The secret behind increasing member retention

Dr Paul Bedford of Retention Guru is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on gym membership retention. With a master’s degree in exercise and health behaviours and a PHD from the London Sports Institute into adherence and participation, Paul is consulted by gyms all over the world on membership experience and retention rates.

We met with Paul to find out the most common mistakes gyms are making and how they can turn even the ficklest of gym-goer into a lifelong member.

 

The Fitness Network:

What is the single biggest problem operators face?

Paul:

The biggest problem for most is that they don’t know what their problem is! Either they can’t export their member data into a usable format, or they just don’t know how to interpret it. Even those who can access the data rarely know how to calculate the lifetime of an average member. What if members leave but then rejoin – do you calculate average lifetime based on the first period or on both periods?

We generally evaluate membership lifetimes in three year blocks, but the most important thing is that gyms have a set structure that allows them in any given month to compare the current retention performance of the gym to any other period in the past. Very few have this.

The Fitness Network:

Once gyms have compiled this data, what are some of the common themes you see?

Paul:

The first is what I call the ski jump, where the graph drops steeply after just a couple of months. There are various explanations for this but factors include:
– Members signing up with very short term considerations (January blues, pre-holiday, etc)
– You’ve aggressively marketed with promotional discounts
– Members are new to exercise and simply don’t get enough support to find their confidence

We also see graphs that have a strong early retention rate but lose a lot of people between 12 and 18 months. We call these the “Drift away’ers”; good members who have simply lost their interest for it all.

The Fitness Network:

What might some potential solutions be to these two trends?

Paul:

Every situation is unique. Often when we see the ski-jump trend we consider adding a contract which not only guarantees 6 or 12 months, but more importantly encourages these members to make consistent use of the gym, which reduces the likelihood that they will quit at a later stage as by then it has become part of their identity.

“All gyms can see a huge impact on early usage levels by engaging more proactively with their membership.”

However, there is another more important factor at play in these early stages: interaction. If people are new to the gym then you cannot expect them to find their confidence without support. All gyms  – both budget and premium – can see a huge impact on early usage levels by engaging more proactively with their membership.

The drift away’ers are also crying out for this interaction. Of course, some people are self motivated and their program won’t change significantly from one year to the next, but many need change and variety to reinvigorate their enthusiasm. Every gym should have a mechanism for identifying if someone likes change or consistency. Once they’ve categorised the former they must ensure that every 6 or 12 months these people are being approached and interacted with, regardless of whether or not they’re paying for personal training.

The Fitness Network:

What about other considerations like price, 24 hour access and location?

Paul:

Those things can certainly play a role but they’re not as important as gyms think:

– Price – price has a big impact on initial sign up rates but there is very little evidence to suggest it impacts retention.

– Location/convenience – location is a big thing for members who do a lot of travelling and want to use multiple gyms, but it only comes with scale. There aren’t many gyms big enough to offer this as a serious retention feature.

– 24 hour access – for the most part this is more of a sales tool than a retention aid, although for the 1% that consistently have to use the gym at night (shift workers, etc), it’s hugely important.

Ultimately, in most cases interaction is the single biggest factor. The lack of a sense of belonging and community is the reason why people who should be great members lose interest and cancel, whether after two months or two years.

The Fitness Network:

If you believe interaction is so critical to retention levels, how should gyms be dealing with ‘sleeping members’?

Paul:

The industry is generally poor at dealing with sleeping members. If someone doesn’t attend the gym for a month then they immediately stop all communications. There can be a cynical argument that by letting sleeping members lie you get another couple of months payment, but there are two reasons why this is the wrong attitude:
1. Yes, some sleeping members, if disturbed, will leave straight away, but others will turn into great long term members, and rather than getting an extra couple of months you might have them for the next two or three years!
2. When sleeping members remember that they’re paying a monthly direct debit for a service that they’ve not been using, they’re going to be pretty frustrated, so if they decide to join a gym again in the future then it’s unlikely to be yours!

The Fitness Network:

If interaction and the resulting sense of belonging is the number one factor in enhancing retention, what are some of the techniques gyms can use to turn this into a strength?

Paul:

1. Have a front of house – This guarantees a level of interaction, although for many gyms with 24 hour access a conventional front of house isn’t practical.
2. Train PT’s to approach and engage all members, not just their clients – This is the most important thing. You’ve got to fundamentally adjust the culture of the gym so that pt’s chat with members and offer guidance, or at the very least, smile!
3. Push classes – People who attend classes are far more likely to feel a sense of belonging, which spills out onto the gym floor. However, the problem is that classes will only ever appeal to a certain kind of member.
4. Embrace social media – I don’t believe anyone has cracked this yet but there’s no doubt that there’s a huge opportunity for someone to build a sense of community through social media. The fusion of these digital activities with a great culture offline will be a real game changer for the gym that first gets it right.

Each of these has it’s place, but for me the most important is culture. Your staff, including the freelance personal trainers, need to realise they are each ambassadors for the brand and must take every opportunity to enhance the gym experience of every member, not just their clients. By building a sense of community where people feel comfortable, get involved in classes, try new pieces of kit, offer feedback openly and generally enjoy their time on the gym floor, your retention rates at all stages of the member lifecycle will be completely transformed!

 

Posted in Gyms & Clubs, Most Popular Interviews, The Fitness Network.
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