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How to navigate the world of online customer reviews Photo by nicoelnino / Getty Images.
Although encouraging members to post online reviews is a good idea, offering incentives such as discounts can backfire and ultimately damage a club’s reputation.

Your Health Club Members Are Your Best Online Marketing Resource

In today's climate, health club owners can ask for no better marketers than a cadre of happy members commenting online about their experiences. However, the world of online reviews is littered with sinkholes and requires poise and careful monitoring by health club staff.

When consumers make purchasing decisions today, they first tend to dive into intensive online research, frequenting home pages, independent review sites and social media platforms to gain useful insight about their options. Experts say prospective members of health clubs are no different. Club operators can produce stellar marketing campaigns with creative messaging and attractive deals, but lackluster backing from their members in various online forums can hinder attracting new members.

In the current climate, health club operators can ask for no better marketers than a cadre of happy members commenting online about their experiences, according to Adam Olson, signature marketing manager at UFC Gym. The benefits are less about generating leads and more about the advantage of having ambassadors promoting your club to unseen prospects in cyberspace.

“These are people who are advocates for your brand, and it’s real,” Olson said. “They’re happy to be at your club, and they’re letting other people know that. It’s authentic, and that’s really valuable to us.”

Most clubs’ marketing claims tend to fall into the same groove—“best facilities, best equipment, best staff,” said Darin Alpert, chairman of MemberTalk, a company that helps club operators encourage members to post online reviews.

“Having members speak for you provides validation and cuts through the noise of generic marketing messages,” he said.

An increasing number of club businesses are placing a premium on encouraging their members to post about their in-club experiences online. However, the path can be thorny, and experts say club owners should be sure to understand best practices or risk turning off current members and turning away prospective ones.

Navigating Social Media and Independent Review Sites

Social media carries particular value in the fitness industry as a source of motivation and education, said Britta Phillips, vice president of CLASS by UFC Gym.

“People are always looking for new workouts, different exercises, helpful tips and innovative ways to train,” Phillips said. “People really care about their growth from learning new things in the fitness industry and sharing that with everyone else. What better way to share that information than through social media, the largest community?

“When someone posts a workout that they did or are walking through their nutrition routine … it increases consumer engagement and increases people’s knowledge of their own health and fitness,” she continued.

Because Instagram and Facebook are the social media platforms most important to their members and prospective members, both Phillips and Olson focus most of their clubs' social media strategy on these platforms.

When members post on social media, it extends the brand’s reach in ways the club never could on its own, Phillips said. Posts do not need to be directly about a club to carry cachet, either. A member posting about a great workout and noting its location is still doing a benefit to that respective club.

“From our brand social accounts, we can only reach our network of followers, but if we have someone posting on our behalf, we’re not only reaching our consumers but we’re reaching all of their friends and followers and growing our reach organically,” Phillips said. 

In addition to social media, independent review sites are integral to consumer decision-making. Review sites should be the foremost marketing priority for clubs, according to Leslie Nolen, president of The Radial Group. BrightLocal’s 2018 Local Consumer Review Survey states that 86 percent of consumers and 95 percent of millennials read an average of 10 reviews before they trust a business. Recent reviews carry the most weight, and Google is the most important of the sites because “most gym memberships begin with a Google search,” Nolen said.

“Google search results for health clubs feature three businesses based on search algorithms that prioritize reviews,” Nolen said. “That means Google reviews are most important, followed by Yelp and then by Facebook.”

Encouraging Reviews

Club operators can consider a variety of potential methods for encouraging their members to post online, such as posting signs, sending emails and putting out requests on social media. UFC Gym uses UPshow, a service that helps clubs use their TVs as marketing platforms in order to build social media engagement. UPshow allows members to share related social media content, such as photos of themselves working out, on the club’s TV screens.

As a result, Olson and Phillips have reported sharp increases in members posting about their club experience on social media. Phillips said displaying posts on the TV motivates members to post and “allows our social platform to stay organic with content driven by our members.”

“Members get a sense of pride about being a part of their fitness community,” she said. “What’s great about UPshow is the platform allows people to produce content and have it display on the TV screen within a couple of minutes. Seeing themselves and having everyone else being able to see that they’re a part of that community is something that they value.”

David Steel, chief viral officer for Sneeze It, suggests using the language of referral when asking members to post on social media and review sites.

