Data suggest that there is payoff for organizations that cultivate this subset of membership.
New data is in and, as usual, it may make cultural executives do a double-take!
IMPACTS, the company with which I am affiliated, tracks 224 cultural organizations. I recently queried the data to uncover which cultural organizations have membership programs that generate the most support in an effort to spot what they have in common. The query included both exhibit-based organizations (i.e. museums and botanic gardens), and performance-based organizations (i.e. symphonies and theaters).
In terms of membership make-up, one finding jumped out immediately: The more admired the organization, the higher percentage of non-local members it counted amongst its supporters.
“I’m out! This can only be true for cultural organizations with major brands in big cities, and that’s not my organization!”
That’s incorrect. The data contemplates the percentage of members who are non-locals, not the total number of members. In other words, in organizations large and small – over a million visitors each year or under – it seems to be those organizations that are most admired by the public have higher percentages of non-local members.
These 18 (real life, but anonymized) cultural organizations illustrate the trend. In the data, non-local members are those living >150 miles from the organization.
A thoughtful consideration may be, “Do organizations that are more admired attract more non-local members, or does welcoming non-local members lead to becoming a more admired organization?” And I don’t know the answer to that question. It may be both. But perhaps the answer isn’t the point…
If non-local audiences are welcomed as members and supporters, isn’t that an avenue for earned revenue that may increase an organization’s reputation? And if admired organizations attract more non-local members, isn’t it worth underscoring opportunities attendant to membership?
What do we know about non-local members?
In diving deeper into the behaviors and preferences of non-local audiences, several other, noteworthy findings emerge that suggest attention be paid to these rad, supportive folks:
1) They purchase more expensive memberships
On average, national members living more than 150 miles from an organization purchase memberships that cost more than local or regional members. The $19.42 difference represents a full 44.4% increase in price paid between local and national members.
2) They have greater intent to renew their memberships
Nearly sixty percent of non-local members intend to renew their memberships, compared to nearly fifty percent of local members. And remember, it costs less to keep a member than it does to retain one. Not only do non-local audiences contribute more monetary support by member average, but they are also easier to retain!
3) They do not visit as often as local audiences
This finding is unlikely to be surprising! These folks live further away, so the magnitude of primary barriers to visitation may be greater for these members (e.g. scheduling, transportation, etc.). Thus, it may be logical that fewer of these members actually visit the organization during the time of their membership.
Consider what we’ve uncovered: Non-local members purchase higher-level memberships and are more likely to renew their memberships than local or regional audiences, but they do not come in the door as frequently – or at all!
What is going on here?!
How can this be?! It may be helpful to revisit two, data-informed findings that may be coming into play with regard to non-local members:
1) Mission-motivated members are more valuable than transaction-motivated members
Because they are less proximate to the organization to take part in transactional benefits such as member discounts, non-local members may be primarily mission-motivated.
There’s danger in assuming that all members are members for the same reasons. They’re not. There may especially be danger in assuming that members are only members for the reasons that an organization may choose to focus their “membership sales pitch” – such as free admission, discounts, or exclusive member events.
Upon uncovering that millennials report different primary membership benefits than the generations preceding them, IMPACTS dug into the data further. We found that – in terms of the primary benefits of membership – members often fall into one of two groups: mission-motivated or transaction-motivated.
While mission-motivated members tend to make up a lesser percentage of members, these folks are cultural organization gold. They report that their memberships are 14.5% more valuable, pay 42% more for their membership on average, and are 14% more likely to renew their memberships than transaction-motivated members.
Certainly, there are mission-motivated members who also value invitations to exclusive events! What makes someone a mission-motivated member is what they believe to be the primary benefit of membership. And members whose primary motivation for becoming a member is related to an organization’s mission may be the best kind of member.
2) Locals are a notoriously tough crowd for visitor-serving organizations
Let’s start here: Members are not necessarily the same group as “locals who love us!” Holding onto this myth may cost cultural organizations…literally.
The insidious part of the “members are locals who love us” myth is that it cultivates a cycle. Internal leaders believing that this is all that membership can be may promote messaging that underscores locality. In the process, they may close doors for less proximate potential members who want to support the organization.
Organizations that believe their membership goal is exclusively to target “locals who love us” may attract only locals who love them (or simply want a transaction-based benefit), and close doors to potential opportunities and a more national brand. Locals can be a great group, but messaging exclusively to them may negatively impact avenues for engagement and philanthropic giving for non-local supporters who would like ongoing communication with the entity.
If your organization treats and rewards members as if they should be exclusively locals, then that is an executive choice – no matter how unintentional. (And maybe your organization is not truly offering a membership, but an ongoing local promotion.)
Aside from closing doors to a mission-motivated member who may want to hear from you, offering/promoting membership solely to “locals who love us” overlooks an important cultural organization reality that may hinder success:
A very though crowd. Even – as made evident in recent events – in New York City. Compared even to regional visitors to cultural organizations, locals have 14% lower value-for-cost perceptions (despite paying 20% less in admission, on average, due to local discounts), and have 11% lower visitor satisfaction levels. This phenomenon is the outcome of sector-trained, local entitlement and the popular belief that, “If something is so great, it cannot be in my back yard!”
Don’t get me wrong! Locals are important audiences! But limiting membership to local audiences – whether by design or by accident – can close doors, confuse access opportunities and make a mess of funding strategies, and exacerbate the visitor-serving sector’s current “local entitlement” pickle.
The most admired cultural organizations having a higher percentage of non-local members underscores another key finding that we continually observe: Organizations that highlight their missions outperform those marketing primarily as attractions.
Attracting more non-local members may be the result of an organization successfully underscoring its mission in its messaging, experience, programming, and opportunities.
And, hey, if people want to love a cultural organization for doing what it does best, shouldn’t organizations embrace the opportunity to do so?