Kolau had the opportunity to interview Walter, the Managing Director of Thai Sports Massage, which is the highest rated massage therapy business in San Diego, California. Walter is a software developer and has been the CEO of several companies. He has been integral in helping Thai Sports Massage unlock their full potential through building out their online presence while also working to develop and promote their unique approach to massage therapy. Through Walter’s extensive knowledge and experience in cultivating a thriving business, he shares some important massage marketing ideas that have been key to his business’s success.


You are the highest rated massage therapy business in San Diego. What makes you unique?

Walter: One thing that sets our business apart is that our approach to customers is extremely focused. When we started the company we decided that we didn’t want to be like a Massage Envy or an Asian massage place either. We wanted to create a whole new type of massage protocol that met a specific need. So we decided to have a direct focus because there are many different types of massage. You can do relaxation massage, therapeutic massage, sports massage, or several other types of massage. Therefore, we decided to come up with a massage that was unique. We blended both Asian massage and western protocol in one single application of treatment.

Do you think that this unique approach to massage helped cultivate your success?

Our unique approach brought interest and curiosity to our business. I’m not saying that this is the only approach that you can have. But I think that any massage business needs to have a special approach to the industry in order to rise above the noise.  For example, in San Diego there are over 200 massage businesses. We decided to rise above the noise by taking our strengths and putting them to good use. One of our strengths is Asian massage. We know Asian massage because all the therapists are Thai, and they know how to do Thai massages very well. We then taught them how to do sports massages, swedish massages, shiatsu, and other types of massage. We also blended the different types of massages into a single experience for the customer. Not only do we blend the massage but we customize it. When a customer comes in, we learn all about them. We have a very serious and detailed medical intake form, much like a hospital. Therefore, we know why they are here and what their problems are. Approximately 90% of our customers come in seeking help for a problem. They are here for stress, pain, or some kind of injury issue. They are coming here to get some sort of relief; therefore, we like to focus on how we can best serve and help our customers. Since we know what their problems are, we try to focus on that area. We work very hard on solving their problems, not just taking their money. Our therapists are trained to ask the right questions during the session to make sure that they are making progress and helping things.

Is your approach to customer service what drives your reviews?

Our goal is to get 100% customer satisfaction in pain relief, stress release, or injury reduction issues and because of that we have earned many reviews. Reviews were never paid for. They were all hard earned reviews, and if you read them you can see that people have had magnificent recoveries from our approach. To give you an example, we had a doctor that was in here just a few days ago that was treated by our lead therapist and trainer, Lawani. During the massage he stated that she healed him. He’s had back pain for nine years and has been to countless physical therapists and doctors. During the massage he suddenly felt the pain go away. The way we help people is unique. We do acupressure first which helps to get the muscles relaxed and broken down enough to be able to use other massage techniques. Most people don’t even know what acupressure is as a Thai style. It’s not western at all. We will walk on your back to break down the muscle; to get the muscle ready for real work. So our unique approach really rose above the noise and on top of that we started building reviews. But we couldn’t grow by word of mouth alone. That is too slow. When she first started this business I was in the Bay Area and she was in San Diego. She opened this place up three years ago inside of a gym, in one dirty little room. She got so much clientele that she rented another room in the gym and got another therapist. Now we have 10 therapists and we’ve moved to this location.

You utilize Yelp, Facebook, Twitter, and your website. Similarly, there are also other channels like word of mouth and referrals. What is the most important customer acquisition channel for you?

She was building a really quality business and rising above the noise. I was going to help her out as a hobby for me because I’m a software engineer by trade. Her website needed help because there was virtually no traffic on it after two years of business. Therefore, her business success was initially formed by Yelp. It was the kernel of her business. She advertised on Yelp, and I think that’s really important. Advertising on Yelp was one of the best massage marketing ideas that she had because you can’t just sit there on Yelp and wait to be noticed; you have to advertise on Yelp.

How was your experience advertising on Yelp?

