This article reveals how top fitness industry experts built their online following — from social media to newsletters to website traffic — and now have an enthusiastic audience of paying customers.


The beginning of my fitness career will probably sound familiar to you: I was an athlete who got hurt.

I walked on to the football team at the University of Missouri in 2010, and learned so much about the human body during my four bouts of physical therapy that I decided to make it my career.

Like every new fitness professional, I had tons of energy and enthusiasm but no idea how to get off the starting line. I slept in my car for three months to complete an internship, then worked my way up from in-home training to sharing space with physical therapists to opening my own studio a year ago. I even had a small breakthrough when I created a study guide for the CSCS exam.

That made me curious about what some of today’s best-known fitness and nutrition pros did to get attention and build their online following. Fortunately, I got a chance to ask seven of them at the Fitness Summit in Kansas City.

Here’s what they told me about how they built their online following from scratch, and what they did to stand out from the crowd.


Online following

Kelly Coffey

What was the first thing you did to build your online following?

I started the Strong Coffey Personal Training business page on Facebook so people within 20 miles of my house could find me. At the time I was only a one-on-one personal trainer.

Then I started my blog and wrote a few pieces at the end of 2013 and early 2014. They got more attention than they deserved from the 400 followers I had on my business page.

How did you get 400 followers?

I tried to post a couple times a week. If I said something that a client thought was helpful, I’d make it more general and post it on the page.

Sometimes I made a meme with a picture I stole from somewhere of a fluffy little kitten. It was like, “If you criticize your body because you don’t have a thigh gap, God kills a kitten.” Just funny little things that people could connect with.

People would share it in my local community, and their friends would like my page.

What was the first thing you did that got attention?

In 2014, I wrote Five Things I Miss About Weighing More than 300 Pounds.”

It got shared 100 times, and I was like, “Holy crap!”

I sent it to an online magazine called Mind Body Green. They published a shorter version that went viral all over the planet.

That was totally unexpected and totally weird. I had 50,000 hits on my itty-bitty website in one weekend, and I was still just a personal trainer with nothing for sale. If I’d had a hat for sale, I could have paid off my mortgage.

What advice would you give someone starting out today?

Focus on developing yourself as a person, because you’re the product. Get as much experience, as many hours training, as possible. Once you’re really happy with where the product is, that’s when you start to focus on marketing.

It doesn’t matter how good you are at marketing if you don’t have a strong product to sell. Marketing isn’t going to create a consistent revenue stream.

Kelly Coffey offers a free online workshop, “Why We Sabotage Ourselves with Food, and What We Can Do About It.”

RELATED: Is Your Fitness Programming Good Enough?


James Fell

What was the first thing you did online as a fitness professional?

In early 2009, I’d just spent five months working on what I thought would be my first book: Body for Wife: The Family Guy’s Guide to Getting in Shape. I launched a butt-ugly website and put the entire thing on the site, chapter by chapter. I deleted all that stuff in 2015 and turned the site into a blog.

By that time I’d been a freelance writer for six years.

What was the first thing you did that helped you build your online following?

I got a column with the Los Angeles Times in 2010. They allowed me to put my email at the end of each article, so readers could see my URL. That sent a bit of traffic. More important, though, having my name associated with a major newspaper helped my reputation and gave me legitimacy as a writer.

What advice would you give someone who’s starting out today?

I took an atypical route, and I succeeded despite going about it a weird way. If I had to do it over again, it would look very different.

There are four key ways to drive traffic and build your online following:

The first is Facebook. That’s where most of my traffic comes from. If I were starting out today, I’d use paid ads. I’ve heard it doesn’t cost much to get a lot of new followers, if you do it well.

But diversification is also important, which is why you should consider Pinterest. I’m not on it yet, but I’m going to start. When I do, I’ll probably hire a consultant to manage it for me. I make good ad revenue from my site, so I’m confident in the return on investment.

Third is making sure your site is optimized for search. You do that by writing great content and making sure your titles are SEO-friendly. A plugin called Yoast allows you to have one title for search and another one for Facebook, which might be different from the title you put on your post.

Fourth, build your email list. The best way to do that is to offer something for free that they’ll get when they sign up for your newsletter.

