March 9, 2021

Watch out, heritage and sports memberships, loyalty schemes and apps are coming for you

New consumer insight throws down the gauntlet to traditional membership organisations with the message ‘step up or step out’. The latest research from Freestyle reveals the most urgent challenges memberships face in their biggest fight for survival yet. Pandemic restrictions coupled with increased consumer appetite for digital offerings leave membership organisations in an adapt or die situation.

According to MemberWise, the professional membership network, in 2019 there were over 8,000 membership organisations and associations based in the UK with more than 53m users – underscoring the fact that the membership industry is not one to be overlooked. Some of the biggest membership names include The National Trust, English Heritage, National Union of Students and Caravan and Motorhome Club.

The most alarming findings from the consumer membership survey show:

  • Out of all membership users, 96% didn’t prefer the adapted services offered by membership organisations in 2020.
  • only 7% started a new membership last year.
  • According to the survey, 3 out of 5 users are likely to cancel some of their membership subscriptions in 2021.
  • People are most likely to stay with Film (21%) and Music (19%) memberships which paints an unstable future for many traditional memberships related to heritage, sports and travel.

Lack of physical experience and community interactions

According to the report from digital product studio Freestyle, a third of all survey respondents (33%) choose their memberships for physical experience or product and 31% for community benefits and interaction with others. Almost half of all membership users said they helped them fill their spare time with quality activities.

The reality of the last year showed that only 15% of membership users felt that membership helped them get to know new people.

Whilst almost half of all membership organisations contacted their members and adapted their offers in response to the pandemic, only 4% of users preferred the new offering.

“The results of our research show that traditional membership organisations, especially those that rely on physical presence, have to listen to their members, understand their needs and adapt their offerings and communications accordingly. They can no longer rely on what they think customers want and need. Customer behaviours are changing, and memberships have to stay agile in order to survive under the pandemic restrictions and increased consumer interest in various digital offerings,” comments Dan Archer, marketing director at digital product studio Freestyle.

Subscription services, mobile apps and brand loyalty schemes take the spotlight

User convenience and money-saving benefits take consumer attention from memberships as we used to know them.

Out of all membership users, almost half consider other channels such as brand loyalty
programmes, subscriptions and mobile apps easier to use and more than a third find them more affordable.

A third (32%) of all membership users believe they get the same or better benefits from mobile apps, followed by brand loyalty schemes and free online communities on social media.

The pandemic has hit many consumer wallets and almost half of those without a traditional membership don’t have one for budget reasons, whilst 40% prefer brand loyalty schemes which help save money and provide special offers.

“The importance of knowing your customer is not a novelty, what is crucial for membership survival is to realise that we are seeing a new ‘member 2.0’ type of customer. In order to build and train loyalty, organisations need to not only know but understand their audiences, learn what their expectations and needs are, what the value of belonging looks like to them and deliver against it. Consider creating a new, hybrid model of physical-to-digital membership that will cater to the changing customer needs,” adds Dan Archer.


About Freestyle

Freestyle is a Midlands-based digital product studio which works with companies to help them bring clarity to complex situations, problems and challenges. The team works across the full digital customer experience spectrum, designing and launching new digital products, services and customer-centric experiences. Freestyle is currently working with businesses like Arriva, Bostik, The Caravan and Motorhome Club and Woburn Estates.

The research was carried out online by Research Without Barriers. All surveys were conducted between 18th November 2020 and 20th November 2020. The sample comprised 2,012 UK adults. All research conducted adheres to the UK Market Research Society (MRS) code of conduct (2019).