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Rise to the Challenge: Leverage the Power of Challenges to Supercharge Your School

by Cris Rodriguez


Most people in the martial arts industry who know me know that I’m a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. Few are aware, however, that I got my start at a Jhoon Rhee Institute of Tae Kwon Do when I was just 8 years old. Yes, I’ve been a mat rat since 1993.

As a former lover of forms — specifically, musical forms — I had the power of repetition drilled into my head from an early age. My classmates and I practiced our musical routines so much that cassette tapes would get stretched out and become unplayable because we constantly were pressing the Play, Stop and Rewind buttons. At least they weren’t 8 tracks or vinyl. …

Looking back on my childhood on the dojo carpet — mats weren’t popular at the time — I’m still impressed at how my instructor was able to get us to practice our forms over and over by disguising the repetition of the techniques we were using. Back then, we didn’t know what he was doing, and I truly believe that this is a superpower shared by the best instructors around the world.

It’s widely understood that to get good at something, we have to practice it. Malcom Gladwell coined a phrase to describe this concept in his book Outliers: the 10,000-hour rule. Gladwell referred to this amount of training time as “the magic number for greatness.”

While many writers have tried to debunk this notion, the point he was trying to make is more important than the number he used: Typically, the more we practice, the better we get. I know, it’s not exactly rocket science. But if you tell your students that they have to practice their side kick 10,000 times to master it — and that you’re going to attempt to do that in their next class — well, you might have an issue with retention.

That aforementioned taekwondo instructor would devise the most innovative ways to get us to work the same sequence of techniques by changing the way he packaged and presented them to us. He constantly came up with different drills to keep us excited about our forms even if we were practicing on our own while facing a wall. Or drilling while facing another person. Or actually grabbing a partner to do a technique. Or having us perform at 25-percent or 50-percent speed. Or utilizing the targets and bags. Or having us practice blindfolded. Or making us do the form backward. You get the idea — it was the same moves over and over but packaged a different way each time.

This is exactly what the best marketers do. Allow me to explain.


Listen to the Experts

One of my all-time favorite business gurus is Peter Drucker. He is best-known for his work on management, but his thoughts on marketing were what hooked me years ago and made me want to learn more.

The first time I read something he’d written, I had an aha moment that repositioned the way I marketed my companies. This is the quote that burrowed into my brain: “There is only one valid definition of business purpose: to create a customer. … Because it is its purpose to create a customer, any business enterprise has two — and only these two — basic functions: marketing and innovation.”

Think about those words: marketing and innovation. If we focused only on making our products and services better, if we had a constant drive to improve our classes and our staff training, if we constantly innovated — how much easier would marketing our services be? And if our products and services were constantly undergoing innovation and marketing was easy, then marketing by itself should sell our services.

If you look at many of the logos used by martial arts schools today, you might conclude that some seem stuck in the 1980s. (Sorry not sorry — I’ll always keep it real with you.) If you look at the drills that many instructors are doing, you might realize that they’re the same drills they’ve been teaching for 20 years and that their instructors were teaching them for 20 years before that. If you look at the physical space of their schools, you might see that it looks the same as it did a decade or two ago.

And if you look at their offers, well, they’re the same offers they’ve been marketing for the past 10 years or longer. This lack of innovation — both on the mat and in marketing — makes success difficult to achieve. Which is why the best marketers disguise the repetition of their marketing by packaging their offers in different ways.

One of the best ways we’ve found to disguise the marketing of our school’s programs is through challenges. What specifically is a challenge? It’s simply an invitation to engage in a contest.

You can use challenges to pack your mats throughout the year. In practicality, though, challenges tend to work better in the first half of the year. Why? Because that’s when most adults — and, therefore, the parents of your students — are motivated to get in shape.

The beginning of the year offers a chance to set new goals and make new resolutions. A few months in, people are still motivated because summer is coming up and they want to sport that summer body. It’s important to recognize the seasons of our industry, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find success at other times of the year. However, the season should play a role in the offers you choose and the marketing campaigns you launch.

Essential lesson: Mike Metzger, lead consultant in the Martial Arts Industry Association, taught me early on that there are three times of the year when you need to put the pedal to the metal in your marketing: heading into summer, coming out of summer and approaching the New Year.

Not surprisingly, these are the times when we see large increases in sign-ups (as well as cancellations, sadly). That’s because during these times of the year, people’s lifestyles change. When our day-to-day schedule changes, so do the activities we participate in.


Don’t Get in a Rut

Drucker also believes that marketing should encompass the entire business and that concern and responsibility for marketing must permeate all facets of the business. Imagine that — everyone caring about marketing! It’s something I wholeheartedly agree with, and it makes my job that much easier when everyone is on board.

Challenges are a great way to get everyone on your team on board. It’s important, however, to distinguish challenges from offers. The offers we see in the martial arts industry typically fall into one of two categories:

Free offers include “ One Free Class,” “Free One-on-One Introductory Lesson,” “Free Evaluation,” “Free Consultation,” “Two Free Weeks” and “30 Days Free.”

Paid offers generally include things like “Four Weeks for $49” and “Three Classes for $19.99.”

None of these constitutes a challenge. Don’t get me wrong! They’re valuable messages to post. In fact, the most common questions we see on Facebook in the Century School Owners Network, MAIA Hub and my group The Martial Arts Entrepreneurs pertain to offers. Problem is, putting out nothing but offers can lead to “offer fatigue,” which means decreased response rates. Here’s why:

When you market offers, one of two reactions can occur. The positive reaction is repeated exposure to your offers creates awareness of your school. This awareness can move people to the consideration stage and then to the purchasing stage. It also can help build a feeling of comfort with prospects who see your brand more and more.

