Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Could You Split Your Membership?

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?

10 comments, add yours!:

Jennifer Caleshu, Bay Area Discovery Museum said...

We are trying to split ours 6 main levels into 2 category types - and i think we can even push it further, as your post suggests. We offer "Family Memberships" - value driven, pays for itself in 3 visits, basically gets you in free. The "supporting memberships" offer discounts on camps, birthday parties, and early access to popular registration. But if we take your point, we probably need to offer them even more connection. And I'd probably raise the price too, on the supporting levels...

Our levels are linked below.

lots of food for thought!

Unknown said...

I really see the value in the 'family membership' approach, too. When I see the kind of math you are talking about going on in a museum lobby, Nina, it is most often amongst families with young children-- if we were using John Falk's profiles of museum visitor identities I would say they seem to be parent-facilitators, who are there primarily to find a fun outing or a good learning experience for their kids. On the other hand, the more committed 'membership' audience you refer to seems to be made up more of a professional/hobbyist class of visitor who has an abiding interest in the subject matter of the institution and wants to use it as a contact point for that passion-- these are the people who want the access and community you mention.

When you consider these two kind of visitor in their own right, there may be other implications about desired 'benefits' that have less to do with cost. The parent-facilitators might be entirely interested in participating in behind-the-scenes activities or communicating with curators and staff, but they are looking through the lens of benefit for their children-- they might want to know how to promote museum-related education at home from your director of education or develop a lay expertise that parallels the interest of their child. They might even be interested in attending activities normally reserved for that hobbyist/professional class of visitor, but would be greatly more likely to attend if they feel that it is for both them and their kids-- perhaps if they are able to leave their kids in a safe museum day-care environment with related kids activities while they attend. Hobbyists on the other hand might still be looking for discounts, but on things that allow them to deepen their importance and affiliation with the museum: facility rental for special occasions, opening nights of events and exhibits, publications by the museum or visiting speakers.

Marla said...

There is another natural way to serve both needs - offer free admission to the museum and also an affinity membership with discounts and focused events. I think that's been successful at my museum, the NC Museum of Art (I am speaking unofficially as a museum volunteer). The MoA charges admission only for special exhibits, so families can come to the museum anytime with no expense. Those who do choose to pay for membership receive the printed newsletter, discounts or free admission to the special exhibits, and invitations to events such as lectures and exhibit openings - these are (usually) not the type of events people bring their children to anyway.

I do think people who join at a membership level aren't doing it for the discounts: personally I joined because I wanted to support the museum with my membership fee; it was a way of making a donation. But the exclusive events are a nice reward and certainly make a person feel more connected and in a relationship with the museum.

Museumist said...

Great post! It is strange that museums will offer sort of one-size-fits-all membership packages, when their visitor base is just the opposite. By offering options like value memberships as well as affinity memberships or niche packages based on a specific interest, museums will not only strengthen their relationship with their existing members, but bring in new ones as well.

Nina Simon said...

Kelly - great point. I find myself thinking about the fact that Falk's identities are not permanent- you may be a facilitator one day and an explorer the next. So the question that comes up in my head based on your comment is which identities people are willing to pay to support. Parents at science centers mostly focus on the facilitator role, so they are more likely to pay for benefits that relate to their childrens' experiences. I could see two secondary arguments to make here:
1. That those parents might also be explorers/hobbyists etc (an argument for broader membership newsletters)
2. That you might need to take a different marketing angle for adult members in science centers, something like "treat yourself to new knowledge" or "challenge your preconceptions" or "contribute your expertise" - and that this might be a different member type.

Maybe instead of putting people in boxes - you are an X member, me a Y member, we should be looking at ala carte services - you do the X program and the Y program. I know museums already do that to some extent, so membership has to be something more--the tie that binds. The tricky thing is if you exhibit different identities at different times, which thread brings it all together for you?

claire Antrobus said...

You might be interested in this research project about changing membership patterns in the wider not for profit sector. It was set up to consider very similar issues:


Emily said...

Hi Nina! Emily here from YBCA. This is a great and incredibly timely post. I have definitely been thinking around this subject and believe we are moving in this direction to set up an affinity group around deeper experiences, as well as a value membership. Keep up the good work!

Peter Linett said...

I'm late to the game here, but here's an afterthought. Our membership research has taught us the wisdom of that old marketing adage that there has to be both a rational and an emotional spark in order for consumers to feel connected. In the case of a membership program, the rational side is the dollar calculation and the perceived value of other benefits (tangible, access, etc.). The emotional side is the sense of community/affinity you write about plus (very important) the pleasure of supporting the museum philanthropically. To oversimplify: getting vs. giving

So it's not an either or, it's that both sides of the equation should support each other in the member's joining or renewal decision. We've found that most visitors don't fall into one "segment" or the other; they've just been taught by museums like the one who's sign you show that membership is a discount-based loyalty mechanism -- in marketing lingo, a frequency program. Which is the vast majority of museums.

So what you're suggesting is very important: museums need to pay much more attention to the ways people want to feel connected to the museum. And that does take you down the road of segmented, lifestyle- or lifestage-based membership programs with special benefits geared to families, hip young professionals, lifelong-learning seniors, etc. But I don't think it suggests a simple binary split, one program for free admission and the other for people who want to connect. They all want to connect (they just may not know it yet), and they all want free admission or other sensible benefits in exchange for their money.

Maybe I need to blog about this... Anyway, thanks for bringing up another big topic.

Megan Fischer, Providence Children's Museum said...

Nina, I've been thinking about this post for the past few months. We've talked about introducing an annual pass-style membership for a while now and I like the idea of the split system you suggest, although I think the implications for an affinity membership are a bit different with a children's museum - at least ours. We have fewer special offerings than the museums you mention and the trend I've noticed is that, even though our membership is growing, the total number attending special events like exhibit openings and member recognition parties has not increased. I suppose that shows that the majority of our members are more interested in value than additional benefits and might choose an annual pass.

I have a membership committee meeting this week to discuss these ideas and am going to have them read your posts on this topic. A few questions:
1) Any suggestions for other good reading on shifting membership toward annual pass or having a split system?
2) Other examples of museums that have transitioned to an annual pass or a split membership?
3) Know of anyone who's gone the YMCA route - annual pass membership but split into more frequent automatic payments?


Nina Simon said...

Hi Megan -

As I'm sure you're seeing there are some good references in the comments. I think the institutions that are experimenting most heavily in this area are theaters and symphonies, where they start with a pass/seasonal model. Check out the Philadelphia Orchestra for a quite complex set of different member options - perhaps too confusing, but still interesting to see how they split options by content or experience type. There are some cautionary tales out there of overly striated systems in which patrons resented being told which membership box they fit into.

As for museums doing this, I don't have great resources for you. You might want to talk to folks from free museums (or previously free museums) about how they manage and support members (since those are people for whom affinity and support, not free admission) is the key. The Brooklyn Museum is doing some work in this space with their specialty 1stfans membership, but that's still pretty new.