The first rule of sales is to get the product into the customer’s hands. And if you run a service-based business like a martial arts school, the only way to get your “product” into your customers’ hands is to let them try your service.

Trial offers are an effective method of driving more people into your martial arts gym, but they often leave owners frustrated at how so few “convert” to regular memberships once those trials have ended. 

Does this mean trials are actually ineffective at driving memberships? Not quite. If you take a look at trials that have low conversion rates, you’ll notice a few patterns…

…those tend to be:

  • Free of charge
  • Unfocused and/or unstructured
  • Lacking warmth or community

These types of trials allow prospective students to peek into training life at a school, but they leave them confused and sometimes alienated by the lack of support and direction. 

They also attract the type of people who aren’t serious about regular training, but want to take advantage of a long, free trial period. It’s understandable, then, why so few decide to become members.

In this article, I’ll show you how to design a trial that avoids these pitfalls, instead setting your trials up to convert into full-time memberships, in three phases:

  1. Building trials structured for conversion to memberships
  2. Nurturing prospective students throughout the trial period
  3. Optimizing the trial-to-membership close rate

How to Build Trial Programs That Drive New Memberships

If you want prospects to convert into new members, you have to put thought into the design and structure of the trial program itself first.

But before we dive into that, I wanted to briefly touch on promotion.

There are a number of ways to get people signed onto trials, but this article is about how to design the trials themselves rather than how to promote them. That said, I will summarize some of your best options for getting people onto trials:

  • Direct response marketing. Direct response marketing is advertising that calls for immediate action from the person reading or watching your ad. This can be used to get people straight onto trials, or it can be used to get people into “funnels” that warm them up to the idea of a trial first, then asks for a trial sign up after. Both work, and both can be accomplished with social media ads or traditional direct mail campaigns. (Read more about direct response marketing for martial arts). 
  • Word-of-mouth referrals. If you already have a student body, one of the cheapest and most powerful ways to get people through your door is through referrals from your students’ personal networks. People are more likely to try something if someone they trust recommends it. (Read more about building effective referral programs).

You can do a hundred things with those options, and there are other marketing options available as well. Whatever you do, make sure your marketing offers accurately reflect the nature of the trial you put together.

Now, with that out of the way, we can get back to good trial program design.

The 3 Things Every Prospective Student Needs Before Becoming a Member

It’s important to understand what goes into a truly conversion-oriented trial program. Contrary to popular opinion, students don’t usually sign up because of the style you teach, your credentials (at least relative to other teachers), or your relative ability as a martial artist…

So what does convince people to sign onto memberships? At base, prospective new members want 3 things regardless of their specific goals:

  1. To know the instructor is knowledgeable in what he or she teaches
  2. To have a safe, clean training environment
  3. To be part of a welcoming, helpful community

Prospects tend to care less about the particulars of what style you teach and more about how your program makes them feel. The above points represent the fulfillment of more basic human needs: safety, security, trustworthy guidance, and community.

Instead of thinking of your trial programs as “tryouts,” I want you to think of them as new student onboarding instead. Treat your trial students as if they just became official members of your school.

The Covert Onboarding Method: Make Trial Students a Part of Your Community Without Them Realizing It

Regular memberships tend to be monthly subscription programs that go on indefinitely unless terminated. While that’s best for the health of your business, it creates a lot of friction for potential new students who might not be 100% sure they want to make that commitment.

The main draw of a trial program is the fact that you get to try martial arts for a discrete period of time. Psychologically, this makes it easier for people to try because they know that just in case they don’t like things, there’s a definite, no obligation exit.

That said, your trial serves one, and only one, real business purposes: to convince them your school is the type of training environment they want to be in.

