The internet has completely changed the fitness industry.
You can get a world-class education from the blogs, social media posts, videos, and products that come from smart coaches (unfortunately, you might also have to wade through some cringe-worthy kettlebell swings along the way).
We are connected now more than ever, and that means two powerful things:
- We can easily find and network with people across the world to strengthen the bonds of our community, and
- We can reach others with our message fast and cheap.
This may seem painfully obvious. Technology has infiltrated nearly every facet of our lives (you’re reading this on a computer screen after all).
Yet most of us aren’t utilizing technology to its fullest potential. As strength coaches, we have valuable skill sets that can benefit practically everyone. While in-person training may remain your bread and butter, I encourage every instructor with a passion for coaching to explore online training.
In this article, I’ll show you a few key concepts to help you get started and share some powerful tools that will simplify your job as an online coach.
Instagram is the New Wild West
Online coaching is still very much a new thing.
There is little precedent to show how it’s done, and many coaches are apprehensive about starting because of the lack of a proven playbook. The good news is that if you have at least a couple of years of in-person coaching experience, you’re already ahead of most.
While I hope that you’ll come away from this article with some tactical strategies you can immediately swipe and deploy, I’d be remiss if I didn’t emphasize the most important coaching quality, regardless of the medium: having empathy for your student. Put yourself in his or her shoes. What are they potentially nervous about? What do their goals mean to them? Are you coming across as a trusted advisor?
It may not be as easy to connect in this way when two people are not in the same physical location, but it’s still every bit as important for the quality of the coaching experience. Many fitness authorities fail to respect the role of empathy, and as a result, online coaching (and the fitness industry at large) gets a bad rap.
Who Are You Speaking To?
Online, you can communicate with nearly anyone in the world. So who do you choose?
The types of students you attract and work with fundamentally define your business.
The traditional way people try to identify their ‘customers’ is with demographics: age, gender, occupation, etc. The kind of information you’d find in a census. This is almost never useful.
To truly understand (and therefore best serve) your customer, you must dig deeper. Your prospects’ beliefs, their pain points, how they see themselves, and how they see the world reveal how and why they make their choices. These are psychographics, and they hold the key to standing out in a crowded market.
To quickly focus your marketing message, you can start by asking yourself two things—perhaps the most important questions for your business:
- What does your prospect know and believe about your service/product?
- What must your prospect know and trust in order to invest in and experience success with your service/product?
Using online coaching as our example:
Are, are you speaking to people who understand the benefits of your training methods?
Do they think they have to be tech-savvy to start online coaching?
Do they believe they have the ability to commit themselves and achieve success under your guidance?
Bridging the gaps between these questions can be tough, but that is your first and most important role as an ethical marketer and coach. Having a deep understanding of who you are talking to will influence everything in your business—from what you post on social media to how you price and deliver your services.
Communication: Making or Breaking the Coaching Experience
A successful online coaching relationship must adhere to the same basic principles necessary for in-person training, and healthy communication tops the list. You aren’t face-to-face with your student, which means you must take proactive steps to avoid misunderstandings and miscommunications before they happen. Trust me, they can happen pretty easily.
Let’s examine the role of communication in three key places that make or break the coaching experience:
- The Application Process: Ensuring a Good Student-Coach Match Upfront
Your coaching service isn’t a simple commodity or product that ‘just’ anybody can buy.
It’s a two-sided coin. On one side is the ideal student who values your expertise, cares about the process, and does the work while feeling respected. On the other side is you, offering your knowledge, insight, skill, time, and energy. You must feel that the relationship delivers value too. The application process is the first step to making sure the fit is right for both parties.
Here are some questions and topics to bring up:
- Training history
- Previous coaching experiences (what worked and what didn’t)
- Short and long-term goals
- Injuries and other lifestyle considerations that impact training
- Why do you think we would make a good fit?
- How important is this to you?
- Are my services something you can fit into your budget?
As you see, it’s less of a ‘sign-up,’ and more of an application for your services. Prospects that care enough to provide thoughtful answers make the shortlist. The application process itself doesn’t have to be hard or complicated. It can be embedded on a web page, sent on a Google Form, or simply in an email.
2) The Follow-up: Cherry Picking from the Short-list
Great, you’ve got a promising applicant. The next step is some form of human contact—a phone call or Skype—to break the ice, confirm the fit (people do ‘stretch’ the truth on applications), and describe how your online training works. If all goes well, ask for their business. Then you can set expectations and get started.
Don’t short change “confirming the fit.” It’s as important for them as it is for you.
How many students have you had, in person or online, that cared less about their training than you did? This is a recipe for much frustration and sub-standard results.
Review the application questions carefully. Does anything stand out that needs addressing or more probing? Listen intently. This is the most important skill you can develop. Be sure you understand what your student wants and needs, and what their major challenges and concerns are. And maybe most importantly for online coaches – what their interaction expectations are.
