Back in January, I created a graphic called How to Market your Dojo to Women. One of the points it made was the importance of having a good club website. For some reason, this point seemed to spark some interest – several readers got in touch, asking for further advice on what a good martial arts club website actually looks like (for attracting students in general, not just women).
Not being an expert myself, I reached out to someone who is – Matthew Apsokardu of the Ikigai Way blog. Matthew is a top martial arts blogger and published author (notably for his Amazon bestselling book Tales from the Western Generation – Untold Stories and Firsthand History from Karate’s Golden Age published last year).
As well as writing, Matthew’s expertise also spans website design, marketing and martial arts club operation. So who better to ask for some insights into how martial artists can use the web to their advantage . . .
Matthew very kindly agreed to help by letting me interview him; and here’s the result.
Feel free to ask any questions in the comments section below, and Matthew will do his best to answer them for you . . .
Who should a martial arts club website be for?
Matthew: I think the most critical audience is prospective students. One of the age-old questions of dojo operation is how to get enough students in the door to sustain the business and maybe even (speaking in hushed tones) make a profit. Instructors have come up with a variety of creative solutions, including demos, newspaper ads, billboards, tournaments, etc. However, in the modern marketplace, there is no more powerful tool than a website. Except word of mouth. Word of mouth will always be the most powerful tool. But then it’s a website.
The current fight for customer attention is dominated by the online landscape. Very recently the swing of attention has gone from laptops and home PCs to mobile devices. Google has led the way in helping us find businesses around us, and deliver search results very relevant to whatever we are looking for. Prospective students looking for a dojo will turn to online search, and it is your responsibility (as the dojo owner) to show up locally and put on a professional face.
A less obvious audience for the website is current students. There is certainly nothing wrong with a website that acts purely as a sales pitch, but a great website finds ways to engage its audience even after the conversion has been met. The more time a student spends engaging with the website and social media of a dojo, the more they will feel like part of that unique community. Websites can achieve this through elements like forums, videos, articles, comment threads, etc. Social media should act as an extension, or even primary playground, for that activity.
A third audience is other local businesses and martial arts schools in the area. Networking is an underrated aspect of business growth, and if other local businesses feel like you are a polished entity, they may be more inclined to get to know you and send people to you (websites can and should facilitate word of mouth).
Ok let’s focus on marketing to prospective students then, as you say this is the most critical audience. What is the most important, key information that prospective students need to know and will be looking for?
- What is being taught. Martial art styles may be a part of that explanation, but it’s important to remember that prospective students probably have no understanding or appreciation for style jargon. To them, taekwondo and karate are just two foreign sounding words that they’ve heard on TV at some point. They may know “jujitsu” from watching an MMA fight, but “Danzan Ryu” has no significance to them. Don’t get lost in terminology that seems important to you but loses the potential student. Instead, describe the focus of the content.
- Age groups and intent. If a parent is browsing around for their kid, they’ll want to know ASAP if a school has kid friendly classes and what to expect. For example – if they are anticipating a friendly, playful environment but you use strict military discipline, the disconnect can lead to a lot of wasted time for both you and the parent. This is equally important for adult students who want to match your school with their expectations and intentions.
- Class schedule. After a prospective student decides that your content matches their needs, they’ll want to find out if they can fit training into their schedule. An updated and current class listing is a valuable asset to have. If your classes are very fluid, it may be best to include a class schedule page, but simply have contact information so they can reach out to you to find out the most current training agenda.
- Instructor information. Experienced martial artists know this is where good intentions can turn into buffoonery. Some teachers feel the need to collect ludicrous amounts of accolades, achievements, ranks, trophies, championships…you name it. In fact, for an experienced martial artist who may be looking for a new school, the sensei page is the first and easiest place to spot red flags. That being said, “newbies” will want to see that you’ve been around the block a few times, and experienced students looking for a fresh start will want to see your lineage or background. A tip for the teachers out there though – don’t go crazy.
- Contact info and an offer. Make it easy for prospective students to find your contact info and get in touch with you. Consider an incentive, such as a free class to get the ball rolling.
What other types of information might a club also add to its website?
Content should be thought of as an ongoing process. Once the basics of the website are set up, it shouldn’t be left to gather dust. Streams of articles, images, seminars, announcements, etc., demonstrate a lively and active club. That energy can be infectious and inviting to new potential students.
How should a club pick the kind of image it wants to convey?
I think honesty is the best policy in this regard. It also gives you an opportunity to reflect on what you are teaching and how you are teaching it. If you want to claim that your school is self-defense focused but you end up teaching tournament kata all the time, you can make an adjustment in either your marketing or your content.
Do you have any advice on what kind of photos to use?
I think the impact of photos is underrated. Humans make a lot of subconscious decisions based on what they see in a person and situation. Conclusions will be jumped to, and pictures will be the springboard. Here are a few picture types I’ve noticed and how to use them to your advantage:
- Stock photos. Stock photos are very well polished and often have their backgrounds whited out. That makes them versatile. The good part about stock photos is that they can give a clean, professional look. The bad part is that they scream “this is a generic, chain martial arts school”. By the way, if someone wants to run a generic, chain martial arts school that’s fine. In all other cases though stock photos should be used sparingly, if at all.
- Amateur shots. Not everyone is a professional photographer – including me. However, photos that are kinda blurry, tilted, poorly lit, or otherwise amateurish can send a signal to potential students that this is a “hobby club” and not a spit-polished operation. Keep that in mind if the “image” you want to convey (as noted in the previous question) is a gritty, blood-and-concrete, no-holds-barred kind of fight club. Too much polish for that kind of operation would actually detract from the essence of it.
