Fair warning up front, this is a long post.
For my 3rd degree brown belt test in October 2010, Mr. Brian Duffy asked me to write a Brown Belt Thesis. The purpose behind the thesis, and the subsequent one necessary for black belt, should be what you can offer the Art. While I don’t believe there is a requirement for the length of the thesis, it should be long enough to convey the point adequately. My instructor, Mr. Damian Wilson, used his black belt thesis to describe the kids-under-6 year old Kenpo curriculum he’s using at his school. In my alter ego life as a regular working guy, I’ve done some work on website design and interaction with social media. My thought was to merge what I knew with martial arts to help craft a rough backbone for a karate school website. It’s not necessarily Kenpo specific, but should help martial arts schools find prospective students.
Every Kenpo school I have ever been associated with has been started by someone passionate for the art. The passion is critical for reaching the highest belt ranking, surviving the early stages of getting a business started, and for keeping students motivated. But to survive long term and perpetuate the art, the school has to have a steady flow of new students.
Schools also measure their success by many factors, but common ones are the number of students and reputation. Reputation has been, and continues to be, critical for it drives the most successful referral, “Word of Mouth”. Word of mouth referrals are the easiest way to get students. And students keep the lights on.
In the past, other than referrals, Kenpo schools did much of their advertising with a phone book listing and a bright sign out front of the studio. More than twelve or fifteen years ago that is about the best a small karate business could afford to do with an average number of students. Hence the heavy emphasis placed on passion and Word of Mouth referrals. In the modern, Internet age though, Kenpo schools’ websites have become one of the most important influencers of generating new students. It has replaced the phone book and the sign out front for most first impression opportunities. If properly done the Kenpo schools website can almost have as much influence on Word of Mouth referrals as the passion of the instructor.
Although many Kenpo karate schools have a website, most do not give it enough attention to benefit from it. A functional Kenpo studio website should have engaging, compelling content which sets the expectations for first time visitors, has critical information displayed early and often for both the website visitor and the search engines, and has analytical tools in place to measure what works and needs improvement. Built in this fashion, the Kenpo school website will be the second most useful tool for generating Word of Mouth referrals and new students; right behind the passion of the owner.
Why Website Content and Design Matter
Consider the website to be virtual real estate that consumers fly past as they surf online. Two elements get them to slow down and browse: Design and Content. There are thousands of websites with cool, flashy colors, great sound effects, and offer no substance. Equally, many websites have poor navigation, small hard-to-read text, and a wealth of great information. It is important to be in the middle between the ends of the pendulum.
Of the two elements though, content is more important than design. The design should be simple enough for anyone to automatically know how to navigate to any other point in the website. There should not be too many buttons making the web page look cluttered and distracting from the information the site conveys. The dojo has a personality, a unique feel, and the design of the website should try to recreate that feel. The title, logo, and buttons of the website should remain consistent in the same spots throughout all the pages. Beyond simple, non-distracting, and easy to navigate, the focus should be on content the consumer needs and wants.
Content encompasses all the words and pictures related to Kenpo posted inside the framework of the studio website. A better way to think about it would be demonstration pictures, technique videos, the curriculum, class schedule etc. This is the substance of the website and what will get virtual consumers to stay and explore. More time will be and should be invested in producing quality content than on design work.
The modern consumer searches the internet prior to most purchasing decisions. We all do it; go check online to see what all the competitors are selling whatever good/service for before deciding where or if to buy. All things being equal, the site which makes it easier to find the price has a better chance of winning the business. Kenpo schools should be no different in this regard. A virtual consumer visiting the website for the first time would want to know what classes cost, what does the gear cost, is there a registration fee, class schedule, and other expectations. Failure to put that information on the site creates one more road block from converting the virtual consumer into an actual student.
Prospective students would also like to know how the Kenpo school has benefited other students. Reviews and testimonials are extremely helpful in this regard. These are Word of Mouth referrals posted publicly for everyone to see and create maximum benefit. Success stories make it easy for consumers to visualize themselves in the situation and make the conversion to buyer (in this case student).
A common theme with quality content is setting the expectations for what a student or parent might find at the studio. Other ways to set expectations are what attitudes are like and expected in class, how belt advancement works, and what the teaching styles are (drills and games for example). Once someone understands school costs and how it has helped other students they are more likely to tell others (Word of Mouth) or become a student themselves.