Steel explained: “Something along the lines of: ‘Thank you very much for being a valued member of ABC Club. One of the ways we’re able to grow is through member referral. If you have a moment, we’d love for you to review us on Google and social media. It really makes all the difference.’”

Alpert said that email is a useful tool for review requests and recommends that club operators ask members to post reviews after they have renewed their membership.

Club operators often fail to instruct trainers to encourage members to post reviews—a huge missed opportunity, Nolen said.

“You have the advantage of frequent in-person, one-on-one contact with your members,” she said. “Use it.”

Although encouragement is a good idea, offering review incentives such as discounts can backfire and ultimately damage a club’s reputation, Steel said.

Nolen agreed, noting that doing so is a terms-of-service violation on all the major independent review sites.

“If you get caught doing it, your entire business listing can be pulled from Google, Yelp, etc.," she said. "This isn't an urban legend—we’ve talked directly with clients who have tried this and been burned, often because competitors reported them.

“If you’re not getting plenty of good reviews, the problem is your club experience—not a lack of incentives,” Nolen continued. “Plus, incentives usually backfire. People who want the incentive scribble something superficial that’s obviously not authentic. Prospective members aren’t idiots—they can tell who really loves your club versus who was going through the motions.”

Nolen added that trying to script or influence what members post on social media or review sites also amounts to a big mistake, as the artifice often is obvious in the resulting posts.

“Clubs usually get the best results when they simply encourage happy members to post,” she said.

Aggregating Reviews on Your Home Site

Home pages are important representations of clubs to prospective members, and they can be valuable places to highlight some of a club’s best reviews. Alpert’s MemberTalk platform helps clubs get direct access to comprehensive reviews from their members and provides a forum for members to discuss the club. MemberTalk also allows the clubs to customize the questions that reviewers answer, allowing clubs to seek feedback on topics they want to emphasize.

Nolen recommended assigning a staff member to pull the best reviews from the major review sites each month. Club staff should respond to each positive review and strive to write something authentic and specific to that review. If the post was made on social media, always “like” it, she said.

“Then, post them on your site unedited and with full attribution consistent with each review site’s [terms of service],” Nolen said. “This is also a good time to prep a social post for each of the best new reviews and trickle those out over the month on Facebook. Follow up on this task to make sure it actually happens.”

Club owners should initially consider the circumstances when adopting reviews for their home pages, Steel cautioned.

“If there is a post that’s not directly written and posted by a member—for example, on Google—or you’re looking to utilize a testimonial for profit, you must have a consent form filled out by the referring individual prior to posting the review anywhere on the web,” Steel said.

Facing Negative Posts and Honest Self-Appraisal

Negative reviews can lead clubs into challenging territory, but these experiences also provide useful opportunities.

“We’re very transparent and open with our members, and any feedback that they provide us is something that we look at as an opportunity to get better at,” Phillips said. “We want to make sure that all of our members are heard on the positive and on the negative side so that we know if there’s something that we can do better for them and their experience.”

Club operators should work to acknowledge negative reviews and take any follow-up conversation offline, such as by providing the user with a telephone number or email for direct contact, Steel said.

“The goal is not to engage in an online discussion that can get out of hand quickly,” he said. “It’s easier to solve the issue and then hope that the poster later comes back with acknowledgement that the situation has been corrected. … Always practice gratitude and remind your members how valuable they are.”

Health club operators need to see reviews as reflection tools and overcome any instinctive defensiveness, Nolen said.

“What we see is that clubs with mediocre ratings nearly always blame the reviewers—they ‘don't get it,’ or ‘other members really like it here,’” Nolen said. “They treat less-positive reviews as outliers, when in fact they’re obviously having consistently underwhelming experiences.”

Alpert agrees that reviews offer an opportunity for clubs to track their performance.

“Not everyone is going to be 100 percent happy with being a club member,” he said. “The benefit of getting them to write a review is having the opportunity to respond and fix whatever issue they might be having. If enough reviews tell you that you need to clean the locker rooms more, then that is an opportunity to improve.”

UFC Gym anticipates its members to be steadfastly authentic in their reviews and social media posts, rather than puffing up the company to outsiders, Olson said, noting that reviews are only worthwhile if they are honest.

“Reality is the most important thing about it to us,” he said. “If someone’s had a good experience, we hear about it. If we have some room for improvement, we hear about it and act on it. We put a lot of weight on that.”

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