On the flip side is offer fatigue. Prospects get tired of seeing the same thing over and over. That can make them skip your emails, texts, ads and so on.

So how do you overcome offer fatigue? One way is with challenges.


Recruit More

Why do challenges work so well? Because they provide short-term goals and help build momentum.

Here’s an example: Say an adult walks into your academy and expresses a desire to lose weight and keep the pounds off. You say, “OK, great. I can help you with that. All you need to do is eat healthily and work out a few times a week for the rest of your life.” Do that with enough people and your conversion rates will tank. That’s because human beings need small wins in their lives to build up traction to reach success — no matter what the goal is.

Consider: If your goal is to pay down debt, you need short-term goals to help you accomplish the long-term goal. The plan might begin with paying off your car loan, then focus on reducing your credit-card balance before you start allocating additional money to paying off your mortgage early. The sequence is not important; having short-term goals is.

And that’s exactly what a challenge represents: a short-term goal. From what I’ve seen, the best success comes with four-week and six-week challenges. Sidenote: this should come as no surprise, seeing how four-week and six-week trial offers serve our industry so well. ;)

Such challenges are short enough to not overwhelm the prospects and long enough for them to see progress. Whenever people begin to see results of the effort they’re investing, it’s easier for them to stay motivated.

The other benefit of a challenge is that it has an end date. While your ultimate goal is to transform these people into lifelong martial artists, you have to start somewhere. For them, working hard to reach a new goal usually entails giving up some of the things they enjoy — and adding some things they don’t. The thought of doing this permanently can be off-putting. A challenge that has a start date and an end date doesn’t feel like it’s forever, and that can be an advantage.

Everyday example: If a nutritionist asks you to give up your triple mocha latte forever, you might start looking for a new nutritionist. If that person asks you to give it up for six weeks, you’ll do it. The human brain views the latter as a “now goal” rather than a lifetime of misery.


Enjoy a Retention Boost

Challenges are great not just for recruitment but also for retention. To illustrate, I’ll explain two challenges that my academy, Gracie PAC MMA, has implemented over the past few years and used to generate tens of thousands of dollars in new enrollments. Let’s start with the adult challenge:

Our Six-Week New Year’s Challenge is normally priced at $330, but we position it at $149. If you noticed what I did right there, you’re not a white belt in marketing. I anchored the challenge’s price at $330 and then reduced it to $149 to make it seem like a steal. #marketingprotip

The features of this challenge include six weeks of BJJ training, a one-on-one introductory lesson with a certified instructor, a uniform, a white belt, a six-week meal plan, a chance to win $300 in cash and, most important, a money-back guarantee.

So how exactly do you formulate a challenge? Here are some suggestions.

Idea No. 1: The student who earns the most points at the end of six weeks wins $300 in cold, hard cash. Points can be earned by attending classes, rolling/drilling in timed jiu-jitsu rounds, and attending competitions. Points are added at the end of every class during the “mat chat” and updated weekly on the school’s Six-Week Challenge Leaderboard in the lobby.

Idea No. 2: If your school is karate based, you can create a challenge that awards points for every class attended, every kata completed and every round sparred. The possibilities are endless — get creative! Or, dare I say, be innovative.

Idea No. 3: If you prefer to assume a more fitness-related stance, you can challenge people to lose the most inches, shed the most pounds or attain the lowest percentage of body fat.

A few things will happen when you launch a challenge. First, you’ll sell a ton of trials because challenges are fun, because there’s a start date and an end date, and because money can be won. Furthermore, you’ll see a bump because your students will send you referrals.

Second, your current students will be pumped. Why? Because you’ll let them participate in the challenge for free. Their motivation to show up at every class and take the challenge head on will boost attendance.

Third, your students will become better martial artists. Isn’t that your primary goal as an instructor — to get your students to improve both on and off the mat?


Cater to Kids

I already described a challenge my academy uses to appeal to adults. Here’s one we’ve created to focus on kids and teens. We call it the Four-Week Speed Challenge. It’s normally priced at $204, but we position it at $99. Included are four weeks of classes, a one-on-one introductory lesson with a certified instructor, four speed challenges, a uniform, a white belt, a speed journal, a chance to earn a school pin and, of course, a money-back guarantee.

Young students get the chance to participate in a different challenge during the first class of the week for the four-week period. It might be a physical-fitness test, a kicking challenge, a punching challenge or something else. Scores are documented, and if they participate in all four challenges — meaning they don’t miss the first class of the week for four weeks — they earn a pin.

As with the adult challenge, the kid challenge is likely to net some results. First, the children who are currently your students will be excited to come to class to participate in the challenge and compete for the chance to win a pin. Second, they will improve their mental grit and physical state. Third, you’ll find that this is a great way to position your typical four-week trial — especially after the turmoil of 2020, children need this now.

Too many children have flat-out regressed over the past 12 months. They’re less active because of the lockdowns. They’re less social because of virtual schooling. And they’re less physically fit because of reduced activity in their day-to-day lives. For these reasons, a challenge that focuses on speed — and, therefore, fitness — is a great way for parents to help their kids reclaim what they’ve lost.

The icing on the cake: Consider running an adult challenge at the same time as your child challenge. It will be a great opportunity to get parents on the mat, as well, and that’s the first step to converting them into students.


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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