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Mar 11, 2021

Sports memberships: shape up, or lose out in favour of mobile apps and digital experiences

Out of some 8,000 membership organisations in the UK, many of the top players are sports-related; including England Golf, British Gymnastics and England Athletics. But think also local gyms, running and sports clubs and outdoor training organisations - they all rely on the crucial income generated by annual or monthly membership programmes.

Sports memberships: shape up, or lose out in favour of mobile apps and digital experiences Alan Cooper, co-founder of digital product studio Freestyle

Out of some 8,000 membership organisations in the UK, many of the top players are sports-related; including England Golf, British Gymnastics and England Athletics. But think also local gyms, running and sports clubs and outdoor training organisations - they all rely on the crucial income generated by annual or monthly membership programmes.

It almost goes without saying that sports organisations and their accompanying memberships have been hit hard as a result of the pandemic - struck by lockdown closures and a boom in individual outdoor exercise. Our most recent report - Membership organisations: Staying relevant in 2021, based on a survey conducted at the end of 2020 with more than 2,000 consumers from across the UK, has thrown up some alarming results on the topic of memberships. A worrying three out of five users are likely to cancel some of their membership subscriptions this year. Of those still using their membership, an enormous 96% did not prefer the adapted services offered by their organisation in the wake of Covid-19.

A third of survey respondents unsurprisingly cite physical experiences or products as the main reason for choosing their membership, closely followed by 31% who seek community benefits. The survey from Freestyle also shows that those most likely to continue their memberships were the film and music buffs - 21% and 19% respectively - which means most traditional sports memberships are in indirect competition with big subscription hitters such as Amazon and Spotify when it comes to direct consumers.

Can we blame the pandemic for such seismic changes to the sports membership sphere? Well, not entirely. A third of all membership users believe they get the same, or indeed better benefits from mobile apps, brand loyalty schemes and free online communities on social media. These platforms are also perceived to be cheaper and easier to use according to the report. Apps such as the Nike Run Club and Fiit are swiftly changing customer behaviours - and as a result, sports organisations might be losing members.

Sports memberships must adapt to survive, as they face much longer term threats from the growing digital appetite for mobile apps and subscriptions.

Knowing your members is key

How might sports organisations evolve their membership offer in line with changing customer behaviours? The key is to know your customer and to view them as individuals.
This doesn’t just mean checking out names, addresses and the tick boxes on their application forms, but a much deeper dive into their unique preferences and time spent gathering key insights via simple surveys and feedback forms.
What are your users’ preferred communications channels? What content are they interested in? What are their needs and challenges? Perhaps some of your members are looking to keep fit, whilst others appreciate nutritional advice and recipes. Others may be looking for the added value of community and belonging, or exclusive access to venues, training and events. 
Then we have a whole different category of fan-based sports memberships that differentiate fans of clubs (for example, football), participants who are also fans of the sport, and participants only. Each of those three categories of members have different drivers and needs.
The sports membership sector is truly complex as it also includes professional organisations - think CIMSPA, The Chartered Institute for the Management of Sport and Physical Activity who serves various audiences and works to create industry standards.
Whether you’re a local community-based sports membership or a professional national organisation, crunched properly, customer insights will allow you to talk to your members so that they feel looked after, understood and valued.

One size doesn’t fit all
Still on the theme of the individual, treating your customers as individuals might also mean examining your current business model. Is it a ‘one-size-fits-all’ service? If so, consider changing it. Individual members have unique needs so the likelihood is that not every member wants to use your main offering in the same way.
Under the current UK lockdown, your members might not be able to use what you consider to be your main service at all. And as much as Covid-19 has quickened the demise of traditional memberships, it has also forced many sports organisations to accelerate the digitisation of their offer. The past year has demonstrated that there is an increasing appetite for digital spaces and experiences, and even after you reopen, there will be an expectation of ongoing digital value from your customers.
Once you know who your users are, you can develop tailored services according to their needs. For example, you could offer a digital-only membership, giving a user access to exclusive online content as opposed to physical experiences. The upshot of this approach, coupled with the use of digital space, can widen your offering and give your members a more relevant value proposition. Experiment with different membership and subscription models, because it could open doors to new audiences, expose previously unknown revenue streams, and position your organisation closer to its membership base.

Create memorable experiences
One thing the pandemic has shown us is that people long for connection. Although meeting others in person can never be fully replaced by digital experiences, the online space is the only game in town if ‘real life’ isn’t an option. Many people joining membership or subscription services see human connections as one of their main reasons for doing so, and software such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams has enabled organisations to redefine what connecting looks and feels like.
But if just 4% of people are enjoying your adapted membership offer, does just moving your existing model over to Zoom really give your members what they want?
Online or offline, consider going beyond the basics of your service. Focus on creating memorable experiences, not just good customer service.  If you haven’t already heard of it, check out something called the “peak-end rule” - a theory that suggests that customers will judge an experience with a brand based on its most intense moment, whether good or bad. How can you create those peak, positive experiences for your members? One example might be the provision of tips and tricks for home training from your organisation’s dedicated and innovative coaches. By introducing moments of surprise or delight within your membership offer, you will promote a longer lasting memory of your service amongst users and encourage loyalty.

Help build habits
Other than obvious direct competitors, have you ever considered who else is competing for your users’ leisure time and money? For example, as well as fighting for users’ screen time with Amazon Prime, Netflix is also competing somewhat indirectly with Fortnite and other video games.
Membership organisations must redefine who the competition is, and how your service aligns with customer needs. What is the real job of the services you provide and what core needs are these services fulfilling for your members? The landscape for membership organisations and the experiences they create for their members is being influenced by a new kind of non-direct competition.
The key to cultivating engagement (and subsequently those all-important monthly subscriptions and renewals) is for organisations to build habits amongst their members. Loyalty is a concept of emotion, but loyalty – like trust – is built long-term and cannot easily be bought. If you manage to get to the roots of your members’ needs, offer a frictionless solution that becomes a habit, and add memorable experiences to the mix, then loyalty will follow.

In just a couple of short months, sports organisations could be well on their way to safely reopening. But let’s not forget that the appetite for digital, convenient and easy-to-use subscriptions are not temporary, but a fundamental part of consumer expectations in 2021 and beyond. This is a time to futureproof and innovate in the world of sports memberships, in order to not only survive but grow in the months and years to come.

Contact details [email protected]

About the author: Alan Cooper, co-founder, digital product studio Freestyle

Alan founded digital product studio Freestyle 25 years ago, having previously run his own video production company after an initial career in advertising planning. He is also a European and British Record Holder at Masters Swimming.
Freestyle brings clarity to complexity, creating memorable customer experiences. The studio works with a broad range of B2B and B2C clients across sports, manufacturing, travel/leisure and education.
“I love understanding difficult, complex challenges and solving them with smart technology; delivering digital solutions in a human fashion without jargon.”

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