Monday, September 20, 2010

Curate Your Own Membership: An Interview with the Whitney's Director of Membership

Audience segmentation and research has become a hot topic in museums, especially when it comes to crafting appealing offerings that are customized to different kinds of visitors. On September 10, the Whitney Museum of American Art started offering a new membership called "Curate Your Own," in which members select one of five specialized "buckets" of benefits in addition to core admission and discount benefits. This isn't just a prototype; the Whitney expects to transition all basic level memberships to segmented memberships over the next several years. I sat down with Kristen Denner, Director of Membership and Annual Fund, to learn more about the program's development and the museum's goals for its future.

How did this project start?

It started over a year ago, with a couple of moments of insight. First, we realized that our museum is different from other museums, but our benefits and membership structure were the same as others. We saw an opportunity to really differentiate ourselves, the way we do with our exhibitions and programs. Our membership program should be as unique as our institution.

Second, in 2008 and 2009, when the economy dipped and membership renewal rates started to soften, we started to think more seriously about the emotional factor of supporting the arts in the community. We wanted to find a way to really connect with our members and understand what experiences they value most at the Whitney. And we also wanted to respond to the general consumer desire for customization. I think museum visitors are ready and eager for museums to catch up to retail and the forprofit world and recognize them as individuals rather than homogeneous groups.

And so, we started a major research project--the first one we've done that focuses on membership. We started with focus groups with current and prospective members, asking about their interests and what kinds of experiences they would really value as part of membership. I wanted to test a hypothesis that we should be segmenting our members not by demographics but by interest, in order to foster that emotional connection. And we confirmed that hypothesis. Some experiences completely cut across demographics - some people like parties, some people want a solitary experience with art... and that solitary experience person might be 20 or they might be 80. People want to experience art in quite individual ways. So we wanted a membership segmentation that reflected their individual needs.

How did you end up with the five segments of the membership - social, learning, insider, family, and philanthropic?

The focus groups revealed these five strong attitudinal segments among members and prospective members. It was pretty unusual from a research perspective that there weren't just one or two dominant ones--all five of these had robust levels of interest.

How many of the specific benefits offered to each segment are new to Whitney members overall?

Several, but not all. After the qualitative research, we worked with people across all departments within the Museum saying, here are some unmet needs we heard from members. Some offerings are completely new, like lecture for the learning series members that might not correspond to any one exhibition but would be more of a deep dive into the permanent collection or exploring a theme in contemporary art. That wasn't a hard thing for us to offer but it hadn't really occurred to us before as a membership benefit. The "insiders" are another example. We heard loud and clear that these members really want to know more about the curatorial process and how the museum operates. So we offer them an exclusive discussion with curatorial staff to gain insights on the curatorial process.

Were there any needs that came up in the focus groups that you were not able to meet?

Seeing the installation process was a big one. In some cases, the artist is not comfortable, or there are insurance and liability issues. We really tried to figure this one out and decided we couldn't reliably offer it as a member benefit.

One person expressed a desire to spend alone time with a work of art in a kind of member contemplation room. There were security issues, but ultimately the objection was that it's not in keeping with the Whitney's mission. It’s important to us that art be available to all, not just to particular types of members.

Why did you segment the benefits, instead of offering them totally a la carte?

We wanted to do that [a la carte] initially. We wanted to do a true Chinese menu style, maybe assigning points to different benefits and letting people have ten points, that kind of thing. But logistically it was just impossible to pull off. It was going to be incredibly difficult to track who had what.

After we had brainstormed ideas for benefits, we did quantitative research and were able to rank benefits for different interests. It became really clear that certain benefits really only appealed to some segments. The overlaps we put in the core benefits--everyone wants free admission, for example, and the neighborhood discounts.

At some institutions, visitors have been turned off by being labeled with a particular segment. It can feel constraining.

We worked carefully to avoid associating the different membership series with words that leaned too strongly toward self-identification. This is definitely a challenge that comes up when you work with attitudinal segmentation. We didn't want to use terms like "cutting edge" to describe people. Because I like this handbag, I'm "fashion forward?" I think that's suspect.

What are your goals for the Curate Your Own Membership?

Our membership base right now is about 12,500, and about 8,000 of those people are at our individual ($75) or dual ($120) levels. Curate Your Own (CYO) is $85 for individuals, $125 for duals.

Our goal is to sign up 2,000 new CYO members in the next 12 to 18 months, and to convert 25% of those 8,000 current individual and dual members to the new structure. It's not about upselling as much as it is about getting to know more about them and giving them a customized experience. A lot of our current members are excited about this and want to switch. This conversion is really important and it's just the beginning... our larger goal is to eventually get to 100% of our basic members being CYO members.

How does the transition work for current members?

Members can either upgrade their membership by paying the additional $10 (individual) or $5 (dual) to add a CYO benefit package to their current benefits for the year. Or they can pay the full amount for a CYO membership and have their renewal date pushed forward a year with the new benefits.

People can also buy more than one package if they want--do you expect many people to do that?

Not the majority, but we're already seeing a few. In fact our very first CYO purchase was a gift membership that was purchased with three add-on benefit packages (so the recipient of the gift will pick which packages he/she wants). We're also getting some where people pick one additional package.

It sounds like this will make lobby membership sales a lot more complicated to pitch.

It's true; this will extend the conversation in the lobby. But we've been working on signage and training to make the transition as smooth as possible.

How do you plan to change your communication strategy once these segments are in place?

This is really what I'm excited about. Currently, all I know about a basic member is whether they are an individual or a dual. They are one person or two people. That's it. When the CYO membership becomes more prominent, I'm going to know who's interested in which kinds of opportunities. We'll be tailoring enewsletters and invitations to different groups. It will cut down on waste both environmentally and financially, and we’ll be able to communicate relevant information to our members, which is a better experience for them too.

Do you see these segments as changing the way members are encouraged to move up the donor ladder? For example, is the "philanthropic" series seen as more likely to become high-level donors than others?

Actually, the philanthropy series is mostly made for people who told us in research that they really just want the core benefits of membership. They think the other benefits are nice, but they're not going to use them. They just want to visit the museum whenever they want and they want to support the Museum’s mission.

With regard to moving up the donor levels, some of our new member benefits piggyback on higher-level benefits that used to not include basic members. For example, "social" CYO members will get four tickets to our summer opening reception. "Friend" level members at the $250 level get tickets to all our openings. So if a social member really likes the party and wants to know how they can go to more of them, the friend level may be a natural progression for them.

You've mentioned that this was a really challenging project. What were the biggest challenges?

Funding a research project that was serious. We had never done a real research project in membership before. It was a really worthwhile investment, especially as the museum is moving to a new building soon. We worked with a fabulous team from Lucid Marketing for the research--I can't recommend them enough.

And then the other thing that was challenging was just the logistics of coordinating all the different departments to come together and make this happen. We had so many smart people from education, curatorial, web, operations helping us, and we just had to make sure the project was institutionally supported and that we could really make it happen.

Well, I hope that six month or a year from now, you'll be back to report on how it's gone. I'm really curious to learn more about what segments are most popular and how people respond to the program overall.

Absolutely. What people do is often pretty different from what they say. And as you can imagine, we're pretty curious about it too.


Kristen will be responding to comments and questions here on the blog. If you are interested in this topic, you might enjoy this interview with John Falk and Beverly Sheppard and Chapter 2 of The Participatory Museum.

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