How to make a referral program your gym’s most powerful marketing tool

Member referrals are an extremely valuable source for finding new members for your gym. When we analyzed how people find gyms, 21% of people found their current gym through a referral. However, 41% of people decided to visit their gym for the first time based on a referral – This means that an additional 20% of people looked for an opinion about a potential gym from someone they know, before trying it out.

While 21% increase in member signups is nothing to scoff at, that number is significantly higher at schools that have a good referral program in place. In addition, members who arrive through referrals already have a stronger initial tie to the gym – as the person who referred them can act as support and motivation for the key first few months of training, when most new people quit.

What makes a good referral program

In order for a referral program to make a real impact on the flow of new members, the following key elements need to be in place:

  • Incentive – A reason for existing members to act and invite people they know to your gym.
  • Simplicity – The program should to be easy to understand and use.
  • Awareness – Members need to be constantly reminded and made aware of the benefits of referring new people.
  • Process – Tracking and rewarding successful referrals.

When all 4 elements are addressed, a referral program can become the strongest channel you have for acquiring new members, and definitely the one over which you have the most control. 

Incentivizing members to actively refer people

Most people would be happy to train with someone they already know. If they like the gym, the instruction, they’ll gladly spread the word. So the first step is to make sure your gym is a place people would recommend – by creating a welcoming atmosphere and a strong culture

As we recall people are referring new members on their own, even though most gyms don’t have an actual referral program in place.

Those referral are mostly passive rather than active – they happen when the topic of training comes up naturally in a conversation members’ have with someone they know. The goal of having a referral program is to reduce the element of chance, and motivate members to actively invite people to join your gym.

We do this by providing a reward for making a referral.

  • A free month of gym membership.
  • Free gear – most commonly would be giving away a teeshirt.
  • Private lessons with the head instructor.

Different people are motivated by different things. In my opinion, getting something for free is a stronger motivation than saving money, which is a more passive reward. Getting a brand new teeshirt is much more fun than saving money you would’ve have spent anyway, but it also depends on your financial situation. Consider the overall makeup of your gym members when deciding on referral rewards – and perhaps even give a choice between a couple of options.

In addition to rewarding the referring member, you should provide incentive for the referred person to try out the gym. I would always recommend having a free trial period for new members, and you can extend that for people arriving via a referral.

Keep it simple, stupid

KISS – or Keep It Simple, Stupid, is a useful principle for many systems, and referral programs are no exception. I’ve seen some pretty elaborate referral rewards schemes, and while it’s obvious the people who designed those programs meant well, it ends up having an adverse effect.

Some gyms have multiple tiers to their program, to help create more urgency with making referrals, and also to make it a competition among gym members. For example, the person who refers the most people in a month, gets an extra reward – such as a private lesson with the instructor. Those can definitely help, as long as the program is easy to follow.

Make it easy for members to get referral rewards – they refer someone who signs up, and get rewarded once the referral pays for their first month. Don’t have multiple steps and conditions, such as referring 5 members who sign up for at least 6 months and visit 3 times a week, to get a better reward. Members can’t keep track of those conditions, and it will not motivate them better than a simple “Invite a friend, get a reward” program.

Constantly build awareness of your referral program

You don’t want to be pushy, so you mention your referral program once every now and then, and hope that should do the trick. Whatever you’re currently doing is likely not enough.

People forget, don’t pay attention, or simply weren’t there when you made the announcement. You need to keep the benefits of referring new members on top of people’s mind in order for the program to be effective.

Tracking and rewarding referrals

One of the most important parts of running a referral program is being able to track and properly reward a referral when it happens. It’s a good idea in general to keep tabs of how people found your gym when they visit or sign-up, in order to keep on top of your various marketing efforts.

You could do this manually with an excel spreadsheet or even pen-and-paper, but ideally the software you use to manage your gym could track this information for you. 

Having a structured process to tracking and rewarding referrals is key to tying everything else together. If you miss out on rewarding a referral, your members lose the incentive to do future referrals, or worse, lose some trust in you.

Troy Simon