What is virtual member engagement?

45% of gym members are infrequent to casual users (ranging from 12 to 49 yearly visits) according to the latest IHRSA Health Club Consumer Report, suggesting that almost half your gym community isn’t engaging consistently with your facility and services. We all know that the more engaged members are, the longer they stay (and the greater lifetime value), so just think of what effect it could have on your business if you turned just half of those more distant members into moderate, core or even avid users (ranging from 99 to 150+ visits).   

Of course, what makes customer engagement particularly challenging is that it’s a never-ending process, starting with the first interaction and extending far beyond the point of purchase. Fortunately, technology has created new opportunities to consistently, effectively and efficiently ‘connect’ with members to achieve ‘around the clock’ engagement that boosts retention. And with the boom in virtual fitness, resulting from the pandemic, never has there been a better time to enhance – and prioritise – your virtual member engagement to capitalise on the opportunities.  

What does it take to engage a prospect? 

You may have heard of the marketing maxim, ‘The Rule of Seven,’ developed by the movie industry in the 1930s, which states that a prospect must ‘hear’ an advertiser’s message seven times before taking action to buy the product. This still rings true today with Salesforce suggesting it takes six to eight touches to generate a viable sales lead. (If you read other reports, it could even be as high as 20!) However, since then, there’s been a shift away from the ‘advertising’ style of marketing. Consumers today don’t just want to be the subject of your broadcast. They want to be educated, inspired, entertained. What’s more, they seek transparency, authenticity and genuineness from the brands they follow. To nurture prospects into leads and sales (members), it takes multiple, thoughtful touchpoints. 

Therefore, being able to effectively track engagement with prospects across all platforms and learn which messages, delivery times, journey stages, and channels get the most engagements (and ultimately lead to the most member conversions) is absolutely essential for any fitness business to be successful.

What does an engaged member look like?

Each facility will have its own profile for what an ‘engaged member’ looks like, both physically and statistically. However, there are some figures that provide a general picture…

A survey of 2,800 UK adults by Myprotein found that the average number of times people go to the gym is five times per week (equivalent to 240 times a year!) and the average British citizen spends seven hours per week in the gym or working out. In comparison, IHRSA’s findings, based on 20,069 online interviews, suggest that the average member in the US uses their club 105 times per year (two times per week). 

Given that the UK has a population of 66.65 million and the US has 328.2 million residents (as of July 2020), these are very small sample sizes so need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Once again, we’re brought back to the idea that ‘member engagement’ is personal to the facility and the goals it has set.

Another indicator of how effectively a facility’s member engagement strategy is working is, of course, retention. A long-standing head-scratcher for the industry, the UK Health and Fitness Club Report 2017 by Mintel states that clubs lose a whopping 50% of their members each year, and the effects of Covid-19 are yet to be seen. However, with the right technology systems in place, the whole member experience can be made more enjoyable and rewarding, helping to minimise cancellations and increase retention rates, even amongst a pandemic. 

And let’s not forget the ‘sleeping members’ who also form part of the equation. Most operators would prefer not to wake them, and for good reason, as Brits spend an average of £39 a month on unused subscriptions, namely gyms, as researched by Natwest. But could re-engaging those members reap higher financial rewards, for example, through upgraded memberships and secondary spend? Again, that’s where technology and smart data use can play a huge role. 

What is virtual engagement? 

In the ‘real world,’ engagement occurs every time somebody visits your facility and interacts with your brand, staff and equipment. Virtual engagement is about replicating these ‘real life’ interactions online or through technology to increase the affinity between your facility and members. 

An example of this is using a virtual platform to learn which classes, PTs, and equipment have the highest and lowest attendance and usage levels. From there, you can swap low performing classes with more high performing classes (online and offline) and see the direct effect this has on penetration rates, club attendance and lifetime value of members. Virtual engagement is about using data to show you what works and what doesn’t to give your members more of what they want, at the times they want it, through their preferred channels – ultimately, providing them with the very best experience possible. 

However, virtual engagement is something that’s often misunderstood or oversimplified within our industry. If you asked most people to describe what it means, their thoughts would probably turn to social media and activities such as liking, commenting and sharing members’ posts, and having that reciprocated. 

There’s no doubt that responding to people’s comments, queries and issues on social media in a timely manner goes a long way to building brand loyalty, trust and advocacy. And having fun with members online is just as important as having fun with them offline. In today’s ‘internet economy,’ it’s what builds community. But while social media is an important part of the virtual engagement, it’s just that – part of the mix. One of many areas to be maximised through technology and data.

