How to Grow a Brand Worthy of Following
There’s a lot more to a successful fitness career than having a large Instagram following. Many reputable and successful coaches have never valued investing effort on social media. Many more thrive, using access to their large communities to create powerful brands. Whether or not you see value in growing your reach, be careful not to be misled by those who devalue a strong social media brand, because they themselves didn’t put in the time and work to develop and leverage the platform.
If you’re looking for social media tactics and hacks, you’ll find greater expertise elsewhere. If you’re looking for long game philosophy and strategy to build a social media brand with substance, please read on.
Before 2020 my Instagram efforts were unfocused, inconsistent, and failed to create an engaging media presence. My following was stagnant. Everything changed in January of 2020 with the effort to write and share daily. I needed to engage with the platform to reach more people as a compliment to my podcast, writing, and coaching work. I needed to align my social media presence with my career goals. 21 months later I passed 25,000 followers and will share with you the infrastructure and habits behind this growth.
1. Grow and Nurture Your Base Community
Your network of current and former clients, coworkers, contacts from past jobs and school, and friends and acquaintances are on social media. If you haven’t yet added/followed/connected with the people you already know, you’re missing out on the base upon which you build.
A common mistake coaches make is creating a second account for their business. Instead of using your existing account to share your fitness content with your contacts, you’re starting over and hoping your community will make the effort to follow. If you’ve been coaching for a little while and have any social media presence, you already know how people who never interact with your content pop up in your messages asking questions and expressing the need discuss training with you when finally ready to make lifestyle changes. Not only does a second account bypass these people, many coaches express frustration trying to manage two accounts, and do less as a result.
Start by sharing ideas, technique, motivation, nutrition, habits, and anything else you’ve learned from your education and experience. While this will lead to sharing and following growth, it foremost keeps your work top of mind to the people in your world. When they consider lifestyle change or know someone who’s talking about it, you’ve already positioned yourself as their go-to person for fitness and nutrition. If you haven’t been serving your existing community, you’ve been missing an opportunity to help people while supporting your business.
Serve your existing community and watch as they share and engage with your work, bringing new people to your door. You may be surprised how much business comes from your existing base before you even see appreciable following growth. It’s a lot easier to focus on and be patient with social media growth when your bills are paid.
2. Travel and Develop Professional Connections
Not long after leaving a 6 year commercial gym job to start an independent training business, I flew from my home in far off north western Canada(Edmonton) to attend The Fitness Summit in Kansas City, an industry insider event with presentations by Dr. Spencer Nadolsky, Pete Dupuis, Mark Fisher, and more. Sohee Lee, Greg Nuckols, and James Clear(author of Atomic Habits), were just a few of the established industry professionals attending. I went there personally knowing only Dean Somerset and our friend Hannah Gray. I came away from the 2 days of presentations and 3 evenings of socials with more than a hundred contacts, new Facebook friends, and a fire in my soul to work toward more.
A few months later a local event brought Dr. Mike Israetel to share a stage with local Edmontonian, Dean Somerset. It also brought the opportunity to connect with local coaches and to have dinner with Mike and Dean in a small group setting. Mike and his team continued to visit Alberta for annual Renaissance Periodization seminars. Meaning more education, dinners with Mike, and time with like minded coaches.
Coaches who attend conferences and seminars demonstrate a willingness to invest time and money in learning and expanding their perspective. Through attending these events, you’ll meet industry leading educators, mentors, and coaches who share your journey. You’ll make new friends, supporters, and professional contacts. You’ll have your beliefs challenged, learn new skills, and be inspired to grow.
3. Connect With Coaches on the Same Journey
When attending educational seminars it’s easy to focus your attention on the presenters. Though many well known speakers have supported my career, the real army of support came from the people who’ve travelled the same path I have.
In Kansas City in 2017 I met Tim Arndt, host of the Inland Empire Fitness Conference. I supported and attended his event in 2018 and 2019. In need of a presenter for IEFC 2021 Tim asked and gave me my first professional speaking engagement.
I met Daniel DeBrocke at an RP event. He asked for advice on how to write for T-Nation, followed it to the letter, and became a writer for them, EliteFTS, and Kabuki Strength. Daniel in turn recently recommended me as a presenter to the organizers of the second annual Kabuki Education Week. Meeting Sam Pogue at Luka Hocevar’s 2017 Vigor Ground Fitness and Business Summit led Sam to ask me to write for TrueCoach, one of the professional writing credits and platforms that allowed me to broaden my reach and craft.
Whether through travelling to conferences, attending local educational seminars, or interacting via social media, the connections and relationships you create and nurture will establish a network of mutual support. Blind ambition to become Insta-famous while ignoring the people who share your journey neglects fostering a community to learn from, inspire you, and a hive of like minds and shared interests. Meeting these coaches will be among the most valuable and rewarding parts of your travels.
