It’s great when a client or a member tweets a positive comment (that gets retweeted!) or when you get new business thanks to good reviews on Yelp. Unfortunately, however, that isn’t always the case. Angry or otherwise unhappy customers use the Internet as an instant outlet for their gripes. Social media is one of the most powerful forms of brand advertising—but you’re not always in charge.

“Social media has changed the landscape of how companies ‘control’ their messages,” says Erica Perez, owner of Perez Public Relations in Portland, Oregon, which helps companies shape their social media strategy. “The conversation is going on, whether you’re there or not. So you’d better “manage your digital brand”!

Read on for advice from savvy fitness facility managers and owners on how to avoid common slip-ups with Internet rating and review services and social media.

Bad Yelp Reviews and Twitter Taunts

Negative comments and bad vibes are common—and feared. Todd Nief, owner of South Loop CrossFit in Chicago, finds that the ubiquity of Yelp means business owners are likely to experience some negative reviews, no matter what.

He says that while some complaints may be legitimate—whether they’re about a snippy front-desk person or a weight room that’s not as clean as it could be—sometimes they’re the result of a mismatch between what you’re offering and what the commenter expects.

“You can’t appeal to everyone, and you have to trust that your membership foundation and referrals within the community are going to be the main drivers of business,” advises Nief. “Your target market is going to be intelligent enough to filter a negative review appropriately.”

“There are always going to be individuals unhappy with something, whether it’s that they didn’t get the results they wanted or they disagreed with your training protocols,” observes Travis Cummings, CSCS, facility manager with Foothills Acceleration and Sports Training (FAST) in Chandler, Arizona. “The best thing you can do is be aware, be quick to respond, and hopefully resolve the issue if you can.”

Sam Iannetta, who owns Functional Fitness & Wellness Centers in Boulder, Colorado, has found that sites like Yelp tend to attract people who have no other forum in which to voice a negative opinion. Along with several positive Yelp reviews, he had one derogatory review that he suspects was from a former employee. Iannetta addressed it by responding to the posting with facts: He had never trained anyone with that name, nor had anyone he knew in Boulder when he called around to check; therefore he deduced that the review must be a scam.

While most social media professionals recommend this up-front method, Mike Rucker, director of digital products for Club One Inc., takes another approach, believing that it’s better to take the conversation private.

He responds with a direct message on Twitter, or with an email if the Yelp reviewer has left contact information. “We think it’s better not to handle a random gripe in an open forum. Often that just throws fuel on the fire and inspires the conversation to continue.”

Nief concurs. “It doesn’t need to be a debate. Being defensive in a public arena is much worse than having a negative Yelp review,” he says, adding that people who read one random review aren’t going to put much stock in it.

What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

Cummings advocates setting up a free account at or to monitor all activity. “Don’t just use your business name; add your trainers’ names, your own name and any other items relevant to your business,” he advises. Monitoring your activity-mentions means that when something is discussed online, or a review is posted, you will know immediately and can address any comments or concerns.

Iannetta adds a step by using Google to search for his facility name plus “won’t go there” or other phrases that can help him burrow further to find any potential negativity. Then he responds and fixes what he can.

“It’s the little things that matter. If the drinking fountain isn’t working and that’s bugging someone, I’ll let them know I fixed it and they’ll think, ‘Wow! Sam cares!’”

Knowing what people are saying—and making sure you’re part of the conversation—is paramount in the sales process. “When people come in now, they are ready to purchase. They have done their research online and know who we are and what we stand for,” Rucker says. “Social media is an intangible part of the sales funnel, and you need to make sure it’s pointing customers in the right direction.”

Jump in the Game

Social media is just that—social. You have to join the conversation!

Cummings uses social media to open discussions with new clients. For example, he monitors Twitter conversations related to fitness in the Chandler area. By reaching out directly—and in real time—to potential clients who are searching for personal training, he can offer them a free session or a special promotion.

Iannetta “follows” his clients on LinkedIn or Facebook (with their permission), and he comments on positive events in their lives to keep the connection going, so they know he cares about them as people. He uses Facebook and other social media to market himself, or “to put his best foot forward.”

“Let’s say [some clients come] in at the same time every day and they see me in the office at that same time,” Iannetta notes. “They might think that’s all I do, when really that’s just my 10-minute paperwork catch-up time. So I want them to see me on Facebook leading a class.”

Rucker advocates a robust social media presence as a way to communicate with clients. When one of his locations closed for a major remodel, he avoided the typical complaints and questions by using Twitter and Facebook to proactively inform members and to showcase and promote the process in real time. “This engagement and involvement reduced the anxiety that the downtime caused members,” he explains.

Nief also updates class offerings on social media and via email. “I’m always surprised when someone who’s been following me forever finally comes out of the woodwork,” he says. “Even if sometimes you feel like you’re talking to yourself, people are listening.”

Leverage Raving Fans

Just as a negative review can sink you, a positive review or testimonial can bolster you. But how do you find strong advocates and use their positivity effectively? Rucker uses a tool called Zuberance that helps identify his best customers, whom he can then solicit for positive reviews. The club also develops offers for its best advocates to share with their own social networks.

Iannetta believes in the power of testimonials, but he goes one step further than the traditional quote and vague identification, such as “John M.” “Are those even real people?” he laughs. He’s in the process of redoing his website to feature appreciation videos, which he feels will result in a stronger, more believable review. In addition, he’s linking these testimonials to the clients’ LinkedIn profiles. “Most of my clients are professionals, and LinkedIn is the network that speaks to them.”

In his experience, posting ample positive information can negate any unfavorable reviews that are out there.

Be Thoughtful

Social media reputation protection goes both ways. Always get permission from clients and members before posting photos and videos of them. Jon Haas, of Warrior Fitness Gym in Hainesport, New Jersey, says that no matter how amazing a boot camp shot is, you shouldn’t tag someone before obtaining the person’s consent. “This way you avoid accidentally upsetting someone who perhaps didn’t want their picture plastered around the Internet.”

There’s no question that social media is here to stay, and fitness professionals who embrace it and use it to their advantage will be ahead of the game. Spend the extra energy it takes to protect your facility’s good name; stay active on social media and use positive feedback to keep the conversation upbeat.

Cathie Ericson

Cathie Ericson is a freelance writer who specializes in health/fitness and business topics. She loves group fitness classes, especially now, especially outdoors, even in the variable Oregon weather. Find her @cathieericson.

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