Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Innovative Punch Card Systems that Motivate Deep Engagement

When I moved across the country, a friend gave me a gift of a National Parks passport. This little booklet that lists all the US national parks and has a spot for a special stamp that you can obtain at any of them. In the years I have owned this passport, I have visited several national parks. But I have never stamped the passport. It sits in the glove compartment, helpfully taking up space.

I have another item in my glove compartment—a National Parks annual pass—that I use all the time. This card allows me free entry into national parks. It’s a membership.

I find it very strange that the parks passport and the parks pass are not related. Why doesn’t the passport motivate me to visit more parks with rewards? Why isn’t my annual pass fee or renewal status in some way correlated or discounted based on my stamp collection? In short, why isn’t this a better incentive system?

Recently, I’ve been exploring the range of unusual punch card incentive and loyalty systems. In February, I wrote about the complex and somewhat creepy system that Harrah’s casino employs to promote loyalty, but today I’m focusing on the lowly punch card. We’re all familiar with the most basic version, ubiquitous in coffee shops, in which you can slowly accumulate stamps or hole-punches and receive a free drink after six or eight or ten purchases. There are virtual versions, such as the REI coop system, in which members of the coop receive 10% back on all REI purchases available in store credit or cash at the end of the year. There’s even a theater that offers a play with forking paths (such that you can’t see the whole show on one occasion) and a diminishing ticket price for each subsequent visit.

I’ve often wondered why I’ve never seen a museum with a punch card system. Even at the most basic level, punch cards do a couple of important things:
  1. They establish an expectation that you might visit multiple times.
  2. They allow staff to see, with no complex technology, that you have visited previously.

Presumably, a membership does these things as well. But many large museum membership database systems are dismal at tracking members’ or visitors’ repeat attendance. While the visitor is “growing their relationship” with the institution over several visits, the museum plays the amnesiac, treating each visitor like it’s the first time. And where the databases fall short, punch cards thrive. Seeing that a person’s card has been punched several times allows front-line staff to engage in conversation about what they liked on previous visits, what’s new, and what they might particularly enjoy.

But a simple punch card is not enough. Like national parks, people visit museums infrequently enough that the punch card does not incentivize repeat use. If you get coffee every day, and there’s a place that offers you a free cup for every ten you buy, then you can get free coffee every couple of weeks. Museums don’t work that way. I suspect that most people (with the exception of rabid young families at children’s and science museums) would lose a museum punch card before making it to visit number ten.

Here are some clever innovations on the punch card system:
  1. Menchies, a frozen yogurt shop in Los Angeles, offers a punch card with a free yogurt after you’ve purchased seven. When my dad entered as a first-time customer and bought a yogurt, he was given a punch card with six punches already completed—functionally, a two-for-one coupon for his next visit. Not only did this bring him back to Menchies, it was probably more effective than a coupon would have been in priming him to take a new punch card and presumably continue frequenting the shop. Some museums have been experimenting with sending students home from school trips with a free ticket for a followup visit with the family; maybe starting them with a punch card would be a more effective way to connect them to the institution.
  2. Tina, We Salute You, a hip coffee shop in London, makes their punch cards a social in-venue experience. Rather than carrying your own card, you are invited to write your name on the wall and draw a star for every coffee you’ve drunk (see image at top). Purchase ten and you receive a free coffee—and a new color to continue advancing your stars. This creates a feeling of community and entices new visitors to the shop to add their own name and get involved. There’s a game-like “keeping up with the Joneses” aspect where people feel motivated to get more stars, to have a more adorned name, etc. because their participation is being publicly showcased. Instead of the reward when you reach ten and get a free coffee being a private feeling, you get to celebrate with the store and the rest of its patrons. Again, this could be a lovely way, particularly for a small museum, to encourage visitors to think of themselves as part of the museum community and to desire a “level up” in their nameplate on the wall. It’s like a low-budget, dynamic donor wall.
  3. The Winking Lizard Tavern is an Ohio-based chain of thirteen restaurants that puts on a yearly “world beer tour,” this year featuring over 150 international beers. People can join the tour with a ten dollar entrance fee, which grants them a color guidebook of all the beers, a punch card for the beers they’ve tried, and an online beer-tasting tracking system. When you hit fifty beers, you get a gift, and at one hundred, you receive the “world tour jacket” featuring the names of the year’s beers. This is functionally a membership, including email newsletter and special events, but it is driven by the idea that you will keep purchasing new (and different) beers. It’s a brilliant way for each entry, each purchase, to enhance the value of the punch card rather than making people wait entirely until the end. If only the parks service had taken this path with their passport. You could easily imagine a similar system for a museum to incentivize visiting different institutions, exhibits, or trying new experiences across the institution (educational programs, lectures, performances, discussions, etc.).

