Much of the Martial Arts Community Has Transitioned to Online Instruction — Here’s What You Need to Do to Keep Your Local Students From Going Virtual
by Cris Rodriguez
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one most adaptable to change.”
— Charles Darwin
Change. Adapt. Pivot. Adjust. Modify. Revise. Develop. INNOVATE.
These are words often used to describe what we martial arts school owners were forced to do last year as a result of COVID-19 and the lockdowns that ensued.
While many of our peers now regard 2020 as their worst year ever, I prefer to view it as a great opportunity for growth. For me, it was the year I realized how tough I truly am. It was the year I watched my team step up. It was the year I discovered how strong the martial arts community really is.
It was also the year I learned that teaching punches and kicks and armbars and chokes isn’t enough. It’s about building relationships that we’ve developed within the community. It’s about finding ways to move forward no matter the circumstances. In short, it’s about focusing on community over classes.
For most of us, it wound up being a year in which we were able to grow. This is the silver lining to the pandemic, and I, for one, am grateful for it.
New Kids on the Block
History has shown us time and time again that after every recession, we can expect a rebound. As I write this, the martial arts community is in the middle of such a rebound. We’re seeing schools that are having record-breaking enrollments and seeing revenue levels that were unheard of during COVID.
Don’t take my word for it — just ask our Grow Pro and MAIA clients. Most will happily tell you about their success. Most of that success stems from leveraging the power of digital marketing to make their schools truly thrive in this new business environment.
Here’s the proof of how the environment has changed: Hop on Facebook right now. Not only will you see an ad from one of your competitors, but you’ll probably be targeted by a company that’s offering virtual martial arts classes, as well.
Haven’t seen them yet? It’s likely because you don’t spend enough time on Facebook. Try this tactic instead: Go to Google and search for “online martial arts classes.” I guarantee you’ll be inundated by a plethora of people offering instruction via Zoom and other video-conferencing platforms.
Twenty years ago, if you told someone that the combat arts one day would become popular as an at-home solution to the self-defense problem, they would have called you crazy. But when COVID hit, those instructors who were the first to meet the demand from the locked-down public were the ones who prospered.
I know what some of you are thinking: Online classes worked well while we were on lockdown and students had no choice, but things are getting better now, and everyone knows that the best martial arts instruction takes place in person because you can’t really become proficient if all you do is practice online.
Most of us would agree. Learning martial arts and then practicing in online-only mode just isn’t the same as getting on the mat with a group of peers who will offer resistance, all under the supervision of a qualified instructor. Nevertheless, plenty of research has shown that there is a market for online classes even though the pandemic is coming to an end.
Exhibit A: I found one online resource that offers martial arts lessons that cost from $5 to $15 per class.
Exhibit B: I found another that touts its online classes at less than $20.
Exhibit C: Yet another boasts that thousands of users are taking advantage of its catalog of virtual courses.
Exhibit D: There’s even one website that promises to make you a black belt at home.
Such programs exploded during the pandemic, and they continue to see growth even as local martial arts schools like yours are reopening.
It’s also important to note that some school owners who used to serve up only in-person classes are continuing to offer online instruction for people who are still not comfortable with the notion of in-person training or who are looking for the convenience provided by digital delivery of lessons — and that’s fine. Regardless of your thoughts on the results these programs can generate, they exist and people are paying for them. That means they are your competition. (From what I’m hearing, however, the majority of the schools that have stopped offering classes online are seeing their in-person classes filling up.)
Now, the question becomes, What can you do to combat the glut of online martial arts classes that your local students are being exposed to every time they go online? Before I point you toward some answers, let’s unpack this.
First, it’s essential that you understand your customer avatar. As a business owner, you have to make sure you aren’t focusing on just what you’re selling. You also have to focus on whom you’re selling it to.
Why? Because you can have the greatest product on earth, but if you’re trying to sell it to the wrong person, you’re never going to succeed and you’re never going to grow your business over the long haul.
