In this guide on how to create a website for a Historical European Martial Arts ( HEMA ) Club we will explain why you should make a site (if you haven’t already done so) and what are the best ways to do so as cheaply as possible. We’ll also give information on how to improve your existing site to get more local search traffic, too.
Why We’re Writing This Guide
There are some HEMA clubs not included in our club directory yet. We are tracking a little over 300 of them currently.
One of the reasons a club isn’t listed is usually a result one of the following things,
- We just didn’t know you existed. We’re happy to add you to the list once you submit your details to us but if we couldn’t find your website, chances are other people in your area cannot find you, either. You should assess what the reason might be and address it.
- We know you exist but you either do not have a website we can find or you use something like a private Facebook group. Since private groups do not show their posts we cannot be sure if you’re still active or not; nor can a potential student. If you have close to zero public web presence we’re not going to send people in your area on wild goose chases trying to figure out if you still exist or not, and how to contact you. You should make this process easier for people by building a public website with the proper information a person needs to convert into a student..
- Your website and page exists but it hasn’t been updated in years so we assumed you aren’t operating anymore. Update your pages and submit your site information to us.
- The activity on your website or page makes it abundantly clear you are not actually teaching source based material. For these people labeling yourself as ‘HEMA’ is rather disingenuous and we’re not going to recommend visitors to our website go to your club unless it is actually adhering to the primary tenet of HEMA; teaching period source-based instruction. We’re not super strict on this, as there are a few groups we did include even though how source based they are is debatable but since they at least use source based material as a starting point we decided to include them. But those clubs which clearly are not source based instruction? We did not include them in our listing (It’s pretty easy for us to tell if someone is teaching source based material or not, since non-source based clubs tend to just wail on each other wildly with blows and use none of the guards used by HEMA sword traditions).
The reason we started writing this article is because of what we learned in the process of making our club finder listing service; even among those HEMA clubs who have websites, we estimate probably less than half have websites that can be objectively considered useful for promoting a martial art school.
Nearly all of these websites have poor ranking on Google for keywords related to their local area (example: “HEMA clubs in [Your City]” ), poor navigation menus, are generally not mobile compliant and often do not even include the address of the school anywhere on the website.
When we did see an address on the site many times it was not on the first page of the site but instead buried somewhere like on the Contact page.
We are being critical here of other people’s sites but the purpose in doing so is because we want to help HEMA teachers promote their clubs. We want to promote HEMA to everybody, that’s the entire point of creating HEMA Resources. It is why we created this website and invested the necessary amount of time and money into making the very best website we could within our budgetary means.
Having said that, we also don’t expect everyone to be a computer wizard but if you want this hobby to grow and expand many of you need to take the promotion of your clubs far more seriously. Your website is a potential students’ first interaction with not only your personal club brand but the brand of what HEMA is. You want to make that first impression the best you can so people will join your clubs, right?
Here is the frank truth: All historical fencing schools teaching western martial arts have very serious competition from other martial art clubs in your area, who are tapping into the pool of potential new students for your club — many of whom might study at your club if they just knew you existed. Raising awareness of your club is the biggest factor in gaining more students.
People have many reasons why they get into martial arts but ultimately, people tend to join the martial art club that is advertised the best in their local area. The particular style of martial art does not matter as much to the average person looking to study martial arts. Sure, there are some people who specifically want to study things for self-defense, but many popular martial arts have very little self-defense value. There are also those looking to compete in MMA events, so they gravitate toward schools that cater to this. But the average person primarily studies martial arts as a sport and hobby for fitness reasons. This is why cardio kickboxing has become so popular even though it has pretty much no value for self-defense. So HEMA is very competitive in this regard, as a class can also be a great workout (perhaps even more intense than cardio kickboxing).
This guide is designed to encourage club owners who don’t have good websites to make one and to make this process easy for you. So we’ve written a step guide with total costs shown; we’re going to show you how to make a slick website within your budget.
But first we’ll teach you how to make a free website for basically no money at all.
Do you really need a good website?
