Hint: It’s not the tax deduction…
It’s a basic question that I’ve never covered here on Know Your Own Bone! That said, it’s one upon which there is a significant amount of information in the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study (NAAU). The NAAU is an ongoing survey of over 108,000 individuals in the US regarding their perceptions and behaviors surrounding cultural organizations. The data shared here includes exhibit-based organizations such as museums, botanic gardens, historic sites, science centers, aquariums, and zoos. We asked folks who are members (paying less than $250 annually) to any kind of exhibit-based cultural organization about the most important benefits of their membership.
Sit tight, subscription-based performing arts organizations such as theaters, symphonies, and orchestras! These entities are included in the NAAU as well, and I have an article specifically on them in the works!
Chart 1: What are the top benefits of membership?
For easier math and comparisons, let’s consider membership benefits in index values. An index value is a way of assigning proportionality around a mean value of 100. Index values help show how items compare to one another. For instance, a feeling of supporting an organization’s mission is 2.5 times more important than member events, and eleven times more important than the benefit of a tax deduction. Items that are above 100 are particularly notable because they are above the mean. Values above 100 are most worthy of focus.
We ask about the top three so that we may assess comparative value among the other benefits. For instance, if the question were only about the top benefit, we may get a misleading picture. For one person, free admission may be the top benefit and discounted parking may be the twelfth. For another, free admission may also be the top benefit, but discounted parking could be second. By asking about the top three, we can more accurately compare and weight them overall.
It’s also worth noting that the NAAU is an advanced survey instrument that uses a process called lexical analysis. We don’t ask a question and present folks with options. Instead, we ask open-ended questions and computers and recoding devices weight and group the answers. This removes unintentional framing effects. In other words, “supporting the mission” wasn’t on a list – people said it on their own. This process also allows us to figure out the true top benefits, not “the top benefits among this list presented.”
The top benefits among members to cultural organizations in the United States paying equal or less than $250 per year for their membership are:
- Free admission
- Supporting the organization’s mission
- Discounted guest tickets
- Member events
The least important benefits (from least important to…less least important) are:
- Exclusive emails
- Member publications
- Tax deductions
- Discount parking
A note on membership publications…
We’re in a touchy territory of potential professional cognitive biases here. Some organizations invest a great deal of time and monetary resources on membership publications and the knee jerk reaction to data like this is, “That doesn’t apply to me!” And, well, maybe it doesn’t. But consider this: Nationally, membership publications are not even close to a top membership benefit.
This finding doesn’t mean that membership publications couldn’t be a top benefit… but that, rather, they aren’t in general. It may be similar to the phenomenon with mobile applications for cultural organizations: There may be a few good ones, but there are many, many more that people find boring or useless, and that becomes the overall perception of the benefit.
Also remember that your members are human beings, and we humans don’t like having things taken away from us, even if we don’t use them. (Hello, loss aversion!) If you’re thinking about changing or modifying any membership benefits as informed by your audience research, it may be best in some situations to change up your internal allocation of resources or slowly evolve offerings instead of removing any benefit completely in one sweep without replacement.
Chart 2: Do millenials value different benefits than non-millennials?
Good question – especially since “millennial talk” is often code for “everyone talk.” In other words, aside from being a generational demographic that cultural organizations must do a better job of attracting, they also serve as canaries in the coal mine for trends increasingly impacting other generations as well.
While there are some important differences, note that the “top four” and “bottom four” most important and least important benefits are the same as those shown above, but some of the orders are reversed.
Millennials value supporting an organization’s mission as the top benefit of membership, with free admission coming in second. (In fact, it was specifically asking millennials what they wanted from memberships that encouraged us at IMPACTS to take a closer look at mission-motivated membership trends in the first place.) For non-millennials, the spots are reversed. However, both items remain extremely important for both audiences.
Both millennials and non-millennials find exclusive emails to be the least important benefit. However, millennials find publications to be second-to-last and non-millennials find tax deductions to be second-to-last.
Chart 3: Supporting the organization’s mission matters a lot
“Well, of course ‘supporting the mission’ is high on the list! It’s not a real benefit! That one doesn’t count…”
Stop right there.
Just because we may have been overlooking this as a driving benefit for decades (and perhaps largely neglecting to focus on it in membership materials compared to transaction-based benefits) doesn’t mean that it doesn’t count. It counts. It really counts.
Mission-motivated members are those whose reported primary benefit is supporting the organization, belonging to the organization, or supporting mission impact. Transaction-motivated members, on the other hand, report primary benefits like priority access, membership events, and discounts.
Research shows that mission-motivated members are more likely to buy higher-level memberships, renew their memberships, and find greater value for cost in those higher memberships that they are purchasing. A problem, however, is that not all cultural organizations recognize the importance of highlighting these benefits and instead focus almost exclusively on transaction-based benefits.
Now consider this…
People in the United States who want to support an organization’s mission believe that the best way to do it is through a membership…so you can see how problematic it can be when very few marketing materials or communicated benefits even include mission-based motivators…let alone focus on them. The unintended message may be that membership does not fulfill that need. It may be perceived that membership is not, in fact, a meaningful way to support the organization’s mission. If it were, that would be positioned as a major purpose and benefit, wouldn’t it?
Making a donation is often filled with “support” language, but people believe that joining the organization is the top way to support a cultural mission – even more than donating alone.
Not everyone is primarily motivated by mission-based benefits, but it’s possible that to some extent, transaction-based benefits may simply be the default top-of-mind option thanks to decades of marketing discounts and priority access. And the line is not likely to be so stark: Data suggest that mission-based members enjoy free admission as well, and vice-versa.
It seems that it’s true in inspiring membership just as it is for everything else: Your organization’s mission matters.
(…and so does the free admission benefit.)