The conventional wisdom on museum memberships is that they are "one size fits many" programs whose primary benefits are free entrance to the museum and insider access to exhibition openings. The main audiences for memberships are value members, who think of it as a good deal, lifelong learners, who want to come to as many programs and exhibits as possible, and donors, who support the museum. But what about all the other people who love your museum? What about the families who show up on your free days religiously or the ones blogging about your new artifacts? Could you create a membership that speaks specifically to them?
This week, an interview with Brooklyn Museum 1stfans managers Will Cary (membership) and Shelley Bernstein (technology) and artist An Xiao. 1stfans is a new kind of membership launched on January 3, 2009 that combines in-person meetups, private groups on Facebook and Flickr, and a private Twitter feed featuring work by original artists (for more background, check out Will and Shelley's blog posts and videos). It has gotten a lot of attention as a "social media membership," but Will and Shelley are adamant that 1stfans is not about social media. Instead, 1stfans is an attempt to turn the impersonal engine of museum membership into a relationship-based, community-centered interaction for two specific museum audiences.
1stfans builds benefits onto two programs that were already successful at connecting people to the Brooklyn Museum: free Target First Saturdays and online social media outreach. The people who engage in these programs already have pre-existing positive relationships with the institution, but they don't buy memberships. 1stfans is an attempt to change that by providing specific benefits targeted to those audiences' needs. Cynics say they are monetizing free programs; supporters say they are providing something worth paying for to a self-selected group for whom traditional membership is not appealing. Both are true. 1stfans is one answer to a universal question: "How do we create a membership to serve visitors who already have a positive relationship with the museum but have not chosen to purchase traditional memberships?"
Want to know how the Brooklyn Museum is answering this question? Then read on, and please share your thoughts in the comments.
Can you tell me about the basic concept behind 1stfans as a membership program?
Will: The big change we’ve made is taking something that is all marketing (membership) and turned it into something that is about personal interactions and growing the community. We’ve gone from a one-directional membership experience—we send you stuff again and again, and then you show up--to a triangular relationship where Shelley and I get to know the 1stfans, they get to know us, and they get to know each other. We announced 1stfans on December 5, 2008, and since then have had 272 1stfans from 15 states and 9 countries on 4 continents.
There are both virtual-only and local 1stfan members. What's the balance between them, and how do you do this triangulation with both kinds?
Will: Only 32 of the 272 so far are from outside the tri-state area, so the majority are locals. There are different benefits to 1stfans for different people. For the faraway folks, some of it is having personal access to staff at a museum you can't visit. For the locals, the meetups are happening at First Saturday--an event they were already going to. For example, on February 7, we had a free 1stfans behind-the-scenes event with conservator Lisa Bruno talking about animal mummies. We'd been twittering publicly about mummies all week, but the event on Saturday was restricted to 1stfans. 32 people showed up, and they liked the program, but the cool part was that everyone stayed around and talked to each other afterwards. And we definitely see people coming to the meetups and then following up online.
Shelley: For the faraway members, we don't have the meetups. But this week we posted a video of Lisa’s presentation on the 1stfans private Facebook group and she'll be available for Q&A on Facebook. We're curious to see how that goes.
Who are the 1stfans? Do you have a sense of why they are joining?
Will: This whole thing started with us discussing two audience segments: people who come to First Saturdays and people who connect with us on the Web—neither of whom buy memberships. And while there are some museum professionals and social media people joining out of curiosity, the majority are locals. We have all these local Brooklyn people who love the museum and come on First Saturdays and spend all day on Facebook and Flickr. This was made for them.
So you weren't targeting "Brooklyn artists" or some other demographic group. It's specific to people who come to the museum but aren't members.
Will: Right. This is part of an analytical process and drew on membership surveys we've done over several years. The challenges were there and we tried to find a solution. 1stfans was not an “if we build it, they will come” kind of project. They were already involved--we just needed to provide them with the right benefits. People shouldn’t get hung up on the social media-ness. Everyone gets fixated on this, but we’re just using it to address a problem.
Shelley: This is not about social media. Yes, we are using social media, but that's because we've always been using social media--this is an outgrowth of the relationships we already had on Flickr and Twitter, our attempt to provide additional benefits to those people.
How did you pick the price point of $20?
