Date: October 27, 2017
Author: Paul Vardy

Membership Retention: New members inducted into the hall of familiarity

Clubs and facilities participating in the national campaign Golf Month will have engaged with their local communities more than usual in the month of October.   Clubs will be aiming to build numbers in their golf development programs and membership.

New members are, of course, vital for golf clubs, offering the prospect of years of income in addition to contributions to the club’s community.

But just as recruiting new members takes time and effort, the job of successfully retaining new members and keeping them in active membership categories takes some effort too. 

Without this, according to studies into clubs and associations, the rate of churn amongst new members is likely to be far higher than for longer-term ‘rusted-on’ members.

Joining a club is different these days

With changes in society, a lot has happened in the way clubs recruit new members.

In the past, at a typical private club, it was entirely existing members who found new members.  The club managed the process.

 An applicant for membership was well supported by a number of members. The applicant was assimilated into the club by members before, and after their membership came through.

The new reality these days is that existing members won't deliver enough new members. The club administration has to be active in the recruitment process.

A new member may have a direct transaction with the club's administration in the joining process. They may completely miss the member assimilation process as they join without knowing any members.

They may have been attracted to a new flexible and lower cost membership category with access outside of main competition times or with limited rounds to be played.  

Whilst the flexibility is good, some of the new categories present few opportunities for new members to meet and become familiar with other members.  Add to this the disappearance of waiting lists and entrance fees and boards and administrators need to continually seek new answers to the old questions; why do people join and why do people stay?

Finding a group improves member retention

It is suggested that the development of loyalty is ‘the accumulation of satisfactory experiences during service interactions’ (McDonald, 2010).  It’s quite reasonable that clubs should adopt this thinking.  The member needs to accumulate satisfactory experiences to find value the subscription paid. In a club, the role that fellow members play in the accumulation of satisfactory experiences is very important but often under appreciated.

      " ..boards and administrators need to continually
           seek new answers to the old questions;
          why do people join and why do people stay? "

A new member may have been attracted to club membership for a variety of reasons; to gain access to the club facilities, for competitions, as a symbol of status, for their golf development, exercise opportunities, or to simply spend time with a spouse or the kids.  

But whether or not they thought of it when applying for membership, new members will most likely be attracted to seek inclusion in a small group or in groups.  It’s how humans have evolved and it is considered most likely related to our ancient ancestor’s need for protection from various dangers as well as needs for hunting, acquiring territory, and reproducing.

In the groups that form in golf clubs, it can be observed that group members are more loyal to their group than to the club itself.  For example, when a divisive issue arises at a club where opinions are split, it’s common to see members aligning to the opinions of their dominant group.

This same group loyalty can have the effect of making group members more active within the club.  As well, when established in a group, it’s more difficult for the members to leave the club, as it means leaving the group.  In essence, group loyalty is great for clubs. 

Some new members will find assimilation easy.  They may know many members, be competent golfers, be experienced club members of other golf clubs, be naturally extroverted or they may have so much time to spend at the club that they become known. But some will have none of these traits. 

Finding a group may be difficult for some

There have been a number of academic studies into group assimilation.

Having seen the best aspects of the organisation in the recruitment process, a new member may face a reality shock when joining that comes with low status and power, uncertainty regarding role demands, norms, rules and (golf) performance anxiety (Moreland & Levine, 1989).  

Existing members, busy in their own ways, may not pay new members a lot of attention.

The attractiveness of a new membership (Tooby & Cosmides, 1996) depends on the degree to which membership in a group offers the potential for self-expansion.  The extent of this self-expansion will be dependent on a person’s standing within the group and whether the individual can feel valued. 

Part of group socialisation theory (Levine & Morland, 1982) suggests that a new member goes through a series of role transitions between different phases of group membership (entry, acceptance, divergence, and exit). 

It could be argued that, in a club, the entry and acceptance transitions occur twice, once in terms of entering the club and again in terms of entering a group of members within the club.

The club and a group of members go through a process of accommodation of the new member. 

In summary

So club boards and administrators need to be adaptive to the changing realities of membership.  With membership subscriptions such a vital income stream, it makes sense to pay a lot of attention to new members in the first few years.  

What are their needs? Are they assimilating into a group and how can the club ensure this occurs? Informing the membership of the importance of new members is important.  Existing members have a big influence on a new member's accumulation of satisfactory service experiences which leads to loyalty. It's the loyalty to the member group that is likely to be greater than loyalty of the club at large.  Either way, the club wins with member retention.


Paul Vardy
Clubs and Facilities Support Manager

For more on retaining new members see:
Membership retention- Look after new members &
Membership retention- Getting new members active