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Retention: The Consequence of Usage and Intentional Design

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“Repeat business or behavior can be bribed. Loyalty has to be earned.” – Janet Robinson

Let’s start with how I will end this blog: retention efforts must begin the very moment the new member joins the facility. If you believe retention is a program that happens at the end of the membership lifecycle, you have already lost, my friends. That’s service recovery, not retention.

I try not to write about a thing unless I feel I can add something new to the conversation. So recently, I ran a precise web search for “Fitness member retention,” and I found 708 results. Most of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd-page advice could generally be compartmentalized into one of two buckets. Either a singular one-off event(s) like hosting a monthly “Member Appreciation day event “ and/or a “bring a buddy day” idea, or some diluted basic strategy that resembles something like, make sure the front desk greets members by name, keep the place clean, run social media campaigns, get them engaged, etc. There’s a lot of strategy talk, with very little actionable substance to utilize immediately.

To provide something new to you, the reader, I am going to deliver something that resembles more of an executable plan that you can tweak for your specific fitness business needs.

Related side note: It does not make sense to implement a strategy around retention if you do not know why members are quitting in the first place. Here is a quote from the most recent IHRSA Consumer report in regards to retention: “For many years, fitness industry research has held that there’s a direct correlation between the level of member usage and member retention. In essence: the more frequently a member uses their facility, the more likely they are to remain a member.”

Well, that’s pretty easy to digest and you likely already knew that if you are researching retention-based information online. So let’s keep them coming back all the time. Super simple, right? Of course, it’s not. The reasons why members stop using your facility will vary greatly. So building a strategy around like-comment-share or “Pizza Party Fridays,” when 20% of your equipment is busted, or trainer Brad is just always such a jerk in the mornings, is a recipe for perpetually addressing retention plans every year and contemplating why they still suck. I could go on and on about this, but I am going to assume you already know to be looking for opportunities and threats. Let’s get back to implementing a Day 1 strategy.

Related fun fact: Retention can be predicted almost entirely by behaviors observed in the first 45 days. At any given time, one of the highest-risk groups for membership dropouts are those who have not attended at least once for more than a week — but have visited at least once within the last two weeks. This means you need to be tracking your newest member’s frequency and create an “at-risk” list with a set of corresponding elevated actions to take to plug them back in.

Ok, finally, the plan:

1.    Immediately: Deliver an amazing value add the moment after they join. The very first thing you should do after they commit to participate is to deliver an unexpected value add. This does not mean giving them a free personal training session or a guest pass. That is expected value. Something more like:

  • Giving them free swag like branded workout bags, hand towel and water bottle.
  • A $25 gift card to a local grocery store and a very general nutrition guide for effective pre and post-workout food recommendations.
  • Invitation to a monthly grocery store tour.

This plan only creates excitement and added value though if you didn’t reference any of these as perks of joining today already. They must come completely unannounced at the end.

2.    Immediately: Plug new members into your people and programs quickly. One of the very last questions you should be asking your new members is, “When will you be in next?” New members should ideally not be leaving your facility without being scheduled for an orientation, a fitness foundations class, or some appointment for a planned connection to your team or class. Either way, the new member should be expecting to meet with someone on their next visit, whether that is a trainer or a class instructor.

3.    Scheduled Contact: Schedule emails to automatically be generated in your CRM to go out immediately and then again at the 14 and 42-day marks. Your first email should be celebratory and give them all the details they need about available programs, schedules, and how to connect with key members of your staff. The following two emails should center on reinforcing all the cool things that are happening and include some quick action bonuses, like 25% off personal training sessions if they sign up this week. Maybe even free registration in an upcoming four-week Booty Bump class that starts the first Monday of every month. Who doesn’t want to be in Booty Bump class, am I right?

4.    Scheduled Contact: Schedule times to leave a message for your new members via phone calls at the three and 30-day marks. Notice I didn’t say speak on the phone. People do not pick up the phone anymore. They just don’t. Too many robocalls. If they do pick up, even better. Have your script ready. But when they don’t, you should also have a well-scripted message to leave inviting them to connect with you on their next visit to celebrate their milestones, like being a member for a week or attending their fifth class and offering them some swag or reward for doing so. This is important. Write this down:

IMPORTANT: Behavior that is recognized and rewarded is often repeated.

5.    Monitor Weekly: Monitor new member visit frequency over the first six weeks. For those members who are coming in at least twice a week, let this retention system run as planned. For those who visited the prior week with one or fewer visits, you will need to execute on what I call my “at-risk” members list. When a member’s frequency drops off, it is incumbent that we attempt to reengage them quickly. Even if they were just on vacation last week, any road bump inconsistency early on could lead to a drop off in commitment. I would need to write an entirely separate blog on actions you should take for these “at-risk” members. The most important thing you need to know is that you need to take quick steps to re-engage them or you’re likely going to lose them.

By no means is this an exhaustive list on how to execute a solid retention plan. There are many other plans and actionables I’d recommend, but man this is a long blog already. So let me leave you with three key tips for successful implementation.

1st tip: An example of what NOT to do. I worked for this smaller chain many moons ago, and they did have a Day 1 strategy for retention. The plan was to call the new members the day after they joined, then again three days out and finally five days out. By the time I made that third call, they were always like, “Dude. I told you I liked the place. What the heck else do you want from me?” CLICK! (Back when phones clicked. You kids wouldn’t get it.)

2nd tip: Here’s a great one you should be doing. But first, people are not going to read your spammy emails. They do not answer phone calls, really for anyone anymore. Don’t blame the algorithm for your poor content on Facebook and never text me about upcoming events. That’s way too personal and invasive. AND FOR THE LOVE OF EVERYTHING I HOLD DEAR PLEASE DO NOT CALL ME AT DINNER TIME! Do, however, place a QR code sticker on each membership consultant’s desk and when the new member enrolls, assumptively inform them as a totally obvious part of the enrollment process they need to scan that code with their phone and join your Facebook group to stay plugged in to the community and stay up-to-date on all the stuff they need to know. Then, intentionally design all the “things” that need to happen to keep them engaged. Again, an entirely separate blog could be written on FOMO and all the things you should be sharing.

3rd tip: Last, but not least — when a member does fall off in frequency do not send “we miss you emails” or call them and say something like, “we haven’t seen you in awhile.” That isn’t helping you build value on why they should return. That’s just reminding them that they are wasting their money. Instead, communicate exciting new challenges that are just starting they could enroll in, or share other member’s success stories that are achieving their goals through consistency and commitment to your program. Give them compelling reasons to return. Not guilt trips or reminders of why they are failing to live up to their own expectations.

Success isn’t a happy accident. Proven systems provide proven results. Now execute the plan and watch your retention rates soar.


Jason R. Stowell is the division director of fitness and wellness for JCC of Greater Pittsburgh. He is an award-winning fitness leader with over 20 years of successful experience providing strategic planning, talent management, and expert-level sales training in the health and fitness industry. Connect with him on LinkedIn here

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