Instagram and Twitter are mostly useless for driving traffic to your site, and from what I’ve been told, SEO consultants are a waste of money.

The most important thing I’ve learned is that the quality of your content is more important than the quantity. It’s better to write one unique piece per week, something people want to read and share, than five mediocre ones.

If you’re not sure what makes content unique, check out Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable, by Seth Godin.

James Fell is fitness writer who blogs at


Mike Doehla

How did you get started as a fitness professional?

I would just give general advice. I thought I knew things about nutrition strategy that people may not have been getting anywhere else, and I wanted to help.

What was the first thing you did that helped you build an online following?

I had a decent number of friends from social circles, and I’d post status updates online. A lot of people noticed and thought, “Oh, this guy Mike knows what he’s talking about.”

I didn’t always have time, so I would take a quick break from my job and kind of rush through things. My posts would be up there for hours with misspellings and the wrong words. I’d look at them later and it was like, “Oh, man …”

How did you decide what to post?

I think of things backwards, and reverse engineer the whole process. What is the issue, and how can we solve it? How can we head it off before it even happens?

So on Thursdays, I would talk about meal prepping for the weekend. On Fridays, I would post about how not to mess up the next day. Then after the weekends, I would talk about how to not mess up on the next weekend. Or how to handle holidays and other high-stress situations.

I put a lot of personality into it, with jokes to make it more engaging and encouraging to the readers.

What advice would you give someone just starting out today?

Don’t be afraid to talk about what you think you can help people with. There’s somebody out there watching, someone you probably don’t even know yet, who will benefit from your information. You never know who that person may be, and what that person can do for you.

Mike Doehla is founder of Stronger U, a rapidly growing nutrition-coaching company.


Ryan Ketchum

What was the first thing you did that got attention?

My own transformation. I was a Division I athlete, an all-American at Indiana University in Bloomington, and after I graduated I lost 110 pounds 18 months. Then I started my training business in the town where I went to college. I could leverage those things to make connections.

Another thing I did: I never said no to an opportunity to get out in public. If a client invited me to a charity event or a birthday party, I knew they were going to introduce me to their circle. That’s how I built up a network of powerful people in my community. If I ever needed anything I could go to them.

I think every personal trainer should try to be the most popular person in their area. If your clients invite you to a fundraiser, just go. If you get a chance to do a live interview at a local radio station, or to get on TV, do it. There’s nothing special about showing up to an event to shake hands and kiss babies. Everyone can leverage those opportunities.

How did you build your online following?

I realized early on that if I could build an email list, I could communicate with every lead, every contact, every person interested in what I do, at my convenience.

This was back in 2006 to 2008, before social media was anything like what it is now. But even today, I think email marketing is still the best channel for fitness pros. You don’t have to start over from scratch every time you try to do something.

I could share great information and hone my writing skills as I leveraged other avenues and media to build my list. That’s how I was able to build a big pool of followers in my community. When I wanted to open up the doors to an offer, I had a couple hundred people, and eventually a couple thousand, who were interested in that offer and ready to go.

How did you build your list?

Every lead I got, whether it was in person and through an online channel, I would send them an email asking if I could add them to my list. If that was cool, I would manually add them in.

I had an online form on my site that let them download a free gift, something useful to them.

I would also leverage other businesses and organizations in my community. I would have them send out an offer for my free gift to their list. People from their list would opt in to my list.

For example, when I opened my gym in 2008, local radio, TV, and newspapers would come to us and ask if we wanted to buy advertising. That type of advertising isn’t very cost-effective for a startup business.

So when they came in, I would ask about their email lists. How many people did they have? What were they doing for email marketing? I realized that, for a couple hundred bucks, I could get them to send out two or three emails to their list. I would offer a free guide they could download—a holiday survival guide, or a home workout manual.

The people who responded would opt in to my list, and then I could follow up with my own promotions.

The salespeople couldn’t comprehend why I paid to give something away for free. They asked if I wanted to send out a special offer. I was like, “This is a special offer!”

