Over the last decade, competition within the fitness market has increased at a frantic pace. As a result, a solid strategy for member retention has become a non-negotiable that YMCAs and Fitness Centers can’t afford to do without. But, what strategy is best? To answer this question, it’s helpful to turn to the research of scientists who have dedicated their lives to studying the challenge of member retention.
What Science Shows About Member Retention
So what does science tell us?
First, let’s take a quick look at some baselines. Dr. James Annesi and Jennifer Unruh studied 17 YMCAs from different regions of the United States. They found that without intervention, 63% of new members stopped exercising within six months.1 Not surprisingly, membership termination quickly followed exercise dropout. A 2009 study by Dr. Paul Bedford found that over 50% of new members on monthly contracts had terminated their membership within eight months. Over 80% of new members had terminated their memberships within two years!2
In 2016, MobileFiT ran its own study, analyzing the data from over 1.5 million Y members. The results match up remarkably well with the studies by Dr. Annesi and Dr. Bedford. In the graph below, the horizontal axis represents the months since joining. The plotted line shows the percentage of new members that retained their membership to up to that month. As you can see, 53.5% of all new members terminated their membership within 12 months. Seventy three percent had terminated their memberships within two years and 86.7% had left within three years.
All the research confirms the depth of the retention crisis faced by YMCAs and fitness centers literally around the globe. This membership churn represents a $6 billion of lost revenue for the fitness industry each year!
A Dramatic Breakthrough
However, a landmark study performed by Dr. Bedford revealed a way to dramatically impact this membership churn challenge. Dr. Bedford tracked 1,000 new members at fitness facilities in the United Kingdom. This population of new members was divided into two groups. The control group was given a standard one-hour orientation to the facility and it’s equipment.
The experimental group was given the same standard orientation, plus three follow-up onboarding appointments with a coach. These meetings were spaced a week apart and had a duration of 30, 20, and 10 minutes respectively. The first aim of these follow-ups was to ensure that the new member’s goals were clearly understood. Then they focused on formulating a plan for overcoming barriers and achieving those goals. Finally, they created a process for accountability in taking the necessary steps.
The results were astounding! As you can see, within just six months, 87% of the onboarded members remained active compared to only 60% of the non-onboarded members.
Even more significantly, the onboarding took place in the first month of membership, but had a lasting effect on the retention of those members. After an entire year of membership, the gap between the onboarded and non-onboarded members was not diminishing. It was expanding! At the end of this 12-month period, those onboarded members had a 70% retention rate versus only a 38% retention rate for those who were not.3
This simple process of onboarding a new member increased one-year retention rates by over 75%! There is no other strategy for member retention that even comes close to these types of results.
Can it Effect Retention in the Real World?
The study by Dr. Bedford, and many others like it, proved onboarding is the most successful strategy for retaining new members. But, data gathered by scientists is one thing, real world results is another. The question now becomes whether real-world facilities can scale this onboarding methodology in such a way that it works? Our next posts will examine several case studies of centers that put these principles into practice and the results they saw.
This post is an edited excerpt from Brining New Members On Board. Click here to download the entire book, with its discussions of research on member retention, the ROI you can expect from an onboarding program, and practical steps toward retaining members at your facility.Follow us:
- Annesi, James, Unruh, Jennifer. “Effects of a Cognitive Behavioral Treatment Protocol on the Drop-Out Rates of Exercise Participants in 17 YMCA Facilities of Six Cities.” Psychological Reports, vol. 95, no. 1, 2004, pp. 250-256.
- Stephen J. Tharrett & Paul Bedford, Why People Join, Leave, and Stay with Health/Fitness Clubs: The Ultimate Handbook of Member Retention (Monterey: Healthy Living, 2012), 98.
- Stephen J. Tharrett & Paul Bedford, Why People Join, Leave, and Stay with Health/Fitness Clubs: The Ultimate Handbook of Member Retention (Monterey: Healthy Living, 2012), 122