If you are feeling the pinch, you are not alone! Members are departing YMCAs, gyms, and fitness facilities at unprecedented rates. An eye-opening study performed by Dr. Paul Bedford recently revealed that the typical gym will lose 75% of its membership base in two years and roughly 90% of its base within four years! Those numbers urgently remind us that developing strategies for member retention must be a top priority for every fitness facility. But, where do you begin? What will even help? Should you buy new equipment? Hire more staff? Urge your personnel to engage more members? With limited resources and staff – and so many possible avenues to take – coming up with a simple, coherent member retention strategy can seem like an impossible challenge. But, it is here that science can step in and help.
Over the last two decades, countless studies have been performed that have sought to solve the riddle of member retention. While each has its own unique details, what they all point to is this: if you really break it down, there are three key elements on which you need to concentrate to maximize your member retention. That feels a little better, doesn’t it? Just three areas on which you can focus your attention and your resources toward mastering – and the research shows this will dramatically improve your member retention. Let’s take a look at these big three.
1. Maximize member retention through proper onboarding
Science has shown that there is no time more critical to member retention than the first month of membership. That is why having a well thought-through onboarding process is absolutely vital. To be clear, membership onboarding is an intentional process whereby a new member is introduced gradually into the fitness center by meeting one-on-one with a dedicated coach. The key components to onboarding are discovering the member’s goals, barriers, and self-efficacy (their confidence in their abilities to reach their goals), as well as helping them reach their goals and get integrated into the facility. The key word in this definition is “intentional.” It is well worth the effort to sit down with your whole staff to insure that membership, wellness, and executive personnel all understand process for introducing new members to your facility and what role they play in that process. You need to ask the questions: Do we have a uniform touring process? Are the new members handed-off from membership to wellness every time? How many meetings with coaches should a new member have? What is the purpose of each meeting?
The importance of getting this onboarding process right is difficult to overstate. Dr. Bedford’s research showed a 75% increase in member retention rates for those who completed a series of four onboarding appointments with a wellness coach compared to those who did not. For more information on how to properly onboard new members, download our free eBook New Member Onboarding.
2. Engage members with behavior modification principles
OK, so you have your member through the tour, the critical handoff between membership and wellness has been made, so now you are home free right? All that’s left is for a wellness coach to create a diet and exercise program and the new member will be locked and loaded, ready for a lifetime of reaching their goals. Not so fast. It is vital for the wellness coaches to engage members, but they must engage them in the proper way. Here is an astounding fact: there is no research or data, none, that shows that creating a diet and exercise program – no matter how sound it is – has any positive effect on long-term exercise adherence and member retention. That is not to say that prescribing a diet and exercise program is not important, it’s very important, but most members need more than just the knowledge of how to accomplish their goals. They need help in making the lifestyle changes it is going to take to accomplish them.
Studies have shown that using behavior modification techniques to help people achieve their goals increase member retention by up to 76%. For a more complete discussion on these techniques, be sure to download our eBook Behavior Modification, but here are some simple principles to follow:
- Set proper goals. Help the new member clearly understand what they want to achieve (weight loss, more energy, etc.) and then break this long-term goal into short term objectives. This helps the member keep the big picture of why they are exercising firmly in mind, but also improves their confidence by allowing them to celebrate smaller achievements along the way. Another key is to avoid outcome-oriented goals, such as losing five pounds in two weeks. This type of goal is notoriously difficult to achieve with regularity and can lead to discouragement and dropout. Instead, give measurable process-oriented goals, such as visiting the gym three times a week, or 30 minutes of cardio a day.
- Help them avoid relapse. Every member is going to miss their goals at times. The key is preventing these small misses from exploding into full-blown relapses. Do this by letting the member know in advance that missing goals is part of the process. Help them understand the factors that caused them to fail so they can avoid them in the future. Keep their long-term goals in front of them and so they can remember this is just one small step in the larger process.
- Help them enjoy exercising. It is far too easy to fall into the “no pain, no gain” mentality. Many times new members in their enthusiasm will even push for a more difficult workout. But studies have shown that exercise-induced discomfort after a workout actually decreases exercise adherence. So, design a member’s first workouts around equipment they enjoy using and find exercise intensities and durations that leave them feeling good after a workout.
3. Measure the right member retention metrics and adjust
Now that your facility is a well-oiled machine, passing new members smoothly from membership to wellness and then using behavior modification techniques to help them change their lives, there is one more critical step. You must constantly measure how your strategies and actions are affecting member retention and make changes based on what you learn. Unfortunately, this is a step where many fall short. Most fitness centers measure member retention as a 13-month rollover. The problem with this metric is that it is a lagging indicator, it tells you what has happened in the past. That’s valuable, but immeasurably more valuable are leading indicators, metrics that help predict the outcome of a process.
For example, think of someone trying to lose weight. They can step on a scale and see how much weight they lost (or didn’t lose) in the last week, or month, or year. This is a lagging indicator, allowing to them to measure their effectiveness in the past. On the other hand they can measure how many calories they are consuming a day vs. how many they are burning. The ratio of these two will allow them to accurately predict the outcome of their diet in the future; more calories out than in and they will succeed in losing weight, more in than out and they will not.
In much the same way, by measuring indicators such as percentage of new members enrolled in your onboarding program, percentage of members who graduate through four onboarding sessions, and the percentage of members who use the facility daily, it is possible for fitness centers to predict the outcome of their current member retention efforts. Since you are now looking at indicators of the future, rather than the past, it is easier to make changes where needed to improve those outcomes. For more on using leading rather than lagging indicators at your fitness facility, check out our whitepaper Decoding the Mysteries of CTQ’s, KPI’s, and Leading Indicators.
 Lance Perkins, The Science of Member Retention (2014), https://engage.mobilefit.com/the-science-of-member-retention.
 Stephen J. Tharrett and Paul Bedford, Why People Join, Leave, and Stay with Health/Fitness Clubs: The Ultimate Handbook of Member Retention (Monterey, CA: Healthy Living, 2012), 122.
 Annesi, James J. “Effects of a Cognitive Behavioral Treatment Package on Exercise Attendance and Drop Out in Fitness Centers,” European Journal of Sport Science, vol. 3, issue 2 (2003). Accessed May 5, 2015.Follow us: