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Creating Advocates: Running A Leisure Refer-A-Friend Programme

Reward member loyalty and reach more of your community with a leisure refer-a-friend programme. We explore the many ways you can create an attractive referral offer and run a successful referral campaign.

There’s no shortage of options available to those looking to keep active, fit, and healthy. Numbers from LeisureDB indicate that there are more than 7,000 gyms in the UK. 2,600+ of those are public sector leisure operators. What can you do to attract more of your community?

There are many marketing options available that can help you reach the community around your facilities. Social media, advertising in local newspapers and magazines, billboards, search engine marketing ads, the list goes on. With all these choices, it’s easy to overlook the basics, like word-of-mouth marketing.

If you can turn satisfied, loyal members into advocates who will promote your leisure facilities for you, you’ll grow your organisation too. A key way to take advantage of word-of-mouth marketing is to create a referral or refer-a-friend programme.

A successful leisure refer-a-friend programme will be designed to reward everyone involved. You’ll get new members. Existing members, and the new members they refer, will get an incentive too.

How do you run a successful referral drive that existing and new members will appreciate? We’ll explore how in this article.

Why is a leisure refer-a-friend programme important?

A refer-a-friend or referral programme is a way to incentivise your existing members for attracting new ones. It lets you take advantage of the conversations your members are having with their family and friends, to encourage them to promote your facilities.

An effective refer-a-friend campaign will benefit everyone involved. The referring and new member will be rewarded. And your leisure organisation gets a new member.

Referral programmes and campaigns harness the power of word-of-mouth marketing. Word-of-mouth marketing is earned rather than paid for.

Word of mouth is an incredibly powerful way to extend the reach of your leisure organisation. Research shows that 88% of people trust recommendations from people they know more than any other type of advertising. And over three quarters are more likely to buy after receiving word-of-mouth advice.

Compared to paid advertising, a word-of-mouth recommendation can achieve as much as 5x more sales than 1 paid advert view. It can even attract higher value members spending 2x more and going on to make 2x as many referrals themselves as members acquired through other marketing channels.

With the right technology in place, a refer-a-friend programme is a great way to attract new members with little work for your team. Create your offer, set it up in your leisure management software and share it with members. Let them do the rest for you.

Plus, when a member has a friend to work out with, they are more likely to stick with their routine and your leisure centre. Motivation and fitness member engagement can be boosted when working out with someone else. This creates an accountability partner to motivate, encourage, and keep your members working towards their health and fitness goals.

How to: Create a referral programme that drives growth through community engagement

Running a leisure refer-a-friend programme to take advantage of word-of-mouth marketing and turn your members into advocates is straightforward. Whether you are getting started with a referral programme for the first time or want to revisit an existing programme, here’s how to create a winning offer.

1. Decide what behaviour (or behaviours) to incentivise

Your referral programme should incentivise members to do something specific. Typically, that means asking existing members to refer a friend in a specific way to signup for a membership. Once the new member has signed up, both the existing and new member will get rewarded.

You could choose to reward other behaviours. For example, recommending swimming lessons to a friend, bringing a friend to a group fitness class, or signing up to tennis lessons with a friend.

Consider the financial implications of whatever behaviour you choose to reward. That will help you understand what incentive is financially workable for you to offer.

You may also want to consider whether you want your refer-a-friend programme to be ongoing or for a limited time only. Each option has pros and cons.

If you are just starting out, a limited time offer will let you see how well your programme is received and make changes in the future. You may want to coincide short-term referral campaigns with seasonal opportunities (e.g., January, summer holidays).

2. Create an attractive referral offer

While some members will be happy to recommend you to others without any reward, most will need some sort of incentive. The success of your referral programme will be greatly influenced by how appealing your offer is to both referring and new members.

