Why do gyms’ email marketing suck so much?

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As gyms get ready for their busiest season, I set out to explore and compare their emails. That’s when I realized that most of them are terrible. But why?

If you like to work out, you might be looking at the next few weeks with an impending sense of doom. It’ll be January, when everyone suddenly likes to work out, keeping up those New Year’s resolutions for at least two or three weeks.

That being the case, this must be when gyms are promoting themselves the hardest, right? I decided to focus on email, since it’s arguably the most personal of the digital marketing channels. My initial plan was to use gyms’ emails to write a do’s and don’ts, or maybe rank them. That plan was quickly abandoned, after I realized most would tie for last place.

“I don’t think this is an email problem,” says Dave Hendricks, president of LiveIntent. “I think it’s more of a [customer relationship management (CRM)] problem. A local office may not even know it received a lead because there’s no notification process. Unless there’s centralized process from a national chain, there may not be any workflow for contacting somebody who found the gym.”

My experience backed up Hendricks’ point. I tried signing up for emails from Planet Fitness, 24 Hour Fitness and the biggest fitness chain in the world, Gold’s Gym, and never got one message from any of them. On the other hand, Equinox is a much smaller gym, with 80 locations around the U.S., plus three more in Toronto and London. If I ended up doing those rankings, Equinox would have placed high.

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Equinox’s email newsletter comes from “Q Editors” and features timely articles such as how to get a Star Wars body and what to bring to the office potluck. It’s subtle branding and very well-done. SoulCycle’s emails are very good, too. They never mention the New Year; instead, they all use friendly, familiar language inviting you to come ride today.

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“SoulCycle is probably highly centralized. There’s a difference between a corporate business that owns all the websites and a very mature franchise business like Gold’s, where they probably get the logo and the equipment, and after that, they don’t get any local support,” says Hendricks.

Moving beyond email

Jonah Lupton, founder of Lupton Media Group and very large man who belongs to multiple gyms, points out that Equinox and SoulCycle are significantly more expensive than Planet Fitness and Gold’s.

“They’ve got better profit margins when they’re getting $150 to $175 a month. The local gym costs $25 or $30 a month, and probably can’t spend too much to acquire a customer through email marketing when the best channel is probably word of mouth of a big old sign in front of a building,” says Lupton.

He adds that email marketing is a much better way to engage existing members, rather than woo new ones. The gyms know who goes; they email those people to promote referral programs, or discounts on apparel or training packages.

For new members, Lupton thinks geo-targeted social ads are a much better way to go, since location is a key factor in most people’s preferences.

“When you move to a new area, you find a bank and you find a gym, both of which are probably as close to your house as possible,” says Lupton. “If I opened up a gym, I would do Facebook marketing; you can narrow it down to zip code, so I would blast out ads to whatever specific zip codes my gym was in and do a referral program.”

What can they do better?

Until Amazon starts employing personal trainers who can be dispatched to Prime members’ houses within 30 minutes (2016 prediction!), a gym membership is still very much a location-based purchase. Therefore, fitness brands should optimize local marketing and run better lead funnels. Who visits your website? Where do they live? What channels will best help you best sign up new members?

Maybe it’s not email. After all, while retailers send out emails every day, you can theoretically shop every day. How many times do you join a gym? As a result, search ads and social are probably more effective, though many gyms have yet to master the latter. My local CrossFit box posted on Facebook just once this month, while New York Sports Clubs has less Twitter followers than I do.

Something else gyms can do is look to David Barton Gym for pointers. Not only does David Barton have engaged social followings, but when I signed up for its email list, the brand asked for my phone number – and was the only one to actually use it.

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I told Derek I already have a gym (a block and a half away from my apartment, for the record) and that I was just doing this for a story. I also told him that David Barton would have come in first in those hypothetical rankings. None of the other gyms who failed to contact me know that it was just an experiment.

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