4. Build Career Capital to Stand Out in the Fitness Industry
Soon after leaving my commercial gym job of 6 years to work within my own business, I met Dean Guedo. Dean and I forged a bond over training, and discussions about Dean’s then brief experiment with keto dieting. When Dean felt the urge to start a podcast in the summer of 2017, I was his first choice as co-host. Humble beginnings grew into wide industry reach as we interviewed some of the early contacts from my travels, including Dr. Mike Israetel, Sohee Lee, and Dr. Spencer Nadolsky, among many others. 150 episodes of The Fitness Devil Podcast and 50+ more as the rebranded Lift Free and Diet Hard Podcast(Dean needed to move on to focus on his new born daughter), we’ve interviewed and deepened connections with many of the established and emerging leaders of the industry.
T-Nation has been an educational staple since the beginning of my career. I remember thinking both how incredible it would be to write for them and how there was no way a regular gym floor trainer like me would ever get to. I once believed writing for such publications and being asked to appear on fitness podcasts was something only for people of an industry status I wasn’t a part of and saw no road to achieving. Connecting with T-Nation editor Dani Shugart in 2018 and having her guest on our podcast, led Dani to my writing. Dani soon asked if I would be interested in contributing to T-Nation. A framed picture of my first published article still sits on my bookshelf and I’ve been a regular contributor ever since.
Writing for T-Nation opened the door to other fitness publications like Generation Iron, BarBend, and The Personal Trainer Development Center. When a shared post leads someone to your profile, they’re often looking for what else you have. They’re making a snap and often subconscious decision whether they should follow you. If they discover you’re more than just a stream of clever social media quotes, they’re more likely to stick around and dive into your other resources.
Many fitness professionals started with Youtube. Their channels funnelled followers and credibility into social media growth. You probably know Omar Isuf and Matty Fusaro because of their early career success on Youtube. Dr. Layne Norton and Jordan Syatt used YouTube along with other media to become superstars in our industry.
Not everyone possesses the intestinal fortitude to build and nurture a brick and mortar fitness facility. Luka Hocevar, Joe DeFranco, and Marc Megna are first and foremost known for their work as the owners of Vigor Ground(Renton, WA), DeFranco’s Gym(Waldwick, NJ), and Anatomy(Miami) respectively. Each will tell you of the sleepless nights and unglamorous challenge of the early years of their gyms, only to later on reach industry renown and large social media following.
Instead of starting a gym, Dr. Mike Israetel and Nick Shaw founded and grew their internationally recognized fitness and nutrition company Renaissance Periodization. We know Mike and Nick in part due to the success of RP, along with their prodigious capacity for educating through books and videos. Similarly Jonathan Goodman is a household name in our little corner of the world in part due to building The Personal Trainer Development Centre. Dr. John Berardi is synonymous with Precision Nutrition. Molly Galbraith built much of her industry profile through Girls Gone Strong. Chris “The Mad Scientist” Duffin created an online educational brand married with a gym equipment manufacturer in Kabuki Strength.
Maybe you’ve read Brett Bartholomew’s Conscious Coaching or Nick Winkelman’s The Language of Coaching. These books cement Brett and Nick’s brands and legacies in the fitness industry. Maybe you’ve read one of Jonathan Goodman’s 11 books. Maybe you’ve read Sohee Lee’s Eat, Lift, Thrive or Layne Norton’s Fat Loss Forever. Maybe Austin Current’s Science of Strength Training, Martin Rooney’s Coach to Coach, Warrior Cardio, or High Ten, or Nick Tumminello’s Strength Training for Fat Loss. Investing the effort in writing a book shows serious industry credibility and stands out as one of the most powerful pieces of career capital you can build.
Virtually every industry standout mentioned has presented at industry conferences like Perform Better, The Fitness Summit in Kansas City, or The Vigor Ground Fitness and Business Summit. Most accumulate notoriety and other forms of career capital like writing or business ownership before they’re asked to speak on stage. Speaking isn’t where most start, but it’s one of the most important and legitimizing career accomplishments that establishes fitness professionals as true industry leaders. I first found Lee Boyce through T-Nation and his other extensive writing credits, but met Lee as a presenter in Kansas City only to then invite him to be a featured speaker at my own 2019 event The Evolve Canadian Strength Symposium. You can start by networking with local event organizers and offering to speak for free at schools, businesses, and community events. Luka Hocevar, host of the Vigor Ground Summit credits improv classes as part of developing his energetic and magnetic speaking presence. Toastmasters has branches all over the world for people seeking to overcome their fear of public speaking.
