October 28, 2018 Faith Christine Lai
Membership retention should be top priority for any business aiming for long-term success. It costs five times as much to attract a new customer than to keep an existing one, and increasing customer retention rates by 5% increases profits by 25% to 95%.
One of the factors that affects membership retention rates is pricing strategy. In this article, I’ll discuss the current pricing strategies popular in the health and fitness industry, and suggest three strategies to improve membership retention rates.
Pricing speaks volumes in this industry. When a gym or health centre sets its prices, it is also involuntarily committing to a model of business that prioritises either attraction or retention.
Statistically, it is well-established that 44% of companies focus on customer acquisition as compared to 16% that focus on retention. Taking the United Kingdom as a case study, virtually every commercial gym giant offers free trials of at least 1 day in length. For example, Virgin Active, Anytime Fitness, Fitness First, and Nuffield Health all offer free trial schemes of varying lengths. Other household names like easyGym and PureGym also promote offers which reduce joining fees for new customers. In addition, many gyms promote lower membership rates for new members. These establishments are all following a pricing model that intends to bring in new customers with eye-catching offers.
However, this pricing strategy also sorely misses the mark. The optimal strategy for a firm in the health and fitness industry is to focus its resources on retaining existing members rather than attracting new ones. But current behavior communicates to both existing and prospective members that the business cares more about its new members than its existing ones. After all, the old members aren’t the ones getting discounts and membership benefits.
Jill Avery, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, adds that this sort of pricing strategy also is likely to attract the ‘wrong kind’ of customer – “deal seekers who then leave quickly when they find a better deal with another company”.
‘Okay’, you might say. ‘The status quo hasn’t quite got it right. But what would an optimal strategy for membership retention look like?’ In the next section, I suggest a few general principles to guide a retention-focused pricing strategy.
Have you ever received a stamp card from a coffee shop? If you have, it probably sounded something like this: ‘buy 9 coffees, and get the 10th free’. If you’re lucky, you may even have experienced the sweet satisfaction of turning in a completed stamp card at your favourite coffee joint, and subsequently claiming a free drink.
That feeling of excitement is why so many coffee shops have this sort of loyalty scheme. When you feel rewarded for your action (in this case, consistently getting your coffee from one particular shop), you are more likely to associate enjoyable experiences with that same shop. You are motivated, through such an action-and-reward mechanism, to stay engaged with the shop you are patronizing.
And it’s not just coffee shops that play the ‘loyalty card’. International clothing brand H&M has H&M Club, a loyalty program that gives regular shoppers reward points for their purchases. These points can then go on to redeem “offers, services, events and much more”. Sainsbury’s, the second largest chain of supermarkets in the United Kingdom, also runs a similar program with their Nectar Points scheme. In fact, everyone seems to agree that rewarding loyalty matters. Except, strangely enough, the health and fitness industry, in which loyalty programs are not the norm.
If you’re a health and fitness operation, making loyal customers feel valued will not only improve their experience of your brand, but will also solidify their commitment to your business. Some techniques to make long-time customers feel valued include allowing for members to pay incrementally lower monthly rates depending on how many years they’ve stayed with you, or for long-term members to get perks that new members don’t, like a free towel service and refreshments.
This will not only improve membership retention rates but could even have the happy consequence of attracting new members through word-of-mouth recommendations from your ever-growing loyal and satisfied consumer base.
In a recent article, Harvard Business School professor John Gourville discussed the psychology of pricing. He discussed the case study of an “average health club” who is faced with the challenge of ensuring that they both attract and retain their member base (sound familiar?). Gourville suggests that the owner of a health and fitness business should actually make members pay monthly, rather than yearly, in order to improve membership retention rates.
This seems odd at first. Surely, making new members commit to a year of payments upfront is better, since it eliminates the ability for them to ‘drop-out’ every month. However, the psychological element behind payment means that a monthly payment cycle incentivises people to exercise more regularly than a yearly payment cycle. This, in turn, means that members of your health and fitness facility members are more likely to reap the physical benefits that they signed up with you in order to achieve, and will motivate them to continue on with their membership beyond the first year.
Thus, knowing when to charge is just as important in pricing strategy as knowing how much to charge.
Finally, one final important element that is necessary in pricing for retention is a sensitivity to your target demographic. Every business has unique needs and a unique demographic. You know your business better than anyone and are better placed than anyone else to figure out what sort of pricing strategy will work best for your members. Do your members value flexibility or costs-savings? Do they use all your services, or would they prefer paying for one at a time? Find out, and then work towards your demographic.
After all, at the heart of all of my suggestions is one simple principle: if your consumers feel valued, they’ll stick with you for the long-run.