Punch cards and incentive schemes aren’t just about getting people in the door. They’re also a way to establish a deeper connection with regulars and to reward people for whom the museum is a significant part of their lives. As more museums have moved towards offering “value memberships” that are essentially discounts on admission, membership renewal relies largely on repeat visits. If the member doesn’t come several times, she won’t renew. Particularly at children's and science museums, there are many visitors who use the museum as an extension of their other family learning activities and environments, but membership programs don’t fully exploit this. While children's progress in online educational game environments is tracked and provides feedback to parents, no such feedback exists for museum visits. Exhibit designers spend hundreds of hours developing content that is developmentally appropriate for different kinds of learners, but that information is not used to enhance and amplify the learning value of the museum experience. There are many children's museums that provide label text at adult eye-height encouraging parents to observe and learn from their children's approach to play. Why can't the museum automate some of this observation, bake it into a membership punch card system, and provide recommendations that can help families "grow with" the museum? If the Winking Lizard Tavern can do it for beer, why can't we do it for children's education? Why can’t we do it for any visitor who is eager for the deepening, complex relationship museums purport to offer?

There is no such thing as a townsquare for faceless individuals. When you are treated like a "regular," that connotes special value. Punch cards are a simple step towards acknowledging that value, encouraging repeat participation, and moving towards more robust museum communities. How might you use them to meet your institution's goals?

8 comments, add yours!:

Sarah said...

This is an interesting approach. I can see museum incentive programs like these woven in alternate reality games to get visitors engaged even more.

dgilman said...

How about a loyalty card that rewards you for different activities? Maybe if you show deep enough interest in an exhibit, you can attend a special lecture from the curator or resident expert. I (the museum) can then use that information to target mailings, email blasts, whatever.

I agree that the loyalty program should build a tighter bond between the user and the museum. To do that, the museum has to leverage the program to learn more about the user. How can we be friends if I not only keep forgetting things about you, but never learn them to begin with?

Kelly C. Porter said...

I like the idea of allowing the visual representation of "punches" to remain public and could easily see such a wall of frequent visitors adding a really personal dimension to the entryway of a museum.

John Buchinger said...

Can you envision a member swipe card that shows how many times they come? If this was trackable, think what membership could do with that. If the Jones have had a membership over 15 years at 70 dollars a year, and no one from membership has ever approached to say, hey we love you, here is some booze and how about becoming a sustaining member for $150? then this card could help in that regard by identifying our loyal followers and following up.
It could also be a game. Think of the people who love those rainforest games on FB who get jollies from "winning" by having the most trees? Can't we tap into that and give them a sense of play as they visit?

Aaron Goldblatt said...

At the risk of insulting you, Nina, but you may be too old to recognize (and cling to) the value of the NPS passport. My daughter was astonshingly rigorous about demanding her stamp at every National Park we visited when she was 5 to 8 or so. She's whip that bad boy out from who knows where at every visit. She was as proud of her clogged NPS passport as I secretly am over my US passport.

I wonder if there's a way to give kids a little more power over the family decision to visit a museum by giving them some authority over the card. I suppose this could quickly get as creepy as Harrah's, so some thought would be needed to make it less than predatory.

Nina Simon said...

John and dgilman,
I think it's reasonable to expect that any museum could use member cards to track when members visit. I think I could do this with a barcode reader, some barcodes, contact paper, and a database that registers time stamps. If my little gym can do it, so can museums. Check out this wild article about EVERYTHING that Harrah's tracks. And if museum member database systems aren't set up for even a small version of that... well, there's a great business for someone to start!

Aaron, no offense taken - now I know to hold onto the passport for the distant future when I have a kid who can whip him/herself into a stamp-induced frenzy. Hopefully national parks will still exist then.

Henrik Bennetsen said...

I think the idea of using a punch for creating engagement is great and would add that this is also the kind of thing that technology could add to in interesting ways. If you imagine a a punchcard with an RFID chip you would get some interesting options:

*Track what your visitors were into. Let them know when you have news that touch on similar tags.
*You could identify yourself to the exihibit and ask for additional information to be shared on your "My museum account"

There has got to be lots more of these.

I do realize that this holds potential for big museum brother creepiness if not done right but I think also for deeper engagement with your public.

Anonymous said...

I sure hope someone in the ticketing/membership business is thinking about this. The possibilities are terrific. You can already "flag" certain customers in several ticketing systems so that you can alert the front desk staff to special status (such as donor/board member, etc.), so some way to identify your regulars would be great too. I have a vision of a word cloud of visitor names that corresponds to the number of times someone has visited.