Once you have marketed your program and recruited participants, it is beneficial to take steps to promote participant retention. It is unlikely that every participant who begins a program will complete it. In fact, it is common for lifestyle intervention programs to have attrition rates (the percentage of participants who do not finish the program) in the 20-30% range. In other words, two or three of every 10 participants may leave the program before it is completed. There are strategies you can use to increase the number of participants who complete the program. Several of these are described below.

  • Offer the program at convenient times and at locations throughout the community. If participants find it inconvenient to attend sessions because of the times they are scheduled or where they are held, then they are less likely to put continued effort into attending the program.

  • Maintain a current database of participant contact information. Routinely gather and update thorough contact information for participants. Make sure you have every available piece of information—home and cell phone numbers, mailing address, email address, social media usernames—in order to contact a participant in case he or she becomes absent from the program.

  • Encourage participation from significant others. Participants are more likely to stay involved in a program if a significant other (a spouse, sibling, friend, neighbor, etc.) is also involved. The significant other’s involvement provides accountability and the time spent in program activities is more rewarding when shared with a loved one.

  • Use participants’ time wisely. Show participants that their time is valued by staying on task during program activities and by starting and ending sessions on time.

  • Involve staff members who are similar to participants. When possible, match staff members with participants in terms of age, medical diagnosis, or other significant characteristics. For example, older adults in a disease self-management class may connect better with another older adult with diabetes than with a young adult who has no chronic diseases.

  • Foster familiarity between staff and participants. Make every reasonable attempt to keep the same personnel in contact with the same participants for the duration of the program. This creates a sense of belonging and builds trust.

  • Offer incentives for participation. Appropriate incentives (program t-shirts, certificates of completion, gift cards, water bottles with a program’s label, etc.) can help motivate participants to remain in a program. Choose incentives that will be valued by participants and are a good match for the program (e.g., for a weight loss intervention, have a drawing for a $20 gift card for a sporting goods store instead of holding an ice cream social).

Attendance rates reflect the success of recruitment and retention efforts. Organizations sometimes mistakenly assume that high attendance rates also indicate the success of a program. Given that the purpose of health promotion programs is generating positive health outcomes, the only way to accurately determine if the intended outcomes have been achieved is through evaluation. Attendance should be valued because it is in attending the program that participants are exposed to activities and lessons designed to benefit their health and well-being. It is only in evaluating program outcomes; however, that the impact of a program can be determined (see Evaluation Planning for more information).