Is Your Dojo Getting… Empty? Here’s 19 Unusual (But Effective!) Ways to Change That!

Tick… tock.

Tick… tock. Tick… tock.

You’re standing in an empty dojo. Again. It’s seven o’clock, Monday evening, and another class of no students. As always, when it’s that time of the year, that time for beginners’ classes to start, it takes a while to get new students. Sure. You know that. But it’s been several weeks now… and still nobody is showing up.

“What the hell is wrong?!” you think, as you punch the concrete wall next to you.

“I’ve tried everything! I spent hundreds of dollars on advertising in every magazine and newspaper I know!” you continue.

Another punch in the wall, this time even harder.

And it’s true.

You have tried everything you know.

The problem is, you just don’t know enough.

You’ve posted tons of different ads, writing stuff like: “TRADITIONAL RYUKYU OKINAWAN GOJU-RYU KARATEDO 8TH DAN RED BELT DAI-SHIHAN SENSEI BILLY SMITH” featuring breathtaking pictures of you in your younger days (chest hair = not grey!), posing with high kicks on different cliffs at random sunsets.

Yet, nobody seems to care.

And that’s true, too.

Nobody does care. Because people have no idea what the freck you frickin’ ad is about. It contains more Japanese titles than it does English words, and basically gives every reader the impression that they’re stupid (since they don’t understand anything). Make me look stupid, and I flip page to something I do understand. Like that ad for the new kickboxing academy in town, that says “LEARN HOW TO KICK BUTT, LOSE WEIGHT, GET STRONG AND BEAT UP BULLIES AT DAVE’S KICKBOXING PLAZA! FREE LESSON FIRST TIME!”.

At least that makes sense.

That is, if people even see the ad.

Because here’s the thing you need to know, that most people have no clue about:

Mass marketing is dead.

Like, super dead.

And before you go “Cancel all my meetings, somebody on the internet is wrong!”, let me tell you that I’m totally serious when I say this. See, you need to think outside of the box for a moment.

Look: Imagine for a second that there was a magical machine that you, or your dojo, could buy.

Figure it costs anywhere between $1 million and $100 million.

Expensive indeed, but you’re promised by the salesman that using this machine can transform your dojo, dramatically increase sales/profits and finally turn your Karate business into a real success story.

Interested?

Well, what if the salesperson also tells you that companies who don’t buy the machine have a hard time growing, and often languish… and then the salesperson points out that a certain company, Procter & Gamble, spent more than $2 billion on machines just like this one last year.

Your dojo might really need this.

Interested?

Oh, but wait. There’s one caveat. Actually, two:

1. The ongoing output of the machine can’t easily be measured. You have almost no idea if it works or not.

2. There’s no guarantee. If it doesn’t work, tough.

Still interested?

Well, after those two caveats there’s just one more fact to mention: On average, the machine only works for about one out of every ten companies that uses it. In other words, ninety percent of the time, the machine fails to work.

What’s the machine called?

I’ll tell you:

Mass market advertising.

One of the most puzzling ideas of our economy. Spend billions of dollars to interrupt people with ads they don’t want about products they don’t need – then hope for the best. Every company does it… because that’s what real companies are “supposed” to do. Or else you’re not “serious” in the eyes of other companies. You don’t have the same “status” in your chosen “industry”.

Well, you’re not a company.

You’re a dojo.

You don’t care about other people. You care about getting some new cats to your dojo, teaching them some real kuh-raw-tee, making them pass on your legacy!

So here’s what I’m going to do:

I’m going to help you with that.

By teaching you how to skip the traditional, expensive, ineffective, mass market advertising route to recruiting new students.

What you need is some serious guerilla marketing. And if it’s one thing I love, it’s unorthodox marketing. Don’t ask me why, but it’s something about the mix between practical psychology, practical jokes, thinking outside of the box and actually getting stuff done (and then seing the awesome results!) that appeals to me when it comes to this kind of stuff. So I made a list.

A list of 19 simple ideas on how to get down and dirty with your dojo marketing.

I hope you can find something useful.