Understanding why people choose to share products and services with others will help you create a compelling offer. Jonah Berger, a marketing professor, and author, identified 6 key principles that motivate people to share in his book Contagious:

  1. Social currency – we share what makes us look good to others. Make sure your members feel like insiders by taking part in your referral programme
  2. Triggers – we share what’s top-of-mind. Regularly prompt your members to think about your organisation and your referral offer (for example, through email, SMS messages, posters, etc.)
  3. Emotion – we share what we care about. Appeal to your member’s emotions when explaining your offer rather than focusing only on function
  4. Public – we imitate what others around us do. Think about ways you can make your brand more visible, so when a member recommends you their friend or family member is more inclined to take  up the offer. That might mean selling branded clothing or even using social media and other technology to celebrate member success
  5. Practical value – we share what we find useful. The more you can encourage and celebrate a member’s achievements with you, the more likely they are to take part in a referral programme
  6. Stories – we share stories, not information. Encourage members to share their story with you when recommending you, celebrating achievements regularly will help with this

With these 6 principles in mind, identify how you’ll incentivise members for the behaviour(s) you’ve chosen to reward. Make sure that incentives will work for your business financially.

These are some ideas of incentives to consider offering:

  • A period of discounted or ‘free’ membership – for example, both members get a month extra membership or a set discount for a  couple of months
  • Group exercise class or personal training session – offer access to activities or services not usually part of a standard membership (e.g., ‘when your friend signs up to a full membership, we’ll give you both a personal training session worth £40’). This also showcases the value of these additional activities and services
  • Branded merchandise – a cost-effective incentive that also helps you build brand awareness. Offer a branded item like a water bottle or t-shirt for successful referrals
  • Gift cards – this recognises that some members would prefer a reward they can use elsewhere. This can be beneficial for your leisure organisation as the referral process has finished once you’ve supplied the voucher or gift card. It’s also a fantastic opportunity to partner with local businesses in your area

“Free PT? Aaargh! Nothing should ever be free; it devalues the product. And makes it hard, or impossible, to upsell in the future. ‘We’ll pay for you to have a £50 PT session’ is much better. You’ll get higher take-up, fewer no-shows, and more subsequent sales.” – Guy Griffiths, GGFit

Once you’ve identified your offer, you need to make sure it’s easy for your members to understand. And compelling too.

Build a landing page and/or email that explains your offer. Make sure your copy is well-written, uses easy to understand language and grabs member attention. Try to explain the benefit of making a referral in one short sentence.

Your members need to be clear about the referral process. Think in advance about any questions they may have and include a frequently asked questions section to provide answers. This will also make it easier for members to quickly read through without having to work through long paragraphs.

Include terms and conditions to explain any specific criteria that need to be met to qualify for the incentive you are providing.

3. Use your software to set up and administer the offer

You need to be able to rely on your leisure management software when running a leisure refer-a-friend programme. It will make administration easier and save you time.

Your software will make it simple to measure the success of your programme and see that members have been rewarded. It should make it easy to get the information you need to make improvements to your programme for the future.

Legend lets you set up referral codes for each member that can be passed on and redeemed. You’ll be able to track your advocates and new referred members directly within your software.

4. Promote your leisure referral programme

Next, it’s time to start marketing you refer-a-friend offer. That starts with making sure your members know about your offer, understand it, and want to take it up. With your organisation in mind, select where you can best reach members – online and offline.

These are some effective ways to market your programme:

Onboarding communications

New members can be your biggest advocates. Incorporate your referral programme into your new leisure member onboarding process. Get members working out with a friend earlier in their journey with you.

“Tell your new members that they’ll stay longer, get faster results and have more fun if they work out with friends. When you ask for referrals, don’t make it about the next sale, make it about the current member.  They’ll get to burn more calories, workout harder and longer, and get more accountability if they bring a gym buddy. Sure, you’ll get the sale, but think about what the member gets from bringing a friend to the club.” – Guy Griffiths, GGFit

Want help adding your offer to your onboarding process? Our Ultimate Playbook for Onboarding Leisure Centre Members Effectively includes email and SMS templates you can use in your onboarding process. Plus, plenty of actionable tips to optimise onboarding those new referred members.

