to use the internet to generate income and reach many more people with your message, the time to get busy doing it is now.

But how do you know—beyond accumulating likes and shares—whether you’re doing things correctly, assuring the viability of your business, building trust, offering service and generating actual revenue?

Likes and shares do not a business make, even though they’re nice for the ego. The best thing for the ego is to know that you are truly making a difference, via actual customers—which brings me to the first mistake I see trainers making.

Mistake #1: You Rely on Your Abs (or Your A**) to Build Your Business

Having a great body can be a good thing, but when your sole strategy is posting bathroom mirror selfies on Instagram, understand that you’re probably not attracting the audience you want or the audience that is willing or able to pay you for your services.

To understand the dynamics of personal brands in the online space, you need to understand inbound marketing, a term that was coined by Hubspot CEO Brian Halligan and is right in line with the advice in Seth Godin’s book Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers into Friends and Friends into Customers (Simon & Schuster 1999).

The principle of inbound marketing is that we do not attract potential customers by actively soliciting them, an approach known as interruption marketing. We attract them by offering a steady flow of free content that’s in line with our services, values and expertise. This way, the right potential customers come to us.

Generating lots of likes and building a following can certainly have implications for social proof (also known as informational social influence, social proof comes into play when people follow what others are doing, assuming that those others know the appropriate or correct way to behave in a situation). But if the customers you are attracting are not coming to you for solutions—or if their intent is not to actually invest financially with you, but instead to gaze at your bangin’ body—then you don’t have a viable business model.

Being attractive might make things easier, but without the brains (and solutions!) to back up that brawn, you will continue to struggle—and to wonder why, with so many fans and followers, you aren’t able to monetize things. Which brings me to my next point . . .

Mistake #2: You Skip Email Marketing Because You Think It Will Annoy People

I wish someone had pointed out the importance of email marketing to me sooner, but with social media providing all the glitz and glamour, it’s easy to forget about the comparatively boring email route.

Here’s the thing: Fewer and fewer people are buying goods and services on social media; there’s just too much noise (it’s still great for trust-building, though). So the bulk of your customers will come from your email subscribers. They are your warmest leads, because they had to actually opt in to get your words in their inbox, and they did so voluntarily. They want what you have to say, and they will eventually want what you have to offer.

I recommend that you build your email list as quickly as possible. Do this by asking people to sign up. Ask often, and accompany your request with value-first lead generators or “freebies” that entice people to opt in. Then, provide that exceptional value, service and a ton of your best free content via your weekly email newsletters.

Don’t wait until you have 1,000 subscribers; be consistent with emailing weekly right now. I don’t care if you have 10 subscribers—they are your early adopters, your superfans! Spoil them. Every single successful fitness entrepreneur started with 10 subscribers.

And finally, because email is permission-based, trust that these people actually do want to hear from you. Don’t worry about bothering them or coming off as “salesy.” Remember, at some point you must actually ask for a sale if you want to make money, so let your expertise, solutions, stories and experiences be a service. Don’t send an email to your subscribers only when you are selling; regularly send them great content and strategies that can help them. Then, when you do eventually ask for a sale, they’ll show up to buy.

Mistake #3: You Try to Be Someone You’re Not

The concept of authenticity is a hot one—and one that is merited when it pertains to the long-term success of your personal fitness brand. In the online space, customers buy from those they know, like and trust. If you’re not showcasing examples of trustworthiness, how can customers ever feel attached enough to you to want to invest?

You can increase the level of people’s trust in your business by using the Pratfall Effect. (In social psychology, this is “the tendency for attractiveness to increase or decrease after an individual makes a mistake, depending on the individual’s perceived ability to perform well in a general sense.”) This combination of humanity plus competency elicits the highest level of trust.

Just being smart or educated isn’t enough anymore. You also have to be relatable. Customers are savvier than ever and are able to sniff out BS quickly, so if you’re trying to be someone you’re not, or if you’re putting on the façade of perfection 24/7, your resonance will suffer. Fitness customers don’t want perfect; they want relatable, with a heaping side of effective solutions for them. People are dying for connection and for a coach who “gets” them, so it behooves trainers to show up in as honest and authentic a way as possible and then let the chips fall.

Authenticity is also a compliance tool. The online service industry is driven by content—written content, videos, images, podcasts, etc.—most of it free. In order to make inroads and show potential online customers what you know and how you can help, you have to create a lot of free content. If you think you need to look like or sound like someone else in order to be successful, you’re going to have a hard time in the long term. The more “accessible” it is for you to create content, meaning the more easily content flows from you, the more likely you’ll be to want to continue doing it. Authenticity puts you in flow.

Mistake #4: You Still Trade Time for Money

You wanted to get into online business to stop doing the time-for-money grind at the gym. Great, but now instead of just seeing Susan for a 60-minute session, you’re going back and forth with her over email 10 times a day, spending hours writing meal plans and training programs. It’s a mistake to move to online business and then still not leverage.
Autonomy is the first step, which is why many online trainers begin with 1:1 meal-plan writing and program design versus training in the gym (also, most clients will get great results).

But these trainers can max out their time just as quickly in front of a computer.

The solution is to find ways to leverage your time and make money while you sleep, so that you don’t get paid only when you are physically working. I recommend moving to a more automated model as soon as possible.

For example, you can hire other online trainers to whom you teach your protocols, and then take a percentage of each client you hand off to them. Or you can create DIY programs that people can purchase on your site anytime; your job then becomes driving traffic to your site via content. You can create a certification for your systems, or you can license out a specific training protocol you created, thereby teaching—and charging—other trainers to learn your methods. You can become an affiliate for other trainers who have programs, getting a kickback from each sale you make to your readership.

In Summary

The mistakes presented above are the ones I see trainers making most frequently when they’re new to online business. Likes and shares look impressive, but if you don’t have a way to get those social media followers into your email subscription to eventually buy a solution that you have for sale, there’s zero viability.

Viability depends on impact, and the subsequent revenue you can generate—with as little of your time as needed—is a result of that impact.

Don’t make it about your ego. Your online business isn’t about you; it’s about getting real results for your customers. Results will always win out. Spend time getting proficient and niched in what you help people with, because if you don’t have solutions for what people are struggling with, you don’t have a business. Then, use your consistent value-first marketing strategies (content creation) to give people multiple and frequent ways to connect with you to access those solutions.