David Church Discusses the Marketing Methods That Have Worked Best for His TaeKwonDo America School
David Church recalled the day when one of his students asked to buy a new backpack with his taekwondo school's logo on it. The little girl had already purchased one, so he assumed she had simply lost her first pack.
"But she told me she gave her backpack away to another girl at school who didn't have a backpack," Church said. "I was so touched that I just gave her a new one for free."
Always on the lookout for new marketing opportunities, Church began offering to sell new branded backpacks and school folders at half price to any students who decided to give their old gear to their classmates. It wound up being just one of many innovative ways he's found to advertise his martial arts school in Maryville, Tennessee, in a more focused manner.
Having been raised in Tennessee, Church admitted that the martial arts were the furthest thing from his mind when he was a kid.
"My younger brother and sister started doing taekwondo when I was a teenager," he said. "I spent a month or two making fun of them for it — until I finally went to a class and was immediately hooked.
"I really loved the fact it was an individual sport. In a martial arts school, you have the camaraderie of a team sport, but at the end of the day, it's still an individual sport, and that was something I really appreciated."
After training with his first instructor — Scott Evers in Johnson City, Tennessee — Church moved to Knoxville to attend college in 2000. There, he began training under Evers' instructor James Rich. For the next several years, Church worked full time as an assistant instructor at Rich's taekwondo studio, learning the ins and outs of running a school. Although he initially pursued a degree in sports management at the University of Tennessee, Church decided to quit college to follow his passion for teaching the martial arts."It just felt right," he said. "
It felt like something I was called on to do. And it also seemed like something that I could do as a profession and a career and not just as a hobby."
Church continued to teach at Rich's school until he and his wife decided to open their own studio in nearby Maryville in 2007. Although Church said that Rich ran a successful enterprise and that he learned a great deal from him, he noted that his master was also very traditional. And tradition often prevents people from being open to innovations that can lead to better business.
He initially followed his instructor's model in his own facility. It took Church a few years of trial and error to realize that he needed to make some changes in the way he did things if he wanted to have a truly lucrative 21st-century martial arts academy.
"I think I was a little too rigid in the way I had our curriculum set up," he said. "It was far too traditional for the majority of our modern clients. We have adjusted that over the years to try to balance traditional martial arts with the attitudes and interests of the kind of students we're getting in the 2000s."
Church admitted to also being slow to change his ideas regarding promoting his business. He said he was spending money to advertise his Church's TaeKwonDo America in coupon books and expensive direct-mail marketing campaigns because that was the way his peers were doing things. For the first four years of his school's existence, he didn't even have his own website to promote his business.
Eventually, however, Church learned that there are more effective ways to market a martial arts business and that he needed to be more selective in where he spent his advertising dollars.
The first step Church took was to set up a professional-looking website for his school. Then he began looking for other ways to attract attention online.
"I had to learn how to do all that myself," he said. "It's not easy because the internet and social media change so fast nowadays and there are people who make it their full-time job just to keep up with that and know how to market online. But my full-time job is to run a martial arts school, so I just wasn't as knowledgeable as I could have been in that field."
For that reason, Church opted to seek professional assistance, and he recommends other school owners do the same. That might mean hiring a pro to educate you in online advertising. At the very least, it should entail taking formal courses in internet advertising. He chose the latter route and signed up for several online programs. He quickly developed a savvy for marketing his martial arts school in the internet age.
"Facebook advertising is the gold mine right now," Church said. "Soon it will be something else, but one way or another, social media is the key. We buy Facebook ad space, and we're also involved on Instagram. Then you have ads with Google, which are another great way of advertising to a specific audience."
With online advertising deployed through entities like Facebook and Google, Church was able to take a more focused approach to his marketing campaign, running ads that targeted people in his area who might have an interest in the martial arts. That way, he knew he wasn't wasting money sending his message to people who were unlikely to ever show up at a martial arts gym.
Not surprisingly, this is the method he recommends for any school that's looking to expand. He said he likes to set aside 10 percent of his gross revenue for advertising his school.
For Church, the other key to growing his business was attracting the youth market through partnerships with the local public-school system. "We wasted our first three or four years in business by not even attempting to get into the local schools," he said. "And being a martial arts school that appeals predominantly to children, that was a big mistake for us."
But he eventually caught on, and he and his school are now education partners with the local schools in Maryville, which affords them the benefits of advertising to their target audience without having to pay for it. Instead, Church donates his time to afterschool programs.
"We'll do a four-week program going into the school one day a week and teaching a 30-minute class on that day," he said. "The school will sign up interested students and charge whatever they want to charge — we recommend $25 a head — but we let them keep 100 percent of money. So it's a win-win for them.
"At end of the four weeks, we'll have a graduation ceremony at our martial arts school for all the students who participated in the program. Then we'll try to do a mass enrollment. Our goal is to get 25 percent of them to sign up for lessons. But in the end, everyone wins. We get face time with potential students and get to sign up some of them for our martial arts school, and the public school makes some money from it. The schools love it, and we love it."
Of course, once he has the students enrolled at his taekwondo school, Church embarks on a mission to retain them. A big part of that process has been building a sense of brand loyalty through the customized equipment he uses. He recognized that with the ease of online shopping, it would have been tough to compete against internet vendors who sell generic equipment at low prices. But by placing his school logo on things, he figured he was adding value to the items while encouraging his students to shop with him rather than online.
"We customize everything we can possibly customize," Church said. "Our uniforms are customized, we have custom labels sewn on all our belts and we put school logos on our sparring gear. And all our equipment is customized as well: [striking] targets, Wavemaster heavy bags, weapons — all of it.
"It's very important from a retention standpoint to build your brand like that. So our students are not just falling in love with the martial arts; they're also falling in love with us. And of course, when our students are wearing our stuff to school or carrying our backpacks or folders, it's great advertising."
None of these innovations came to Church overnight. Instead, it took him some time to hit on the right strategies to grow his school to its current enrollment of 200.
"I think a lot of that is because, for a long time, we were stuck in an old, traditional mindset in terms of advertising and marketing," he said. "But it was also because I was still working another job delivering fitness equipment for the first few years I was open. Having my attention pulled in two different directions definitely slowed us down."
Church admitted that the decision to work a second job while getting your martial arts school up and running is a difficult one to make, but it's a choice that comes down to what type of school you want to have. If you want to operate the school primarily as a hobby, holding down a second job to help pay the bills is certainly a viable — or even necessary — option.
However, if you wish to make a career out of teaching the martial arts, he said it's necessary to commit 100 percent to running your school full time, and that means marketing it the right way.
The one positive that Church did have from holding that second job in his early teaching days was the startup capital he was able to accrue. "Being in a small town where it took us three or four years to get going, I'm glad I didn't have a lot of initial debt on top of that," he said.
He also was aided in his first years of teaching by belonging to a large organization of successful schools: TaeKwonDo America. He said being part of a strong group like that is an invaluable resource to draw on for advice.
"When I started in martial arts, it seemed like instructors were reluctant to reach out and network with other schools, but those times have changed," Church said. "Plenty of successful schools are more than happy to help you with some guidance when you're struggling. We wouldn't be where we're at if we hadn't asked for help along the way."
To illustrate, he cited an example: "Years ago, I had a conflict with my landlord, and I reached out to our organization and found there were people who'd had similar problems in the past. They were able to give me some good advice, and because of that, I was able to fight it."
Church recommends that anyone just getting started in the martial arts business consider joining such a group for situations when advice is needed.
For more information about David Church and Church's TaeKwonDo America, visit kickwiththebest.com.
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