Know What Matters Most to Your Members? Your Business Depends on It

Member experience is everything in the fitness world. Intuitively, we all understand the cost of losing members and needing to acquire new ones. Now more than ever in a pandemic, member retention has become paramount for the survival – let alone the success – of the gym owner.

In 2019, we surveyed over 2,400 members from 26 CrossFit and micro gyms across the United States as part of a member experience survey and analytics pilot to best understand the true factors that drive gym success.

Outcomes such as member retention, likelihood to refer, and overall member engagement were all analysed. The average monthly fee these members were paying to their gyms was $155, for an annual average of $1,860 per member.

The Member Experience

We discussed with gym owners, coaches and members when we hypothesized the most important aspects to consider within ‘member experience’. Following our discussions, we developed the following member experience model.

Specifically, the member experience is comprised of:

  • Facilities: equipment, space and safety
  • Community: feeling of family, welcoming and supportiveness by other members
  • Coaching: a welcoming and engaging experience focused on improving member strengths and weaknesses
  • Management/Ownership: a caring, trustworthy and communicative management team
  • Programming: an approach that builds and scales programming and balances strength, conditioning, skills and mobility
  • Value: exceptional value via classes, training and add-on products and services.

We deployed a 42-item survey using a 6-point favourability scale (Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree) across 26 gyms and close to 2,500 members. We found that when specific aspects of the member experience are in alignment, engagement peaks and members are more likely to:

  • Feel a sense of pride with their gym (68% Strongly Agree)
  • Recommend their gym to others (69% Strongly Agree)
  • Stay at their gym (49% Strongly Agree)

We looked at the combination of member experienced most likely to drive this pride, recommending others and most importantly, remaining at their gym.

Drivers of “What Matters Most”

When we really dug down and used multivariate analysis to understand not what people like or dislike the most, but rather what impacts their likelihood to be engaged and to stay and recommend the gym to others, we found these six factors matter most in the minds of members:

  • Exceptional value
  • Trusting owners to do the right thing
  • Believing owners will take positive action from member feedback
  • Programming that purposely builds on a variety of fitness needs over time
  • Feeling welcomed by the gym’s coaches
  • Feeling support and camaraderie from fellow athletes

Five of these six factors have nothing to do with the direct action of working out or fitness, rather they are about the value and the feeling one gets from their community and coaches.

Gym Retention Drivers

Driver Factor % Favourable (Strongly Agree)
My gym offers exceptional value for the monthly fee I pay Value 31%
I trust my gym owners to do the right thing Management 56%
I believe positive action will be taken by my gym owners as a result of this survey Management 47%
My gym’s programming purposely builds on a variety of fitness needs over time Programming 49%
I feel welcomed by my gym’s coaches Coaching 68%
I feel a sense of support and camaraderie from my fellow athletes Community 58%

We immediately saw significant variability in how favourable these drivers were in predicting member engagement. For example, feeling welcomed by a gym’s coaches is much easier for a gym to achieve compared to driving the perception that they provide exceptional value to their members.

This insight should be valuable in providing gym owners an understanding of priority and level of effort in improving the member experience.

Gym Member Loyalty

Across a total of around 2,500 members, approximately 86% were what we would call “All in”. In other words, 86% are fully engaged with their gym, likely to stay and will tend to refer others. We only found that about 3% were “out” and were more statistically likely to leave quickly.

But more fascinating was the fact that 13% (314 members in the study) were “Seekers”. This means that, while these members appeared to be engaged, analytics indicated 1 out of every 8 members were looking around for other gyms to join because something in their current fitness experience was missing.

What exactly are those factors? While we know every gym is unique, on average we found these factors to be the ones described above.

Risk Profile (N=2469)
“All In” “Out” “Seekers”
86% (N=2123) 3% (N=72) 13% (N=314)

Imagine the impact on gym owners and member retention by being able to gently transform those 13% “Seekers” to being “All In” members, simply by understanding the things that would turn members loyal and keep them that way.

Take Care of Your “Micro-Tribes”

When we dug into the data further, we found some additional findings that should encourage gym owners to think different about different groups of members within the broader gym population. For example:

  • A greater significant proportion of members that are 18-24 years old (78%) and those aged 55 and older (77%) are more likely to recommend their gym to others, compared to other age categories such as those aged between 25-34 (66%) and 35-44 years (68%).
  • Those attending 3-5 classes per week are significantly more likely to recommend their gym to others vs. those attending 1-2 classes per week. When members attend more than 5 sessions per week, this statistic improves even more.

These findings reinforce the need for gym owners to think beyond a “one size fits all” for how they engage their members. Appealing to different demographics in a differentiated way can yield new and improved results in retention and loyalty for owners.

Source: Photo courtesy of CrossFit Inc.

Gym Member Retention and the Impact of COVID-19

During COVID, especially during the initial outbreak in March 2020, a number of owners of micro gyms either temporarily or permanently closed their doors. During that time, we surveyed members to get sense of:

  • Their timing and readiness to go back to the gym
  • Whether they would continue to participate in person or move to an online model

Even at the onset, when members (N=474) were surveyed:

  • 51% indicated they would return immediately with another 32% indicating they’d return within a month of re-opening.
  • 12% indicated they’d likely return within a few months
  • 3% indicated they’d return when a vaccine was available
  • Less than 2% indicated they would not be returning

Moreover, 66% indicated when they came back, they would be attending anywhere from 3-5x per week.

However, 50% also had safety concerns on their minds as gyms continue to re-open and nearly the same number indicate they plan to use online resources such as Zoom classes if offered.

What does all this mean to gym owners?

  • Don’t assume all members are the same. Different aspects drive members to want to come to your gym. Make sure you understand everything you can by taking both a data-driven approach and a “1 size fits 1” when connecting with your members.
  • Keep safety in mind. You might be doing everything you can to create a safe environment but understand that it will continue to be on the minds of your members. Peace of mind for your members means higher likelihood they will show up, stay and refer.
  • Remember that your gym and its member experience story is unique. We see so much emphasis to spend on online advertising, tools to fill new member pipelines, 6-month challenges and other ways to entice new member acquisition. Instead, let the data speak for itself. Get into the minds of your current members and understand what drives their experience. Take care of that, and your members will take care of you through loyalty and referrals.

Mitchell Gold, Ph.D. is an industrial/organizational psychologist, data scientist, and avid Master’s CrossFitter. He’s the founder at Rx3, LLC and Rx3 Analytics. He can be reached at

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