By John Burgman
Every manager knows that customer safety must be a top priority, followed by customer satisfaction and staff supervision at a gym. But, in between keeping the facility clean and safe, conversing with customers and employees, and handling the finances, managers don’t typically possess free time for other matters. Often lost in the busy schedule is a gym’s website, which resides like a secondary priority with only ambiguous importance.
But more than ever, gym managers are seeing such line of thinking—making a gym’s website an afterthought—as faulty and potentially damaging.
“The role of the website has and continues to evolve,” says Kenneth Sheyka, owner of Rock Out Climbing Gym in Destin, Florida. “When we were opening, I thought, ‘Well of course, we have to have a website—everyone has one!’ It served as a great spot to list all the information we could think of like where we were located, what our prices were, and a convenient spot to offer the link to our waiver. Not much has changed in that respect with the rates and ‘Get Climbing’ being consistently our bigger traffic hits. We have recently added our blog section, and we have also recently built out our calendar of events.”
Rock Out is notable for its two main boulder features near the facility’s front door, and Sheyka strives for a website that offers a similar wow factor with photos of the famed boulders and climbers, the Rock Out logo, and inviting colors. In fact, a website—not the facility itself—is probably what gives potential customers a first impression of any given gym in this day and age, and that means a website should do more than simply portray the fun aspects of climbing. It should also convey trust.
Dana Caracciolo, the General Manager at the Doylestown Rock Gym in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, also notes that a website is a key point of entry, even before people actually enter the gym. “The best thing is when a customer comes in and says, I saw this on your website…,” says Caracciolo. “To me, that means we gave them enough information for them to decide to
visit or participate in a service. They didn’t need a web inquiry or a phone call or a social media message to answer any more questions. Likewise, if we repeatedly get calls at the front desk for the same questions then we make sure it gets put on the website. If folks are missing it, then we try to highlight it or make it more obvious.”
Doylestown Rock Gym opted to work with web developer Pushinpixels for a website—all hard coded and using only one widget. This model has helped minimize bugs, hacks, and other things that might affect a website, according to Caracciolo. But there are countless web developers on the market, and gym managers now have the benefit of being able to create a website that can do practically anything.
Tim Sarazen runs Display 97, a climbing gym website company that helps facilities maximize their website potential. He was a key speaker at this year’s CWA conference, and he has worked with a number of gyms to track their existing website’s performance and improve it. He notes that those people who are browsing a gym’s website are probably already intrigued by climbing, so the website should build on that. And that means that a good website should speak the user’s language. As a hypothetical example, Sarazen says a gym website should build trust by honing in on what customers are seeking. “Instead of saying, Welcome to Tim’s Climbing Gym, [a good website] might say something like, What are your goals? And how can we help achieve them? Oh, by the way, we’re the best place to do that—and people just like you have already experienced the kinds of things you hope to achieve at our facility. That’s just a lot stronger value proposition than, Welcome to Tim’s Climbing Gym,” he explains.
KNOWING WEBSITE HABITS
Many gym managers could quickly improve their gym’s website just by being aware of some nuance in Internet browsing behavior.
Two key terms that Sarazen references often when explaining what his company helps businesses with are traffic and leads. Web traffic—the number of users visiting a website—is valuable in its own right, but what most gym owners ultimately want to measure, even if they don’t realize it, are leads—which are collectively the names and email addresses (or phone
numbers) of people who are interested in knowing more about joining the gym. “For a local business, you don’t need a $100,000 marketing hire. You don’t need an agency. You just need to have some basic fundamental understanding of how to speak to things that your community wants,” Sarazen says.
Another differentiation made is between inbound and outbound sources. Inbound web traffic signifies those people who have searched Google for a climbing gym and arrived at a specific gym’s website. In other words, Google has brought the user to a specific brand of gym. Sarazen says this is the 21st century equivalent of searching through the phone book for a gym: “Back in the day, someone would flip to ‘Rock Climbing’ in the yellow pages and then just kind of choose the listing that looked most attractive to them. That’s what a website is—it’s someone going to the digital yellow pages and finding a rock climbing gym. And that is when and where the aforementioned trust must then be gained.”
But there’s another category of Internet browsers: those people who haven’t searched Google for a climbing gym—perhaps they have never before even thought about rock climbing as an activity—but they have arrived at a gym’s website through an ad, such as one on Facebook. Those people might need to be sold on the idea of rock climbing altogether. For these people, a
gym needs a landing page, separate from the website. Landing pages usually promote a specific program or event—or the activity (“rock climbing”) itself.
For all the nuance, this means that Internet users are likely to arrive at a gym’s website theoretically asking, Do I trust this gym? And they’ll arrive at a gym’s landing page asking, Do I want to rock climb?