Extremely effective. However, if you advertise the same old stuff no one is going to care, but if you give them something to look at and rise above the noise then they will notice. Therefore, her ads got a lot of attention because it was marketing something that was unique and different. When thinking of ideas for our massage marketing campaign we wanted to show something that would stand out. I’d say about 100 more people were exposed to her business by advertising with Yelp. Yelp ads are useful because with Yelp you need to get a certain number of 5-star reviews to be organically found. You are virtually invisible in the organic search unless you probably have at least 10 reviews. If you don’t have these reviews you have no visibility so it’s important to buy those reviews by advertising. Not actually paying people for reviews because that doesn’t work but basically to get exposure and to start working hard for those first reviews.

So Yelp helped lead to your business success?

Yeah without Yelp this business would have been struggling years ago. Yelp deals are very good too. We use Yelp deals because it helps generate more people to write reviews. So it’s an investment. The marketing investment initially was only Yelp. That’s how we probably got our first 50-60 reviews without even having a good website. We didn’t even have SEO. Later I decided it was time to do more than Yelp, so I analyzed her website using SEMrush and the CO tool, and I figured out that she had no visibility and was not even registered on Google Search Console. If you aren’t registered on the search console they aren’t going to track you or index you. So I got her indexed, and I got her a whole new site. This is now our third generation website, and we’ve gradually gotten better and better. So with that our SEO went from zero to eight keywords and now we have about 150.

How do you increase your SEO ranking?

Through content. The number one thing was creating a website that was qualitatively identified by Google as a source of authority. So I built a blog and a Google platform. I have a lot of high quality content that is all original and it’s all mine. I didn’t copy and paste. That’s the biggest mistake that people make.

Do you get links back to your site from your blog?

We don’t have any links, but Google has indexed it. All of our pages are very carefully crafted, and we use the keyword strategy without overloading it with keywords of course. Over time Google kept identifying us as having more authority and more keywords. Now we are at 160 keywords on our site which is pretty good considering that the site has only been indexed for a year and a half. We are also almost always on first page searches too.

How much of your business would you say is coming from your website and how much from other sources, if there is a way to know?

Yes, there is a way to know. I do all sorts of analytics. I use Google Analytics. I am also a Squarespace user because it is so easy to use. Squarespace is easy for people like me to use; yet, I have the power of WordPress. I also have beautiful templates. The reason that it looks so good is because I have a template that is based on a beautiful design, and it’s completely designed for mobile so I don’t have to create different versions of this site like most people try to do.

What is the most effective way to bring in business?

Right now, as an average, Google is our leading point of input. It’s about 50% of our traffic and Yelp is about 20%. The rest of our traffic is direct which means that there is a lot of word of mouth going on, and we know the demographics of our clients very well. About half of the clients who walk in here right now are word of mouth clients and the other half found us through search.

Is Yelp the only place you advertise? Have you ever used Adwords?

Yes, and I’ve used Google PPC. I like it, but it takes a lot of time and practice. You waste a lot of time and money unless you hire somebody. A lot of people think they are smart enough to do it themselves but they end up putting ads all over the world because they are not using Geo fencing and they are making other similar mistakes. It doesn’t really work for most people unless they are hiring someone because usually they are doing it all wrong. I learned after months of trial and error. Now I have a pretty good PPC that I turn on when I want to get more clients. Our current location was built last September. We have six therapy rooms. We thought it would be saturated in about a year. Well it’s already saturated so we are looking downtown for another location.

Are you doing any offline advertising like in magazines?

No, I don’t believe in that. I used to be the VP of sales and marketing for some pretty big companies, and I’ve done all of that in the past but that’s not the way to go. When coming up with massage marketing ideas we try to focus on online channels. Now that we have a decent website, traffic keeps growing every month. Yelp keeps us going but it’s saturated now and we aren’t seeing the influx of business from it that we used to. Now I’m doing what I call “programs.”  I studied Leonesio, the founder of Massage Envy. They designed their business so it was like a gym membership where you get a massage every month but you get a discount. When they formed Massage Envy they went from nothing to a billion dollars. It is a billion dollar company now.

Do you see Massage Envy as a threat or an opportunity for independent massage businesses?