Some of you may think to yourselves that because you’ve been able to find some members without a good discoverable site that you don’t really need one. This is an unproductive way of thinking. The way you should think about it is that if you build a site you’ll get a lot more students because you will be easier for people to find when they search online for local martial art schools.
The biggest drawback to being a HEMA club instead of another martial art is lack of brand awareness. HEMA is currently in a state of infancy. There are no popular movies or comic books advertising HEMA the way that karate, kick boxing and other martial arts have been able to leverage to grow awareness. So you have to work harder at marketing your HEMA club than other martial art schools do, because HEMA is less well known. You need a good website to form the foundation of your marketing campaign, to serve as an online brochure that provides all information a person needs to make the decision to visit your school and enroll.
In a previous article we have published, The Demographics of the HEMA Community, we provided some information about how many people in the USA are out there interested in historical fencing. Now this article has been dismissed by some people who don’t seem to really understand what we were saying here with it, so it’s probably worth a re-visit as the content is very relevant to what we’re discussing right now with why you need a website.
Within general business thought there is a concept of a journey that a customer goes through during a sales process, and that is often represented by a sales funnel. They usually look like this,
This funnel is just a generic stock image but it’s good enough to illustrate the point we’re seeking to make here. In the journey a potential customer begins as a lead, who is then interacted with by the salesman and turned into a Contact, and who you do a follow up call with to make them a Convert, and thus a Sale. Very generic but straightforward and simple.
But there is another way to think about the sales funnel process, and that is by the level of involvement of the customer into your business, or in our example here, a community that is very consumer oriented and intertwined with businesses, such as the martial arts instruction industry.
Let’s use Historical fencing as an example so you can understand the relevance. The people at the bottom of the funnel, in red where it says ‘Sale’. In the HEMA community that represents the people who are extremely active members of clubs (probably an instructor), who participates often in online discussion boards and who attend tournaments. They probably own a lot of different gear, too. This group of people in red are the SMALLEST group within the larger HEMA community and because many people within this sliver of the wider HEMA community do not understand a great deal about marketing and sales strategy, they confuse the people who are most like themselves as being the only “true” HEMA community members.
They are not. And this is not who you should try to market your club to, either.
The people that you need to market your club to are the ones at the very top of the funnel, the folks in the blue categories. These people are your average person who has an interest in swordsmanship martial arts, but has never joined a club. They may not even know what “HEMA” is or that it is a real thing. All they know is that they really like swords and martial arts. This group is your primary pool of potential new students and whom your marketing needs to be tailored to reaching.
The next step down from them would be the folks in green, who have indeed heard about historical martial arts in some way, probably from a social media post that a friend shared, a news article they read or a YouTube video. They might even be an active watcher of HEMA focused YouTube channels, or other people posting about similar things like Historical Medieval Battle. They are however not someone actively participating in any of it, and may not own any HEMA gear although they probably do own a sword (even if it’s just a “collectible” mall ninja crap wallhanger). This group is also the kind of person you should be trying to market your club to.
The next category is our folks in yellow, who are active participants in historical fencing in that they actually have done some of it. They may be a student at a club, or were at one time a student (who might be recoverable; maybe they moved to a new town so had to leave behind their old club?) They may not actually do their historical fencing within a “proper” HEMA school though; they might be a member of the SCA or Historical Medieval Battles. The point is, this group exists and they do study historical fencing. They buy HEMA related products (like books) and they watch video channels and participate in some group discussions online, even if they may not take place expressly in HEMA focused groups (they may be on HMB and SCA forums).
The group in red, at the bottom of the funnel, as we previously mentioned are those expressly part of the HEMA club environments and online communities, who expressly are identifiable as HEMA by their membership in these clubs. And while they are a very visible group within historical fencing community they are not the largest group. Within any sales process the largest pool of people who could be customers is never the people who already are customers.
And this is what was completely misunderstood by our article about the demographics of the HEMA community. We have all of the people who are in the green and yellow tiers included within that research article we posted as being part of the HEMA community. It had no “ulterior motive” as some accused it of having, and all we did was make it very clear how big the community really is and what the demographics are (while also admittedly addressing some concerns people have about these demographics).