- Group photos. Group shots can be useful to show the diversity and age range in a school. For example, if you are an MMA school and your student body is predominantly large dudes, a group shot will demonstrate that large, scary dudes are welcome. If you are an MMA club with kids’ classes, having youngsters in that photo will show parents that they’ve come to the right place. Keep in mind that group shots are fairly uninteresting so you don’t want to slather too many all over your website.
Is it ok for a club to do without a website and just rely on Facebook?
I don’t personally recommend it, although it’s not impossible to have success with just social media. Websites are extremely beneficial because they create a home base for your school. Search engines can list them, you can put the url on business cards, and you have control over the content and appearance.
If you can have a strong, independent website and a potent Facebook presence as well, you are on the right track.
Can clubs make their own website for free? If so, what’s the best way to do this?
Yes, building a website for free is possible. The key thing to understand is that you are building on someone else’s real estate. How do they afford to let you do that? By benefiting from the search traffic and user eyeballs you bring in. So if you are shopping for a free website service, make sure to ask the question – how are they benefiting from my website?
One of the most tried-and-true free services is https://wordpress.com/. This is especially useful for school owners who want to write and maintain a blog. Another popular service is http://www.wix.com/. This is more oriented toward businesses and shops.
The benefits of working with a service like this (besides the free factor of course) is the website builder technology. They do their best to guide you through the basics of putting together your website. That being said, you can still expect a learning curve. If you are the type person that is allergic to trial-and-error computer nonsense, this process may not be enjoyable for you.
Also, with a free website you are relegated to their pre-formed templates, so the creative factor is somewhat limited. The domain name may also be limited – so if you operate Joe’s Karate School, your website URL will likely be http://wordpress.joeskarateschool.com.
If a club decides to pay someone to develop its website, what are the different levels of service available?
You probably won’t find consistent levels. Each web development company will have different ideas about what should be included with their service. Some of the cheapest agencies will agree to secure your domain for you, set up your hosting, and then prop up a basic template with your core information on it. You probably won’t blow anyone away with this kind of product, but it’s a valid starter kit. You’ll usually plunk down a few hundred dollars for this service as a one-time fee, leaving you to manage the website. Keep in mind, the two ongoing costs for maintaining your own website will be domain name registration and hosting. The domain name is usually just a few bucks every year ($5-$15), and hosting is a few bucks every month ($5-$25).
If you want to graduate out of the base level experience, you can expect to either pay a full project fee or an on-going hourly development fee. Either way, you should end up with a more polished product that expresses the intent and style of your club. Develop a gameplan or vision for your website beforehand, so you can communicate with the agency actively about the site’s development.
The totality of service will vary greatly depending on the agency. Some are willing to manage every aspect of your website, marketing, and social media. Others just want to build a template for you. I recommend asking specifically about these things before agreeing to anything with an agency.
Which level do you recommend?
I would recommend matching your expectations to the level of financial and mental commitment you have for developing a website. If you are just starting a club in your area and want a small, private group of students, a basic free website might be more than enough. If you want to grow a school and organization, a proper investment in a website can be a pathway to the growth you want. Just like martial arts training itself, what you put in will dictate what you get out.
I personally like to help school owners by having them set aside a little bit of budget every month for marketing expenses. This helps prevent a huge gash in available funds and acts as a tax-deductible expense (speaking for the USA at least). I then work the amount of hours the budget allows, building the website on a relaxed timeline. This method also allows for changes along the way if the budget or priorities shift.
If a club decides to pay someone for web development, what should it look for?
As indicated earlier – word of mouth will always be the most potent tool. What is social media, after all, besides a giant word of mouth activator? That being the case, looking for recommendations in your circle of trust is always a good idea.
Beyond that, I would recommend observing the agency’s example clients and the agency website itself. You can get a good idea for their sense of style. If every website is sort of the same, you can expect your website to match their go-to template. If the clients are diverse and interesting, you can expect more personalized service.
After you’ve found someone who’s aesthetic you like, pay attention to how easy it is to communicate with them. Ask yourself – was it easy to find their contact info? If not, they may not understand conversions and that lack of understanding may transfer to your new website. When you emailed or called them, were they prompt and polite? Many web design agencies suffer from poor communication, not incorporating the needs of the client and reacting slowly to desired changes. Make sure you get a sense of rhythm for their communication style before agreeing to any contracts.
What advice would you give about the visual / appearance side?
- Just like photos should be used to match the tone of your club, so too should the appearance of the website. A gritty, no-nonsense club should not use fun, playful colors and fonts.
- Keep it simple with the bells and whistles. Too much going on leads to a lack of visual focus.
- Do not put music on your website. I know that’s not visual, but it is experiential.
- Keep text in digestible bites. You can go into long details on your blog posts or deeper pages, but keep the main pages focused and tight.
I won’t ask you to single out any “bad” websites, but could you tell us some common fails that you see in your line of work?
- Over-reliance on jargon. I understand that you may be part of the Toru Shinden Kokoro Kaze Fundoshi Ryu, but no one knows what that means. Keep it straight forward on your main pages, and then elaborate on the deeper pages of the website.
- Lack of knowledge about Search Engine Optimization. The most polished website in the world won’t help if local students can’t find you.
- Marketing undervalue. In the martial arts world, “marketing” seems to be a taboo word. People think that true, traditional martial arts clubs shouldn’t be involved in superficial activities like marketing. On one hand, that’s true; slick campaigns can be used to gloss over a lack of quality product. However, marketing doesn’t have to be sleazy, it can also be used to transmit professionalism. Smart, modern consumers can use websites to detect red flags and avoid businesses that don’t deserve their time and money. A good website can be polished enough to reflect the professional nature of the instructors and organization.
Huge thanks to Matthew for sharing his thoughts and expertise like this. And here’s some links to his own websites: