The main motivators that drive people to join a gym or attend a fitness class often lie in the desire to feel good, have fun, and live a happier, healthier life. Those are tall orders to fill for any gym. However, many boutique fitness brands like SoulCycle, Flywheel, and Equinox do deliver on their promises—their customers are tenacious loyalists that consider their in-gym experiences life-changing. Once customers walk through their doors, they’re hooked.
While members enjoy their time in the gym, there’s room for improvement in a part of the experience that nearly everyone must go through at least once: the online onboarding and sign-up experience.
For new members or those looking to book their first spin class—outside of advertisements or a word-of-mouth recommendation—how they interact online with the gym is often their first experience with the brand. It’s this digital, out-of-gym experience that rarely matches up with the actual workout or expectations set by the brand, no matter how exceptional they may be. Bridging the gap could make a big difference, especially for those in the competitive boutique gym space.
If instructors and trainers regularly deliver on a gym’s implicit guarantees in the studio, why not extend the consideration to a gym’s digital touchpoints? What if the brand promise and customer expectations could be fulfilled before you even walk in the door, through the onboarding process? It could be what turns a customer from fair weather class-taker to a crusading loyalist.
“SoulCycle is where I work my shit out—my go-to when I’m happy, sad, mad, whatever. I have such a strong sense of clarity and composure every time I walk out of the studio.” —Mia Bohleman, Moment Senior Director and SoulCycle rider since 2014
There are opportunities to strengthen customer relationships left on the table. For companies looking to strengthen their relationships with customers, all channels should be considered—everything from the online experience to what happens in the gym.
To better understand how digital experiences impact gym-goers, we examined the signup and onboarding processes for Equinox, Flywheel, and SoulCycle—three boutique gyms with devout followings.
Four onboarding opportunity areas
Based on our research into these sign-up and onboarding experiences, we uncovered four opportunity areas for boutique fitness brands to translate their stellar in-gym experiences across their digital properties.
Think about a really great first-time restaurant experience you’ve had. Did your server ask, “Is this your first time here?” The hard-working folks in the service industry do this so they can tailor the experience so you walk out with the best possible impression of the restaurant. They help take you through the menu (especially if it’s complicated), understand your preferences, and make suggestions. These actions can have a huge impact on repeat business.
Gym instructors and staff often do the same thing once you step foot into the gym for the first time, but when it comes to your first online experience, that same level of service doesn’t often shine through.
Aside from restaurants, WeWork’s online experience for prospective customers hits the mark. They weave you through a path that answers your questions along the way, even before you ever see a signup button. Their website is geared towards acquisition, but you’re never presented with a sign-up button until you’ve started to learn about what they offer.
Boutique fitness brands should extend the richness of their in-gym experiences to the sign-up process by creating a total beginner’s starting point. This starting point should reduce friction by minimizing the work and confusion for prospective customers in their path toward understanding what the studio has to offer. The uninitiated might not be familiar with the difference between buying class credits vs. reserving class spots and is a potential bounce point. While creating separate transactional workflows for credits vs. classes makes sense for return users, combining the two would reduce the friction during the initial web sign-up.
Think back to a world before the internet (if you’re able). If you wanted to sign up for a gym or fitness class, you went to or called the studio and had a conversation with someone. They asked you about your personal goals and habits, and if they did their job, they sold you on a membership or classes. Now that these initial experiences have largely moved online, why don’t these interactions still feel like a personal conversation?
A customer’s onboarding experience holds a meaningful place in their overall impression of a brand. A tailored first impression—especially one that’s not purely transactional—can go a long way, especially if it’s geared towards actionable steps and matches a brand’s overall value prop and tone.
After signing up for an initial consultation with Equinox, users are shown questions about the types of exercise they’re interested in, fitness goals, and experience level, but it’s never clear why they’re asking these questions or what they intend to do with the information. While there’s likely a purpose that might materialize later, wouldn’t it be better to share that purpose with the user in a way that adds value for them? For example, during Duolingo’s onboarding experience, they ask for your learning goals and immediately use that info to cater their product experience. The payoff for the user is immediately apparent. It shapes the experience around a demonstrated understanding of your needs and provides a sense that you’re working together to achieve your goals.
Flywheel creates a great opportunity to personalize one’s experience by asking about exercise goals and preferences for workout time, duration, and instructor type, but then doesn’t immediately use this info to recommend an ideal first class. It’s safe to say that most users would like to see the irrelevant options filtered out so they can focus their attention on choosing a class that fits their schedule and goals.
Especially when it comes to onboarding a new member or customer, there’s a big opportunity for fitness brands to listen to customers during the sign-up process and cater their response back to the customer.
Humans tend to have an agoraphobic and visceral response to new, unfamiliar places. Going to a gym for the first time is no different. Trying new things is hard and so is imagining yourself in a place you’ve never been. Building a deeper understanding of the space you’re about to exert yourself in while surrounded by strangers could be helpful in alleviating insecurities and setting expectations for newcomers.
Small details help users picture themselves in a space before they even take their first class. Things like seeing your picture attached to the bike you’re reserving, understanding what the specific class mood, focus, or music might be for that day, or receiving a welcome message from the instructor are all viable solutions geared toward setting expectations and alleviating newcomer anxiety.
Services like SeatGeek and StubHub do something similar, except for sporting events and concerts. You can get a sense of your seat’s view before you decide to purchase a ticket. If you don’t like the potential view, you can pick another seat. Especially for first-timers who might be anxious or unsure of what to expect on their first visit, if their online experience could help them envision themselves in the actual class, the barrier to entry comes down.
Marketing communications are a make or break point in the user experience, especially if a brand tries to re-engage with a user that has dropped out of the sign-up process. This could be one of the only shots a brand has to get that potential customer in the door for the first time to really experience the gym or class. Missed opportunities here could be costly for brands in the long run.
Accounting for where a person is in the onboarding process and sending them an appropriate message alleviates missed opportunities. However, welcome stream emails that contain four competing calls to action miss the mark. Want someone to sign up for a class? Make that the only CTA.
If a customer signs up for a service, but hasn’t yet committed to a class, receiving a recommendation for a specific beginner’s class is a more effective use of that email touchpoint, rather than bombarding them with competing calls to action. When someone does commit to their first class, having a welcome message from the instructor that sets expectations and welcomes questions can be a great way of priming the customer’s mental state before they begin the class. In the end, focusing on the timing of the message during the onboarding process can increase relevancy to customers, lead to higher goal completion, and be a more efficient use of marketing spend.
Make it happen
Boutique fitness brands are universally geared towards goals, action, and motivation. However, this momentum isn’t always carried through when helping people progress from an initial interest, to signing up, to committing to their first class. These fitness experiences ultimately function as services, and adopting this mindset across all touchpoints goes a long way in proving your brand’s promise early on. Digital onboarding that matches the in-person experience helps prospective customers realize that their goals and motivations will be supported by the gym’s.
If you give a person special consideration when you know it’s their first gym experience, why not extend that treatment to your digital touchpoints and meet them with the same consideration while they’re shopping online?
This post is a collaboration between Caroline Brown, Michael Lowell, and Sam Szerlip.
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