Another key reason to have quality content on the dojo website is to ensure proper indexing of the site by the search engines. Search engines, like Google or Yahoo, have programs that “read” websites and determine what the site is about. These algorithms read the words on a site, the code the site is written in, and the links coming to and going out of the site. This combination of characteristics (along with other industry guarded secrets) is indexing of a website and determines what results are displayed in what order when someone enters a search term.
Again in the modern era, especially with the mass adoption of the smart phone, it has become easier for people to look up addresses and phone numbers via the internet than to use a traditional phone book. A good contingent of people don’t even own phone books and kids growing up are not necessarily taught how to use them. As a result, having the studio phone number and address on each page of the website is critical.
But more than that, it is necessary to be found in the top results when someone might search for “Kenpo Karate City, St” or some other karate related search. A person entering a search query online related to Kenpo has already shown some level of interest in Martial Arts. These people have a higher probability of conversion to student and getting them to the school’s website increases this chance in favor of the higher displayed school. Most clicks to a website from the search engine occur on the results from the first page, and then it is usually the top four or five suggestions. Having the school website found in the top results for those key search terms, keywords, is vital for getting virtual consumers to the website giving them a chance to become students or referrals.
An interesting side effect of not having a quality website being indexed properly by the search engines is what results display in place of the Kenpo studios. Generic internet phone books, competitors, negative reviews on someone’s personal website or blog, or even random articles about Kenpo in general will display. These are all negative reflectors on reputation and none have anything to do with the actual Kenpo school or the driving of new students. As a result, having a proper website also protects the school name from being the driving force to give other businesses (like the online phone books or karate competitor schools) more business.
Where to invest the time
A properly constructed website can protect the Kenpo school name online, improve search engine indexing results for desired keywords, and empower virtual consumers with necessary information. These traits, in turn, provide avenues for more Word of Mouth referrals and more students. So if the time is going to be spent constructing a website, what aspects of a website provides the most return on investment? Content is king, so quality content should be the focus.
The first step is to determine which key phrases and categories the Kenpo school thinks will be searched for online. These are the “keywords” that should be found throughout the written content of the studio website. Examples are “Kenpo Karate”; “Edmond, OK”; “Sparring”; “Self-Defense”; etc. The keywords will be found more frequently throughout the content of the website and will be identified by the search engines as the purpose of the site.
Step two is to look at the student composition of the school now and where the school wants to go in the future: mostly kids, sparring intensive, tournament driven, etc. Use this information to understand what expectations should be set for prospective online visitors. If the studio will be mostly for kids, then gear much of the content towards parents and set the expectations for body contact, safety, curriculum, and belt advancement. Should the focus be on tournament competitions, the content should then highlight necessary gear, training methods, past victories, and upcoming tournament schedules. The ultimate goal is to know the personality and direction of the school so that it can be easily conveyed on the virtual real estate.
Third, generate of list of what visitors would expect to find on the school website that might not necessarily have anything to do with keywords or goals. Most important of these is the address and phone number of the studio. Schedule of classes, directions, and a method of contacting the school for more information are common ideas. Simple pages like these may seem like common sense, but make all the difference in creating a great first impression.
Take the information from steps one through three and write content for the essential pages of the Kenpo school website. The dojo’s goal, inclusive of keywords, is placed on the first page people visit, the home page. The curriculum is listed for kids and adults while also explaining how belt advancement works. The schedule of classes, pricing, and directions could round out the essential information.
Having all of this information is vital for success and if properly done will fulfill the needs of the virtual visitor and the search engines. But the goal of quality content is to engage, educate, and provide a call to action for the reader. Additional content beyond the essential will provide added depth and further opportunity for new students.
The best way to add depth to a Kenpo school website is with pictures. One or two high resolution pictures per page can make a huge, positive difference. Conversely, a single web page of only pictures of mixed sizes or poor quality gives off the impression of unprofessional. Photos are visual representations of the expectations the written content is trying to set. Photos also make it easy for the would-be consumer to see themselves in a Kenpo situation. The photos should be relevant to the written content on the page. Meaning a page on belt advancement should have pictures of students receiving their belts. Also, the pictures should be organized in such a fashion as to be pleasing to the eye, flowing right to left, and justified on the page.
Another piece of content which helps prospective students is a biography of the instructors. A brief history of their involvement in Kenpo is important, but being able to catch the passion is even more so. The visitor is, to a small degree, able to familiarize themselves with the person who would be their instructor making the initial meeting less of an “ice-breaker”. For those seeking the self-confidence that comes from martial arts, the easier introduction lowers the barrier to actually becoming a student.