Increased web traffic also means that many gym websites are becoming more robust and divers with content—particularly as other, non-climbing recreational facilities vie for personnel. “We want folks to understand that we are more than a ‘pay to play’ type facility, especially in the age of trampoline parks and zip-line tours,” says Caracciolo. “For example, we are very involved in the local outdoor crags and the Access Fund, so we make sure that has a place. And, we have developed a strong adaptive climbing program so that has a place as well. These aren’t things that we just ‘do on the side’ rather they are part of our core values.”
MAKING IMPORTANT CHANGES
One of the most common mistakes gyms make is to put too many “calls to action” on the website, which means that users are given too many options. Usually gym owners don’t have any preference how users—and, potential leads—contact the gym, whether it’s calling by phone or registering online or stopping in in-person. But a website should be precise in delivering a
message of one of those specific actions, not all. Website users should know exactly what it is the gym wants them to do, and how to do it—wherever the users might be in that journey of building trust.
“The pitfall many gym owners do is they throw all the calls to action on the website,” Sarazen says, pointing out that such flawed methodology results in a psychological phenomenon known as paradox of choice. “That has been proven to be a very poor user experience. In the lack of direction, [the users] simply don’t do anything.” He continues, “If I’m told, ‘Here’s the value, here’s the benefit, do this action now,’ then I understand what the next steps are, and I understand what [the gym] wants me to do, and I’m going to feel more confident in that decision if I decide to make it.”
Another specific change that would benefit a lot of gyms’ websites is improving the staff pages, which harkens back to building trust. Sheyka at Rock Out makes sure that there is a visible association between the website and the personnel inside the gym. “Our Welcome Desk is up front when you walk in the physical gym, so when you click on our staff page on the website, you see the same faces you should see when you walk in the door,” he says.
Snapshots of staff members atop windswept cliffs or hanging from ropes, while common on gym websites, are probably not the best types of images to convey comfort and safety—at least not to website users who are new to climbing. Also, it’s common for staff biographies to read like travelogues of famous crags that the staff have visited. Again, this is flawed because it puts the attention on the staff members rather than the website users. In other words, a staff page’s text should be customer-centric.
A recent study from the Pew Research Center found that 71 percent of Americans ages 18-24, key demographic for any climbing gym, use Instagram; 45 percent use Twitter.
Social media can be a great tool for a gym to show users—and the community—that it is active. But having a Twitter or Instagram account does not mean that every post has to be a lengthy communiqué or literary masterwork. In fact, the fast-paced nature of social media allows for
mistakes and typos more so than websites do. If a gym wants to adopt a basic schedule, it should consider making a few social media posts per week—one post that is informative, such as an announcement about an upcoming competition or event at the gym; one post that is educational,
such as a reference to an external study on rock climbing and fitness; and one post that is sales- related, such as a discount code for gear.
Sheyka has a team that handles most of the copy for Rock Out’s blogs. The blogs’ topics are discussed in advance at staff meetings, and Sheyka then signs off on any content before it gets posted. “What the Blogs do is work as search engine optimization where we can place key words and increase our chances of being a search engine hit,” he says. “Also, we link to these specific articles when we post on social media, and inform our climbers about things like bringing their children to the gym or women and climbing programs, or float therapy for climbing injury recovery.”
It’s no secret that social media is embraced more so by the younger demographics, but this can be turned into an advantage by gym managers. Managers can employ young members of a gym, rather than paid staff, to be social media ambassador, or some such designation, and shoulder the gym’s social media in exchange for gear or membership discounts.
Such thrifty savviness illustrates how little tweaks can result in big benefits for any gym. Websites are more important now than they ever have been for facilities. While grassroots marketing is still essential, there’s no substitute for smart online presentation and constant website improvements. For instance, Rock Out plans to add an online registration page for competitions, which might dovetail into general signup pages for classes at the gym.
Sarazen says, “Users are determining the quality of your brand based on the aesthetic nature of your website, whereas in the past—five to ten years ago—you could just have a bad website and that wasn’t indicative of the quality of you as a brand.” He adds, “Now that has shifted in users’ brains simply because of what we’ve been exposed to. We’ve been exposed to beautiful websites. We are expecting a higher quality there, and so when we see something of lower quality, that negatively impacts our brand perception. So, the consequences of not investing in your online marketing in the past five years have increased.”
For Sheyka, particularly in regards to video and other media on a website, as well as overall presentation, community goes a long way. “We have learned that organic and authentic content performs much better than paid advertising,” he notes. “There is just something about the feel of our brand and our overall identity that people resonate with.”
John Burgman is the author of High Drama, a book that chronicles the history of American competition climbing. He is a Fulbright journalism grant recipient and a former magazine editor. He holds a master’s degree from New York University and bachelor’s degree from Miami University. In addition to writing, he coaches a youth bouldering team. Follow him on Twitter @John_Burgman and Instagram @jbclimbs