Some of our industry stars got a boost from working with famous athletes and entertainers. While there’s the obvious element of luck in play, Hugh Jackman didn’t walk up to Don Saladino because he was a random trainer at his gym. Hugh saw a guy in cover model shape who knew how to train people. Don did such great work it led to training the who’s who of Hollywood including but far from limited to Ryan Reynolds, Scarlett Johansson, Jake Gyllenhall, and Blake Lively. Don’s pal Ben Bruno spent years coaching athletes before moving to California and working with Justin Timberlake, Klay Thompson, Kate Upton, and Chelsea Handler. Chad Landers has owned Push Private Fitness in North Hollywood since 2003. The former NSCA personal trainer of the year award winner got the call from Cobra Kai star William Zabka to train him because of Chad’s legacy of coaching and their personal relationship. Luka Hocevar doesn’t work with recently retired NFL star Luke Wilson, and numerous other pro athletes because he’s charismatic on social media. Luka may be one of the most skilled coaches in our industry, who’s dedication to education is incomprehensible considering the responsibility of running his gym and other aspects of his business and brand. It’s a fools errand to gamble on working with a pro athlete or Hollywood superstar to make your career reputation. But if you commit to being a master of your craft and creating a strong brand and network, you may be in the right place at the right time to earn the work.
Developing long form content, building a business, writing a book, or presenting at conferences will set you apart as more than just a social media influencer. The long form content not only gives people a reason to follow and engage with your work, but helps move followers along the path toward asking for your coaching services. Your social media growth is meant to serve more people and support your business. It’s easy to fake the appearance of success and influence solely through social media. It’s much harder to fake the accumulation of educational resources and successful businesses.
5. Now Master Social Media
Most people think social media following and brand growth starts with social media wizardry. The ground work, relationships, and career capital previously outlined matter more. Dwayne Johnson, Henry Cavill, 50 Cent, and Rhianna don’t have massive followings because of social media savvy. They’re well known for their entertainment careers. Dwayne Johnson created a Hall of Fame wrestling brand, which led to movies where he’s arguably the biggest actor in Hollywood and one of the most famous and popular celebrities in the world. He’s produced TV shows and movies. He’s partnered with Under Armour. A bottle of his Teremana tequila sits on my bar. He might even be President someday. He’s also known as one of the most engaging, authentic, and hard working people in entertainment.
Most of the respected fitness community you follow have accumulated long careers of gym ownership, successful online brands and businesses, big reach with writing and Youtube, and reputations as educators and public speakers. The social media growth followed. You’re probably not following Jordan Syatt, Chris Duffin, or Jill Coleman because you know them exclusively from social media. You’ve known and engaged with their brand, businesses, podcasts, products, writing, and reputation.
All this being said, there’s a lot you can do with your social media to reach more eyes. Here’s how to get more people to find your work and follow you:
5a) Develop a Sharable Format
“Everyone is using Twitter graphics so I can’t”. Nonsense. While seemingly ubiquitous, there’s a reason twitter graphics, like infographics, are so popular. People recognize the format. They’ve seen it shared so often, they intuitively understand it’s an acceptable and safe format to share. The Twitter character limit also forces you to edit, choose your words, and form your ideas with care. People scroll past massive blocks of text.
Twitter also includes your name and image on the graphic. Words without brand do little to help your brand. Having an image that’s too large competes with your message and reduces the chance of someone sharing it. It can be a deliberate tactic to develop a relationship with your existing following, but it’s detrimental to maximum reach. Jordan Syatt, Sohee Lee, and Ben Mudge are fond of imbedding a smaller text box within a larger selfie. They’re more interested in serving and leveraging their already huge followings than aggressively scaling by attracting new followers. Their extensive career capital already drives new followers their way.
Getting people to share your content is essential to attracting new followers and getting maximum engagement. Your ideas may be groundbreaking but they wont gain traction if they’re not written, filmed, or crafted in a form that people will share with others.
You don’t need to adopt a twitter style graphic. Learn graphic design programs like Canva to create unique and branded graphics. You don’t need to use text based graphics at all. Instagram is pushing Reels more as it competes with TikTok. Getting comfortable with video while creating fun, entertaining, and educational videos may soon be essential for social media growth. Experiment with different styles until you find something people share and engage with.
5b) Develop Your Idea Quality
We’re all in the business of helping people. Share ideas and information that actually helps. If your work is great, other coaches will share it to add value for their followers. There aren’t many new or original concepts in fitness and nutrition, but the way you express an idea may be new, novel, or so thoughtfully expressed it resonates with a larger audience. Your idea quality will improve with practice and experience. You’ll develop followers who religiously share your work, so be sure to show genuine appreciation for the people who keep sharing. My pal and fellow coach Max Hall shares virtually everything I post on Instagram. I still thank him every time.
