10 free or low-cost ways children’s activity providers can boost their marketing

The children’s activity sector is pretty crowded so ensuring you have a focused plan on how to get in front of your ideal customers is a must. 

Marketing spend across the sector is typically below 5% of revenue, which is on the low end compared to other industries. Word of mouth and referrals have traditionally played a key part in keeping marketing spend lean, although we believe knowledge gaps in promotional channels and fear of poor return on investment (ROI) as two other factors.

We’ll be discussing specific promotional channels and marketing approaches in the future, but while Covid-19 remains a thorn in the side of small business currently, understandably many children’s activity providers will be focused on free or low-cost methods to market their business.

So we wrote a list of 10 things you can do to promote your business that don’t cost the earth (and can be highly effective):

1. Free Google Business Listing
This is really important for any children’s activity provider, but particular those who operate locally. It is an incredibly easy but effective way of helping people find you on search engines. The free listing (once you’ve set it up and verified/optimised your profile) allows your activity business to show up on Google Maps, local sections of searches and the knowledge panel. You can set up your listing here. You may also want to look into other search engines i.e. Bing as while these serve a much smaller percentage of people, they too have similar listing opportunities.

2. Work on your SEO strategy
Linked to the above, making the most of your search engine optimisation (SEO) is critical in showing up locally for key search terms your customers will be using to find your type of services. Getting good at SEO doesn’t need to be complicated either, there are many free tools you can use on your website, and tips and tricks to help you get some traction. If you’re new to SEO, a good place to start is a webinar we recorded recently with Dorset Tech. You can watch that here.

3. Increase your email marketing efforts
Email marketing can be a very effective and free way of engaging with customers new and existing, and while it’s not a new strategy, has constantly proven to be a reliable way to build rapport, brand and provide a strong return on investment. While not every email should be a sales pitch, signposting people to engage further with your brand or provide information on an offer is a good idea. You don’t need to pay lots out on email marketing platforms either, starting with Mailchimp or Mailerlite are both good options to find your feet.

4. Consider the power of video marketing
Posting simple videos is easier now than ever. Many activity providers have got more comfortable in front of cameras due to Covid-19 and moving services online so make the most of this new found confidence and extend it to marketing efforts beyond your actual service. You may want to post staff interview videos, event promo videos, how-to videos etc to engage with your audience. If you can post simple videos to engage children for a period of time too, that can be very handy for busy parents!

5. Free Google Ad credits
If you’re considering advertising on Google (or other search engines) they all typically offer new (and sometimes existing) business listing owners free ad spend i.e. if you spend £100 of advertising, we’ll give you £100 in credit. This can be great while learning what ads and keywords are working for you on the platform and give you a boost in ROI. The beauty of Google Ads or pay-per-click (PPC) is you can control the spend meaning you don’t need to pay a fortune on ads per month, and you can choose to vary it from month to month or term to term, which can be useful if you are a seasonal or term based business. The data analytics element of this is incredibly useful too – an article for another day.

6. Business awards
There are many sector specific awards you can apply for such as the Club Hub Awards or Wales Children and Activities Services Awards, as well as more localised business awards too. They can be a great way to increase brand awareness, credibility and social proof when customers are considering their options. Getting nominated or winning one can also provide a much needed moral boost too!

7. Post and engage on social channels
No marketing list is complete without mentioning social media. If you’re a small business, you’ll know the utmost importance of having a strong presence on relevant channels. Ensuring your pages and any groups you run don’t become stagnant is very important, particularly during Covid-19. Keeping visible and engaging with your audience should be a key part of your strategy. Posting consistently, starting conversations and building relationships can all be done effectively online still. You may also want to tag others in who may be keen to hear what you have to say or to gain more attention. We could write a whole piece on the importance of hashtags too. If you’re not sure where to start you might want to watch a great session we did with Amazing Futures at the end of last year here.

8. Up your content marketing game
Creating great content doesn’t need to be time-consuming or expensive. Even if you don’t see yourself as much of a writer, you’ve likely got expertise in your specialism that customers/parents/schools would be happy to hear about. You can promote these via a blog, emails or social media. Good content tends to get prioritised in search engines too, meaning you’ll boost your SEO and rankings for search terms. All of this should mean increased traffic to your website, and eventually sales. Some good examples of this from activity providers in the past have included parenting advice and support, child development discussions, increasing productive time spent on screens, keeping children active during lockdown and more.