Once you’ve confirmed a good fit, and are sure you have a grasp on how you can help this person best, explain your process and set the training expectations:
- How will the training be delivered (email, programs, videos, etc.)?
- What is the cadence and method of check-ins and feedback?
- What are the terms (payment schedule, start date, end date, renewal policy, etc.)?
Once you are both in agreement to proceed, send over a welcome packet that includes FAQs, onboarding materials, payment instructions, etc.
If, for any reason, the fit isn’t right for either party, take it upon yourself to direct the student elsewhere for help (refer to medical professionals, other coaches, programs, or methods as appropriate).
3) The Check-ins
By the time your student has gone through your application, short-listing, and onboarding process, the coaching relationship should be on solid ground with a clear vision for the future. Of course, building trust takes time. So does developing an intuition for what each student will respond best to. Regular check-ins will help you create better programs and ensure they feel supported.
There are no hard rules for check-ins. Your method will likely differ according to how you design your service packages, the nature of the training program, and your student’s preferences.
Here are a few ways to keep in touch:
- Daily to weekly emails (keep these concise)
- Weekly, bi-weekly or monthly phone/Skype calls
- Request videos of specific lifts for technique review
- Private Facebook group
Putting It All Together: The Online Coaching Checklist
Now that we’ve covered the softer skills, here’s how you can get started today with tools that are cheap or even totally free.
Remember two things. First, there is no “best way;” only that which works well enough for you and your students to stay consistent and make progress.
Second, you don’t need to start with an empire. Just like a press or squat, it starts with the empty bar. Next, I’ll talk about the ‘funnel,’ from helping people find you with great content to dealing with inquiries. Finally, I’ll get to the easy tools you can use to quickly test those online training waters.
- Get the word out
Now, we begin the process of putting ourselves out there. And the best, most proven way, is by building your authority.
If you’re reading between the lines, this is called sharing your expertise… for free.
Once you understand who you’d like to serve, your marketing goals are really quite simple: create content that positions you as an authority, demonstrating that you understand their concerns, challenges, and interests, and shows that you can help them (maybe even how).
Social media is a great place to start. Here’s how that might look on Instagram:
You post a single leg deadlift video and explain in the caption how it benefits people who enjoy trail running. You include pertinent hashtags so people who care about running—and maybe getting better at it—can find your post. For example #trailrunning #runhappy #mountains #instarun. Check out best-hastags.com for more ideas. While a #singlelegdeadlift hashtag is good, it doesn’t resonate to anyone outside of single leg deadlift lovers. In marketing lingo: think of that as a feature, whereas #runawesome is the benefit. I want to improve my single leg deadlift versus I want to run better, faster, longer.
Don’t stop there, and don’t play passive. Take the initiative to start actual conversations with people and always respond to comments and questions. Search those same terms yourself and leave thoughtful comments on other people’s posts. Take note of what trail runners are struggling with and what they share. This is the best form of market research.
Here’s a Facebook example:
You post your “3 Quick Tips for Better Posture” list in a status update and explain why these are beneficial for classical musicians who have to sit with their instruments for long periods of time. You then find a few Facebook groups for classical musicians and participate in the conversation. You establish yourself as the fitness authority in these groups by sharing your list and following up with comments and questions.
2. Handle inquiries
Once people are interested, they need a place to go. Either to contact you directly or to do some extra due diligence to see if you are legit. Consider a “home base” where you can send interested prospects that explains more about you, the type of people you help, and how you help them.
Your website, if you have one (WordPress can host a basic blog for free), is perfect. But you can also make a Facebook business profile, or you could simply make a .pdf (which can be done in Google Docs) that serves as an emailable “expanded business card.
3. Present the application
Already covered above. Your “apply to train with me” can be delivered via email, Google Form, or even in direct messages.
Here’s a list of free tools for delivering your programs and keeping in touch.
- Calendly.com allows anyone with your custom link to book a call time directly. Because it syncs to your personal calendar, you’ll never have to worry about time zones or double booking.
- Google Sheets is an easy way to create, share, and organize your training programs.
- YouTube is the undisputed king of video. Upload your own technique reference videos and set them to “unlisted” if you only want your clients to see them. You can then embed the video link directly into your program spreadsheet.
- Skype, Zoom, or FaceTime (for Apple users) can be used for video calls. This is especially helpful if you need to coach someone in real-time.
- PayPal, Venmo, and Stripe are all reputable and user-friendly payment processors.
- Mail Chimp is an easy way to get started with email marketing.
- Facebook and Instagram are the two major social media platforms. Even if you don’t use both regularly, at least register a username and direct people where you want them to go.
Admittedly, this is a lot to take in. So if you’re feeling overwhelmed, just relax and remember that you don’t need to do all this at once.
Just like in training, pick a goal or area for improvement and focus on it relentlessly until it becomes a strength. If you can handle 12-hour days on the gym floor, you have the work ethic to figure this stuff out.
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