Things I Love/Things I Hate about Health & Fitness Marketing

Health and fitness have some of the strongest examples around of good content marketing — and unfortunately, they also have some of the sleaziest.

It’s that time again! Today I’m talking about more things I love! (And … a couple of things I hate.)

In this 30-minute episode, I look at three different health and fitness businesses that are built around content. I talk about:

  • How a Storytelling Strongwoman uses personal challenges (and triumphs) to build her tribe
  • The behaviors that have given the Compassionate Coach such a massive and powerful network
  • The key to the Rigorous Researcher’s authority — and what you can borrow from their approach
  • Business models and best practices you can “swipe” from these folks
  • Thoughts on harnessing trends to boost your content-based project
  • Marketing malpractice, and two of my least favorite marketing “crimes”

The Show Notes

Sonia Simone: Greetings, superfriends! My name is Sonia Simone and these are the Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer. For those who don’t know me, I’m a co-founder and the chief content officer for Rainmaker Digital.

I’m also a champion of running your business and your life according to your own rules. As long as you don’t lie and you don’t hurt people, this podcast is your official pink permission slip to run your business or your career exactly the way you think you should.

It’s time for Things I Love / Things I Hate! Like a lot of people, I read a lot of health and fitness sites, and sometimes I buy information products, like ebooks, workout plans, that kind of thing.

You may have noticed that health and fitness is one of the worst spaces on the web for misinformation, shady tactics, and downright sleaze.

But there are also some players who are doing terrific things, and specifically who are taking a strong content-driven approach. I’m going to talk about three different businesses, each of whom has something to teach about how they put their content, their marketing, and their product mix together, and then I’ll get to some tactics that really do make me cringe when I see them.

All three of these folks are people I’ve come to know a little bit through social media, but none of them is someone I’ve sat down and had coffee with. Although who knows, it could definitely happen. Josh came to our live event last year, and I’m hoping we’ll see him again this year.

Nia Shanks: The storytelling strongwoman

Nia has a business called “Lift Like a Girl,” she has a strong Facebook presence, and in fact all three of these players are very strong on Facebook.

Facebook can be a really excellent way to reach an audience in this space, because it’s the kind of thing people talk about a lot on Facebook — their workouts, their diets, their gym selfies, etc.

I call Nia the Storytelling Strongwoman. Nia is really a living example of what she teaches — a female strength athlete who’s gone through her share of difficult times with fitness, weight management, and all that good stuff.

When I started following her work, women who were interested in serious strength work were somewhat unusual — with the popularity of Crossfit, the trends have somewhat caught up with her. But she still regularly addresses misperceptions like lifting a barbell will make a woman instantly huge. Or even that regular strength work makes women “bulky.”

Like most strong content marketers, Nia has a ton of very solid how-to content, both free and paid. Her business model includes ebooks, which she calls guides, and online courses, which she calls programs — around topics you’d probably expect like strength workouts and fat loss.

Because she’s really pulled together a tribe who resonate with what she’s doing, she has other opportunities as well. For example, folks who follow her on Facebook also from time to time have the opportunity to buy stuff with the Lift Like a Girl brand — I’m the proud owner of a Lift Like a Girl sweatshirt, which I always liked to wear to the gym on heavy deadlift days.

Josh Hillis: The compassionate coach

Of the three, Josh Hillis is the one I “know” more than the others — he’s friends with my fantastic trainer, the one who Pavel Tsatsouline called a “mutant.” I’ll give you a video to show you why.

And he has a connection with my friend Jen Waak who has a site called Keyboard Athletes. And also with a Facebook pal of mine Michele Burmaster, who’s a driving force behind a project called the Body Positive Fitness Alliance.

This might seem like a coincidence, except Josh is friends with everybody — and that’s a clue to his success.

When I started following his content, Josh did a lot of celebrity workouts — things like what Scarlett Johansson is doing to look so amazing in the Marvel movies. Those were always presented in an entertaining way. He also came up with a few really entertaining content angles, like the workouts that the professional strippers were doing in his local gym.

In past few years, Josh has zeroed in on habits as a way to shape his story, and wrote a book called Fat Loss Happens on a Monday which lays out a habit-based plan.

I think Josh shows a couple of strengths as a marketer. First, he’s always looking for really engaging content angles, like that exotic dancer story. He’s pretty relentless in staying on top of his topic — he’s always learning and growing, and he shares that with his audience.

But also, he’s a consummate nice guy — always positive, kind, and encouraging. He has a very kind tone, which contrasts with a lot of the nearly abusive stuff we see around that’s based on shaming people and making them feel horrible to try to motivate positive change.

This kind of encouraging voice is really magnetic when folks are working on something like weight management which can be so difficult. I call Josh the Compassionate Coach — he’s there to help you through the rough spots and give as much encouragement and love and high fives as you need.

And as I mentioned earlier, he has a massive network — everyone knows him, and everyone loves him. That led him to co-write a book with Dan John, if you know the strength space, and he also has alliances with a lot of super strong folks who have great audiences.

Josh’s business model at the moment is working one on one with clients as a trainer, and he also does small-group training programs online. The rigorous researcher

Nia and Josh both lead highly personality-based businesses. You get their stuff because you feel connected to them, human to human.

My final example of a content-based business is built less around connecting with one individual, and more around establishing authority for a team. The site is, and to complete my alliteration labels, I’m calling them the Rigorous Researcher. Here’s how they describe themselves: is an independent encyclopedia on supplementation and nutrition. We are not affiliated in any way with any supplement company 
and we have a team of health professionals analyzing the full body of research. WE CURRENTLY HAVE OVER 41,000 REFERENCES TO SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH.

Just as a personal recommendation, if you ever want to look up, for example, a fitness supplement that a blogger is telling you is the key to health and skinniness and eternal youth, look it up on Examine. They have a serious team of researchers, registered dieticians, and MDs who know how to read the scientific studies and tell you what the evidence actually is for just about any supplement you can think of.

Examine offers a ton for free, they also have a premium content model. They offer several paid content options for different customer types, including a detailed monthly research digest that digs into the research behind science reporting on nutrition and then synthesizes it for folks who don’t necessarily have a science background.

This is a trickier play than the personality-based approach, because you need a larger team and more resources, but there are elements of their approach that a lot of us can work with.

In particular, they offer reliable information in a highly unreliable environment. They sift through the extreme mass of disinformation — and science reporting right now is pretty pitiful — and they explain how they come by their conclusions.

So you can probably see elements in every one of these businesses that you can apply to your own stuff. You can just make sure you’re always sharing positivity and kindness when you’re in the online public sphere — that will start to get you a killer network like Josh Hillis, as well as attracting clients who want that positivity in their own lives.

You can share your own story — the triumphs and the challenges, like Nia Shanks. She’s also a great model for catching trends — women interested in serious strength work — when they’re still emerging. Josh has done that as well — he always taught habits, but when “Habits” started to get a lot of traction with popular books and websites, Josh followed that lead and brought that element of his work more front-and-center.

You can also make a commitment to doing some significant in-depth research like You might not have a team of more than a dozen researchers, but you can approach the research you do with rigor and integrity.

Things I hate in fitness marketing

Because this is Things I Love / Things I Hate, I guess I’m obliged to provide the “hate” part here as well.

I won’t name names, and in general I’m not going to name names for this part, because getting into fights on the internet is not a great use of anyone’s time. But I’m happy to share tactics that I think suck.

Two tactics I can’t stand in marketing are super prevalent in fitness — one is outright disinformation, and the other is what’s sometimes called negging.

Disinformation comes in two flavors — the honest kind and the dishonest kind.

Honest disinformation is really the state of a lot of science reporting at the moment. You have journalists and bloggers with very low scientific literacy who report on studies without being able to evaluate them. In my Internet Facts podcast I mentioned a faked study showing that chocolate helped people lose weight, and I’ll re-link to that in the show notes. The study was faked precisely to show how easy it is to get and spread false information, mostly from people who aren’t trying to be deceptive.

The other flavor is intentional disinformation, and there’s a fair amount of that as well. People who write nutrition books need an angle, they need something counterintuitive to be able to sell their books. So maybe next year someone will come out with a nutrition book about how Water is Bad for You. I’m surprised we haven’t seen it yet.

These books are all packed with scientific citations — either to studies that are weak or sometimes even faked, but also often to studies that don’t support the conclusion of the book. And some of these writers will explicitly tell their research assistants to “just find a study that mentions water.”

Not everyone who writes a junk nutrition science book is a liar, some of them are just so biased by their preconceptions and confirmation bias that they literally can’t take in the mass of evidence that contradicts them.

So the takeaway for folks in any kind of content marketing space is: We’re teachers. We have a responsibility to think critically about our topics. We have a responsibility to stay open to evidence that contradicts our biases.

I’ll tell you straight up: The oversimplified explanations make for better marketing, because simple messages are easier to swallow. But to me, that’s a form of malpractice. Tell the truth, and tell yourself the truth as a foundation of ethical communication.

Sometimes the story really is complex and nuanced, and you have to lead with something straightforward to start the conversation. I have no problem with that. But I want you to work to give people the rounded picture — and it is work. Once people do have the more complete picture, though, my experience and observation is that they can coalesce into a “tribe” that has more loyalty and will stick around for the long haul, rather than bouncing from miracle solution to miracle solution.

I also mentioned negging — this is a term from the so-called “PUA” people, and it means putting someone down in order to manipulate and persuade them. So, a guy in a bar putting down a very pretty woman by insulting her looks is negging.

Weirdly enough, it does work sometimes — just think about all of the fitness content that’s cruel, that’s abusive, that’s shaming, that’s downright hateful. If someone can make us feel like nothing, then we start to look for that salvation.

Again, this can make for very effective marketing — putting people into a space of self-hatred can indeed make them easier to manipulate. But it’s lousy at producing effective, healthy change — and that goes for health, business, parenting, whatever you care to name. People who hate themselves make poor decisions.

Since this segment is “Things I Hate” I can put this strongly — don’t come to me with lies, or with shaming and put-downs, and tell me “they work.” I don’t care if they work. I have no use for them, and I have no use for marketers who use them. If your business isn’t on this planet to help your fellow human beings, go somewhere else. Don’t buy from me, don’t even read my stuff. I have no time or patience for that.

You get one shot to live this life as a human being, don’t screw it up by chasing short-term success at the expense of what matters most. Thus endeth the rant.