Will: It just felt right. As Shelley said, “everyone’s got a $20 in their pocket.” It's within the "impulse buy" range.
Shelley: At this price, people really use it a la carte. Some people want the in-person events, some people want to connect on social networks, and some 1stfans do both. Looking at the statistics on the online participation, each platform has a different number of group members, which means people are taking what they want from it.
How is 1stfans messaged relative to other membership types? Is it an add-on? Can I buy a 1stfans membership at the front desk?
Will: 1stfans is its own tier of membership and regular members can purchase it as an add-on. Since it is so wildly different from other museum memberships, we feel like we have to separate and distinguish it. We don't want people to say, "I'll just buy the cheapest membership" and become 1stfans without realizing what they are getting.
1stfans is not on our printed membership brochure because we don't want to confuse people. We advertise it at First Saturday and on the website, beacuse those are the places where our target audience come and those are the people who will like 1stfans.
Are 1stfans confused or upset that they don’t get free admission to the museum?
Will: We've only had one person ask about this, and no one has complained. Remember, these are people who come to First Saturday--which is already free--and they're at work when we’re open during the week. So free admission isn't the benefit they really need.
It's interesting that the focus for 1stfans is on these very specific audience segments. Could you imagine creating another targeted membership for, say, senior citizens who want to come in the morning on weekdays?
Shelley: It's funny you bring that up. When we first shared this idea, Will’s boss said, "this is a great and innovative project, but it only serves one part of the community. And we serve many--we have to serve our whole community."
Will: We're hopeful that 1stfans is just the first step in this direction. We’ve talked in marketing meetings about creating a package appealing to senior citizens just as we have for the 1stfans.
How do you balance the exclusive content with public content? Are there staff members pushing you to make these events available to 1stfans for free and charge the general public to come?
Shelley: That hasn't really come up with staff, but we do want to find more ways to share the content created for 1stfans with the public. For example, our 1stfans Twitter Art Feed is currently featuring Mary Temple, who is making this really great calendar of portraits of people in the news. In March, we will print a physical version of her work and display it publicly at First Saturday. She’ll do two talks about the project—one just for 1stfans and one that’s public and open to all. That’s also one of the reasons we made the video with An about her Morse code Twitter stream in January—so anyone who’s curious can get an idea of what this is about.
There's been a lot of debate in the social media world about the exclusive content, especially the Twitter Art Feed, people saying that we are selling something that should be free. You can read our thoughts (and lots of good comments from detractors and 1stfans alike) on this controversy here and here.
The Twitter Art Feed features a new artist every month. How are you selecting and rewarding these artists?
Shelley: Long-term, we're working with our John and Barbara Vogelstein Curator of Contemporary Art, Eugenie Tsai, to bring a mix of artists and ideas to the feed. Some artists are selected from the open call (including our first artist, An Xiao), others are projects or artists that we know of and think will work well in the feed for one reason or another, and some artists have work in our collection or are featured in our current exhibitions. Since 1stfans is a new program at the museum and one with an incredibly low price point, all artists in the Twitter Art Feed are donating their time and their effort, which is pretty amazing. One of the most exciting things for me personally is to see artists really fired up about the idea of this membership, wanting to support the Museum and willing to donate their energy to do so.
An, what was your experience like as the first artist to be featured on the Twitter Art Feed?
An: I'd been actively exploring online media and our emerging culture of branded, digital selves, with self-portrait series centered around blogging and advertising, and Twitter quickly became part of that larger exploration. I'd been using it for a while before I was selected for the January feed, but never as an art project per se--my account is a personal scrapbook of ideas and thoughts rather than what I might consider an artistic medium. So on the one hand, engaging in the 1stfans feeds was an exciting opportunity to take a new communications medium and use it as an artistic medium. On the other hand, it was intimidating for that very same reason!
Two things about the overall experience stood out. The first was the amount of work entailed. As a haiku poet and Zen artist, I've been trained in the power of brevity. The trick with the project was that, on top of the 140-character limit, each character in alaphanumerics could convert into as many as six dots and/or dashes in Morse code, thus dropping the amount of text I could squeeze into each tweet. I took time at the start of each week to prepare my tweets both to fit the character restrictions and to make them as interesting as possible.