You do this by making sure your trial includes these elements:

  • A pleasant introduction. Be sure to greet students with a smile and a handshake every time they come to class. Make sure their questions are answered and they’re comfortable with the environment. 
  • A sense of individual worth. Make sure newcomers don’t feel marginalized for being the beginners they are. There’s a tendency in martial arts to assign worth by seniority, and it can be overwhelming for beginners who are just getting used to this hierarchy.
  • All the requisite basics for your style. Make sure your trial program touches on all the basic movements most crucial to learning your style and sets students up for success should they continue to train at your school.
  • A helpful, warm, engaged community. Foster a community of people in your school that is welcoming and helpful to newcomers and willing to invest in the success of their fellow classmates.
  • Initiation into the norms of the school. Ensure trial students are able to experience and learn the etiquette, lingo, and normative social practices of your training community.

These seem basic, but so many schools still mess up this opportunity. The first three points are self-explanatory, but we’ll address the last two points in a little more detail in the coming sections.

Why You Should Try Paid Trials Instead of Free

Free trials do work… but at a cost.

Free trials, because they have zero friction, tend to attract more people, but also the type of people who aren’t necessarily interested in purchasing a memberships. And because no monetary value has been attached to the trial, prospects are often blindsided by the actual monthly cost of a membership.

You can still get people signed up, but it requires a much larger volume of trial students to get them and that quickly gets expensive.

But charging a fee for a trial program is an instant qualifier. By design, only individuals interested in and able to pay for services will purchase a trial, thus making them more likely to purchase a regular membership.

This tactic increases the quality of leads you get because prospective students have made an initial investment in your program, even if a small one. This gets intensified if their initial investment is high.

Even before you’ve fixed the structure of your trial offers, the paid trial technique is one of the quickest but most powerful business “levers” you can pull to create a nearly immediate improvement in your trial-to-membership conversion rate.

How to Nurture Trials Into New Members

Even with a well-structured trial program, you still have to make an effort to nurture your trial students into new members.

Send Reminders, Check-ins, and Follow-ups 

People get busy, and sometimes they can forget to show up to their trial lessons even if they paid for them. It’s best to remind a new trial sign-up about their program a few days before it starts as well as the day of the program start.

Once a new sign-up has shown up to his or her first trial lesson, it’s important that you keep in contact throughout the week between lessons. During this time, you should be answering common questions, offering more value (training tips, health tips, mental training, etc.), and giving encouragement to all your prospective students. 

This keeps you top of mind for positive reasons, and it allows you to show your expertise while also supporting your trial sign-ups through their first experience of the rigors of martial arts training. It shows your potential new students that they are noticed and valued, and helps prove that you have both a helpful community and a proven roadmap for new learners. 

The best thing about this tactic is that it adds a personal touch to your communication with trial students but can be completely automated. We partnered with ActiveCampaign, an Email marketing tool to provide our users with those exact capabilities.

You can take inquiries and sign-ups right off your website and put them straight onto an automation sequence that makes sure prospects have all the information they need, and you are kept top-of-mind for the duration of the trial.

Assign a Buddy

A trial is the perfect time to integrate prospective students into your school’s culture. This builds a strong connection between them and your school, which in turn inclines that individual to desire regular membership. The importance of a strong community cannot be understated.

Think about it – Why do humans find themselves drawn to organized sports, or religious groups, or any number of the endless amounts of interest clubs around? Humans are social creatures, and we’re naturally drawn to activities where we can do interesting things and belong.

The more integrated they become into your school’s culture, the more they make friends, the easier it is for them to say “yes” when it’s time to talk about joining as full members.

Helping a prospect assimilate into your school’s culture also removes the awkward “getting to know everyone” phase that all students go through in their first month of training. The clear advantage of this is that the prospective student is now comfortable with most or all of your regular trainees before joining the standard program.

This not only smooths over the sales process, it lays the foundation for rock solid retention as time marches on.

And the best way to do this is to assign each of your trial students a buddy.

Seniors or Cohorts?

You have two main options for the buddy tactic: pairing trial students with senior students or pairing them with fellow cohorts from a trial. Which one you choose will depend on how you structure your trial program(s) and your goals.