What does this mean for you, as a HEMA club instructor? Well, if you’re going to reach the people in the upper ranges of the sales funnel then you need to have a way to reach them. That’s pretty self-evident, right? You’re not going to find them in very insular private Facebook groups of people who already are in the red category, and the few truly blue and green people who do pop into one of those groups, are few and far between compared to the larger pool of potential students that are out there.
So make a website and market yourself to these people in the upper tiers of the sales funnel. Make it very easy for them to decide to join your club by selling them on HEMA and your club.
I mean, why do you think we are doing this site, the way that we have? We’re showing you here exactly what we did to build this website to bring the larger, often unreached people deeper down into the sales funnel to convert them into active HEMA club members — into the red group. We’ve literally made a blueprint on what you need to do. And that is the real point of this website and the work we’ve been doing with it here, that so many have misunderstood.
You must expressly tell them what HEMA is, because they may not be familiar with the definition. You have to show them what a HEMA school looks like and what it can offer them, and explain this in a way that makes it clear what you are. Because these people who could join your club are out there in the world, within your communities. But you will have a very hard time figuring out how to find them if you don’t understand the basics of marketing and one of the key marketing tools you need is a website.
How to make a Website for your club for free
For absolutely zero money you can create a Facebook page. You should fill out of all the key details including your physical address for where you hold classes, your class schedule and good contact information email / phone number. If you do not have a consistent physical address to train at you should fix that problem. Without a consistent address people do not have the ability to figure out how long it will take them to travel to your training location and if you make this process difficult, most people will just click away from your site and look for another school that provides this information upfront. The people who still contact you asking for a location are in the minority of consumers; the average person will be annoyed and disengage.
( You would be surprised to know how many websites for HEMA clubs we have seen that don’t even include their addresses on them, meaning a new person with no prior knowledge of their clubs will have no idea what city those clubs are based in, let alone what country they are in. )
You should also list what traditions you study in your description so that people know what they will learn from you, and try to describe them in a way that is exciting. As an example if you study German long sword fencing then tell people you teach the secret knightly art of combat from the Liechtenauer Tradition. Make it sound mysterious and exciting, because it is!
Also make sure that you upload to your Facebook Page photos and videos of people practicing in modern clothing and equipment. Try to have branding that looks modern and not so SCA inspired. Not that there is anything wrong with SCA but if people think you are a reenactment group they may not come to your school because they will assume you are not a serious martial art club. You’re going to get the historical reenactor crowd anyway, and it is the more mundane folk you need to market yourself to.
If you follow our instructions you’ll see that it was super easy to make a free website to advertise your club.
The next thing you should do is make listings on Yelp, Google Places and other directories. Re-purpose most of the photos, videos, and text descriptions you used to make your Facebook page to create your business directory listings. This will make you very discoverable to local searches.
You should also consider listing your school intro classes on sites like Airbnb Experiences to tap into that market. Here is an example of one club that has done this in New York. https://www.airbnb.com/experiences/106573
Lastly websites such as Meetup.com can be very useful as it can connect you to people in your local area who are looking for novel activities to do. Some clubs use a Meetup.com page as their primary website page when they first form as a study group. There is a free tier for small groups but the Pro plan with more features costs $30 a month.
Why you Should Not Use a Facebook Group As a “Website” for your Club
The problem with a Facebook Group, even a public one, is that it won’t show up on search engine results for your area. A Facebook Page can show up in local search results on websites such as Google and Bing, so long as you list it as one on sites like Yelp and Google Places.
A Facebook Page will also allow you to post updates and show people that you are active — which if your group is private nobody can know.
In order to get your Facebook Page discoverable in search engines you have to list your business on places like Yelp, Google Places and so on then include your Facebook Page as your website link. This is the cheapest way to do it.
Yet it is not the best way to do it, since Facebook Pages cannot be used for SEO very well, since it is just one page with one title. So let’s talk about what you really should do if you want your club to be competitive against other martial art schools in your local area.
