A newsletter on progress-space research and audience development for cultural leaders. One reader calls it, "sometimes funny"

Today’s guest letter is written by Rosie Siemer, CEO of FIVESEED. We'll be discussing this letter at an upcoming Writer Roundtable on June 15th — If you'd like to participate, you can register here: https://forms.superhelpful.com/rosieroundtablejune21

Writer Roundtable: Rosie Siemer, “Museum membership is down, but it’s not out”
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Over the past several years, membership has shown a flat or declining trend across the cultural sector. When adjusted for inflation, average growth in revenue from membership and subscriptions fell by -3.6 percent between 2016 and 2018. These trends revealed a troubling fact: Cracks were beginning to form in the foundation of the membership business model.

Then, in 2020, these faint fractures were pried wide open with the jarring combination of a global pandemic, increased attention on issues of systemic racism, and an economic downturn.

As the events of 2020 unfolded, museums were struck by outside forces that illuminated both deep challenges and opportunities in the membership business model.

Most notably, the COVID-19 pandemic eliminated the primary benefit associated with traditional membership (i.e., free admission) thereby severely impacting revenue. As museums closed their doors and quickly pivoted to digital, they extended their content (many for the first time) beyond the in-person museum setting. This shift cleared a space for museums to explore how membership benefits might be delivered in a virtual format. However, while museums rapidly ramped up digital offerings, strategy was pushed to the back burner in response to the unprecedented upheaval and devastation inflicted by the pandemic.

Last year, cultural organizations seized on opportunities in creative, courageous, and essential ways, stepping boldly into their roles as at-home educators, catalysts of wellbeing, facilitators of connection, and community hubs. In response to the pandemic, museums experimented with new programs, unique member experiences, and daring engagement strategies. Museums made much needed investments in technology, including digital member cards and virtual content platforms as well as introduced new revenue streams such as monthly membership, Zoom cameos, and virtual “micro-tours.” This investment in digital infrastructure and creation of new revenue streams will serve museums well as they chart their course to a more sustainable future.

2020 was also a year of reckoning and reflection as museums grappled with issues of equity, inclusion, and social justice. Commitments to diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI) accelerated a critical conversation among museum leaders about the role of membership and raised questions about its potential incompatibility with DEAI priorities. Importantly, as museum leaders seek to prioritize DEAI, such commitments must be more than a passive statement posted on the website or reserved only for certain aspects of the museum’s operations. Instead, DEAI must be reflected throughout the entire organization for museums to make holistic, meaningful, and observable impact. Therefore, we must confront how the traditional membership model—whether directly or inadvertently—reinforces practices that are antithetical to DEAI. Indeed, each museum leader will need to define the purpose of membership for their own institution and ensure that the membership strategy aligns with their commitment.  

We’re all glad to have 2020 behind us. The losses suffered by so many personally and professionally must not be minimized. Yet, it would be a mistake not to acknowledge the gift this past year gave us: perspective. As we all look ahead, I encourage you and your institution to continue experimenting, learning, and innovating. Latch on to those glimmers of success—those bright spots that show promise—and explore them further. Keep up the momentum!

As visitors return to physical museums, the forthcoming recovery for the museum industry is sure to be a long, slow, multi-year process that threatens to upend the traditional membership model permanently. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In truth, the disruption we’re experiencing is necessary to advance museums into a stronger position. Let’s not miss this moment to critically examine membership, its purpose, and its underlying assumptions; to listen deeply to our audiences and invest in inviting new audiences in; to test the waters with new approaches that may light a better path forward.  

There’s an Alligator Lurking in the Sewer

The field of museum membership has its own folklore. Like any good urban legend, the conventional wisdom that undergirds many membership programs has been passed down over the years. However, few of these “truths” have been put through an evidence-based test to validate their claims. Consider the following examples:

  • “Members make our mission possible!” Yet, pre-pandemic earned revenue from membership and subscriptions covered just 6 percent of annual expenses at cultural organizations.
  • “Members view their membership as a donation to the museum.” Not always. Approximately 50 percent of U.S. museum attendees consider membership a consumer transaction—not charitable giving.
  • “The marketing campaign brought in so many new members!” Recent research shows that widely accepted beliefs about digital advertising’s efficacy are dubious. Likewise, “matchback analysis” (the industry standard for measuring the efficacy of a direct mail acquisition campaign) relies heavily on phantom attribution.
  • “Our members visit all the time.” The average member or subscriber attends less than one time per year. In fact, data show that the average person only visits a museum about once every two years—not several times a year. Thus, the premise for the typical membership value proposition is flawed. Further, many metrics associated with membership often track with an annual time horizon and therefore do not capture the full picture.
  • “Long-term members are loyal to our organization.” While it’s tempting to associate the decision to renew with loyalty, length of membership itself is not a predictor of member commitment. This reality dispels a strong belief in the museum sector that member retention alone correlates with a deeper relationship to the organization.

Humorist Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” To reach new audiences and extend the museum’s mission, leaders must be willing to challenge what they know for sure that just ain’t so.

Innovation requires a hearty mix of curiosity, humility, and adaptability, and necessitates a willingness to challenge sacred cows and push back on those precedents and assumptions that no longer hold true. Embracing the discomfort that comes with letting go of old ideas, practices, and perspectives—even those that have worked well and contributed to our success in the past—is how museums will reemerge stronger.

The 3 Big Questions Every Museum Leader Needs to Answer Right Now

On average, membership comprises between two and six percent of revenue for museums (Chmelik: Sustainable Revenue for Museums). But members have a much higher lifetime customer value—four-and-half times greater than the average visitor ($726.83 in member revenue compared to $160.20 for the average visitor over a ten-year period). Nevertheless, membership is an expensive undertaking for a museum. Generally speaking, it takes one dollar for every two dollars raised to run an effective membership program. Thus, while members may be worth more to an organization than a general admission visitor, the traditional membership model requires a significant investment to be able to maintain and grow. Moreover, as 2020 laid bare, while a strong member base can generate a healthy amount of unrestricted revenue for an organization, there are risks associated with reliance on a membership program that is comprised of a large percentage of transactional members.

These realities can make museum membership a double-edged sword. And it’s why the purpose of membership must be clearly articulated and aligned with institutional goals. For example, a museum that wishes to increase involvement from non-traditional audiences will likely not be able to also have a compatible objective of increasing membership revenue—at least, not at the outset. Similarly, if membership is nothing more than a glorified parking pass, then museum leaders must understand that this type of program will naturally attract transactional members who are not joining with the same intent as a philanthropically oriented member.

To recover and thrive, museum leaders must be able to answer three big questions:

  1. Why do your members join?
  2. How does a member’s “why” for joining affect their behavior?
  3. What kind of member do you want to attract?

Museums must get better at understanding and responding to customer needs. We are only just beginning to understand the reasons that drive the decision to join, renew, donate, and become more involved. Deciphering the specific motivations, values, needs, and barriers that predict and prevent behavior is of paramount importance to being able to attract the right kind of member. Therefore, museum leaders must invest in research that will unlock rich, meaningful insights about our audiences.

It’s clear that membership has reached a tipping point. And many in the field are questioning if membership, as it exists today, will be a viable model in the future. As author Saul Kaplan describes in The Business Model Innovation Factory, “the half-life of a business model is declining” requiring more frequent reinventions for any business to remain viable.  Membership is not immune to this reality. But if we are willing to test our assumptions, there is ample room for reinvention.


Lion statue from the Art Institute of Chicago standing on top of an alligator


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