Lacking motivation? Uncovering the key to gym member retention.

January. The month of “I’m going to get fit this year”.

March. The month of “sod these early morning gym sessions, I’d rather get an extra half an hour in bed”.

Determined to undo the Christmas damage of boozy office parties and never-ending meals out, so many of us sign up to the gym, only to throw in the towel a couple of months later. We decide on the gym for us after weighing up various factors – is it open early enough so that I can nab a Pret mozzarella croissant before they sell out? Is it near enough to the office so that I can work out, shower, and look great again in an hour’s lunch break? And is it within the budget I’ve been left with after the December obliteration?

Working in London or any major UK city, finding your perfect gym match is nowhere near as difficult as a similar attempt on Tinder. We’re likely to find exactly what we’re looking for given the vast array of gyms on offer (there are 98 gyms in the Central London area[1]). Well, at least we think we do. It suggests otherwise when only an aggregated 10% of us New Year sign ups stay on as regular customers[2].

So, what’s missing? Because something is. After the January self-belief surge is over and we’ve picked a gym that suits us the most, what can gyms be doing to stop us from ditching the kettlebells altogether?

Using data science techniques to mine and analyse thousands of reviews on gyms within the City of London area, we discovered that there are four core elements of a gym experience that visitors’ conversation can be grouped into:

1) Cost and service: opening hours, low cost

2) Equipment: cardio, weights, classes

3) Facilities: cleanliness, availability

4) Atmosphere and culture: staff, customer service, personal trainers

Seems obvious, right? In fact, most of these categories are simple hygiene factors. The first three; cost and service, equipment, and facilities, are undoubtedly what the consumer expects of a gym, and shouldn’t really expect anything less – it’s a gym after all. These factors might differ in order of importance across different consumers, but it’s just a matter of choosing a gym that matches the consumer’s mindset as to what they want most from the gym.

However, it’s important that gym brands exceed their ‘hygiene factors’ if they want to succeed. One way gyms might do this is by being smart with product-driven, hygiene-factor comms to attract the right individuals and their desired gym features. By mapping customer mindsets to customer segments, gyms can not only gain insight into who wants what from a gym, but where those people are likely to be and how they’re likely to receive and engage with information. As a result, gyms can curate the right message for the right person at the right time, and engage with them directly as a result.

And yet, while this might be great for getting the running shoes in the gym door, it doesn’t necessarily help with keeping them on the treadmill. To really succeed, gyms need to harness the fourth core element of a gym experience – the atmosphere and culture, because it’s this that people are talking about most.

Highly rated reviews (4* and 5* ratings) of gyms[3] always included multiple references to gym staff, who were described with positively-charged adjectives, including ‘friendly’, ‘professional’, ‘helpful’, ‘knowledgeable’, and ‘happy’. Approachable and friendly staff contributed to a ‘great’ and ‘good’ atmosphere, where people claimed to feel welcome and comfortable. It’s unsurprising then, that the most commonly used phrase used across all positive reviews[4] of our gyms was ‘friendly, professional staff’.

Even analysis of negative reviews reinforced the importance of having great staff, with the most common phrase used across all low scoring reviews[5] being ‘customer service’. With a staff-related phrase topping both positive and negative conversation, it suggests it’s not the hygiene factors that people care about, but rather the less tangible and more emotional experiences of attending a gym. In a recent Mintel UK Health and Fitness Club Report, 45% of gym members across the country professed that their biggest hassle is staff not speaking to them[6]. This lack of affability amongst those who work at the gym is backed up by additional data from the report which shows that a friendly environment is the most important reason for member retention.

Our language analysis on review conversation suggests that people don’t continue going to gyms because of the machinery, but rather for the culture and atmosphere of the place. And there are examples of gyms which are doing just that. Some are encouraging the development of a supportive community by offering rooms for parties or meetings, while others are providing sponsored activities based on type of activity, age, or other similar interests of members.

Such activity, it seems, contributes to an overall atmosphere of community, belonging, and warmth, which just might be that ‘spark’ that turns the January Joiners into Committed Crosstrainers come March. With the likes of contract-free competitors such as MoveGB and Class Pass encroaching into the market, it’s never been more crucial for regular gyms to show what makes them different from the rest. What’s going to get your gym to stand out? What’s going to move you away the functional, hygiene factors, and into a more compellingly human, and emotional space that turns the mass consumer behaviour of joining a gym in January into something longer-lasting and more profitable? We’ll let the gym goers tell you…

“The instructors are always really friendly, really well prepared, really knowledgeable”

“The staff are amazing!! friendly bunch and they give you advice when they see you training to make your workouts more effective.”

“Classes are not oversubscribed so you always feel like you have a lot of attention and input from the welcoming trainers.”

People joining a gym in January reflects a mass consumer behaviour. However, if a gym can create an atmosphere and culture that makes these joiners feel welcome and unintimidated, then that mass consumer behaviour can become an array of engaged and nurtured individuals.

There’s ten of us in the office that have joined gyms - let’s see if more than one stick it out beyond March… gym buddy anyone?

Written by Casey Wright



[3] Anytime Fitness St Pauls, CitySport Farringdon, F45 Training Farringdon, Fitness First St Pauls, Golden Lane Sport and Fitness Farringdon, MOB45 Farringdon, Pure Gym Farringdon, Pure Gym St Pauls, The Gym London Holborn Circus, Gymbox Farringdon, Virgin Active Aldersgate, Virgin Active Barbican

[4] 1157 5* and 4* reviews

[5] 648 3*, 2*, 1* reviews


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