Long before COVID-19, fitness entrepreneurs had spirited discussions about technology’s impact on the fitness industry. Now, the digital dimension is no longer seen as a disruption; it’s a mainstay. As such, we must upgrade our understanding of technology’s powerful potential for getting people to move. Having an online or virtual presence may have started as part of your survival toolkit, but now it’s time to determine how best to weave it into your business plan in this new world. In this two-part series, we’ll review options for pulling together the technology needed to rebuild your fitness business in a digital-first world.

Where We’ve Been

If you go back a year or so, conversations about technology and small-screen solutions for accessing fitness were quite different than they are today. Face-to-face was still king, and personal trainers and group fitness instructors held on to the notion that nothing would replace what they did with a client “in real life” (IRL). Sure, maybe you’d occasionally email workouts, check in via text for accountability, and record video clips to help someone get a workout in while they were on vacation, but in the past, an online offering was seen as an “or” (substitution or consolation prize), not an “and” (supplement, amplification, extra).

The technology transformation is fueled by three outcomes and lessons of coronavirus closures. First, when we were all forced home, we had to embrace those once infrequently used options or stop training (and stop earning). Consumer disruption led to fundamental shifts in behavior related to searching for, accessing, and utilizing health and wellness content.

Lesson #1: We must embrace technology in every area of our business to acquire, serve and retain clients.

Next, as we explored technology, we quickly grabbed the tools we could find and “MacGyvered” our way into an online world. We found tools that were either free or inexpensive, easy to use, already on our devices, or currently used by our clients and put our services out there, collecting feedback along the way. While our longstanding clients were willing to play along with our experiment, the fatigue of a friction-filled digital experience set in as the weeks wore on.

Lesson #2: Our clients require a streamlined approach, and so do we.

Then, we started our foray into the online world in survival mode. We aimed to replicate what we did IRL instead of rethinking access, payment, scheduling and marketing. While we made it work, we now realize this approach may not be sustainable, as some of our procedures are more time-consuming and labor-intensive than before.

Lesson #3: We need a long-term solution to usher in this new era, which requires us to pause and rethink our business models.

To create an evolved, full-scale business solution with streamlined opportunities for awareness, acquisition, sales, service and retention, you need to harness technology. However, instead of using what you have or choosing technology first and building around it, it’s essential to build a sustainable system and then identify the tools needed to activate each stage. Make smart choices about stacking technology and offer consumer-centered solutions; it makes a difference.

Developing a System

People make purchases in proportion to the trust they have in you or your product. Keep this idea—from Book Yourself Solid, by Michael Port (Wiley 2010)—in mind to help you build a stable system on which your business can thrive.

You must build a sales cycle process instead of a sales funnel. A funnel insists you cast a wide net and acquire as many leads as possible to pass through the wide top. You make the offer, and they either engage or they don’t. You lather, rinse, repeat and try again. On the other hand, a sales cycle process creates several offerings along the trust and credibility continuum. That way, you’re much more likely to get leads of all kinds to engage and nurture, which leads to deeper offerings in your sales cycle. It also allows those who engage to move freely between stages, depending on circumstances or need, without dropping out altogether, thus aiding retention and providing ongoing income.

At the very least, develop a system with the following five stages:

  1. Activation: free, low risk
  2. Events: free, small risk
  3. Trials: free, moderate risk
  4. Digital offerings: moderate investment, low risk
  5. In-person offerings: moderate-to-high investment, moderate-to-high risk

The five stages progress in risk, both financially and in the time commitment required, from least to highest. All stages must provide immense value and speak directly to your target audience. Technology is necessary for each and builds—or stacks—as the client moves along.

See also: Upgrade Your Virtual Communication

Stage One: Activation

Activation includes valuable, relevant digital content. Whatever you decide to provide here should be free, easy to discover and effortless to consume, and it should provide a jumping-off point for keeping in touch so that you can build trust and credibility. Remember to capture contact information (email or phone number).

Your stage-one technology needs:

  • social media account(s) and scheduling software
  • website
  • customer relationship management (CRM) system

Provide compelling content across your social media platforms to drive people to your website. Your content should be a gift; it should speak to your target market and solve its problems. While it’s possible to post organically, you may want to invest in social media posting and scheduling tools. There are several to choose from, including Hootsuite, Buffer and Social Oomph (as a start).

Your website drives and links to all other stages of your sales cycle. As your online business card, it doesn’t need to be overcomplicated, but you do need at least 3–5 pages, which should information about you, your services, your dedication to your target market, your fees and opportunities to engage. Services such as FitPost, GoDaddy, bluehost, Wix, WordPress and Squarespace make the website building process relatively simple.

Set aside one page specifically for your activation content—evergreen information that displays how you solve your target market’s problems. For example, on a page dedicated to new moms returning to exercise, you might offer an effective solution by including a short video with 3–5 exercises to sneak in throughout the day.

This free information should entice potential clients to provide an email address (or phone number) so that you can obtain additional content and engage them moving forward. You’ll need a lead capture form and CRM system to easily harvest the email, tag where the lead originated, and automatically keep in touch to provide additional, valuable content and future offers.

CRMs that are lightweight and easy to use include Mailchimp, AWeber, Emma, Constant Contact and Insightly. While this is not an all-inclusive list, start your research here to find something that fits your budget and your needs. Look for the ability to segment lists and a simple interface for creating and scheduling emails. CRMs and marketing automation software will help you grow your list and keep in touch in a scalable way, which is fundamental to your sustainability and growth.

Stage Two: Events

Events provide additional opportunities to offer valuable and relevant content. This free offering is longer (anywhere from 15 minutes to a few hours) and requires a higher level of commitment. Events can be special, happening once in a while, or occur regularly. Consider in-person events in addition to virtual ones. Be sure to capture contact information (email or phone) to nurture the relationship and continue to build trust and credibility over time.

Your stage-two technology needs:

  • event management system or scheduling software
  • virtual delivery software

For example, perhaps you’re hosting a pelvic-floor specialist to speak to postnatal moms, or you’re providing a weekly get-together for new moms to ask questions about the dos and don’ts before being cleared to exercise. Either way, you’ll need a way to collect RSVPs. You could use traditional scheduling software (e.g., Mindbody, GroupEx PRO), but this may seem like a hurdle for obtaining leads, as people will need to create an account, although it’s free.

Instead, consider a simple event management systems like Eventbrite or evite, a texting campaign service such as Join By Text, or even Facebook Events. Migrate these leads into your CRM (from stage one) and be sure to note which event people attended, to ensure customization in your keep-in-touch strategy. Your ability to offer content that matches what each lead has taken advantage of will advance your relationship and pull leads further into your sales cycle.

If you’re hosting virtual events, determine the best platform for doing so. While social media (e.g., Facebook Live, IGTV, YouTube) is free and straightforward to use, you may want to explore platforms that allow more access control to ensure you can capture details about attendees. We’ll explore additional virtual solutions for both on-demand and livestreaming in part two of this article.

In the next installment, we’ll discuss the final three stages of the sales cycle process: trials, digital offerings and in-person offerings. Meanwhile, if you spend time dialing in stages one and two—choosing the technology that works best for you and beginning your content creation—you’ll pave the way for a new-and-improved hybrid business model.

See also: 5 Ways Fitness Businesses Have Created Revenue in Pandemic Times