• 13 – 16 April 2023
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25. October 2022, by Prof. Dr. Sarah Kobel

Consumer behavior research: understanding and retaining members

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The fitness industry is well on its way to recovering from the crisis. While key metrics are once again moving in a positive direction, it is also apparent that especially older members have stayed away from training even after the Corona restrictions were lifted. The communication behavior of the gyms is not solely responsible for this. There is also a lack of deep understanding among members. But only if they are understood holistically in their thinking, feeling and acting can operators of fitness facilities operate successfully on the fitness market in line with their target groups.

The key data studies on the German and the Swiss fitness industry show: The industry is recovering from the Corona crisis. After a slump in the past two years, important key figures are developing positively: members are returning to the gym, new customers want to actively exercise for their health.

Older members stay away more often

However, it is noticeable that the average age of members is falling: The average age of members is falling. The average age of gym members as of December 31, 2021, was 40.5 years (DSSV, 2022), the first decline since 2016. This development is due in particular to the absence of older members. Older people are considered a vulnerable target group and have long been explicitly encouraged to protect themselves as much as possible from COVID-19. As a result, they stay away from exercise in fitness and wellness facilities, which is so important for them, in addition to various other activities. When the Corona measures were lifted, more and more people flocked to the studios again, but older people did not join this trend. This is not only due to the still high incidence, but often also to the (communication) behavior of the fitness facility operators themselves.

Is the communication behavior of the facilities appropriate for the target group?

93.4 percent of operators believe they have improved their social media presence as a result of the Corona pandemic - this was the result of a survey of operators by the German University of Prevention and Health Management (DHfPG) in June 2021. Even though this is definitely a positive development in the digital age, it is noticeable that operators' communication measures mainly, if not exclusively, take place online. Studio operators who do not communicate via the "classic" media such as newspapers or contact their members by phone could neglect older members in particular as a result. (Re)joining an activity is often the hardest part. Fitness operators should therefore actively support their members in this and, above all, make it easy for the older target group to get started. For this to succeed, however, the problem must first be recognized.

Understanding members is more essential than ever

It is important to understand what motives underlie a workout. These motives should be tailored to the relevant target group and adapted to the framework of the communication strategy. Older people in particular might see holistic motives such as disease prevention or maintaining a certain level of flexibility as overriding drivers for fitness training. Younger people, on the other hand, might place a higher value on motives related to physical aesthetics. Such assumptions, however, should definitely be empirically supported and not simply assumed per se. If a fitness facility does not recognize these motive contradictions between age groups and then advertises with images that focus on aesthetics, this could lead to negative behavior among older people. In addition to motives, it is also important to identify barriers that prevent members from restarting their workouts. It is important for operators to understand if older members are simply unaware of how and under what conditions they can resume exercising due to a lack of communication on the part of the fitness facility. In addition, there is the possibility that older people also still have a greatly increased need for safety. This should also be communicated accordingly. Only when barriers are truly identified can fitness facilities reduce barriers with proper communication.

Consumer behavior research in the fitness industry

Consumer behavior research helps to understand the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of members and potential customers. This is an important foundation for communication, with the goal of (re)attracting and retaining members over the long term. Consumer behavior describes the observable external and unobservable internal behavior of people when purchasing and consuming economic goods. In a broader sense, it also includes the behavior of ultimate consumers of tangible and intangible goods in a society (Kroeber-Riel & Gröppel-Klein, 2019). Thus, fitness consumers also represent consumers who consume the service “fitness.” With the help of consumer behavior research, it is possible to explain the why and the how of a behavior. While the important role of this discipline has long been recognized in the consumer goods industry (think of numerous studies in the field of advertising effectiveness research), the fitness industry still often lacks an understanding of the added value. But only if the expectations and desires of the clientele are recorded, can these also be taken into account in marketing, in communication, but also in the service portfolios. In concrete terms, this means that the service portfolio of the fitness facility should include precisely those offers for the respective age groups that also meet the expectations of the target group. Consistent with the motives cited as examples above, this would mean, for example, that rehabilitative training is offered for older people, while younger people are offered intensive training combined with a goal-oriented nutrition plan. And this offer can then also be communicated to the outside world through appropriate target group communication.

Leading by example

In cooperation with the Saarland Ministry of Health and the Saarland Association for Prevention and Health (PuGiS) e. V. and with the support of the Employers' Association of German Fitness and Health Facilities (DSSV) e. V., the DHfPG has launched the “Fitmach campaign: fit & healthy in Saarland”. This gives 1,000 people with a lack of or insufficient physical activity access to regular training. The campaign was communicated via the online channels of the DHfPG, the ministry and PuGiS e. V. as well as in press reports in various newspapers with telephone contact indicated. As a result, people between the ages of 16 and 90 could be recruited as participants. The model project will be scientifically evaluated during the entire project period, so that important findings about the motivation for training, especially for older people, can be obtained. The results, with concrete recommendations for action for fitness facilities, were presented on October 7 at this year's Ascent Congress at the m:con Congress Center Rosengarten in Mannheim.

In addition, the DHfPG is currently collecting further data to provide the industry with more and more insights into the thoughts, feelings and actions of its (potential) members in the future and thus create a basis for successful member recruitment and retention in the long term.

Prof. Dr. Sarah Kobel

Prof. Dr. Sarah Kobel completed her doctorate at the Institute for Consumer and Behavioral Research at Saarland University. She has been a research associate at DHfPG since October 2018, where she has headed the Market Research department since January 2021. Since then, she has accompanied several market surveys among gym operators and fitness customers for research projects.

This article first appeared in fitness Management