9. Run some events
Hosting events can be really useful in gaining brand awareness of what you do and potentially collaborating with others. During Covid-19 these will typically be online, but they can be in person events too when allowed and can be a great way to showcase your brand and what you do with the added benefit that any event should be helpful or useful for your audience and attendees. These might be free classes, educational webinars, expert talks with someone outside your organisation. There are lots of ways to get creative and work with others too.

10. Customer referral programmes
Depending on your need to get new customers and keep growing, you may want to consider incentivising existing customers to recommend you. While many customers will already do this without needing an incentive, they’ll be even more happy and loyal if you give them something in return i.e. a free class, credit on their account, free merchandise or gifts etc. If you decide to launch something like this, don’t be shy in advertising it. You should actively want people to start recommending you more and while there’s a cost involved in this in the form of free sessions or discounts/gifts, it can be a simple yet effective tool in boosting profit longer term.

11. Join a professional community
As a membership organisation/association focused on supporting children’s activity providers we know directly from member feedback how useful it can be to be part of a professional community to seek advice, gain knowledge and network with others. All these things can be incredibly useful and low cost ways of understanding more about marketing and other key business areas. For example, as part ICAP membership, you can access toolkits, resources and templates including one which is focused solely on marketing. Many of the member webinars and expert speakers we work with specialise in marketing. We’ve also just launched a mentor programme where members get to work with experienced business owners in our sector, which we know will be priceless in terms of sharing of best practice and knowledge exchange.

We hope you found that useful. Stay tuned for an exciting marketing event for the sector we’ll be running in April!

By becoming a member of ICAP you’re joining a community of like-minded professionals and business owners in the children’s activity sector working towards excellence

Pip Wilkins

Pip Wilkins is the Chief Executive of the British Franchise Association (bfa). With 25 years’ experience in the franchise sector, Pip has worked her way up within the Association, gaining insight from all areas of the business and the franchise industry. She is well-known and highly regarded in franchising for her dedication and depth of knowledge. Pip regularly speaks at conferences and seminars both domestically and internationally, as well as writing on franchising matters for national, local and franchising trade press. Pip is also a regular judge for the annual bfa HSBC Franchise Awards, the Franchise Marketing Awards and Global Franchise Awards. Pip represents the UK at both the European Franchise Federation (EFF) and World Franchise Council (WFC). The bfa has grown to be one of the largest franchise associations in Europe, and one of the most successful associations in the world.

Theo Millward

Theo Millward is a graduate of Lancaster University with a BBA in Management. In 2016 Theo purchased UK swim school, Swimtime from the founders which teaches 20,000 children a week. Following a multi-award- winning digital transformation, during the global pandemic, Theo and his team founded Franscape, a saas that digitally transforms Franchise brands. FranScape won New Business of the Year at the UK Business Awards.

Andy Georgiou

Andy is the Founder of ICAP and a leading UK Franchise Business Consultant. He is fiercely committed to helping children’s activity providers build successful and profitable businesses. With qualifications in Business Management, Digital Media and Marketing, he has helped build, advise and grow leading 6 and 7 fiqure children’s education, sports and activity brands in the past 17 years.

Frank Sahlein

Frank has been active in the Children’s Activity Center industry as an athlete, coach, business owner, consultant and business broker. He is a native of San Mateo, California and graduated from San Jose State University in California (USA).
Frank was a pioneer of the Children’s Learning Opportunity Center concept from 1976 – 2016 at the Wings Center in Boise, Idaho (USA) – a blend of Sports Instruction, Arts, Education, Entertainment and Outreach programs.
As a business management innovator, Frank has delivered over 1,000 presentations for a variety of Children’s Activity Center industries such as gymnastics, swimming, cheerleading, dance, martial arts/ninja and child care/education.
3rd Level Consulting is a Business Development and Service Provider Partner for private industry companies, associations, and organizations in the USA, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, the United Kingdom, Mexico, and Panama.
Two-time recipient of the National Business Leader Award from USA Gymnastics, Frank is the author of “Building Your Business Potential” and “Designing Your Empowered Life”. He is the creator of the SmartEDGE™ Business Applications and Management Certification Courses. He is the co-founder of LEAP Learning and the MetaSpheres Corp, and is the founder and Executive Director of the International Association of Child Development Programs.
His passions include his beautiful wife Lourdes Gonzalez, family, friends, fitness training, transformational reading and travel.