Will Brereton

How to Create a Successful Group Exercise Experience in the Digital World

As every operator and fitness professional well knows, quickly switching all in-person fitness to digital in 2020 was an enormous challenge. While many successfully recorded workouts for on-demand sessions or navigated live classes through platforms like Zoom, the experience often suffered as instructors struggled to find their footing in a new format. Ten months on from the first lockdown, many operators and fitness instructors are still trying to maintain the experience of group exercise in the digital world. We spoke to Will Brereton, founder of Sh1ft Fitness about this very challenge and how fitness instructors and operators can capitalise on this new reality. We spoke to Will about:

  • How fitness instructors and operators can stand out in a crowded market
  • How a group fitness instructor or operator can improve the production of their virtual classes
  • How operators can create quality content without breaking the bank
  • How to attract brand new members or clients in a digital world

In a recent podcast, you used the term “phygital” to describe the future of group ex. What does this mean exactly?

When the pandemic started, a lot of people were using the term “hybrid” to describe the mixture of physical and digital fitness. But that term has got a bit muddied over time. Phygital is more than just physical plus digital. It’s about using technology to bridge the physical and digital world together to bring something more to the user. I like this term because it is very client-centric. When I think about phygital, it’s a combination of in-person experience and virtual touchpoints because this is how people are consuming fitness now. Of course, there will be some that can’t handle moving into a digital space, but the reality is that people are now consuming fitness in a “phygital” way so if operators want to be a provider of this experience, they have to get on board.

The retail space is a good example to explain what’s happening in the fitness industry because they are further ahead in this journey. As online shopping got bigger and bigger, there was a lot of talk that the high street would die. But what we actually saw was that in-person shopping became more of an experience. Luxury brands turned their bricks and mortar shops into showrooms. When people shop online, it’s for convenience and ease. When they shop in-store, they want an experience. Fitness will be the same. When people want convenience with their workout, they’ll do something on-demand or digital. When they want connection, they will go for an in-person class.

How can fitness instructors and operators capitalise on this new reality?

If you are a gym with amazing real estate, you probably have a very expensive lease. Realistically, it could be two years before you get the same footfall that you had before the pandemic started. Instructors and operators need to have a growth mindset. The growth of digital does not pose a risk to them, even though the growth of big brands like Peloton or Apple Fitness can seem scary. With a new fitness app or on-demand platform popping up seemingly daily, it can feel like it’s a very crowded space. But the reality is that the same opportunity is there. 85% of people are not moving as much as they should.

Instructors need to understand who they want to serve and focus on that niche. Digital platforms are general. They are for everyone. Instructors and operators will be successful based on how well they can serve a specific community.

A lot of instructors who taught at gyms will have been taught that they needed to be for everyone: beginners to advanced, all ages, all stages. But, if you’re teaching digitally, you can really narrow in on a specific target audience. This is a whole paradigm shift for instructors because many have gone through training being told they must cater to all levels.

The important thing for operators is to be “phygital” and hyper-local. This means that they need to understand and build a platform and provision around a well-defined community. If you’re going to be a central hub for your community, you must speak to that community.

COVID has forced people to appreciate how important health and fitness is. One of the biggest risk factors for getting the virus is being unfit or having underlying health conditions. There’s an opportunity here for operators. Once you reopen, start a walking group to get people in. People may be uncomfortable with a workout, but anyone can walk and walking will keep people fit for life. This group can then be a great feeder for memberships down the line.

What can instructors do to stand out from the crowd in a digital world? How can they differentiate?

The key is to understand your niche. Focus on your clients and understand who is attracted to you. Think about why you do what you do and who it is for. If you understand this, you can create content that helps these people find you. Don’t make the differentiation about you. This is really hard, but this change in mindset is the first step.

What if you’re not all that technical? How can a group fitness instructor improve the production of their virtual classes?

Here are a few simple hacks.

#1: sort your audio. People can live with grainy video, but they cannot live with bad audio. Invest in a good microphone. Do research and get recommendations.

#2: sort your lighting. Natural light works well but be aware that if you have natural light and a window open, the hues can clash and create weird distortions. A single lighting source is best.

#3: sort your staging. Cameras love contrast. For example, if you have a dark background, wear colorful clothes.

Another thing to consider is the resolution of your videos. If you create a video on demand library, most have a very high-resolution storage capacity but these videos will be too heavy to transmit and store. Don’t worry about having super high-resolution video. HD or 1080 is fine. 4K will kill most platforms.

Finally, you can’t just press record and go. You need to test. Record a few seconds, then check your recording. Are you visible in the frame? Does everything look right? How’s the lighting and sound? Checking all these elements in advance is super important.

For many operators, budget will be a consideration when it comes to on demand, how can operators create quality content without breaking the bank?

Right now, while you’re closed, sort a space in your facility for filming. Use this time to build a bank of content with any staff not on furlough. Creating digital fitness content may be new for some operators, but you do not need to use an external third-party production company to create good content. With trial and error, you can do this yourself.

The key is to simply start. Look at what you’ve created and if it isn’t of a high enough standard, don’t post it. Look at what other operators are doing well, and try to emulate it. Everyone Active does a great job of this and they get loads of engagement on their videos.

Consider doing batch production which can save on staffing costs. Then post one video per week as new content.

One challenge is that licensed formats can’t necessarily be used for on-demand or digital content and instructors aren’t always up to the challenge of creating new content at the speed that is required. That’s where you can use a provider like SH1FT that provides instructors with content with zero restrictions.

What common mistakes do you see instructors / operators making when teaching in an online environment?

The biggest mistake I see is instructors or operators not thinking about the user or the user experience. It’s important to consider how your users are consuming the content and plan around that. Think about how teaching needs to be tweaked for the digital environment. For example, if you’re teaching something on the floor, people at home likely can’t see their screen as well or at all, so instructors need to be cueing extremely specifically, or giving directional cues. Similarly, you need to think about the programming so you’re not going up and down all the time. Consider restricting any floor portions of a workout to the end of a class.

These things may seem small but putting some thought around the user experience will help immensely.

Online classes were originally seen as an interim measure until in-person group exercise can continue. Beyond your original members, what can instructors or gym operators do to grow their audience? How do you reach people who weren’t part of your in-person classes in the first place?

For the last decade, we’ve lived in an economy where we’ve been told that content is king. But now, we’re moving to a place where connection is king. It is more important that your content is creating connection and community with the people you serve. There’s no point creating fitness videos that are excellently produced and do everything right if you’re not going to create a community with the users.

Think about where you are going to have that pre- and post-class interaction. How will you connect users with other users? This is the stuff that’s really important. If people are only coming to your class because they are connecting with the instructor, you have a problem. If the connection is being created with the people in the class, people are more likely to stay with you. The same applies to digital. If people stop using your platform because they get bored, they will disappear from your ecosystem. But if they are also part of an online community, they are more likely to stay.

For more information about Sh1ft Fitness, go to https://sh1ftfitness.net/

Posted in Fit-tech, Gyms & Clubs, Interviews, Most Popular Interviews, The Fitness Network.