Date: March 18, 2017
Author: Paul Vardy

Membership retention: Getting new members active

In Part 1, we looked at the remarkable findings of an academic study into Season Ticket Holders (STH) at two AFL clubs.  The key finding was that the biggest correlation to member attrition was not satisfaction levels, team performance or even games attended.  The strongest correlation related to the length of tenure, or in other words, new members are particularly susceptible to leaving.

In the study by McDonald (2010) as published in the Journal of Sport Management, the rate of attrition in the first year of membership was very high (33%) and reduced to the average club level by about the fifth year (6.8%). 

Perhaps the biggest take-out for clubs is to look closely at the actions of new members as opposed to looking at membership attrition rates as a membership as a whole: “segment the newbies”.

Golf clubs with records of membership may benefit from doing their own analysis to see if there is a correlation between the earliest years at the club and attrition rates.  A club may segment this further to see whether the efforts of the women’s committee to integrate new women members has a positive effect on attrition rates compared to men.

Another major influence on attrition rates is consumption.  It makes sense that if a member is using the club, the likelihood increases that they will see value in retaining their membership compared to  if they were inactive in consuming the club’s offerings.

Aware of the need to embed new members into the club, golf clubs may be able to do more to encourage the transition of a new member to long-term membership through a focus on delivering a series of positive experiences.

In the study, when a casual attendee transitions to a STH, whilst previously seen as evidence of long-term loyalty, it is not.  Instead it is more appropriately viewed as the beginning of a different type of relationship.   McDonald refers to the development of loyalty in terms of the accumulation of satisfactory experiences during service interactions.

Another useful exercise golf clubs may like to consider is to divide the membership into four segments based on the number of rounds played and the years of membership.  High usage members will be most likely to perceive they are gaining value from their membership and low users may be less likely to perceive they gain value.   The study into football clubs suggests that low-usage, longer-term members are not at the same risk of leaving as lower-use new members.  Either way, it’s a good idea to create strategies for both groupings of low users.

Loyalty …. (is) the accumulation of satisfactory experiences during service interactions.

In terms of tenure and hence the relationship with the club, McDonald refers to the groups as either “at risk” or “rusted on”.  Deeper analysis of the study using a series of questions that recorded the satisfaction levels of all members revealed that the “rusted on” place a higher value on intangible components such as being personally involved more so than newer members.  

McDonald suggested club efforts should aim to achieve a shift of focus of new members towards the intangible benefits of club community, recognition, and atmosphere.  This takes time and effort, but essentially is what builds loyalty.

Golf clubs have some advantages over large football clubs in that golf’s smaller member numbers afford clubs a greater opportunity to assist new members to become socially connected with the club.  As well, golf clubs provide a much higher level of active participation in the sport rather than being a spectator in the case of large football clubs.  Golf club members can derive great internal motivation from a sense of progress with their golf.  Clubs can enhance this through the important work of PGA members and Community Instructors.

“rusted-on” (members) place a higher value on intangible components such as being personally involved more so than do the newer members.

As humans, we have a strong motivation to belong.  Frequency of participation means familiarity and connectivity with fellow members.  Belonging to a group is very much linked to our survival and still remains deeply embedded in our psyche.  As humans, we’re required to exert more energy in being alone than being in groups, as alone we’re attuned to being more to alert potential dangers.  The sooner we can integrate and become accepted into a group, the sooner we can relax and enjoy the surrounds. 

Some ideas to integrate new members:

1.      Invest in them with a member nurture program that tracks their activities and acknowledges their milestones such as; first round played, a drop in handicap, first six months of golf, etc.

2.      Get them participating and improving their golf.  Members who get the golf bug and feel a sense of progress are not going to leave through lack of engagement.  Progress leads to frequency of use and social connectedness.

3.      Assist the broader membership to acknowledge new members.  A club in New York provides a free dinner to new members and the reserved table has a pineapple located in the centrepiece.  This is an indication to existing members to introduce themselves to the new members and welcome them to the club.

4.      NSW GC hold a member recognition event to acknowledge the achievement of milestone years of membership.  Members are asked to speak, and as you can imagine, speeches deliver the full emotion of what it means to be a member of a wonderful club.  It just so happens to be an occasion where new members are invited and experience a sense of history and community on a level that a new member induction cannot achieve alone.

In seeking to retain members, clubs can benefit from looking closely at new members.  If the findings of the McDonald study are consistent with your club’s experience, the case for investing in new members can be made in order to better embed them into the club.

Paul Vardy
Club Support Manager
Golf Australia