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What Members Want: A New Approach to Member Retention


Judi Christy, the director of marketing and communication at the Akron Area YMCA, shares a new approach to thinking about member retention.

At the start of 2000, there was a movie with Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt called “What Women Want.” The plot, simply put, allowed the main character, Mel, to hear the unspoken thoughts of females.

As expected, Gibson wasn’t too keen on the feedback. His opinion of himself was, far more positive, attractive, appealing and desirable than what he had conjured in his mind or had hoped. At first, he became defensive and even a victim of denial. But, in the end, Gibson sees the error of his ego and makes the necessary adjustments to change the internal dialogue of the lady he most wanted to attract. They both got what they wanted.

This made me think – what if marketers could get a sneak peek into the psyche of our members? What if we could hear their internal commentary as they entered and exited our facilities, encountered other members and engaged with our staff?

Would they have a silent monologue about our prices? Maybe judge our cleaning standards?  Would they have an opinion about the music on our speakers, the hours offered on weekends and the temperature of our pools? What would their true thoughts be about our parking, our fitness staff and the programs we thought they wanted? And most scary of all, do they even like us?

What if we knew people in our facilities were looking around to find a more positive, attractive, appealing and desirable community center? How would this information make us feel? Would we be surprised? Flattered? Devastated? Defensive? Would we be brave enough to just ask them why we’re not good enough?

Sure, but in many cases we don’t get the chance. By the time someone has decided the grass is greener, we’ve lost the opportunity to rekindle the relationship. They have already moved on without telling us face to face.

Sometimes, the front desk staff does get to communicate with those members deciding to leave. They make a final plea to win them back. But when reporting to leadership, we hear responses like: “They don’t use us anymore. They don’t see the value. Their circumstances have changed.” And, most recently, “Conflicts concerning COVID-19.”

But how many of these members were really being 100% honest? Most of us have been on one side or another of the break-up conversation. You know, the “It’s not you, it’s me” confession. Unless there is a real issue, they try not to hurt our feelings.

Sadly, we use much of the same lures and lines to attract new members without really looking at what former members may not have said. In short, we keep fishing with the same bait.

But we can’t continue this way. Organizations like the one I’m employed at are on a mission to stay afloat. For example, as the leading provider of swim lessons, The Akron Area YMCA doesn’t intend to sink – we plan to seek professional help.

One of our plans is to hire a consultant or a university marketing department, who will jump on a more sophisticated ‘Survey Monkey’ and create open-ended questions from those who have left us.

These questions may include:

  • In what areas do you believe we could improve our service?
  • What would bring you back?
  • For what reasons have you chosen a competitor over us?
  • What do you like most about us?
  • What do you like least about us?

We hope to get raw reactions we can use. We hope to see trends and hope we can have some quantifiable data we can show to our C-Suite and our Board about what people want and how our Y is the one to deliver it.

In anticipation, we will need to look in our own mirror. We need to be honest about the blemishes and the age spots, and we need to focus on core and be ready to do some heavy lifting in the areas we need to get in shape. We need to be like Gibson and take the necessary steps to be better when it comes to listening for member retention.

And – we need to be realistic. If our prospects are seeking a younger model, we can’t rush out and build new facilities.

But, if they are looking for a bit more fun, we can adjust our programs. If they need us to stay up later, we can adjust our hours. If they don’t like our Spotify play list, we can give them headphones. All in all, we can change what we can change – if we really want to.

In the community health and wellness business, we are all seeking member retention through lasting relationships. If you’re a marketer in this business like me, it’s your job to make sure lookers always swipe right. Start with listening.

Judi Christy

Judi Christy is the director of marketing and communication at the Akron Area YMCA.

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