According to Rich Humphrey of MobileFit, only 15 percent of health club members have the self-efficacy to succeed in meeting their health and fitness goals on their own. This leaves the vast majority — 85 percent — in need of goal-attaining support.
This may be surprising, yet it makes a lot of sense. Most people acknowledge the importance of health and fitness, yet International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association research shows only around 18 percent of the adult population belongs to a facility — perhaps because some find fitness facilities intimidating. Getting prospects in the door is not easy. Therefore, it's essential to make people feel welcome once they're in your facility.
As important as membership sales are to your business, keeping members is even more important. The first step to ensuring members stay longer is having a comprehensive onboarding process for new members. Onboarding provides members with the knowledge and skills needed to make the most of their membership. It also increases confidence and security.
Specifically, research shows that the first 90 days of a new member's journey are crucial to that individual's success and retention. The more we hold a new member's hand during this period, the better the experience will be.
For maximum success, a new member onboarding program should address the following areas:
Most new members don't join with a plan in place. They buy a membership, which provides access to a facility, but then what? It's common for new members to attend a few times initially and then drop off in attendance as time passes. This can be prevented with a strategic communication strategy.
Start with a welcome email, a handwritten note or postcard, and a phone call as initial communication steps. Combined, these create a great first impression — and with little effort on your part. The phone call can be as simple as "Hello, this is Chris from Facility X, and I just wanted to welcome you to our fitness family. If you have any questions or need anything, please don't hesitate to let me know." I can tell you from personal experience that this 60-second call has an incredibly positive impact.
Communication should continue with a combination of emails, texts and phone calls that rotate between educational, inspirational and informational. For instance, congratulate them on hitting benchmarks: "You've been in twice a week for a month — congratulations." Share inspirational testimonials from other members. Let them know about upcoming events. Explain the different formats offered in your Group X program. Share a video on how to use a popular piece of equipment.
Facility memberships are not transactional sales, they are relationship sales. Consistent, valuable communication — especially in the first 90 days — cements that relationship.
As mentioned, very few members reach their health and fitness goals without support. Encouraging new members to participate in programming has key benefits. Participating in group exercise classes can give new members confidence, allow them to meet new people, and establish personal accountability by providing them specific times to attend.
Some facilities choose to offer one introductory orientation session, while others offer more. At minimum, offer at least one session. What you choose to offer will vary based on your business model, facility and budget, but some form of introductory session is crucial to long-term member success and retention.
Sessions may include facility orientations, personal training, complimentary small group training and assessments of different types — or some combination. Research done by Dr. Paul Bedford, The Retention Guru, notes that one effective orientation session can increase member retention by 38 percent. A series of orientation sessions can increase retention upwards of 75 percent.
There is a wealth of data proving that programming can increase member retention, as well. What you choose to offer should allow for different options. Giving new members choices makes it more likely they will participate.
I once heard someone say, "People cancel memberships, but they don't cancel relationships." The more relationships you facilitate for new members, the more comfortable they will feel.
New-member socials can help members meet new people, including staff and fellow members. The University of Southern California shared research showing that people who worked out with friends enjoyed it more and were more likely to make it a habit. A new-member social event also reminds members they are not alone. There are other people in the exact same shoes. This social integration improves overall confidence.
In addition, social events create non-fitness-oriented experiences at your facility, demonstrating you are more than a gym. The facility is also a place to be a part of a fun community where everyone belongs.
People are motivated intrinsically and extrinsically.
Intrinsic motivation comes from an internal desire to do something. If your facility does a quality job communicating, educating, engaging and socializing new members, there is a good chance you improve their intrinsic motivation by giving them the confidence to attend regularly.
To motivate members extrinsically, offer a reward program for regular attendance in the first 90 days. Rewards can take many forms — T-shirts, facility credit, free personal or small group training sessions, or perhaps points to purchase items of members' choosing. Select rewards that work within your budget and still incentivize new members to attend more.
In an industry that has developed a reputation for wanting people to join, pay and never participate, this makes an important statement to your new member. A rewards program says, "We want you to join and use the facility regularly — and we will reward you for doing so." A well-crafted new-member reward program is a powerful and differentiating tool.
The goal of new-member onboarding is to make new members feel welcome and confident, and to help them build a habit of prioritizing their health and fitness. Most studies show that it takes just under a month to reach the initial tipping point of building a habit, and just under two months for that habit to stick.
Combine this knowledge with research from Bedford and other industry experts, and there is no doubt that creating an effective new-member onboarding program is well worth the time and resources.
Finally, let's not forget this. While retention means more revenue and financial stability, it also means we are honoring our mission to help people develop healthful lifestyles. I'm not sure there is anything much more rewarding than that.
This article originally appeared in the July|August 2021 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Onboarding turns new memberships into relationships." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.