marketing rocks vs marketing sucks

If you’re looking for information on how to market a martial art school, you’re likely to come across two opposing views…

  1. On the one hand, you have the folks who say that the only way to market your school is with aggressive, over-the-top marketing.
  2. And on the other hand, you have the folks who say that ‘marketing doesn’t work’ and the only way to market is through doing what amounts to community networking.

Confused? Never fear. I’m going to explore both premises in this article, and by the end you’ll understand both schools of thought and know how to make sense of the very confusing messages you’re being sent by the martial arts business gurus at large.

Camp #1: The Aggressive Marketing Approach

used car salesmanI’m sure you’ve seen ads and websites from schools who follow this approach. The ads are full of hyperbole, and the websites are garish and reminiscent of your last wild weekend in Vegas (lots of color and flashing lights, but not something you’d want to share with your mother).

Typically, the folks who advocate this sort of marketing approach are usually students or clients of some big marketing guru who sells ‘inner circle coaching’, or who offers seminars on how to market your business, etc. They follow the guru’s every word, because they are the ‘expert’ and they know how to make it rain. I mean, their client list includes celebrities and Fortune 500 companies, so they have to be right… right?

And, their approach generally reflects a bit of the pitchman, bringing to mind a late night infomercial or one of those ‘as seen on TV!’ ads in the tabloids. It’s generally loud, in your face, and a bit annoying. The sites are replete with optin pop-ups and videos that actually come across like mini-infomercials. Or, they have long-form sales letters on their websites. Or both.

But here’s the thing… does it work?

Hell yes, it works. Quite well, in fact. If it didn’t, then you wouldn’t keep seeing those long sales letter ads in magazines, and those late night infomercials. This is the classic direct response marketing approach, and when done right, it works like gangbusters.

I’ll admit, I’m a bit partial to this approach. I’m the type of person who actually watches infomercials for fun, and I enjoy rags to riches stories about salesmen who hustled and made it big (in the Mad Men work your ass off context kids, not the rap star slingin’ rock context). So, you’ll see a bit of this in my marketing approach, but I’ve learned to tone it down over the years – more on why in a minute…

Incidentally, if you want proof that the in-your-face approach works, I present to you Joe Ades, the man who became a millionaire selling $5 potato peelers on a Park Avenue street corner in New York:

Camp #2: The ‘Marketing Doesn’t Work’ People

hippy marketerNow, on the other hand you have people in the industry who are basically saying that marketing doesn’t work. To these people, it’s all about relationships, networking, and community service. Get out and meet people, shake some hands, do some community service, plant some trees, and students will just come running to your front door.

The approach these folks espouse typically revolves around being seen doing good in your community. They talk about stuff like global warming (although I think they’re calling it climate change these days, since you can’t call a blizzard ‘global warming’) and thinking globally but acting locally. Run a ‘green’ school, show you care about the environment, support Green Peace, and so on.

They also recommend that you actually get out in your community and do some good. Get involved in some urban renewal projects, or get a bunch of students together and volunteer your time with a charity or community service event. The idea is to get out of your school and into the heart of what is going on in your local area, and make a difference.

Now, you might give this approach short shrift, based on the fact that it sounds, well, New Agey and hippy-ish. But, you’d be wrong. In fact, I’ve been using this approach to help grow my schools since I started back in the early 90’s. I did tons of community service, and for years would give free child safety and women’s self-defense presentations to any organization, school, church, or government entity who asked. I’ve done fundraisers out the wazoo, and spent a great deal of my time helping out where I thought my students and I could do the most good.

Truth be told, I didn’t start doing this to market my school. I did it because I wanted to give back to the community. But lo and behold, the more I did it the more referrals I got. Turns out that being visible in your community helps. A lot.

So, Which Approach Is Right?

dazed and confusedLet me alleviate your confusion – both approaches will help your school grow. Now, I know that some of you want to choose one over the other, because there are aspects of each that turn you off.

For some of you, the people pushing the ‘save the whales’ approach are a bit too much on the granola-crunching side of the fence for your liking. And for others, you think anyone who posts a sales letter on their martial art school website is the devil…

Well, get over it. For starters, there’s nothing that says you have to do things the same way those folks do them. You can get out in your community, meet people, and do some good without shaving your head and donning orange robes and prayer beads. And, you can use sound direct marketing principles in marketing your business without coming across like Billy Mays hawking Oxyclean.

News Flash – You Need Both

Honestly, you need to be using both if you want to grow your school.

I don’t personally know of anyone who built a solidly successful and financially stable school just doing community service projects. The problem isn’t that it doesn’t work – it’s that you have to do it all the time to get enough positive PR to bring customers into your school. And quite frankly, you simply cannot do enough good works often enough to keep your school front and center in the mind’s eye of your local community.

In short, standing around collecting canned food and singing Kumbaya is not a viable long-term martial art school marketing strategy.

On the other hand, you can build a business on direct marketing alone. It’s a proven approach that works. But, the problem is if you take the hard-sell approach and adopt cheesy marketing tactics (the cartoon caricature comes to mind) pretty soon people will stop taking you seriously. Your marketing IS your public image, and that becomes a part of your brand.

So, even though the over-the-top approach will work (and keep working), you have to ask yourself – is that the image you want your school to have?

The Answer

The answer to all this is simple, and it’s that you need to be consistently marketing your school using direct marketing methods in a manner that fits the overall tone and image of your school. And, you need to be out in the community serving and giving back regularly (and not just because it typically results in good PR).

Both help. Both work. Both are necessary to grow your school. Get it? Good. Now, go plan your marketing and community service project for next month.

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