Social channels

If members follow you on Facebook, Instagram, or other social channels, this can be a simple and cost-effective way to promote your referral programme.

Create a simple post explaining your offer and how to take advantage of it – link to your landing page for the offer too. Pinning this post to the top of your social pages can help keep this post top of mind for members visiting your pages directly. You could also consider a paid social campaign if budgets allow.

Monitor the engagements you get on posts about your offer (likes, shares, comments) to see how well received it is. And make improvements as needed.

Website & app

We’ve covered setting up a landing page for your leisure refer-a-friend programme. Consider linking to this from a prominent place on your website. A banner on your homepage is a great way to reach members visiting to manage their account and make bookings.

Plus, if you have a mobile app, add details to it too and use push-notifications to promote it directly to members.


Don’t forget to make sure members can learn about your refer-a-friend offer when they visit your facilities. Make sure your team understand the offer and mention it to members at the right time. For example, after a member has had a good workout, in general conversation, after group fitness classes, etc.

You could also put posters up around your facilities. Include a QR code that members can scan with their mobile phone to get straight to the landing page you’ve created for your offer. And you could even create handouts or leaflets to give to members explaining your offer.


Email is a very effective way to market your referral programme to members. It’s effective as members have chosen to hear from you and you’re in control of this channel.

Your leisure management software should make it easy to promote your offer via email. Make use of integrations with leading communication tools. Set your messages up in Mailchimp then create triggers to send personalised, targeted emails with your offer to members.

Keep these tips in mind to reach as many members as possible:

Need inspiration? Here’s an example email:

Subject line: {Member First Name} refer a friend

Hi {Member First Name},

Do you want to reach your health and fitness goals faster? Having a friend to workout with can help keep you motivated and on track.

So, refer a friend and you’ll both get one month extra on us when they join.

Give them your referral code which is {referral promotion code}.

When they use it to sign up for a membership, we’ll add an extra month to the end of both your memberships.

Thank you,

{Your Centre Name}

Text / SMS Marketing

Did you know that 78% of consumers say a text message is the fastest way to reach them? For opted in members this is a speedy way to promote your referral offer.

Plus, 99% of text messages are opened. That compares to 28-33% of emails. And 97% of text messages are opened within 15 minutes of receipt.

To keep open and response rates to text message campaigns high, use this channel sparingly. Prioritise your most valuable campaigns – like referral offers.

Use your leisure management software to send targeted and personalised text message campaigns to opted-in members. Create the message in your leisure software then rely on MessageBird to deliver the text to your member.

Keep your message to 160 characters, provide a link to your landing page and include opt-out messaging.

Need inspiration? Here’s an example text message:

Get 1 month on us when you refer a friend who signs up for a membership. Learn more: [add link here]. Reply STOP to opt out

5. Report on success and refine your refer-a-friend programme

Whether you are launching a new referral campaign or want to understand how a current one is performing, your leisure management software should provide you with the insights you need to measure performance.

By using your leisure management software to give each member with a unique referral code they can use, you’ll be able to see exactly who has referred a friend successfully. And make sure that everyone who should have received an incentive has.

This will make it simple to measure how well your leisure refer-a-friend programme is performing. Consider measuring:

  • Email/SMS open rates and click through rates
  • Data points about the members who’ve successfully referred a friend (demographics, marketing interacted with, etc.)
  • New referred members (demographics, visits, etc.)
  • Average length of stay and lifetime value for both referrers and referees
  • Return on investment – for the incentive you’ve offered

Use the data you’re tracking to review and improve your refer-a-friend programme. Focus on optimisations that will improve return on investment.

Keep referred members coming back for longer

If you want to keep your new referred members coming back and using your facilities for longer, you need to get onboarding right. To help, we’ve created the ultimate onboarding playbook that will help you optimise your new member journey:

Download your copy of the playbook