Fear-mongering works in politics, but not as your marketing strategy.

Marketing and lead-generation are one of the toughest jobs for self-defense schools. To make matters worse, many of these schools pay exorbitant affiliation fees to groups who do nothing to more than sending you a folder of stock photos. Individual schools are left to fend for themselves. 

Or worse. They’ll all meet periodically — either digitally or in person — discuss how what they’re doing doesn’t work very well and that they’re all basically doing the same thing, shrug their shoulders, and carry on in the same rut. 

Left on our own, it’s easy to understand how we got here. We can’t get people in the door, we see how energized people get around fear and crisis in other parts of our lives, and we think we see a path forward: show them how dangerous the world is and that will convince them to walk through the doors. 

Unfortunately, fear-based motivation works a lot better in politics than it does for self-defense schools, but that hasn’t kept school owners from using this marketing strategy to the point of absurdity. Pick any random school, visit their Facebook page, and you likely won’t have to scroll very far before you start seeing posts about mass shootings and the little old lady that got mugged in the parking lot. On its face, the approach makes sense: show my potential customer that they are unprepared for the potential danger all around them and surely they’ll give me their money. 

One problem. It doesn’t work. People are far more likely to respond with “not gonna happen to me” than they are “I need to start investing a bunch of time and money on the off chance that something crazy happens”. And of course that’s how they’re going to respond; when looking at it from that perspective, there are lots of better places to spend their time and money. 

Imagine for a moment if swim instructors took the same marketing approach: their Facebook page filled with articles about kids that have drowned in their neighbors pools, a tsunami that claimed hundreds of lives, and a flash flood sweeping up a group of local fishermen. Do you think they’d have people beating down their doors?

We actually use the swimming analogy a lot when talking to  current and potential students. Why do people learn to swim? Most people will immediately say “because it’s fun,” but that’s actually not true. People learn to swim so they don’t have to worry so much about drowning. People continue to swim because it’s fun. 

Why do people train at your school? Do they darken your doors every night because they are scared? 

I’m guessing they come train at your center night after night because they have fun. They have friends there, you run great drills, they are getting an endorphin rush from the great workout. AND they are leaving there every night with valuable skills. 

Yes, you might get some people that come in initially because something happened to them, but that fear is very personal and not a generalized fear based on “what if”s from reading news articles. Nor is that fear going to motivate them to stay around.

Your value proposition is not that you’re good at making the world less scary.  I’m very up front with my students in telling them that if they’re anything like me, the more they learn about fighting, the scarier the possibility of being in a violent encounter becomes. 

So what is your value proposition? Why should people spend their money with you?

You may not be able to make the world less scary, but maybe you provide an environment where folks can develop the emotional toughness to be inoculated to some of that fear. That’s a very different message than the “come train now or you’re gonna die” that comes through when you try to leverage their fears. Or maybe you provide a comfortable place to get uncomfortable. We tell people that a lot, and it It resonates well.

I can’t tell you exactly what your value proposition is, but I can very clearly tell you what it’s not: “come train with me or you’re all gonna die”. Which is not terribly far from the message that gets sent every time you make a Facebook post about a violent event with a tag line about “come train with us!”  Just. Stop. It. 

Right now, our public-facing value proposition is: “no contracts” and “free 1 week trial”. Those may not be right for you, but they get the point across: you’re more likely to get an inquiry from someone who wants to try a week of classes than from someone who wants to come in because the old lady got stabbed. The pictures and content we post have students enjoying themselves and working hard — not escaping perilous situations with solemn looks on their faces. 

Ultimately you have to decide what marketing and brand strategy is right for you, but remember: people don’t go to the pool out of fear, they go to play Marco Polo and to jump off the high dive. 

Find out what your “Marco Polo” is. Ask your current customers why they keep coming back (if you don’t know). Use that information to craft a unique brand and marketing strategy to attract new potential customers. You have a valuable offering, so don’t rely on the lowest common denominator of fear mongering to expose that value. It’s beneath your brand and will continue to fail in achieving your recruitment goals. 

If your affiliation is not serving you, maybe it’s time to start demanding more for your money. Need help branding yourself? Or creating  NEW branding? We’d love to brainstorm with other schools and gyms. Reach out to us, we’d love to collaborate. Let’s become experts together.

Jesse Walker