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During the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, Planet Fitness was forced to temporarily shut down more than two thousand gyms. Luckily, the brand was well positioned to keep its members engaged at home, thanks to Chief Digital Officer Craig Miller, who had spent the past two years preparing the brand for a digital transformation.
When Miller first came on board in early 2017, Planet Fitness was in a rapid growth phase and had become one of the largest fitness brands in terms of membership. Recognizing that a digital disruption was inevitable, Planet Fitness hired Miller to build and execute an innovative strategy designed to keep members engaged, whether they worked out at the gym or at home.
The foundation of any digital strategy, no matter the industry, relies on a deep understanding of the customer, Miller says. Planet Fitness is unique in that it focuses on the majority of the population who are first-time or casual gym goers, so it was imperative that the digital experience be tailored to their needs.
“Forty percent of our members have never been to a gym before—they don’t know where to start,” Miller says. “Planet Fitness is dedicated to providing a judgment-free zone where everyone is welcome, so we designed the digital experience to provide some of that basic initial guidance.”
“I tend to challenge thinking a bit because I believe if something seems impossible, we’re just not thinking about it in the right way.”
By the time COVID hit in early 2020, Miller and his team were already two years into a planned three-year rollout process, and they were in a good position to accelerate their digital strategy. In addition to insights into the brand’s customers and business needs, they had onboarded partners and stakeholders, acquired necessary funding, aligned the digital strategy to the larger business model, and taken steps to execute digital assets, including a new mobile app and enhanced website.
“When we had to shut down our gyms, we had no way to stay connected with our member base and customers except through digital,” Miller says. “So we put our digital strategy on steroids and literally pivoted overnight to accelerate some of the initiatives we already had planned for 2020 and 2021.”
Planet Fitness quickly upgraded its app with dozens of high-quality fitness videos, leading to an explosion in adoption. Within weeks, it also launched United We Move, a series of free home workouts streamed on Facebook Live. The classes, led by Planet Fitness trainers, are accessible for people of all fitness abilities. “This was a way for us to stay connected with our members while the gyms were closed, and we did in a totally unique way,” Miller says. The campaign was a huge success, netting more than five billion impressions within three months.
Miller and his team also got to work preparing for the gyms to reopen. They incorporated the app into the gym experience in innovative ways, adding a crowd meter so members could tell whether their gym was at capacity and installing scannable bar codes to gym equipment so members could easily access instructional videos. “This is an example of us meeting the needs of our audience,” he says. “If you’re a new gym goer, it can be intimidating asking for help. Now they don’t have to.”
Although gyms were at first vilified as accelerators of the COVID-19 outbreak, Miller says Planet Fitness’ access to a wealth of data helped change the narrative. “We knew the story around gyms being a health risk just wasn’t true because of what we were seeing from our gyms that were allowed to reopen,” he says. “Out of around thirty million check-ins, we only had 131 COVID cases identified in our gyms, and none were contracted there. These numbers are a fraction of what the statistics were showing across the population.”
“Driving alignment across stakeholders and the company culture can be difficult, because people typically don’t like change. It’s process that takes education, building trust, and confidence.”
A big part of Planet Fitness’ argument against their gyms being a part of the problem is the size of their clubs, which average 20,000 square feet. “We’re better positioned to institute social distancing and tracking than most any other business out there—we’re able to shut down every other machine to keep capacity down, and because members have to sign in, we always know who is in our clubs when,” Miller says. “When you add information from healthcare organizations saying that the best preventive is fitness, exercise, and healthy nutrition, then that creates a whole different narrative. Not only are we not a risk, but we can actually be part of the solution.”
Miller says the biggest challenge in executing a digital transformation is not the technology but rather the changes that must take place within the organization. “I’ve been doing this a long time for a lot of different brands and industries,” he says. “Driving alignment across stakeholders and the company culture can be difficult, because people typically don’t like change. It’s process that takes education, building trust, and confidence.”
He strongly believes that his work with Planet Fitness had laid the groundwork for the brand to weather the COVID-19 storm well. “We believe we’ll come out of this stronger than before, due to our size, our financial strength, and our high-margin model,” he says.
Part of Miller’s success is no doubt his “nothing is impossible” attitude. “I tend to challenge thinking a bit because I believe if something seems impossible, we’re just not thinking about it in the right way.” He also believes in leaving titles behind when his team is working on a difficult problem. “That’s always gone a long way to earn the respect of my team,” he says. “I’m all about transforming a vision into reality and getting the work done.”
No business can truly serve its customers without a digital presence, on the web and on their many devices. Digital relationships let you serve and understand them in new and powerful ways. Follow the lead of Planet Fitness and let Applied Visions get your business in shape for the future.
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