Group classes on Instagram Live or Zoom (other platforms are available) may also be top of mind when giving examples of virtual engagement. For many operators, trainers and members, it’s these virtual classes that have helped them through the lockdown period and will form part of the ‘new fitness fabric’ moving forward. But are operators putting themselves in a position to make the most of virtual training? The limitation of these free-to-use platforms is that they don’t have built-in tracking to measure member engagement. They’ve been a great step on the ‘virtual training ladder’ but to truly maximise this area, operators need a more intelligent solution.  

To further illustrate why it’s so important to master the virtual training strand of your virtual engagement strategy, a survey by Savanta ComRes, commissioned by Sport England, found that 44% of people are doing a home-based activity (including 23% doing online workouts). In comparison, gym membership penetration – although at an all-time high – is a mere 15.6% according to the 2019 State of the UK Fitness Industry Report. This shows that virtual training is no longer a ‘nice to have’ but instead a ‘must-have’ for operators. If you’re not offering online classes, you’re most probably missing out and causing your members to look elsewhere for those services. 

Not only that, but each member will have had their own, unique experience of Covid-19, meaning they have different comfort levels in terms of their willingness and eagerness to return to the gym environment. Not everyone will come rushing back – and it could take years to get back to anything resembling ‘normality.’ The beauty of virtual classes is that they allow you to continue providing a service to these members until they are ready to return. By maintaining a virtual offering, it also enables you to create different tiers of membership – from ‘digital-only’ to ‘gym-only’ and everything in between – allowing you to meet the needs and desires of the widest audience possible.

Examples of virtual engagement 

Clubs in China have provided some great examples of how to engage members virtually and execute the online to offline (O2O) model – growing an audience through a slick, digital presence and then channelling them towards physical sites/memberships. 

Immediately after heading into lockdown, boutique studio, Shape, started streaming live workouts. After building an engaged audience (peaking at 100,000 viewers) by using the social media platforms, WeChat and TikTok, it was quick to make the most of this – launching a 12-day online fat-loss training camp where instructors host video training and coaching sessions with participants. More than 1,000 people signed up, with many going on to purchase additional, bespoke packages. This additional revenue stream helped Shape to stay buoyant while generating a new outlet for its instructors. As well as continuing this personal training concept online, Shape believes this is a great addition to its physical presence (complimenting the group workouts it has become known for) and it plans to launch the offering to 90% of its site by the end of 2020.

Lefit did something very similar, attracting an average of 20,000 viewers to its virtual workouts through smart promotion on social media; clocking up a colossal two billion views since launch. Spurred on by this success, it then developed its own online gym platform – Lefit Live Broadcasting Room – offering live workouts, training programmes, and coaching upsells. The number of users is said to be “increasing exponentially every day” and Lefit hopes this will significantly reduce its reliance on offline income, which currently stands for 85% of its total revenue. With uncertainty around the number of people who will return to the ‘physical gym’ once Covid-19 fully subsides, facilities have an unprecedented opportunity to integrate their O2O operations to dramatically enhance member engagement and drive business results. 

Inspiration from outside the industry

Looking for inspiration from outside the industry, fashion retailer, ASOS, provided a brilliant example of how to engage members virtually. It utilised a user-generated content strategy to facilitate customer engagement through the #AsSeenOnMe campaign, which encouraged followers to ‘show off’ their latest ASOS outfit on social media. In return, customers had the opportunity to be featured on the ASOS Instagram page and/or Facebook, which both have millions of followers. This was a great way for ASOS to fill up its feeds with user-generated posts (social proof), essentially, getting their customers to advertise for them. 

What’s stopping gyms from doing the same – rewarding customers for posting about their workout experiences, for example? Or trialling the sale of new products like, merchandise, food/drinks, digital memberships, exercise education courses, and at-home equipment, then asking members to share their experiences/selfies, while using data to show which products have a good ROI and are worth pursuing further?


Virtual engagement is not giving a member a ‘like’ on Facebook or providing them with a virtual training session. It’s someone completing a workout and interacting with your services to get the rewards they set out to achieve when they joined i.e. to get fitter. It’s about bridging the gap between home and gym to deliver a joined-up member experience. It’s about knowing how, where and when to share information with your members. It’s about utilising the entire virtual space and channels available to truly connect with your members on a deeper, more meaningful level. 

As with all engagement, virtual engagement is all about tracking – understanding who is and isn’t engaged – and why. Then using those learnings to develop a stronger, more profitable business. Thankfully, technology holds the key and, for operators, it’s all to play for…