Consider also adding another page of content focusing on a brief history of Kenpo. Most Kenpoists are passionate about the heritage and foundation of the Art introduced by Mr. Ed Parker. The site should reflect that passion, but be wary of writing a dissertation on it. Compelling, quality content is not wordy or rambling. The history should capture Mr. Parker’s “why” of Kenpo.
Thought should also be given to adding a blogging platform to the website. Without question, this is the most time intensive addition made on a website and requires the most ongoing dedication.
The rewards could more than justify the investment as a blog consistently adds additional content to the website. Each new article, called a post, can be as simple as a few paragraphs of thought (with a picture) on any Kenpo subject that would not otherwise merit an entire page with navigation button on the school website.
For example, most schools wouldn’t see the need in expounding on the first yellow belt saying “Distance is your best friend”. However writing a few paragraphs about how it was applied in a class the previous night does a world of good to visitors of the website. First, the blog post shows how often a site is updated. Most people prefer to see websites current as opposed to untouched in months or years. Also, new content on a regular basis gives an incentive for website visitors to return to the site over and over. It may take multiple visits to the site to convince someone to become a student. Third, the article shows insight into how the instructor thinks. The same logic is followed here as on the instructor biography page. Visitors would be getting a better feel for who the instructor is as a person.
Lastly, the search engines prefer websites that are updated regularly with new content. While search engine algorithms take into account the age of a website, it also looks at how frequently the site is updated. Fresher websites can often place higher in search results. In addition, each blog post has its own keywords which allow the website to be found for new search phrases. Also, some search algorithms take into account the number of subscribers a blog has as an indication on how high in search results a website should be placed. The uses for a blog are multifaceted and require an ongoing time commitment, but the results are easily identifiable.
The time investment into a properly built website is not likely to yield results overnight. Patience, measurement tools, and willingness to making changes are the necessary components to ensure the Kenpo school website stays on the right path. Tracking certain criteria will highlight areas that need improvement and provide an overall better performance.
The first metric to track is the number of new students after a website is launched or reworked. All new students should be asked how they heard of the school. Every student mentioning the website or someone who referred them due to the website is considered a website success. Enough of these successes paint a clear picture of time investment versus return.
Also notice if there is an increase in phone or e-mail queries. If possible these conversations should also involve asking their name and how they came to find the school. A percentage of these calls will eventually become students and “word of mouth” referrals.
Changes in search result performance can sometimes be slow to occur especially if the school website is newly created. Even when the Kenpo website is submitted to the search engines, it can sometimes take months for the search algorithms to properly index all the pages and display them in search query results. The key is to search for the keywords the Kenpo school has opted to use and track where the school places in the results. The task can be performed weekly with the results judged over a few weeks or months. If there is little to no change, then minor modification to the content on the pages should be done. Again continue to monitor the search result placement and repeat the process. Unless the Kenpo school is in a highly competitive Kenpo karate region, most schools should be able to achieve near top placement on page one for “Kenpo Karate City, State”.
Finally, keep track of how many times the website and each page is viewed using any of the free tools the search engines provide (i.e. Google Analytics). Watching the number of page views allows for forecasting trends. Should the Contact page be viewed frequently, and it is followed with an increase in phone calls or new students, then there is a logical correlation. Should the Curriculum page not be viewed often, then the page should be retooled until the views go up. Tracking and testing the page views should be repeated as often as tracking the search results.
Does it work?
Most Kenpo schools do not give their website the time and attention necessary to benefit from it. The school website is the modern day phone book ad, virtual marquee sign, and information resource to potential new students. Putting effort into writing quality, engaging content encourages website visitors to interact with your website. The interaction can translate into the best form of advertising, “word of mouth” referrals, and into more students.
In May 2010, Disciple Martial Arts in Edmond, Oklahoma launched a new website built on top of a blogging platform. Prior to launch, the Kenpo school was not found on page one or two of any search engines for “karate” or “Kenpo karate in Edmond”. None of the students at the time were as a direct result of their old website. With the help of the owner, we invested about 30 hours in creating the content, editing pages, finding quality pictures, and putting the site live. Four months later, Disciple Martial Arts is on page one for “Kenpo Karate Edmond, OK” and “Kenpo Edmond, OK” and on page two for “Karate Edmond, OK”. Two new students have signed up as a direct result of the new website and phone calls queries have increased.
Without question much time was invested prior to the new site launch and further time has been put in since then for measurement. The website progress has helped the school’s growth progress. These results can be and should be replicated by other Kenpo schools. All it takes is a little passion.