Signs like this one (spotted in the window at a large science center) drive me nuts.
Why? Because they validate the highly-problematic concept of membership as a discount. There are many folks who've written about the problems with "value" membership and have recommended that cultural institutions reorient toward offering "affinity" or "relationship" memberships. While value membership focuses on free admission and discounts, affinity membership focuses on building relationships and supporting a community of highly invested visitors.
Making the switch from value to affinity membership programs can sound risky. Value membership is a big business, especially in a tough economic climate. Families like the idea that museum memberships offer a low-cost alternative to recreational activities like the movies, which cost money every time you go. With a membership, you can come to the museum whenever you want--something more visitors may take advantage of as more expensive recreational activities are cut from family budgets. Unsurprisingly, museums are loathe to cut or alter membership programs that successfully serve visitors' needs and generate revenue.
So what can an institution do if staff would LIKE to move towards affinity memberships but don't want to risk losing the revenue and relationships generated by value memberships?
I have a simple recommendation: create two kinds of membership. Offer an annual pass to those who want free admission, and offer a different kind of membership to those who want a deeper relationship. This allows institutions to focus specific resources—discounts, personal attention, and opportunities for deeper experiences—towards the people who want them.
While the groups do overlap, in general, annual pass holders and affinity members want different things. Annual pass holders want free admission and good experiences during their visits. Affinity members want a deeper connection with the institution, which often involves exclusive content or programs. Each of these groups may not care for the services offered to the other. Splitting the groups reduces institutional waste and is more likely to deliver satisfying experiences to different types of members. Some visitors may fall in both categories, but if the different programs are clearly communicated, frequent visitors might choose to become both annual pass holders and join the museum club.
When it comes to optimizing the experience for annual pass holders, all those expensive newsletters may not be effective. Annual pass holders tend to be a high-churn group. To increase renewal rates, institutions should focus resources toward encouraging them to attend, since "doing the math" on visits is the reason they joined in the first place. They didn't join to get special behind-the-scenes content or access to special programs. They joined for free admission, responding to marketing pieces like the sign shown at the top of this post.
In contrast, affinity members may or may not care about free admission. They may care more about being able to talk with curators, attend special events, or contribute to upcoming exhibitions or programs. Some institutions have started offering niche memberships to reach visitors with particular affinities--for example, the Brooklyn Museum with 1stfans (geared toward "socially networked" free 1st Saturday attendees), or COSI with its premium membership (geared toward families with very young children). These membership programs are necessarily small, because they cater to the interests of particular segments of the larger visiting community. For example, COSI's premium membership provides families with access to extended morning hours in their early childhood exhibit area--a benefit that only appeals to visitors who want an exclusive morning experience with their children.
There may even be some kinds of affinity membership that don't cost money to join. Every time a visitor signs up for a mailing list or leaves a comment at the front desk, he expresses his affinity for the institution. I've been working on one project in which we are conceptualizing membership as something you can achieve through multiple visits/contributions, not something you can buy right off the bat. The idea is to model membership off of more natural forms of relationship-building between humans--the more time we spend together, the more substantive that time is, the more we get to know each other and to provide for each other.
While I'm aware that some institutions have gotten push back from visitors when they introduce overly prescriptive membership types, I think that people are pretty comfortable with the difference between an annual pass and a "friends" group or niche memberships. What do you think?