Google “yoga marketing strategies” or “spin studio marketing,” and you’ll quickly find a slew of articles on why you should offer packages or holiday discounts and BOGO incentives to draw in new clients.
And sure enough, once you start thinking about your own marketing strategies, you start to see the new client offers everywhere — usually in the form of free trials. Orangetheory offers a free first class. Core Power Yoga goes with two free weeks. Everywhere you look, there’s a pilates studio offering a free class — or two or three — as a marketing hook.
But does offering a free first class or 7-day trial actually work?
Giving all your expertise away for free is a big ask unless it positively affects client retention and, of course, revenue. We spoke to a group of industry experts — personal trainers, yoga instructors, pilates studio owners — on the good, the bad, and the ugly of offering your services for free.
Why Free Classes Don’t Exactly Work
They Make the Classes Feel Less Valuable
“A one-off free class is often deemed a good sales technique and a way to boost your client list. However, doing so can also cause problems later down the line when you charge full price,” says Melissa Albarran of the U.K.-based non-profit organization, Yoga Alliance Professionals. “Clients struggle to understand why they are paying $15 for a class they previously attended free of charge and will tend to look for cheaper options elsewhere. In essence, it creates the mindset that yoga isn’t worth paying for.”
They Increase the Temptation to No-Show
Sarah Aspinall, owner of Breaking Ballet tried offering free trial classes when she first started her studio — unsuccessfully. “People didn’t value it. It meant they either didn’t turn up at all or messed me around swapping days,” says Aspinall. “It made me feel undervalued and also increased my admin!”
They Don’t Always Reach the Right Audience
Aspinall also noticed that her free offer attracted folks who were never going to become return clients in the first place. “I had many local pilates instructors and other teachers coming to check out my classes for their own professional interest. I don’t have a problem with sharing what I do with other teachers (in fact, I think it’s a great way for us all to learn), but these people had no intention of continuing with classes and were just snooping!”
Aspinall now has people pay for their trial — in advance. “They always turn up,” she says, “and they’re far more likely to then commit to paying for the full term up front.”
They Bring the Wrong Kind of Energy
Michelle Maslin-Taylor, owner of the yoga studio, Live Happy Live Healthy agrees that paying for classes makes clients more invested — literally. And she finds that it positively affects everyone’s experience, including the teacher’s.
“Psychologically, students are more committed to the class when they have paid for it, meaning they actually get more out of it than they would if it were free,” she says. “For the teacher too, the energy exchange feels fair, and I believe will help them feel valued and deliver a better class.”
An Argument for Offering a Free Trial — with a Caveat
“When I launched my virtual studio, Love Revolution Yoga, I didn’t start by offering anything free,” says Kimberlee Morrison a yoga teacher who also has a career as a content marketer. “However, since I began [offering] a free trial (7 days), I’ve seen my subscriber numbers grow much faster. In this case, the free trial is functioning as a lead magnet that automatically feeds into revenue. And, unless the person cancels the membership before the trial is over, their paid membership starts automatically.”
But, like our other experts, Morrison also advises caution. “There is a balance between creating useful, relevant, and authentic content as part of your content marketing strategy, and not undermining the value of your work,” she says. “A 7-day free trial seems fine, but it’s not good to get into the habit of hosting a bunch of free or donation-based events, unless you are being sponsored by a larger organization. Even then, that sponsorship should include you be compensated for your work in some way.”
Alternatives to Free Trial Classes
Both Albarran and Maslin-Taylor prefer the package model instead because it encourages new students to commit to more time at the studio. For Maslin-Taylor, it also makes business more predictable. “I have found that teaching in blocks/terms of classes works best for cashflow and income planning, though I do always offer new students the chance to just pay for a single class to trial the class and see if it’s right for them before committing to a block of classes.”
While discounting runs some of the same risks as offering a free trial, when done right, it can serve as a savvy marketing tool. “Instead of offering one-off free classes, a better option is 50% off when you bring a friend,” says Albarran. This results in more new business coming through your door — literally double — but you’re still bringing in revenue.
Additional reading: for some ideas, here’s a list of our favorite discounts for personal trainers and fitness professionals.
Consider a Free Consultation Instead
“I always offer a free consultation to any potential clients,” says Phung D. Tran, an ACSM certified physiologist who founded Be Active is Easy. “My work as an exercise physiologist/personal trainer is very unique and personal to each client. We have to ensure that our ways of thinking and solving problems have to be similar. We do not want to waste each other’s time — and the client’s money — by figuring out how we want to move forward.”
Certified personal trainer, Daniel Richter, agrees and suggests keeping these consultations shorter than a full session. “You have a 30-minute conversation in which you ask your potential client for his or her goals, needs, and circumstances, and then you suggest how to do it all – and how you could help,” he says. “This way, the client has qualified herself to you by basically talking about how she needs help, and thus have done all your marketing for you. Hiring your services is simply the remaining logical step.”