Secondly, I loved how much 1stfans members got into it. I doubt many of us have ever sent a telegram or seen a telegraph machine, but I found myself having a number of witty, clever exchanges with folks, all in the long tradition of this archaic medium. Artist Nina Meledandri even used a combination of visual imagery and Morse code, taking the project outside Twitter and into Flickr, with a final response composed of pencils, crayons and pastels to represent dashes, and shells and stones to represent dots. The project received some criticism for being inaccessible and cumbersome (members had to copy and paste the tweets into a Morse code translator), but for the most part, the response was quite positive, and the feed became highly interactive. In that sense, the project evolved from simply a conceptual one at the outset into one that was performative and collaborative--an Internet theatre of sorts.
How did working on the Feed impact your relationship with the Brooklyn Museum?
I'd been a fan of the museum in general since I started dropping by a few years ago, and I particularly loved the sense of community around First Saturdays. However, it wasn't until I submitted a photo for Click!, a crowd-curated exhibition that Shelley organized, that I started to feel like a part of the museum. Shelley's warmth and enthusiasm stood out over email and even more so in person, and I soon found myself actively reading and occasionally participating in the blogs.
And so, well before 1stfans was developed, I already felt not simply like a visitor but both a member of a community and an active participant in their arts programming and discourse. Working on the Feed was simply a continuation of this experience. Shelley and Will were super helpful while I was in Los Angeles for the set-up, and of course, I was thrilled to tweet back and forth with 1stfans members and then to meet them in person and on Facebook. The fact that artists are willing to donate their time, effort and money to 1stfans is a real testament to the sense of community that the museum has created. In a city like New York, and in the often disparate and overwhelming art world, it's quite striking. Everything from the fact that Shelley and Will and other memberships staffers take the time to get to know members to the open online communities they've created to encourage interaction speaks to this.
Will and Shelley, have you hit any challenges or surprises thus far with 1stfans?
Shelley: The signup process is manual which is both good (we get to know people) and bad (time consuming). We couldn't use our exisiting setup to process these memberships, so we had to rethink it by using Google Checkout for payment and Google Docs to keep track of folks.
Will: The main challenge on a day-to-day basis concerns the nature of the internet: it doesn't stop when we leave the office. When 1stfans join on a Saturday, they expect to hear from us by Sunday. If they join at 8pm on a weeknight, they'll request to follow the Twitter Art Feed at 9pm, and send us an email at 10pm if that hasn't happened. Because 1stfans request to hear from us on Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter, we have to manually add them to the group, which sometimes involves finding their profiles on each of those sites. In order to serve 1stfans, Shelley and I have to find time to interact with them in a way that meets their demands while not taking away from the other work we have to do. It's tough, but because there's two of us we've made it work so far.
Is there a marketing strategy for 1stfans?
Will: No. We feel like we have to do an adequate job addressing our two target segments--then we’ll come up with ways to market this to other groups. We have 10,000 people at First Saturday – we want to hit more of them before we look for other segments to address. The 1stfans themselves are our greatest ambassadors helping spread the word through their own networks. The artists on the Twitter Art Feed are also doing a lot of promotion to their own networks-An was great, frequently posting about it on her blog.
What are the plans for the future of 1stfans?
Shelley: Our basic motto is be fully committed to our members, but keep finding small things that can make a big impact. Think outside the box to figure out how to involve both sets of people (faraway and local 1stfans) in one swoop, so we can be cautious of staff time and maximize effort. So, looking at February, we taped Lisa Bruno's in-person presentation on the animal mummies and put up the rough cut, then host a Q&A in the Facebook group for a few days and see how it goes. I'd say, generally, you'll find us doing things in a scrappy way figuring it's better to share as much as we can even if we can't make it pretty. Also, we don't know yet which formats work better than others, so there's going to be a lot of experimentation to find out.
Since this membership is based in the social networks, we are going to be watching carefully as that landscape changes (and it will). I think of this is a living membership structure in this way - we watch and we adapt. After all, Twitter may not be here forever, so we've got to keep thinking, adjust as necessary and grow with the technology in the same way we grow and learn with the group. The really wonderful thing is we are getting to know the people who have joined, so when the time comes to make adjustments, I'm confident that this will be a discussion rather than a top-down mandate from the sky.