At the end of the day, there will people who are attracted to the idea of taking martial arts classes online because of their budget, their schedule or their level of commitment. With all due respect, those aren’t the people you want to try to bring into your martial arts school.
In the past, I’ve joked that my ideal client is a stay-at-home mother of two who aimlessly walks the aisles of Target, sipping her Starbucks coffee with a fresh manicure while wearing Lululemon yoga pants. You might scoff at this, but I know the type of person I want to draw into my academy, and you should know yours. That makes it easier when it’s time to market because you need to craft the exact message that will inspire qualified, prepositioned buyers to walk through your door.
Back to your customer avatar: To better understand the concept, think in terms of the persona of the average person who has purchased your services in the past. This is crucial. There are five major components that make up your customer avatar:
What exactly is each one? I can’t tell you because the answers depend on what you teach, where you teach, how you teach and whom you teach. It’s definitely time for some analysis and introspection!
Once you’re able to define your customer avatar and identify the details of these five components, you will be better equipped to determine who your ideal customer is. And once you can do this, the glut of online martial arts classes that threaten to lure your in-person students away from your business won’t be of concern to you. You will know that most of the people who choose that route to learn martial arts probably wouldn’t fit your customer avatar anyway.
Community Is Key
If you’re not sure who your ideal customer is as you forge ahead in the realm of digital marketing post-COVID, I recommend you check out the article posted here: digitalmarketer.com/blog/customer-avatar-worksheet/.
In the meantime, here’s some general guidance. What kind of people choose online martial arts classes for themselves or their children over in-person training? The most common reasons are the convenience of not having to travel, the ease of fitting class times into one’s schedule and the overall cost effectiveness of the training.
However, if I had to reduce the answer to the question “How do you compete with online martial arts classes and keep your local students from going virtual?” to just one word, it would be “community.”
At the end of the day, you aren’t in the business of teaching martial arts. You are in the business of building and maintaining relationships. Your school is more than a place for people to learn self-defense; it’s a community.
Lee Iacocca, who served as an executive at Ford Motor Company and then as the CEO of Chrysler Corporation and was the author of the best-selling Iacocca: An Autobiography, once said, “Business, after all, is nothing more than a bunch of human relationships.” And he was absolutely right.
As a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, I’ve spent the past two decades on the mat getting to experience the after-class “mat chat magic” that occurs between peers and instructors. In those huddles, unbreakable friendships were forged — and some of my best BJJ memories were formed.
There’s something magical that happens when you train with another human being, whether you’re sparring on your feet, grappling on the ground, or engaging in drills and exercises. As long as you’re on the mat sweating with another martial artist, a special bond is being formed.
It’s that bond that will make people choose your live classes over online classes every day of the week. You need to capitalize on that.
Another part of building community is the camaraderie that comes with attending in-person events that you host. Organizing a parents-night-out, a board-breaking seminar, a training camp or an in-house tournament not only strengthens the bond between members of your community but also generates additional revenue for your school.
Finally, if you really want to emphasize what sets your in-person classes apart from online programs, be sure to showcase the culture of your school. Use Facebook Live to broadcast one of your classes or to interview one of your star team members. Post a testimonial from a parent. Spotlight one of your best instructors. I’m sure you can come up with other ideas.
Of course, you shouldn’t overlook the pluses of online training. Virtual classes can serve as feeders for in-person instruction because they offer an easy way for prospects who are marginally interested in the martial arts to get started with a minimal cost and with a relatively simple enrollment process. Then, if the on-line students want to continue training and actually earn rank (Hint! This is another advertising point for your in-person classes.), they can seek out a school like yours.
Cris Rodriguez has a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and a third degree in taekwondo. The co-owner of Gracie PAC MMA, she has 25 years of experience in the martial arts and 18 years of experience as a teacher. Based in Tampa, Florida, Rodriguez has studied internet marketing for eight years and is the founder of Grow Pro Agency, a digital-marketing firm that runs Facebook and Instagram ads for martial arts school owners.
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