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Cracking the Code

There’s a multi-million dollar question floating around the industry these days: How do we retain more golfers, particularly in light of the extraordinary inflow of returners and first-timers in 2020 (+27% vs. ‘19)?

There’s no simple answer – the issue is nuanced and evolving, and success at any level relies on the behaviors of so many. It’s certainly not a macro challenge, but we should discuss it from that level, and consider a few meaningful clues that get us a step closer to cracking the code.

Two points in particular are worth mentioning here, both of which fit nicely into Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. The first has to do with esteem, which centers on achievement, earning respect and/or receiving attention and status. The other deals with belongingness, and the primal need to feel accepted by (and safe within) social groups. Both esteem and belongingness – which form the psychological level of Maslow’s framework – have a lot to do with golf’s less-than-desirable retention rate.

Let’s start with esteem.

For longer than I’ve been alive, NGF has studied the underpinnings of satisfaction and retention in golf, which continues to prove that “shot euphoria” is among the strongest differentiators between those who stay and those who don’t. The majority of lapsed golfers, though they may blame time or money for their departure, admit they never (or rarely) experienced the rush of hitting a good shot before walking away. In fact, only a third of inactive participants suggest they “hit at least one shot per round that [kept them] coming back,” compared to more than 90% of active, loyal golfers.[1]

This will probably elicit some comments about golf being “difficult and not for everyone,” but the finding deserves more consideration than that. If shot euphoria is the key ingredient to customer retention, are we really okay being laissez-faire about it? Aren’t there ways to impact course experiences and golfer introductions to generate more euphoric moments? Can we better manage a customer who’s coming off a 4-hour slog without any sense of achievement or esteem?

By the way, “shot euphoria” is perfectly analogous to “runner’s high,” which many experts believe is the secret to creating a committed runner.[2]

And then there’s belongingness.

Belonging needs are very real and require constant signals. In his book The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle discusses how “our social brains light up when they receive a steady accumulation of almost-invisible [belonging] cues.”[3]

Consider then that only half of lapsed participants say they felt comfortable being around other golfers. Consider also that 80% of Core golfers, in one of our more recent studies, admitted they would feel at least some level of annoyance if the first-tee starter informed them that the group ahead included beginners. Yikes. How’s that for (not) belonging cues?

We can talk all we want about speeding up the game, shortening rounds, or delivering more “fun,” but unless people’s innate psychological needs are being met, we’ll never solve the retention dilemma. This challenge requires purposeful, people-oriented solutions. We’re encouraged to hear about operators who are actively identifying and engaging new and returning customers with these needs in mind, and would love to hear how you’re approaching this multi-million dollar retention question.

[1] Those who play now and say they’re “very likely” to continue (assuming healthy and financially able)
[2] Tom Holland, an exercise physiologist and author of several endurance training books, says “I have found that if I can take a beginning runner and get her to experience [a runner’s high], then I have a shot at making her a runner. It is no guarantee, however, and she needs to experience it numerous times before she will believe it is a part of the process and not an isolated event. Then, when we go really long and she experiences the true runner’s high, I know I have her. And you only need to experience it once to be a believer.” Holland, Tom. The Marathon Method: the 16-Week Training Program That Prepares You to Finish a Full or Half Marathon at Your Best Time. Fair Winds Press, 2007.
[3] Coyle, Daniel. The Culture Code. Bantam, 2018, p.26
David Lorentz
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