Thank me later:

  1. Keep aneye on the calendar -There’s no shortage of ideas in a calendar for things you can do to find new students and make an impact. I mean, there’s probably events and special “days” all the time in your community. “Clean up” day in the neighbourhood? Great – get ten dojo buddies (dressed in Karate uniforms of course) and clean like you’ve never done anything else! Or why not recruit some aspiring actors from the local college to put on a little flash mob of “evil ninjas vs. Karate dudes” (like a skit) promoting your dojo at the local market/town square? Use opportunities where people in your target group have already gathered to your advantage.
  2. Karate bumper stickers/window decals – Go down to the local mall and hand out awesome stickers, saying fun stuff that implies that the driver/passengers knows Karate. For instance “Black Belt Holder Inside – Honk at Own Risk!” or something. Here’s some ideas to get you started. The general idea, of course, is that people will feel strange about having a Karate sticker on their car if they don’t know Karate, so naturally they’ll pay a visit to your dojo (or at least your website) which you have clearly printed the address of somewhere on the sticker. Make sure the stickers are funny and of good quality, or people will just throw them away.
  3. Fake publicity stunt – You could have people picket your dojo front with signs that read “This Karate school is too cool!” or “Dojo X is too good at teaching our kids Karate – they’ve stopped playing video games!”. Theres a million fake publicity stunts out there, use your imagination and I bet it’ll work no matter how weird or out of the box it seems. Or just have fifty random dwarfs dressed in your dojo t-shirt backflipping through the local mall. Whatever. People will notice!
  4. Guest writing – This is for the bloggers out there, or even the freelance writers. Guest write on blogs or websites largely related, or semi-related to your Karate dojo. Opening other peoples eyes to your name and your website is always good promotion, especially if you’re an awesome writer. Or simply write an article for the local newspaper on self-defense, weight loss through martial arts training or whatever you can come up with – just strategically sneak in your dojo name somewhere!
  5. Business cards – STOP! Don’t skip this one. I kow what you think I’ll tell you: “Print cards and hand them out.” Well, I’m not! What you do with these cards is the following: head to every library or book store in your city and find the sports/karate/hobby/eastern section. Open each and every book and place a business card somewhere in the book. This is great targeted marketing and only costs you a few bucks for the cards and an afternoon of placing the cards. Just make sure the staff doens’t see you, or you’ll might have to choke some poor sucker out.
  6. Temporary tattoos – Ever heard about these fake tattoos that’ll last for X amount of days? Well, they would be perfect for martial arts expos or other events where tons of interested people will be. Placing it in a weird place (forehead, neck, full back, foot, ect) is also a great way to get it noticed. And sure, I know it’s taboo in many places, but hey, if people talk about it, thats the whole point right? Perhaps better for MMA gyms though…
  7. “Anything else?” – No, the list isn’t done yet. These are just the two words you need to say right before you exchange money with a new dojo member. This will make them think of other ideas/possibilities they have in mind, and could open doors to a larger pay day or new opportunities in the future. You never know who steps into the dojo…
  8. Demonstrations – This one is so obvious. Find a local area where you know your future new members move around and put on a free Karate demo. Great weather? Awesome. Contact news stations and let them know you’ll be offering a BBQ and free Karate demonstrations. The BBQ could get a little costly, sure, but the amount of press and promotion could really pay off in the long run. Example: My dojo once had a demonstration in a nearby kindergarten. Bad move – now we’re overflowing with those kids! And they all fart…
  9. Sponsor an event – Doing this is at most times very inexpensive and also great for publicity, especially if it’s a big event. It could be a sport event, cultural event or whatever. You normally get your logo and business mentioned in all of the events promo material, which is tons of publicity you normally wouldn’t get. Of course, be at the event personally in your Karate gi to add extra stickiness to your dojo name and interact with the guests. Home run!