Not a threat at all. We go the extra mile. In fact, Massage Envy’s biggest problem is that they only hire low quality therapists who are paid minimum wage. They are all about volume. We are all about quality. My next step for this business is to build a subscriber base where people sign up for a program and can come in every month for maintenance not just repair. I’m in the middle of building a whole new business model that in some ways emulates the gym membership or the Massage Envy membership, but I make it less painful meaning that there is no one year commitment. It’s a six month commitment. I call it the Q Wellness Program, and I already have a few hundred people signed up for it. UPS and AT&T contacted us and wanted to see how this program could benefit their employees. We are going after corporate wellness programs. Catering to employees’ needs if they need to go in for a massage. We want to work on carpal tunnel syndrome, back pain, and stress relief so we are developing special programs. Since the employees at these big companies use health savings accounts they spend money that is tax free and tax deductible. They want to spend their deductible before the insurance kicks in. We’re HSA qualified and they look at that almost as a free massage. We’ll probably have over 1000 employees coming in here in the next six months. Typically our average day is about 16-20 clients and we can handle 30 clients at the most. One thing that I’m doing on top of this wellnessness program is adding other services like bringing in physical therapy. We are going to combine physical therapy with massage to really give the customer an integrated solution which means that they will be getting a better massage because they will be supervised by physical therapists who are anatomical experts. So if they sign up for a program, we are starting to utilize a three day body scan using a Body Scanner. By using the Body Scanner we can tell you what your problems are: your posture problems, your weight problems, or you fat problems. The physical therapist does all the motion analysis, and we’ll do it for half the price of retail. We’ll give you give a session valued at $100 for $50.

Do you see the massage therapy industry expanding into this?

I want to be a pioneer in this area, merging massage therapy with physical therapy which is designed to really help people, fix problems, and maintain their health. For the wellness program we are doing two types of programs. One is called the Wellness Program and the other is called the Sports Performance Program. Our sports program will be catered towards our clients who are athletes and marathon runners. We want them to sign up for a program that will do things they need and help them become better athletes. We’ll analyze their motion or if they have injuries we’ll bring in a cold laser. Things that massage therapists can’t do that physical therapists can. We use specialized exercise technology programs that are all managed by software. We try to use technology everywhere in our business. Our whole system is pretty much run by technology.

I see that you have a Facebook page and a Twitter page. How important are these social media channels? How many links are you getting?

Social media has had a minimal impact on our business. There are two reasons why we haven’t done much on social media. One is that I think social media is more productive for a nationwide company or a national company. We have a very small footprint. Our footprint is a 20 mile radius from here. That is our customer base, 20 miles away. So it is kind of hard to market to them on Facebook or Twitter so we are using it but very little. When coming up with ideas to market our massage business we try to focus on the most beneficial channels, and we do not believe that social media is one of them.

Do you think local businesses need it?

No, I think it’s a waste of time.

Even Facebook?

Yeah, I think so. If you’re that small, it’s okay for you to have a page for people to come in and like, but you should focus on Yelp, Google, and Google Plus. The whole Google reviews are effective. The three pack is really important. It is everything on search. If I search “Thai Massage” we are right on top; we have 17 five stars.

What advice or massage marketing ideas and tips can give to a small massage therapy shop struggling with customer acquisition?

Don’t ever do Groupon or Livingsocial. They rip you off, and once you do it you are forever branded as a deal making company. No one will ever come in. They will always wait for the Groupon because whenever a person does a search they’ll find the Groupon page. You need to master Yelp because it’s really the only definitive source of quality reviews. Google is good too because it helps in the search, but no one even reads the Google reviews. The best way to get reviews in the beginning is to advertise and use Yelp. It’s an investment, but it’s worth it. Try it for six months.

How do you get your customers’ attention?

We send out deals. We use SMS messaging and email through Mailchimp. We use SMS as a marketing tool and as a reminder tool. You can tell it works because our traffic increases after we send out the messages and people will bring in the coupons. If they don’t like receiving SMS messages they can opt out. Some months we send deals through SMS and some months we use mail. Email and SMS are good massage marketing ideas that a business should consider utilizing. SMS gets much more readership because it’s more disruptive than email, but it’s much more expensive because we have a client base of about 4000.

Finally, can you give a quick tip for small shops struggling with customer retention?

Membership. Give customers incentive to return. Whether it is special services or special pricing. Do something that will keep them motivated to come back. We do a 30% discount, but we also do soft pricing.


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