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Rethinking the Retention Question

As golf’s pandemic-fueled high tide reaches its 18th month in the U.S., we continue to field questions about the mid- and longer-term sustainability of more players and higher engagement, which generally steers us toward discussions about customer happiness and loyalty.

For years the research has said – above all else – that getting someone to feel accepted, comfortable and confident makes the biggest difference in whether they stay or go. That’s right, those sentiments matter more than addressing a golfer’s (instinctively) rational concerns about time or money.

We still believe this to be true, but decided recently to adjust our lens on the issue. In most of NGF’s past research on this subject, the dependent variable has been retention – simply, whether someone is still playing or not. But retention is not the same as conversion. A retained golfer stays on (for now, at least), but a converted golfer shows a stronger emotional connection to the game – an important distinction.

And so, we changed the dependent variable. Instead of trying to predict retention, we set out to understand more about those who become converted customers – that is, a golfer who (1) finds at least 8 days out of the year to tee it up, (2) shows passion for the game and (3) has an inclination to stick with it, assuming healthy and financially able.

Using this new outcome variable, we identified a thousand people who had taken up golf as an adult over the past 10 years and asked them a slew of questions about their personality, how they came to the game, what they felt and experienced during their introduction, whether they’re still playing now, and their level of commitment.

An important discovery here is that our “conversion rate” is about 27% – which, multiplied by the number of new customers we’ve received in recent years (pre-pandemic, at least), leaves just enough to offset natural customer churn (those we lose to morbidity, mortality, etc.).

No wonder our golfer base hadn’t been growing!

We examined more than 70 factors we hypothesized might relate to conversion, and it turns out whether a person became a converted golfer was quite predictable – we forecast accurately 83% of the time based on the included variables.

The most impactful factors were largely intuitive: receiving professional instruction, learning in a specialized (adult) group setting, coming in with reasonable expectations and having a fun introductory experience. Unfortunately, these are all low-incidence variables, as evidenced by the graphic below.

Graphic showing how introductory golf experiences help predict conversion to a committed golfer

Fortunately, we have the power to affect several of them … like making personal contact with a new customer and inviting them back, which only 13% of our sample had experienced!

Consider that if we could improve the current conversion rate by just a few percentage points – it would mean a couple hundred thousand additional converted golfers every year. Over time, this is the basis for sustainability and growth.

It’s important that we understand the factors differentiating retained and converted customers so that we can focus on influencing the levers that truly move the needle. Our work on this subject continues, which we’ll talk more about in the months ahead.

David Lorentz
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