You probably hold onto a story why you haven’t yet earned the right to share your knowledge and experience. I’ve detailed and destroyed these lies in the article 5 Lies You Tell Yourself Why You Aren’t Creating and Sharing Content. Discard these excuses as the lies they are and start paying attention to your everyday coaching experience for ideas you can share. If there’s an answer to a question and a solution to the problem for the client, it’s helpful to a broader audience. When such inspiration strikes, train yourself to take a quick note, thank the client for inspiring the idea, and return to polish it later. If you’re tuned into these inspirations in your every day coaching experience, you’ll never run out of ideas for content.
5c) Develop Writing and Media Skills
Even with the emerging focus on video, writing is essential to a fitness career. Whether communicating via email marketing, sales with potential clients, supportive coaching conversations outside the face to face interaction, writing articles, or writing social media captions, you need to develop your writing skills.
Study writing intentionally. Read the classic book, On Writing Well by William Zinsser. Read Write Tight by William Brohaugh and How To Write Short by Roy Peter Clark, to tighten your shorter social media caption writing. When you’re done with these, message me on my Instagram for tailored recommendations to help you with your specific needs as you develop your writing.
Most of all, practice writing each day. The hidden genius within twitter posts is the character limit, which forces you to carefully choose every word or maximum effect. If your goal is writing for major fitness publications, start by writing a blog for your own website. No website? You need one for your long form content, and as professional hub for your work. It’s also searchable on Google where Instagram isn’t.
If you’re more naturally drawn to video, take the time to learn video skills. Learn about what makes for the most watchable and sharable YouTube content. Learn the ideal video lengths and how to create titles that attract new viewers. With Instagram fighting the exploding popularity of TikTok, the future is video. Learn it or risk being left behind as younger, media savvy trainers continue to enter and progressively dominate the industry.
What’s the purpose of social media if not to be social? If you’re dead set on growing a following, you need to engage with the people who comment, share, and interact with your work. Go watch and learn from Jonathan Goodman’s Instagram masterclass in asking questions and engaging with comments on his recent posts. You can turn casual followers into dedicated fans by sending personalized thank you messages when they engage with your media. Don’t solely rely on text responses that feel like an autoresponder or a virtual assistant. Send voice and video messages to create a personal response that will blow your followers away and stand apart from the influencers who don’t want to take the time to interact. Reply to comments, answer questions, and above all, be charitable in your interpretation of people’s intentions when they ask questions or disagree with you. Don’t be like coaches who are rude to followers with genuine questions. Nothing projects insecurity more than being nasty and intolerant toward anything other than followers worshipping you. If you want people to worship you go start a cult instead. Treat people with respect and show that you value their time and patronage.
If you’re successful in growing a larger audience, there may come a point where you have to carefully manage just how much time you spend engaging with followers. Guard your time and mental energy to coach. Have personal downtime away from social media and to work on important career projects. But try to time block to have meaningful responses to the people who choose to spend their time on you.
5e) Be Consistent, Patient, and Approach with Abundance Mindset
0-3000 followers took a few years of unfocused effort on Instagram. 3000-10,000 took a year of daily posting and dedicated interaction with the people kind enough to support. 10,000 – 25,000 though faster, never more than 600 new followers in one day. It took daily posts, daily effort to present engaging and resonant ideas, not getting discouraged each the time a post fizzled or the progress felt slow, and daily commitment to interacting with the people who chose to interact with me.
Seth Godin highlights an important concept in his book The Practice(an easy and essential read if you’re set on being a content creator and growing your following). Create and share consistently, with no expectation of a specific result, reward, or outcome from any single effort. The cumulative effort of showing up and delivering everyday(literally or metaphorically) will lead to brand and following growth, as long as you’re always working on quality.
Don’t ask what people can do to support you, ask what you can do to support the people in your network. Share other coaches work. You can’t do it all. You’ll never have enough time or the expertise to create videos, articles, and social media posts around every topic that could help your followers and clients. Collectively, your network will. A handful of successful people in the industry have driven a disproportionate number of followers to my door. It’s also your job to keep creating value so your new followers choose to stick around. People also stick around when you make them feel important.
There’s no overnight success with building a brand or social media following. Going viral isn’t a viable strategy for a brand with substance. Start by asking why you even want more followers. Is it to create a community of people you want to serve, or are you serving your ego, chasing a vanity metric, and playing status games? The former underlies long term business success. The latter will be transparent to most of the people you interact with and stands in the way of true respect, status, and credibility in the fitness industry.