Even back then, I knew the value of having those people on my list over time. I had this pool of qualified leads I could nurture along at whatever rate they wanted to be nurtured. To this day, I see people try to get someone to pay for a high-dollar program with a Facebook ad. They get impatient and try to go for the kill right away. But that’s not the way to do it. The purpose of the ad is to get someone to opt in first, and build trust with them over time.

Maybe 3 to 5 percent of those people are ready to buy right away. Others need to explore a little bit more. You’ve got to be able to appeal to all of them. Don't drive someone away who’s ready to buy, but you also can’t just put an offer in someone’s face.

What advice would you give someone starting out today?

Start with social media. That’s where you communicate. You can use social media now like it's a reality show. Tell the story of your life and build up your online following. That’s the first thing.

The second thing: A lot of experts will say, “Don’t train people for free because people won’t value it.” But you have to get experience, and the perception of being busy is better than the perception of you don’t have any clients whatsoever.

Whatever it takes, you have to get bodies in the door. Then use your social media to broadcast what you’re doing with those clients. You’ll start to gain interest.

The next thing is to engage with everyone. When you’re first starting your business, you can get away with promoting yourself shamelessly all over the place. You don't have to be regretful or apologetic. People will give you a pass. Tell everyone what you’re doing, and let them know you’re excited about it.

Ryan Ketchum is executive director and a business coach at Fitness Revolution, which hosts the Elite Fitness and Performance Summit September 14-15 in Indianapolis.


Mike T. Nelson

What was the first thing you did online as fitness professional?

Back in 2006, I had hundreds of unfinished articles. I had no deadlines, and I didn’t know what to do with them. I didn’t have time to contact editors, and I didn’t feel like I was at the point where I could do that anyway.

So I started a blog on Google Blogger. I couldn’t think of anything else to do with my articles.

What kind of articles were they?

Okay, for example, I was in the lab one day and someone said, “What burns more calories, walking a mile or running a mile?” My first thought was, “It’s got to be running.” But other people were like, “No, you’re covering the same distance.”

I didn’t know the answer, and when I looked, there was hardly anything written about it. We said, “We’re in a fancy lab with $50,000 metabolic carts. Let’s grab some grad students and do a pilot study and see what happens.”

That’s the kind of thing I wrote about.

What was the first thing you did that helped your online following?

It was an article in 2008 about why you shouldn’t be foam rolling. Everyone thought the article was insane, but no one came up with a good argument against it.

What advice would you give someone starting out today?

Two things. It probably goes against all the trends, but I still think there’s room for people to come out with high-quality articles or videos, even long-form content that you’ve put a lot of time and effort into.

If I go back and look at the people who started out when I did and are successful now, all of them put out a crap-ton of good content. Spend your time doing that.

Second, for distribution, my bias is have some type of newsletter. You don’t have to worry about what the Facebook algorithm is. You don’t have to worry about Google. You can communicate with your list whenever you want, on your own terms. That frees up time to create good-quality content and send it to people who’re interested.

I send out my newsletter pretty much every day. It’s a mistake to think you can’t send that much content. When I sent out a survey that asked if people were okay with it, only five people dropped off.

It’s not easy, but I look at it this way: If you only talked to your wife once a month, it’s not going to go great. It’s a long-term approach that differentiates you from everyone else.

Mike T. Nelson, PhD, is a speaker, online coach, and cohost of the Iron Radio podcast.


Mark Fisher

What was the first thing you did that got attention?

For my clients, the first thing that got attention was a makeover program called Snatched in Six Weeks.

In the fitness industry—which, we should note, is a very different thing, because it doesn’t have anything to do with your clients—the first thing people knew me for was a video called “The Functional Movement Screen HARDCORE.”

It made me immediately well-known among a certain crew of people for this concept for serious fitness for ridiculous humans.

What was the first thing you did to build your online following?

The first real tactical thing I did was the Mark Fisher Fitness newsletter. I started with my existing clients, prospects, and personal contacts, and emailed them every two weeks with articles that I wrote about fitness.

Was it something people asked for?

People needed information, and I considered myself uniquely able to give them useful and effective information that’s also entertaining.

What advice would you give someone just starting out today?

Here’s a very specific, tactical thing I did:

A couple of times, when personal friends were down on their luck, I would train them three times a week, and do all of their nutrition—I would help them cook all their food, show them exactly what to do—for six weeks.

