Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Digital Disruption of the Fitness Industry. (Here comes the future and you can't run from it*).

"It's not sufficient to do things better. We need to do better things." - Mark Shayler

Fitness at its heart is very much an analogue activity. Regardless of the gadgets and fancy gear, you still have to lift the weight or run the distance.

Although the 'gamification' of the fitness industry has probably been overplayed. (go to any gym, like the one I am a member of and see how many people use The Trixter bikes, basically none, once the novelty has worn off). The way we engage with the public, get them to join our facilities and the products we offer need to move on and reflect the new way the market behaves.

Opening a gym used to be relatively simple, a 2 stage process:

1) Fill a room with machines
2) Hand out some leaflets and hope people joined

This process was then added to by some of the big players. And despite my claim at least one of them would go under, specifically LA Fitness in the last couple of years, they have more or less stayed afloat. Though, those of you who keep up with such things will know that LA Fitness had to close several sites, sold a load to Sports Direct and had to re-negotiate the rent on the others.

The process favoured by the standard industry representatives is:

1) Fill a room with machines
2) Hand out some leaflets
3) When people come in with the leaflet put them on a call list
4) Call them offering no joining fee until they join or tell you to stop calling them
5) Ignore them until their contract finishes and then call them again to ask about renewal.

Of course, this model forgets that the Internet, amazon, google and facebook have since been invented.

1998 called, it wants its marketing campaign back.
I have heard the same figures quoted for leaflets for the past 10 years, a 1 to 3% return. Don't forget this was the possible return rate in a world without facebook. These days you would be better off sponsoring the recycling bin because that's where your leaflets are going.

A brief history of the fitness industry.

We are also in a period where innovation is being driven from the bottom up in fitness.

In the last 50 years or so, fitness has gone through the following phases:

1) In the 1950 & 1960s. Guys who liked training in gyms, opened one up for their friends to train in.
2) In the 1970s & 1980s tennis clubs and squash clubs started to open. In the UK leisure centres started to spread. Some had a small gym attached, normally a multi-machine.
3) In the 1990s. The current modern era started, with various health club chains opening, this is the model most have joined the industry in the last 15 years or so are familiar with. The agenda was set by these companies in terms of how you set up a club. i.e. rows of cardio equipment, minimal weights, resistance machine, saunas & steam rooms. It was a top down model, and someone at the top decided what was going to attract the most members or the desired type of member.
4) Now. Guys and females who like training are opening their own micro gyms, or PT studios or Crossfit boxes. The agenda is now set by these clubs. Innovation is being driven from the bottom up.

The trend in kettlebells, HIIT training, functional rigs and so forth were all adopted by the big chains after they had been proven in smaller facilities.

And most of this disruption was driven digitally on facebook and youtube. With coaches and trainers posting videos of their facility, their clients and what they do.

Innovation in marketing.

The  main focus of this article will how to engage more people in fitness via the marketing we use and the ease with which consumers can access our products.

A quick look through the websites listed below and several things stand out:

Join online includes free PT
Still has tour de france promo from July on site
PT yes, no prices

Can’t join online, gives prices

Can’t join online, usual PT spiel, no price

Yes, can join online, includes bodyfirst PT sessions

Can’t join online, meet the PT section, seemed to have got away with work out of the day without being sued by crossfit

Arrange a visit, can't join online

Can join online

Can join online

Can't join online, you can get free membership until Jan 2015, plus they have a playlist app. Yep, a playlist app but no fitness or nutrition app.

personal training appt slots, prices per session and monthly on site

1) How similar all the websites are, the same stock images, the same menus at the top of the page, the same phrases.
2) How on some of them you still can't join online. They still have the gatekeeper mentality. You need to contact a sales advisor to be able to join. You might be able to buy a car online, or a holiday or a computer worth a £1000, but when it comes to signing up for a gym you have to go through the sales team still.
3) The prices range per month range from £10.99 to £70+ per month, and at first glance it is very difficult to discern any real difference between the different companies. They have the same classes on offer, the equipment is made by the same manufacturers. So obviously you are paying for the service...

There are no 'purple cows' as Seth Godin would say, no one is really standing out from the crowd. They all look the same, and offer more or less the same service.

These companies have become too big to innovate, they are fighting for the customer who occupies the mythical middle ground. The customer who so far has made most of their business models untenable.

The myth of incumbency is alive and well. You think these companies know what they are doing, they are the experts in the fitness industry. But hang on

"Sony missed the mp3... Kodak missed digital... and Nokia forgot about innovation." - Mark Shayler
Being the big guy on the block doesn't mean a thing in the face of the current technologies.

"The only source of competitive advantage now is a focus on knowledge of and engagement with customers." James McQuivey

The claims that they have 'built a gym package exclusively for you or me' can't be true. If any of these operators go beyond off-peak/ peak/ corporate and contract/ non contract I'll eat a bosu.

"Don't try to make a product for everybody, because that is a product for nobody." - Seth Godin

Before & After pictures - the calling card.

The current outlets of facebook, twitter and websites allow individual trainers and small companies to engage as much or more with their customers than large corporations.