Senior Students: Personal Networks & Mentorships Out of the Box

In my opinion, it’s best to pair trial students (and new sign-ups) with a seasoned veteran at your school. This provides newcomers with an instant inroad into your culture, but more importantly allows them to get crucial 1-on-1 mentorship.

Because of the teacher/student dynamic, students are often afraid to be frank with instructors and ask certain questions. This can create friction in the mind of newcomers that eventually leads to discouragement or discontentment and eventually quitting.

As the instructor, it’s important that you give each trial student as much meaningful personal attention as you can every class. But you can’t be there for them all the time, so assigning a buddy is also a way to give trial students more personal attention without you being beside them every second of every session.

A senior student can act like an inside man, answering questions that trial students might not have asked you — and acting as a live, objective testimonial to the quality of your program. They become friends, and people take seriously the testimonies of friends.

Cohorts: Brothers & Sisters in Arms

If you run a trial program totally separate from your normal student body, the next best thing is to assign trial students to each other as companions throughout the length of the program.

This still accomplishes many of the effects that the senior buddy option does:

  • Breaks the ice and builds a sort of connection to the school
  • Fosters a sense of community within the program
  • An extra sense of personal attention

While the benefit of mentorship is lost, the cohort buddy assignment does have a unique advantage. Like recruits who forge strong bonds through their time at basic training, a properly challenging trial program can simulate a similar effect.

Done well, each “graduating class” of trial students will develop bonds with each other and the special kind of pride that comes with that. These are the feelings that not only drive memberships but build spectacular long term retention.

How to Optimize Your Trial-to-Membership Conversion Rate

The secret to optimizing your trial-to-membership close rate is twofold: 

  1. Keep positive engagement high during the trial 
  2. Give trial students a reason to upgrade to a membership

If you can accomplish these two things, your conversion rate will skyrocket. Most programs I’ve seen (with a decent trial) were able to achieve a consistent 70% close rate from trial to membership. With an exceptional trial experience, it’s possible to get even higher.

Driving Positive Engagement

Why are video games so popular? They tap into common human motivations that keep us interested and excited to play.

Video games aren’t magic, however, and that’s good news. It’s possible to use the same mechanics and principles of video gaming and apply them to trial programs to drive high engagement. This process is called gamification.

In his book, Actionable Gamification, gamification pioneer Yu-Kai Chou outlines 8 core drives that, if fulfilled by an activity, increase the innate engagingness (and “addictiveness”) of it (p. 25-28):

  1. Epic Meaning & Calling
  2. Development & Accomplishment
  3. Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback
  4. Ownership & Possession
  5. Social Influence & Relatedness
  6. Scarcity & Impatience
  7. Unpredictability & Curiosity
  8. Loss & Avoidance

I’ll summarize them here and provide tips on how to apply them to your trial programs.

Epic Meaning & Calling

People want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They also want to feel like they were personally selected to perform an important task or function.

Martial arts is a very individual activity. However, there are several ways to create the sense that your trial students are a part of something bigger than themselves. 

First, frame your school as a community of like-minded individuals trying to help each other become the best they can be. This creates a real sense of “bigger-than-one” purpose because now they have a part in improving more lives than just their own.

Second: if you run paid trials, a great way to fulfill this core drive is to advertise that part (or all) of the proceeds will go toward a related social initiative — such as battered women or anti-bullying programs. New trials are now contributing toward those initiatives by signing up.

Development & Accomplishment

This one is common sense, but school owners still mess it up sometimes due to widespread misunderstandings about this drive.

The belt system is one example of gamifying development by recognizing accomplishment. But belts usually take a long time to earn, and the breadth of skills each represents is often wide and somewhat unclear. Therefore, other visual progress markers are necessary to fulfill this drive during the trial (and to supplement traditional ranking systems along the journey).

