National fitness clubs fight member churn, but better marketing integration is needed

24 Hour Fitness
400-plus locations?
17 states?

Town Sports
170 locations
4 states

There are more than 30,000 fitness centers in the US, double the number from just 10 years ago, according to a study by business research firm IBISWorld. Two fitness franchises, Town Sports and 24 Hour Fitness, are trying to maintain an edge in this growing sector, though they vary in size and approach.?

Town Sports’ name varies depending on the four US cities it ?inhabits, e.g., New York Sports Clubs, Boston Sports Clubs, Philadelphia Sports Clubs and Washington Sports Clubs. Town Sports has been successful in maintaining a consistent customer base in the past year, growing its member base 1.4% in 2010 compared with 2009 to a total of 493,000 gym goers, according to its year-end financial report. Despite its membership growth, 2010 revenue declined about 5% to $462 million, year-over-year. ?

Though 24 Hour, which has locations spread throughout the country, does not make financial records public, the company boasts 3.5 million members on its website. Despite 24 Hour having twice as many locations nationally, Town Sports has several times as many locations in its four cities of operations, often placing its gym locations only blocks away from another, a la Starbucks a decade ago.?

Both retention efforts and acquisition marketing play a strong role in the fitness club industry that has a 24% annual customer churn, according to The International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association’s 2010 Health Club Consumer Report. Company websites help promote membership benefits across regions and serve as brand differentiators for both marketers. ?

After visitors to 24 Hour’s website select whether they are a current member or not, they are redirected to the appropriate landing page. Messaging on each is tailored according to membership status. ?

The first three items a non-member sees in the rotator are offers: a $0 initiation fee; refer a family member; and discounted personal training sessions. Non-members are also greeted with a prominently placed offer for seven days of club use at no charge. The offer includes the option to sign up for future messaging from the company as well. Both sites provide access to class schedules and nearest locations through search. “There are a number of prominent calls to action, even on the member site,” explains Cristin Siegel, director of user experience and research at Designkitchen. “Once a user selects one of these options, the flow is understandable and ?convenient. 24 Hour Fitness is trying to make it easy to encourage sales, which is great, but they should make sure that their users aren’t feeling overly sold.”?

Visitors to Town Sports’ see a similar rotator feature in which three of the four items are discount offers or personal training sessions. The homepage is busier with more text boxes and additional links. Finding basic information, including e-mail list signup is simple enough, but the site lacks the richness of content found ?on 24 Hour’s site. ?

“The navigation area is straightforward, and it’s clear which options the user would need to choose to start their membership application process,” Siegel says, but “except for the brand story, all content has an identical visual weight. With nothing taking priority, the user’s eye has nowhere to land.” ?

Neither company has perfected its e-mail strategy. E-mail messages examined included a refer-a-friend and customer feedback survey from Town Sports and several “join now” acquisition-focused ?e-mails from 24 Hour Fitness. Both sets of e-mails from the fitness clubs were sent to existing customers, meaning that perhaps 24 Hour Fitness needs to adjust its e-mail customer database. In terms of frequency, 24 Hour sent e-mails out on a weekly basis, while Town Sports delivered e-mail closer to a monthly schedule. ?

Ryan Deutsch, VP of strategic services at e-mail service provider Strongmail, was not impressed with either brands’ e-mail marketing, but he gave Town Sports a higher score for its “cleaner” design, its use of referral marketing and its better focus on the existing customer. He docked both brands for a lack of e-mail integration with their social channels.”Considering recipients are customers in a membership based business, there’s no personalization in any e-mails,” he says. “In the case of 24 Hour Fitness, I couldn’t even tell if it was an e-mail sent to a customer. It could just as well have been from an external list being used as an acquisition tool.”?

Town Sports and 24 Hour Fitness representatives declined to ?comment for this feature.?

Given the sector’s growth, combined with a mounting national emphasis on health education, fitness clubs’ marketing efforts are often peppered with informational content. Both fitness clubs offer website visitors content, but neither prioritizes informational offerings above promotional materials. Town Sports dedicates just a few pages to education on equipment use and the instructional pages are ?difficult to find. ?

24 Hour’s brand content offerings are more robust and more ?easily found on the site. The company’s magazine, 24 Hour Fitness The Magazine, has a home on the primary navigation bar on both the member and non-member site. The interactive digital magazine provides links to member profiles; allows readers to provide feedback on the company’s services; and the purchase of fitness tracking equipment, such as Web- and mobile-enabled devices made by Bodybugg, a calorie-management system.?

On-floor innovation is an important retention tool for both brands, and 24 Hour’s integration of technology, such as Bodybugg, is indicative of the deeper level of engagement it has reached with its base. ?

“Fitness brands can use incentives to drive retention, and they can be material benefits like financial compensation or they can be based in healthy living,” explains Bram Hechtkopf, VP of marketing and business development at loyalty agency Kobie Marketing. ?

In terms of social media marketing, 24 Hour appears to have a more integrated strategy. Its Facebook page has 136,000 fans and displays the offers currently running on its site, plus a more prominent calendar with upcoming weekly promotions. It also periodically runs promotions through Foursquare, offering merchandise discounts for check-ins. Town Sports’ Facebook page maintains its national brand, rather than its city-specific names, which perhaps is the reason behind its fewer than 2,000 fans. Its city dedicated Facebook pages, such as New York Sports Clubs, have fewer than 200 fans each. Despite its limited fans, Town Sports, regularly responds to questions and comments, leveraging the social network as a customer service tool. Unfortunately, it is missing an opportunity to reward members through Foursquare where its mostly urban membership is checking in with regularity.

Brand Champion

24 Hour Fitness takes the prize for best direct marketing strategy, including its richer online presence and deeper content strategy. Town Sports’ goal is to be the most recognizable ?fitness club brand in its selected cities and that has impacted its marketing prowess in other ?areas, such as on its website and social media. ?It’s smaller than 24 Hour Fitness, but that’s ?no reason it can’t put up more of a fight. ?

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