Talk of the Town

by Sandy Franco on Mar 01, 2001

Marketing your business to new members can be tricky and costly. Here are some ways to avoid the tricks and the costs and get the word out about your facility.

Each year business owners and managers in the fitness industry spend millions of dollars promoting their facilities and trying to sell memberships. Every form of media is utilized —television, radio, direct mail and so forth. And yet, when we ask those customers who do end up joining our clubs how they heard about us, the number one answer in my many years of experience remains the same: word of mouth. Here’s what I hear: “My sister is a member.” “My neighbor encouraged me to join.” “My friend at work brought me as a guest.”

It is time to reevaluate our advertising budgets and allocate some dollars for recognizing and rewarding referring members. Here are four different ways to promote, foster and encourage current members to recruit new ones.

Try a Member Sponsorship Campaign

At Franco’s Athletic Club, we attribute one of our most successful recruiting campaigns to our members. Once a year, usually around our anniversary date, we send out an upscale mail piece to all members. Enclosed on parchment paper, the recipients find a thank-you note for their patronage and commitment to good health. In honor of our anniversary, they also receive a sponsorship card that allows them to sponsor a friend or family member.

The sponsorship card includes the current member’s name as well as a blank area for the name of the person being sponsored. The card also lists the enrollment fee of $200 and is stamped “Paid in Full.” The perception is that the sponsoring member paid this fee for the friend or family member.

We receive a huge response from this campaign. Our members know it only happens once a year, so they look forward to giving this gift to someone close to them. I have watched this same campaign succeed at clubs with very limited budgets. Remember, though: Presentation is everything. The more exclusive and nice you design the mail piece, the more valuable it appears.

Use New Member Referral Cards

At our facility, if we spend a lot of money on a membership campaign that has a given deadline, we don’t spend any more money on external advertising the month following the deadline. However, we try to capitalize on the excitement of the new members who joined during the campaign with an internal promotion geared exclusively toward them. We call it “Friends of Franco’s.”

Here’s how it works: When new members come into our club, we explain that the deadline they managed to beat for their membership can be extended for another month or so for three of their friends. We then contact these friends and extend the expired offer to them for a designated time period.

Remember that your new members are your most excited members. They are the most likely members to refer others to your facility. Let them know how they can be a hit with their friends!

Recognize People of Influence

Who are the most influential people in your club and community? If you can identify them, these individuals can have a dramatic impact on your membership numbers. They are politicians, coaches, teachers, physicians, Realtors, religious leaders, television and radio personalities, just to name a few. Make an effort to connect with these people. Get them to join your club or extend a special membership to them. Take care of these people, and they will take care of you.

Here are three examples:

  • At Franco’s, we extend complimentary memberships to every church pastor in the area as well as a special clergy rate to their associates. Though certainly not the original intention, some of these religious leaders have mentioned working out at our club during their sermons. Talk about free advertisement; some of these pastors have congregations of 500 community members.

  • We gave a special membership to a local radio talk show host and now he regularly informs listeners on how his workouts are going at Franco’s. What a great testimonial! We didn’t ask for any publicity, but like most people, the radio personality simply wanted to share how great he felt when exercising.

  • We contacted an area Realtors group and offered to host their next business meeting at our club. We served them a continental breakfast, gave them a group tour and offered them a free month membership for every referral who joined. Now the Realtors include our facility as part of any tour they give to new community members.

Show Gratitude

Should we show our gratitude for member referrals by giving gifts? Different facility owners and mangers have different opinions on this topic. Some say it’s a big mistake to give gifts of gratitude, because members will expect something every time they help you. Others say members might be insulted or embarrassed when informed they can receive a free T-shirt if one of their friends joins. But what if we move away from awarding the proverbial T-shirt and use more unique and meaningful ways to say thank you?

Should we show our gratitude with gifts? My answer is yes. When I refer someone to a business, I don’t expect any recognition—but I do enjoy being acknowledged. For example, let’s say I get a great haircut from a local beautician and some of our members comment about it. Of course I will tell them who cut my hair, which may lead to new clients for the beautician. If I received a nice letter of gratitude along with some complementary hair products from the hair stylist, would I be offended or embarrassed? On the contrary, I would be surprised and impressed. Would I want this attention every time? No. Just the occasional acknowledgment works fine.

Now relate this same scenario to your fitness facility. Let’s say your one-year membership costs $500. If a current member brings in six new members, that’s $3,000 in referrals. Would you be willing to write a thank-you note and include a $25 club gift certificate for the current member? Many clubs might think they could not afford to extend such an offer. My question is: How can you afford not to extend such an offer?! It’s a great deal for everyone.

Think of it this way: If your membership base is 2,000 and every current member brought in just one new member at $500 in annual dues, that’s $1 million additional income for your facility. Spending $25 per referral costs $50,000, so you end up netting $950,000. A great return on your investment? You bet.

Our marketing philosophy at Franco’s has always been to “keep ’em talking.” If we can manage through staff, programs, new equipment, classes and events to excite our members, they will walk out the door and share their enthusiasm with friends and family. They will want others to join the fun and fitness success. If word of mouth is the key to success, then give members something to talk about.

IDEA Fitness Manager, Volume 13, Issue 2

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About the Author

Sandy Franco

Sandy Franco IDEA Author/Presenter

Sandy Franco is owner of Franco’s Athletic Club in Mandeville, Louisiana. An international presenter at fitness industry events, she has 25 years’ experience in sales and promotions. Contact Franco at (504) 792-0200 or