In our last post we examined the impact the dramatic changes in the fitness market have had on fitness centers and YMCAs. In short, the millennial generation has driven an explosion of new facilities catering to their desires for personal interaction and a unique fitness experience.
These new facilities, coupled with the advent of low-cost centers, such as Planet Fitness, have put market pressure on traditional facilities from both above and below. These new market pressures dictate a strong emphasis on new member retention. So the logical question becomes, “How do I do it? What’s the best strategy for retaining members and building loyalty at my facility?”
Fitness leaders around the nation have answered that question with a myriad of plans. Some have pushed the petal down on sales efforts trying to “outrun” the market pressures with new sales. Others have turned to software systems designed to communicate with members through a string of emails and phone calls. Still others have focused on buying the latest equipment to compete with the new facilities popping up all around them. You name it and it’s been tried.
So what works? What’s the right solution?
If you take the time to look at the research, a clear-cut answer jumps off the page. There are researchers all over the globe that have literally dedicated their entire careers to studying how to retain members. A survey of their work shows that the single best strategy for improving member retention is onboarding new members in the first several weeks of their membership. If you study the research, there’s not even a close second. In fact, many of the strategies being marketed today have NO scientific or research backing AT ALL.
What is Onboarding?
Before we take a look at the science, it’s critical to understand exactly what onboarding is… and what it’s not. Here’s a great working definition:
Onboarding is an intentional process that helps a NEW member change their wellness behavior. It involves several one-on-one meetings with a dedicated professional/coach. Key components of the onboarding process are discovering the member’s goals, their barriers, self-efficacy, and using behavior modification techniques to help them reach those goals.
Onboarding vs. Orientation
Now you might think, “Isn’t onboarding just a fancy word for member orientation? We’ve been doing that for years.” The answer is NO. Onboarding is completely different than orientation.
Here are three key factors that distinguish the two:
- Orientations are optional. Onboarding is sold and positioned as a critical part of the membership sale.
- Orientations typically consist of 1-2 complimentary visits with a personal trainer. Often there is a hidden agenda to sell personal training services. Onboarding consists of multiple sessions, typically 3-4, with specific outcomes from each meeting.
- Orientations are intended to introduce the new member to the facility, (i.e., set them up on the strength equipment, show them how to use the cardio equipment, etc.) Onboarding helps a member identify their goals, understand their past barriers to exercise, and then create a plan for succeeding this time. It uses behavior modification techniques to help the member make the necessary changes to reach their goals both inside and outside your facility.
Onboarding vs. Engagement
Onboarding is also not the same as member engagement. Once again, several key factors distinguish them:
- Engagement is very broad-ranging. Casually asking about a member’s children, an appointment to discuss nutrition, or a follow-up phone call or email can all fall under the definition of engagement. Onboarding, on the other hand, is a very focused process. It involves a coach meeting face-to-face with a new member to develop a plan to help them reach their wellness goals. It uses behavior modification techniques, and usually takes place in the first month or two of membership.
- Engagement is an ongoing process. Facilities should have strategies for engaging members over the entire course of their membership life. In contrast, onboarding is front-loaded and takes place during the first critical month of membership.
- Perhaps the most significant difference is the research-proven effectiveness of onboarding compared to engagement. Since engagement is so broad, and in most cases very non-systematic, its impact on retention is difficult to measure . A limited number of studies show a correlation. But the results vary widely with the content of the engagement strategy and how well a staff team implements it. NO research demonstrates that a phone and email engagement strategy has any impact on retaining members. By comparison, as we’ll see in our next post, numerous studies demonstrate that onboarding is the single-most effective strategy facilities can use to retain their members.
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.