Firstly, if you have a site with someone like Wix or whatever, you need to make an honest assessment. While there are ways to make a decent looking club site with Wix it is pretty much impossible to make a bad looking Strikingly page that is very mobile device compatible. We consequently recommend you use Strikingly instead, which costs just under $200 a year for hosting plus $25 a year for a custom domain name registered with them.
As an example of problems with the Wix platform, check out Men at Arms Martial Arts club page built in Wix; it looks fairly good except alignments are not very modular and on my screen the text on the video clips is half cut off. I can tell someone put a lot of time into trying to make this look really good, but the platform is so limited that it undermines this hard work, which is a real shame. Wix just isn’t a very good platform and it is hard to get past its problems.
So why do people use Wix if the platform sucks? The popularity of Wix is a result of heavy marketing efforts to first time website owners who are unfamiliar with web development. Which is an important lesson here; marketing is incredibly important to the success of a business, and this applies to your martial art club, too. Anything marketed well can be very successful, even if the service is bad.
So, even if HEMA has a brand awareness problem this is something you can fix yourself for your own club. If the site you have made doesn’t look very good you need to change it. The average Wix site looks like an old Tripod site from the 1990s and most of them are not very modular, which is super important since today the majority of people use phones and tablets to search the internet. You’ve got to get with the times and leave behind service providers who don’t give you the best that they could.
Now some people also build generally nice looking sites using other services like Squarespace but these sites are not as mobile compliant as Strikingly ones are. The SEO features are also worse. While it is not impossible to rank well using such websites it will be harder.
At $192 a year for hosting, Strikingly is the cheapest and best host you can get that supports a custom domain that allows you to build a website with basically no requirement to learn any kind of coding or scripting. Using any of the other “no coding” website host services is a waste of money, in our opinion.
Now having said this, Strikingly is not perfect. If you have your domain name on another host like Namespace (whom we recommend) then the way Strikingly has you point your nameserver to them is kind of atypical and involves redirects. But it’ll get you up in running in a matter of minutes and your website will probably look a hundred times better than anything your local karate or MMA schools has.
While Strikingly will give you a subdomain for free, you want to register a unique domain name with Namespace instead of going with the free subdomain name they give you. Search engines like Google are rather inconsistent about deciding if a website with a subdomain is or is not part of the main domain, and in the case of hosts like Strikingly they tend to know it is a separate website, but not always.
The second reason is that people can be judgey and not seeing a unique domain name can lead them to believe you’re not a serious or professional operation.
The third and most important reason is because once you grow your club and upgrade to a better host you’ll want to keep the same domain name for your club and have all the link juice and authority ranking carry over to your new club. That won’t happen if you don’t own a unique domain name so you can point to a new server hosting a WordPress site later on down the road, once your club outgrows the Strikingly page. So managing your domain through a website like Namespace makes this process of moving your site to a different host in the future a lot simpler.
We also suggest paying the extra fee for privacy protection registration for your domain name. If you don’t buy privacy protection you will be flooded with spam text messages, phone calls and emails at all hours of the day and night advertising how to “rank your site in Google” or “we’ll build you a website” from scam artists who have bots that troll the public directories for information about newly registered domains.
No one sending you a random unsolicited text message or automated call offering to “rank your site in Google”, claiming to themselves be “from Google” or offering to “build you a website” is offering a real service. These are fraudsters seeking to scam first time domain owners for easy money.
We once made the mistake of not registering a domain name with privacy and got harassed for six straight months every day about that domain name. We wished that we had a time machine so we could go back and just pay the extra $20 for privacy registration. So take our advice; Pay the extra fee for privacy registration and avoid this.
Now that we’ve discussed registering a domain name, let’s go over the essential things that should be on your website beginning with the Front of the Page.
Front Page of Your Website Site Essentials Checklist
The front of your website is the most critical part of it. This is the first and often the only page a visitor will see. All critical information about your club should be on this page.