The deal was, if you do it full-out, it’s free. If you bail on me, I’m going to charge you the full value of my services. By doing that, not only was I able to iterate the system that would become Snatched in Six Weeks, I got crazy before-and-after pictures, and actual case studies and testimonials.

My attitude was, until you know you’re good, and you’ve got a proven track record, I don’t know that anybody should give you money.

Case studies are probably the most important part of marketing. You’re getting paid by the case study, by the experience, by the person. That’s where I would start, and where I literally did start.

Mark Fisher is co-owner of Mark Fisher Fitness, with two locations in New York. He and his business partner, Michael Keeler, launched Business for Unicorns in 2016, with courses and workshops to help entrepreneurs grow their companies.


Greg Nuckols

What was the first thing you did online as a fitness professional?

I started a blog when I was in college in North Carolina, when I was really into powerlifting. Originally it was just kind of a training journal. Occasionally, I would post random thoughts.

It organically grew over time, and I discovered that I really enjoyed writing. I was just doing it for fun, and didn't need to make money off of it.

But right after college, my wife got a 12-week internship in Southern California. I couldn't very well go to a gym and say, “I’ll be gone in three months, but you should still hire me.”

That’s when I started treating writing and online training as a business. I had three years of free content that I’d given away without ever pitching anyone anything, so I’d built up a lot of goodwill by the time I released my first product.

How did you build your online following those first three years?

I’d be lying to myself if I didn’t recognize that I picked my parents well. I’m just naturally a strong dude. That’s a really dumb reason for someone to follow me, but I recognize that’s a non-negligible percentage of people.

I also had a really long runway. I could focus on just putting out good content and building an audience for years before I ever had to make a dime off of what I was doing.

Something else that helped a lot: I got a job as content manager for what’s now called Juggernaut Training Systems. That helped get my name out there a little bit more. They were very appreciative and accepting of who I am. My audience knew I wasn’t just trying to scam and swindle them.

You’ve had a few different online brands—, Strengtheory, and now Stronger by Science. Did you change the content as you moved it from site to site?

From time to time, I’ll see an article I shared on Facebook three or four years ago, and when I skim it, I’ll think, “This is irredeemably bad. What was I thinking?” If its salvageable, and I have time, I’ll try to update and amend it. If it’s not, I’ll just unlist it and make it private.

I don’t think I necessarily made any huge mistakes. I was doing my best and honestly representing my opinions and what I thought I knew. But I despise everything I wrote prior to mid 2014. I feel like everyone who actually thinks about being a good writer thinks that way.

I don’t trust people who have a huge backlog of articles and still really like them all. It makes me think that they’re probably not learning anything. Or they’re just too cocky to realize that they either were or are still full of it.

What advice would you give someone just starting out?

Make sure you’re a good writer. I don’t write that much, but a lot of work goes into everything I put out. If someone is generally intelligent, I want them to be able to come away understanding an article. I don’t want them to have to reread a sentence because they didn’t understand it.

A lot of people who have a lot of good stuff to say don’t build an online following because they don’t write well. Their content is amazing, but their sentence structure is convoluted, and they make a bunch of typos.

I think that’s one of the reasons why so much B.S. is so popular and gets propagated so much in this industry. A lot of B.S. artists are very good writers. That automatically makes what they’re saying sound more convincing.

Also, have an email list. That’s something that I waited way too long to implement. If someone finds one of your articles, and they like it and they want to read more of what you have to say, you don’t want to rely on them remembering to seek you out again.

If I email my audience every time I write something, they’re getting an email once every two weeks.

We worked with some business coaches in the past who told us to email our list every day. We tried it for two weeks, and a bunch of people started unsubscribing. Some of them were people who’d bought products from us. They were our fans, and they were just annoyed by the emails.

It might work for some audiences, but in my opinion it’s generally bad advice. Just remind people you exist and that your content is out there.

Greg Nuckols is co-publisher, with Eric Helms and Mike Zourdos, of Monthly Applications in Strength Sport (MASS)


Editor's note: This story has been edited to remove one of the fitness pros who was profiled in the original version.