  10. Holiday greetings – Send emails or snail-mail to your past members wishing them happy holidays (Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Years). This helps them keep your dojo in their head as well as standing out from the other places/clubs/gyms the’ve been members at before. Also, if it’s just after a holiday that involves binge eating, their guilt might make them pay you a visit sooner than you expected!
  11. Charity donations – Donate some of the profits your dojo generates every month to charity. Great for promotion in the media and for members to feel like they’re helping out the charity by purchasing services or equipment from you. Or just host a charity event (“10’000 maegeri for starvig kids in Pakistan!”)
  12. Hold a big contest/tournament – How this spreads word-of-mouth is pretty obvious, since most regular people have never seen a live Karate tournament. So change that! You can gain free local press coverage easily, plus publishing the winners afterwards is great for more press coverage. Additionally, you could invite some other nearby dojo for more publicity… unless you’re scared of losing 🙂
  13. Free t-shirts – This is great for turning yourself or others into walking billboards – without them realizing it. Just give away a great, funny, memorable or cool and fashionable shirt (you don’t even need to print an address or website name) for every new member that signs up. That’ll have them eager to tell friends and family where they got it from (“it was free!”). Most kids will probably use it at school or other sporting activities by pure habit, exposing your dojo name to more possible members. Of course the t-shirt isn’t really free, you just included it in the membership price.
  14. Wacky partnerships – Try partnering with other local companies. Agree that you’ll teach their employees one hour of self-defense if they teach your members one hour of whatever they’re good at (or provide some quantity of their product). That way, your existing members thank you for this awesome free course/products/soft drinks/whatever, while many of the other company’s employees surely will continue training at your dojo on their spare time (as long as your free self-defense course was exciting enough!). For instance, try finding a local web development agency (or some other company where everybody feels unhealthy), and offer them a one hour free “Karate fitness” class or something like that. In exchange, they can offer your existing members a free blog design? Whatever they’re good at. Any partnership (gym? yoga studio?) which benefits both the company and the dojo is a great way at grabbing the attention of new potential clients. Also a great way of giving your existing members more value for their money!
  15. Blood drive – Host a blood drive, contact newspapers, TV news, radio, ect. have 1-2 banners up with your website information and also have business cards at the sign-in table. Everyone loves to help their country, city, state, ect. and giving blood is the easiest way for some people to do that. Putting yourself in the forefront of your cities next blood drive would make your dojo very visible to a whole range of new potential clients and word-of-mouth advertisers. Break some sharp roof tiles for extra effect, and you might even get some blood for free!
  16. Stampaholic – Looking for a way to get noticed in the huge pile of advertising mail that potential dojo members get? I’m not suggesting sending spam mail, but you might have a list of people who are interested in learning more about your Karate classes or something, so why not send them a real mail for once? Forget e-mail for a sec, it’s too easy to click into the trash. So, send your promo material in a big friggin’ manilla envelope and put like thirty-nine 1 cent stamps on it! Seriously. No joke. I mean, out of one hundred envelopes, who’s do you think will catch the eye first? Huh? That’s right – the one with a crapload of stamps on it! Make sure you put something interesting inside it too…
  17. The browser trick – Go to your local library, internet cafe, school (good if you need young members) or a big company’s computer room and set your dojo website as the default browser homepage on all the computers you can easily access. Ninja-style! Watch out for pesky librarians!
  18. Get a pimped out Karate truck:
  19. Or just sneak one of these puppies up somewhere outside a parking garage:

Okay, that’s enough for now. Just some quick ideas I hope you can run with. It’s all about imagination. Stand out, and people will notice you.

Just remember to make the right impression.

But then again, as the saying goes, “all publicity is good publicity”.

These are methods I believe in.

But please, don’t take my word for it. Try them out for yourself.

And if anybody has other ideas/plans/tactics, feel free to share in the comment section. I’d love to hear what worked/didn’t work for your dojo!

19 Comments

  • Boban Alempijevic
    There should be one more point up there :)Aggressive wordpress based homepage. Aggressive in the sence of truly understanding the use of keywords in every single page and post.I made a new wordpress based homepage for my old sensei back in Sweden in beginning of last year. The one before was... well.. NOT a homepage.They had 30 active members by the time I did it for me, and had a problem of getting people coming to the Dojo, despite the fact of how good it went for the active students, even have few of them on the Swedish national team. Then first beginners class come after the homepage had been up for less then half a year and I get a mail from my old sensei where I can almost se the joy and tears between the lines, 30 new students ( almost 100 people had shown up for the beginners exhebition...) I have to say I stopped breathing and had to reread the whole dam mail. This was in January. This August I thought, no way, fluke...... almost 200 people showed up and 42 new members, and this time not only kids, but over 10 new adults as well.Checked th google analytics and sure, my aggressive keyword playing had payed off, this year over 4500 unique hits on the page with about 1300 hits a day and 3.5 minutes of reading on the page in average.The page is uppdated with news and articles about karate often, large articles pop up once a month, and news even more often, news about camps and competitions and so on. Marketting can work, if you yourself break your back over it and use it in a weeee bit different way then the booring massmarketing that people , like you say, simple dont give a shitt about :)Loved your article :)
    • This comment is almost 5 years old, but this is still good advice. It's much harder nowadays to rank high in search results, due to Google constantly updating its algorithm.If anyone stumbles across this article now (like me), and is interested in reading more about the topic, I've wrote a very comprehensive article about it here - https://www.maonrails.com/blog/seo-for-martial-arts-gyms/ (warning: 4000+ words article!)Hope this helps other school owners!
  • Boban Alempijevic
    oooohhh, First comment as well :D
  • Szilard
    Move your dojo next to a Chinese supermarket. Best is if it is sandwiched between a Chinese supermarket and a childcare, and there should be around some oriental restaurants too, it helps if your dojo is the only karate/kungfu/taekwondo place in the intersection.
  • Cecilia
    You are awesome, Jesse. Thanks for your usefull tips!
  • Manuel
    the lasi idea is just GREAT! I'll try it when (in a decade or two) I'll have my own dojo... =P thanks in advance for the advice!
  • John
    Follow the advice that Rob gives over at 24 fighting chickens. Things like helping people achieve their goals in karate rather than forcing your goals on them. Treating your dojo like a business and you students like customers.
  • Mike Noga
    Don't do #17 if you know what's good for you. YOu think a KIAA! is powerful? Try getting SSSHHH'ED by a ticked off librarian.Seriously, if you change the homepage the library staff will just have to change it back. Then you're just creating a minor hassle for someone who has dome you no harm. That's not cool.Why not voluunteer to help with the annual Friends of the library book sale. Or schedule a demo right there at the library. Many libraries have conference rooms that might be large enough.
    • Sound advice!
  • Indonesian Karate-ka
    Hi, I'm a student of Telkom Institute of Technology. I'm a karate-ka too... Your site is good Jesse! You should share about karate with us, join us at our FB, IT TELKOM KARATE DO CLUB.
  • Mikey
    This site is great, thank you! I just started training at a local dojo, and I'm enjoying the lessons, the people, everything... The only problem is our dojo only has about 7-10 students total, 2 or 3 of which are ever in any of the classes, 1 of them is always me. The dojo is in the red, and Id like to help get more people coming to the dojo. Any tips, for a student of a dojo in helping get more people to come in?
    • Start MMA ;) No, but seriously though, I recently wrote an article on this exact topic. Check the archives!
  • sunil
    Great ideas Sir,awesome live-men and real men reply.I like it and thank you many times because freely faithfully given ideas.Thank you once again.
  • Your site is very helpful My school is in trouble and I cant wait to use these strategies
  • Colin Jolly
    Thanks to everyone for the positive feed back and friendly advice. Oss
  • Clive Morris
    Hi JesseI've just opened up a brand new Taekwondo club and two weeks in and its been a struggle to get new students, I've spent money on DBS, instructor and when I get students, student insurance, and the hire of the dojang training hall is pretty expensive too. I intend on creating a club website once I get my first students in (I don't wanna make one at further cost to find nobody joins), and the financial burden is pretty steep as I've only been able to get grant money of £200 so far (forgot to mention, I'm in England!)do you know of any other ways I could get help moneywise (preferably not loans, they just get you in debt), and obviously once I get students things will become easier if they all turn up every week, Ive worked out I only need 8 to turn up every week to break even with the dojang hire, so aside from the above, is there anything you could suggest?I'm 31 years old and have trained in TKD for 16 years, currently 4th dan black belt, and have wanted to instruct TKD since getting my 2nd dan, despite all the difficulties Ive just mentioned, can you give me hope of getting past this first high hurdle of an obstacle?I'm super dedicated to TKD, its done wonders for me over the years, now I wanna pass on my experience to others, can you help or advize me?Kind RegardsClive Morris Chief Instructor of the Sowerby Bridge Taekwondo Club West Yorkshire, England!
  • I am trying to help my teacher promote his school. He is a recent arrival in Georgia, after having had a school for many years in Florida. His website is still the one he used there. Here's the catch that prevents me from going public with search engines. His spacious studio is in his home, an area not zoned for commercial schools. Any hints on how to get around that little fact? Please email me at UsaChenTaijiCenter@gmail.com with wahtever suggestions you may have for us.Thank you!
  • AYAD JASSIM
    I also recommend introducing freestyle kickboxing to your menu, specifically 'Semi Contact' (also known as light contact) and 'light contact' (also known as Continuous). This will make your menu more trendy and modren as Karate is becoming a bit of an old fashioned thing. Google the above if you are not familiar with them also lots on youtube
  • AYAD JASSIM
    Opps! Typo: I meant 'Semi Contact' (also known as Points Fighting) Sorry trying to type too fast!

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