- YOUR CLUB ADDRESS MUST BE EASILY SEEN ON THE FRONT PAGE!
I cannot stress this enough. A real address, not just the name of another business or park you meet at. The actual real street address of wherever it is you meet, must be here. You have to make it easy for people to find out how far away your club is from them so they can decide whether to come check you out or not and they cannot figure this out without an address.
You might say to yourself, “I want people to contact me and ask for the address” for some reason you think makes sense, but this isn’t how the average consumer thinks. The average consumer wants to research things before they contact anybody, and the first thing they want to know is how local you actually are to where they live. So they need to know an address so they can calculate how long of a drive it will take for them to go to you. If you make this process difficult they will often just give up in frustration and go to a competitor who makes this process easier.
2. GOOD PHOTOS OF YOUR SCHOOL MEMBERSHIP THAT LOOK PROFESSIONAL
If your club has a lot of members you want a group photo with as many of your club members in it as possible. There is something in human psychology that leads people to think big groups of people means ‘trust’ so use this to your advantage.
Conversely if your club is a small study group then don’t show any photos of the group together at all, but do show as exciting of photos and videos as you from sparring matches. The more cinematic you can make your photos and videos look, the better. Shoot from angles that make things look exciting.
If all of your current photos and videos look amateurish then you need to make new ones. Fortunately we now live in a world where damn near any teenager with an Instagram or Tik Tok account has the skill set to make stylish photos and videos, so leverage that resource to get free or cheap promotional imagery on your website if you have kids.
3. GOOD SALES COPY ON THE SITE
Make HEMA sound exciting! You have to pitch people on why they should study with you instead of at the much larger and more well known karate or boxing gym in your city. Don’t just assume “we have swords” is good enough, because it is not.
Some great selling points for HEMA is that it is historically based, so people studying it can learn to fight the way knights and soldiers of old once did. Another great selling point is that it is a very physically intense martial art, as swinging swords around burns a lot of calories so it can be good for weight loss. This is all things that can appeal to people looking to join a new martial art.
4. YOUR CLASS SCHEDULE
You need to tell people what time of day you run classes and how long they will last, along with some general info on what they will be learning during class, to manage expectations. People have busy lives and they need to know if they can fit your class schedule into that life. Don’t make it hard for them to find this information out.
Now having guided you through the basics of making a nice Strikingly page, let’s talk about stepping up to the next budget level.
When To Make a Website in WordPress
If you want to have a bad ass website with a super amazingly good looking theme and have total, absolute control over your SEO then you have to use WordPress. There is nothing better to build a website with.
But you should ask yourself if you really need this much SEO control? There are drawbacks to a WordPress site over a platform like Strikingly, because WordPress hosting costs more and it requires frequent updates which can break your themes, forcing you to spend time and sometimes money to update the themes to function again.
To determine if you really need a WordPress site, ask yourself these questions.
- Do you live in a geographic area where searching ‘martial arts’ plus your hometown comes up with a lot of schools?
- Do your martial art school competitor website pages look really slick and have excellent SEO? Do they have a lot of blog articles?
If the answer is ‘Yes’ to both of these questions then you do need a WordPress site if you want to rank highly on the front page for ‘martial arts’ related keywords in your geographic area.
While we will not make a specific guide on how to build a site in WordPress (there are many such guides online, search on Google or Bing for them) much of the same information we recommended to use on a Strikingly page apply to a WordPress page, too. The main difference is you’ll need to use SEO specific plugins to best optimize your pages, and there are many tutorials on how to do all of this if you search for them on Google or Bing. One site that can be useful is some of the website related articles on MarketingMartialArts.com
What we do want to leave you with is some examples of really outstanding HEMA club websites we have seen so you have something to measure yourself against.
Examples of Excellent HEMA Websites
If you’d like to give us a tip in return for this advice we’d appreciate if you provided a link back to our website in the resources section of your club site.
If you’d like to learn more information about historical fencing practices please check out our Learn HEMA page for a guide to learning about the historical weapon that interests you. You can also find more guides we’ve written about other topics at our Helpful Guides page.