Its not unusual for self employed solo personal trainers to have more facebook likes, more twitter followers and more interactions on social media than their big business counterparts.

Firstly, posting before and after pictures and testimonials is very powerful and most large companies don't do it or are poor at it. This could be related to the personal training model they follow (see below). Whereas, success coaches and PT's make it their business to post success stories and testimonials.

Secondly, in many ways it is easy for the lone trainer to engage with his audience on facebook & twitter. They do not have to go through a corporate filter or marketing department. They can be their authentic self.

"The way you break through to the mainstream is to target a niche instead of a huge market." - Seth Godin
This is the approach Crossfit took and small independent trainers can take. The large chains that think they just target the mainstream have forgotten that total marketing penetration for the fitness industry stands at about 12%.

For large corporations, there is always the chance that the opposite will happen. Check out Nuffields facebook page to see how former disgruntled employees will have their say or any other operator to see how unhappy members will rate your service or how vociferous they will be if something goes wrong with the service or their contract. This is then compounded by pages being updated sporadically, less than once a month, and the complete lack of member transformation stories. The PR war has been lost before it even begun.

Personal Training - not really part of the service.

Looking at the websites listed above, it is hard to find personal training on any them. It becomes doubly hard to find out how much personal training costs and just about impossible to book an appointment.

One provider, Fitness First, does provide some PT sessions as an option as part of the initial sign up package.

The reason for the difficulty finding PT is most operators don't see it as part of their core service. The trainers are normally self employed and pay a monthly rent to access the clients in the club. Again, you will be hard pressed to find any testimonials or before and after pictures on any of these websites.

How about integrating personal training into the member experience. Don't make them pay for it in blocks of 5 or 10 sessions. How about charging an enhanced monthly rate for personal training and rather than making the PTs freelance hired hands, make them the instructors that you pay an additional (decent) amount to for training clients. And how about measuring them in terms of results and PR generated.

App Attack.

I checked all the major app stores and couldn't find any current fitness operator who had delved into this market, except recently Nuffield with their health measuring app and David Lloyd with their playlist app.

Again, another missed opportunity. The public are using 'my fitness pal' and all sorts of fitness workout apps and the fitness industry was in the perfect position to produce their own one, but as far as I can tell no one did. We have the gyms, the staff, the workouts and the member base. It wouldn't have taken much much for one of the big players to release a fitness app which they gave to every new member for free, and/or sell it somewhere like the 'play store'.

The same goes for nutrition apps or even basic workout tracking apps. But it seems the industry waits for someone else to do it.

Outside the building.

As an industry, we are still very much in the mindset of  'put some machines in a room and people will come'. There is no reason why our products could not become more virtual. Even if apps are not developed there is no reason why you couldn't be selling nutrition and training programmes to people not actually in your gym. Freelance trainers from the USA and UK are doing this right now with online clients; but for some reason this is an aspect of business we dismiss.

If you start to develop clients outside your geographical sphere of influence you have just widened your market wider than you ever thought possible. But it has be done properly, a half arsed effort is not going to cut it in today's market place.

Joined up thinking.

I found only one website, a Crossfit one, where you could actually book a personal training appointment via the website. Surely, this should be the norm.

The following simple changes could make the difference

1) The front page of your web page should make it easy to join and obvious what the price is.
2) Your website should not consist of stock images of people sitting on swiss balls but real before and after testimonials from clients, people actually training in your gym with you.
3) The client should be able to book personal training or their first gym orientation online, most places let people book classes online now, why not this.
4) Integrate PT into your business model not as stand alone blocks of 5 or 10 sessions. Pay staff to be your personal trainers.
5) Widen your customer base to include distance coaching clients, online programme writing and more. If you have an IT department why aren't they developing a fitness app to give to your members or to place in an app store.
6) Don't try and be all things to all people, Crossfit doesn't, Zumba doesn't, the best TV programmes don't try to be - so why are you? Pick a market, and be authentic with how you represent yourself and your product.

But fundamentally start asking what your customer really wants and what you can do to stand out from the crowd.

Are you offering customers what they really want? Do they want rows of equipment? Do they want fast classes? Or do they want results? Do they want to belong to a tribe? Do they want to join with a friend or would they rather join and meet like minded people? Do we really know the answer to these questions or do we presume? Do we as an industry know the answer to these questions?

Standing out doesn't means starting some crazy fitness class that no one wants to go to but developing a product that is easily accessible and provides something that no one else is providing or they provide it but you just do it better.

If you don't start disrupting now, someone else will and you will be left behind.

"Just asking customers for feedback won't lead to the breakthrough disruptions... because customers don't always know what they want." - James McQuivey

Oh, and if anyone asks, I invented digital fit street.


Seth Godin (2003) Purple Cow: Transform your business by being remarkable. Penguin

James McQuivey (2013) Digital Disruption: Unleashing the next wave of innovation. Amazon publishing.

Mark Shayler (2013) DO Disrupt. Change the status quo. Or become it. DO Books Co.

"Marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department." - David Packard

* line taken from Billy Bragg song Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards.