In online fitness, there are no barriers to entry. Anyone can get certified, rip off their shirt, snap a selfie, and call themselves a personal trainer on Instagram.
How’s a serious, hard-working fitness professional supposed to compete?
By finding the right fitness niche.
The online fitness market, though crowded and chaotic, has created unprecedented opportunity for trainers who 1) are good at what they do, and 2) successfully identify their fitness niche.
Why? Because when people feel paralyzed by countless options—as many fitness consumers do today—their lizard brains take over, and they look for any excuse to decide. When you establish your authority within a fitness niche, you give people in that niche an excuse to choose you.
Like it or not, people make purchase decisions based not on merit, but on simplicity. That goes for you, me, and every potential client out there.
I’ll give you an example. Years ago, when I was still single, my roommate moved out and took his TV with him. I needed to buy a new one.
I walked into the first electronics store I could find and found myself facing an entire wall of TVs, way too many for me to evaluate in any serious way. The salesman made it easy by asking me a simple question: “What do you like to watch?”
“Sports,” I said.
He told me I needed a TV with a good FPS rating. That’s frames per second, he explained, which quantifies how quickly images move on the screen, and how crisp they are.
So, on his advice, I bought a TV with a good FPS rating.
For all I knew, he could’ve been making this up, like the stereo salesman in Boogie Nights telling a customer “You need all that bass.” But I didn’t care. I brought the TV home, plugged it in, and it worked. It gave me moving pictures, in color, which is all I wanted.
Your training programs are like that wall of TVs. Just about any of them are good enough for most clients in most situations. So are lots of programs from lots of coaches.
Your goal is to give your prospects one simple reason that makes it easy for them to buy your program.
To do that in this evolving market, you need to stand out. You can’t stand out by trying to market the 99 percent of your skillset that makes you the same as every other personal trainer who helps people lose fat, build muscle, and have more energy.
It would be like the salesman in the electronics store saying to me, “How would you like a television that shows you moving pictures in color?”
Even if that’s all you want, the salesman has just told you there’s no way to choose among all those TVs.
But if you market the 1 percent that makes you different, you have an unprecedented opportunity.
In the words of Alex Cartmill, head coach for the Online Trainer Academy:
“The greatest marketing advantage you have, and will always have, is that there’s only one of you.”
And the best part? You don’t need a slick website, or a huge Instagram following, or thousands of email subscribers. You just need a small but faithful community that believes in you, and trusts you as their expert, because you’ve given them a reason to.
You need a fitness niche.
What is a fitness niche?
A fitness niche is a specialized area of expertise a trainer a) loves working in, b) gets really good at, and c) eventually becomes a well-known authority in.
At the Online Trainer Academy, we teach how to identify your fitness niche based on your 1 Percent Uniqueness Factor—the 1 percent that makes you different.
It’s especially important for online personal trainers.
In-person trainers benefit from something called location bias. In most markets, a person who’s ready to make a change will come to your gym if it’s the closest. You’ll rarely get clients willing to travel more than 20 minutes to train with you.
When you transition to online training, you typically lose that edge. (Although some online trainers maintain a local clientele.) Your 1 Percent Uniqueness Factor is the only competitive advantage you have. It’s what sets you apart and gives you an uncommon commonality with current and future clients.
More to the point, it’s the reason why you’re the obvious choice for the right person, and the wrong choice for the wrong person.
Examples of successful niche fitness markets
OTA graduates have had success in a long list of fitness niches: older clients, kids, recreational athletes. Some appeal to people based on their professions or hobbies.
One standout example is Troy Bennett.
Troy is heavily involved in the Chicago cosplay community, and he markets himself as the go-to trainer for people in that space. He may be the only personal trainer in the world who targets that market.
As a result, he got his first five clients basically overnight. Nobody asked him about price. They just signed up.
Other prime examples of OTA grads with successful fitness niche markets:
- Michael Sotos provides online coaching for superhero fans.
- Jessi McAllister helps women get healthy and strong in preparation for pregnancy.
- Marc Locquiao trains police officers to pass their physical fitness exams.
- Mike Macdonald works with members of the LGBTQ community.
- Nadja Tapkas creates personalized programs for triathletes.
- Ray Graber works with people battling chronic illnesses, having battled one himself.
And while he’s not an OTA grad, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Trevor Bunch, who runs a thriving business training amputees. (He’s an amputee himself.)
In all these cases, trainers were able to use something they were already interested in or passionate about to build a deeper connection with clients.
Clients purchased their services based on that connection. The decision had nothing to do with merit. Like I said earlier, purchase decisions rarely do.
Illogical? Maybe. But it’s the truth. You can hate the game, or you can understand the rules and bend them to your advantage.
If you don’t, others will.
How to find your fitness niche
Finding your fitness niche requires in-depth reflection on who you are and who you like working with. As you can imagine, that kind of self-analysis takes time.
The journey is different for everyone, but in general I recommend following four steps.
1. Work with a large, diverse clientele
For trainers just starting out, it’s best to get a job at a large gym with a big marketing budget, where you’ll train a broad variety of people.
Yes, you’ll need to bust your butt for a little while. That’s the process. That’s how you get good. Casting a wide net helps you figure out who you like working with, and (just as important) who you don’t.
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2. Talk to people
Interact with people, both online and in person. Have real conversations. Create opportunities to show yourself and be yourself.
Pay attention to the types of people you attract. That’s what marketing is, ultimately: connecting with people in a way they haven’t connected before.
You can start by joining online communities that resonate with you. How do they interact? Who’s the focal point of the group, and how did they achieve that status?
If you can’t find a community that suits your interests or meets your needs, consider creating one. Become the group’s focal point. The expert.
3. Decide who you want to work with
It’s time to step back and say, “Who do I really want to work with? What do I really love? What really lights me up?”
Another approach is to ask, “Who really needs my help? Who’s most likely to get the best results from training with me?”
Maybe it’s one of the communities you work with now. But maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s something completely different. When you move your personal training online, it’s your choice.
Your best strategy is to start with just one niche market. You can target multiple markets eventually, but for now you want to immerse yourself in the one you’re most interested in, and the one that’s most interested in you. Develop a deep understanding of who they are, what they want, and which platform is best for marketing to them.
4. Refine your fitness niche over time
Most successful online coaches start with preconceived ideas about their target audience. They fumble around, talk to people, and tweak their business plan accordingly.
You should always be ready to pivot. You never know exactly what type of client you’ll attract, or who’ll have the most success with your program, until you get some clients and start training them. They may be different from the ones you thought would be most interested. Or you may find you do best with a subset of the niche, one you weren’t aware of or hadn’t considered as your target audience.
Use this information to refine your niche, and to more clearly focus your marketing to appeal to them.
Fitness niche ideas to get you started
Your options are nearly infinite. The trick is to find the fitness niche that’s uniquely you, the one that allows you to connect with clients through shared experiences. If you were to describe yourself with a single phrase, what would it be?
- An army veteran working with current and former military personnel
- A new mom training other new moms
- A trainer who used to be obese and works with clients who want to lose a significant amount of weight
- An athlete who recovered from a common sports injury who helps others in the same situation
- A Game of Thrones fan who teaches medieval sword fighting, and how to get in shape for it, to fellow GoT obsessives
Does this mean a male trainer can’t work with new moms? Or someone who doesn’t know why his clients call him “dancing master” can’t teach swordplay? Of course not. But it’s a simple fact that a new mom, or a military veteran, or someone who’s lost a lot of weight will have an easier time marketing to people like them.
You can connect on common ground. Your clients should feel like they “get” you, and you get them, because your stories resonate with each other.
Once you achieve good results for your first few clients, the referrals will start coming.
Think about it this way: To make $72,000 this year with online training, all you need is 30 clients paying you $200 a month.
What do you think is the best way to get and keep 30 paying clients? Will another 200 followers on Instagram make any difference?
I’m not saying it’s easy. Making a market is one of the hardest things to do, no matter what business you’re in. It’s never a simple, step-by-step process. We only think it is because humans are post-rationalizing beings. Something happens, it’s positive, and we post-rationalize a way to explain how it happened.
When we do, we forget all the little things that happened along the way. All the incidents, accidents, and near disasters. All the lucky breaks and unique circumstances we didn’t control.
Instead, we pick out the stuff that worked and post-rationalize it into a linear story of success.
I can’t tell you what that story will look like for you.
But I can tell you that the first step is always to try.