If you teach a style like taekwondo or karate, using the trial program to lead a beginner to their first belt promotion might be a good idea depending on how long it typically takes to reach the first colored belt. But no matter what style you teach, badges and certificates of completion are good symbols of development and accomplishment for short programs.

However, it’s important that both are earned, not simply given for showing up. They have to represent something real — participation trophies won’t do.

Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback

This one is very powerful, but since your trial program is functioning as onboarding, you have to be careful how you implement it.

This is the human drive to be creatively involved in a process, or at the very least have a say-so in how it progresses. They also need to see the results of their creative efforts and feedback, allowing them to adjust and improve.

But fair warning: 

Beginners require more rigidly structured instruction to get them up to speed on your martial art; failing to provide that structure could create retention problems down the road. 

Instead, provide them with a controlled range of choices that satisfies their urge to direct their own journey but still delivers functionally the same results.

Some tactics for this are:

  • Asking for student input on a choice between 2 different but functionally identical drills or exercises during class.
  • Designing activities where students can explore different solutions to a very specific problem, to which you have already prepared a lesson plan around.
  • Giving quick, helpful feedback on how a student performed that tells them not just what they can improve, but how to.
  • Use formal scoring systems for benchmark drills that give trial students a clear understanding of where they are throughout the program, the way you might score a gymnastics routine or kata performance. Instead of “good” or “bad”, say “7 out of 10” to let them know how close they are to doing it properly (for their current level).

A totally realized involvement and feedback strategy is best saved for when students enter the intermediate stage of skill development.

Ownership & Progression

When students feel like they own or control something, they naturally want to make it better. 

This overlaps a lot with the previous drive, but there are a few distinct strategies for ownership that you should also include in your trial design:

  • A uniform
  • Branded gear
  • Fitness/training trackers

At the end of the trial program, you want your prospective students to think to themselves, “I already put all this work in/accomplished these things/have this gear, why quit now?”

Social Influence & Relatedness

We’ve already spoken at length about the importance of integrating trial students into your school culture and assigning them designated training buddies. 

Scarcity & Impatience

We’ll talk about how to exploit this drive in the next section.

Unpredictability & Curiosity

Martial arts training can be very chaotic, and it is new to most people who will join your trial programs. A good trial program should have a decent variety of skills training; and if it does, this core drive should be satisfied.

Loss & Avoidance

The next section touches on this as well, but a good trial program will automatically fulfill this by fulfilling the other core drives.

Humans are afraid of missing out. They’re also afraid of losing previous work. If you frame the trial program as an accomplishment in and of itself, and you make that accomplishment mean something to your regular program, students will want to become members to continue what they started. 

Offer an Early Sign-up Deal

The single most powerful way to optimize your trial-to-membership conversion rate is to offer an early sign-on special.

Executing this is easy. A week before the trial ends, present a special deal to your trial sign-ups. Then make it clear that it’s only for early sign-ups — it becomes void when the trial ends and they haven’t upgraded to a membership. 

This uses two extremely powerful principles from both gamification and consumer psychology: scarcity and fear of missing out

The key to this is to be honest. If a person doesn’t sign up, do not offer the deal to them again. If the trial program is good, most people will take the deal. 

Conclusion

If you read all the way down here, you should have all the basics for creating a strong trial program for your school. Trial programs are important piece of the member acquisition puzzle, but are often misunderstood and under optimized resulting in less potential members and “white-belt” fatigue, as instructors and higher-ranks get used to many of those trials dropping off when their trial is over.

In future articles, we’ll discuss member retention and how to create a structure and culture that helps members stay motivated and training through plateaus and mental blocks.

Published by Josh Peacock

Josh is a lifelong martial arts fanatic, taekwondo 4th dan, BJJ player, writer, and marketer. In addition to helping martial arts school owners market their gyms more effectively, he also holds an M.Ed. in teaching & learning and has a passion for improving martial arts instruction.

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