The top reason may challenge how organizations view membership retention.
Research shows that industry revenues are not generally keeping up with expenses among cultural organizations in the US – such as museums, zoos, aquariums, historic sites, and performing arts entities. This is one of the driving reasons why prioritizing the creation and cultivation of effective membership programs is more important than ever.
But not all members are of equal value. In a recent case study, IMPACTS found that the average net value of a retained member was 66.1% greater than that of a newly acquired member. In other words – while both are important aims – it’s less expensive to retain members than it is to attract them. Success comes in retaining members over time. It’s not enough to cram as many people into the “membership bucket” as possible and call it a day. .
This finding hints at an important question: How can we better retain members?
The answer may lie in better understanding why people who were recently members to a cultural organization in the US didn’t renew their memberships. While the findings may not be altogether surprising, their implications for internally approaching membership are critical.
As usual, the data below is from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study, which now includes upwards of 124,000 national respondents. For those who are unfamiliar with Know Your Own Bone, the data is populated by a process called lexical analysis in which we ask open-ended questions and computers categorize the responses. The results are from the mouths of study participants, rather than any kind of multiple-choice question that risks framing responses or limiting them to an organization’s brainstorming of possible answers. The answers are shown below in index value, which is a way of assigning proportionality around a mean value of 100. It’s those responses with a mean value over 100 that are particularly worthy of attention.
This chart shows the responses of people who were previously a member to any kind of cultural organization (art museum, botanic garden, symphony), but who haven’t renewed in the last two years.
The research reveals important implications for cultural organizations:
1) Membership retention often requires ongoing visitor cultivation
The top reason why past members haven’t renewed in the last two years is because they intend to renew when they next visit. You might have seen this top reason why people haven’t renewed and thought, “Oh! That’s fine. They’ll renew when they come back. That’s in the bag. What’s the next reason?”
If you did, please pause.
These people have not returned in the last two years. That is why they are no longer members!
Intending to renew their memberships when they return does not necessarily mean that these folks intend to return at all! Decoded, this response may mean, “I will renew when I am next enticed to return.” This means that the “enticing” is not over once someone becomes a member. Far from it! In order to retain members, organizations benefit by remaining aware of the visitor engagement cycle, and realizing that it doesn’t end – even for members.
The second barrier (“I forgot”) implies disengagement, but it may not necessarily imply that there wasn’t enough outreach. (Solicitation calls are the top dissatisfier among high-level members.) Rather, it may mean that the communications contained either the wrong message or were in the incorrect medium to get their attention.
In sum, membership retention is often tied to revisitation – and neither revisitation nor membership retention are “in the bag” once someone becomes a member.
2) The membership experience is intertwined between departments
The departmentalization of cultural organizations and their assigned tasks make sense from an operations standpoint: Membership departments take care of members!
But this research suggests being wary of too much silo-making, and especially to be careful about making assumptions about member behaviors and motivations. For instance, the assumption that “when someone becomes a member, they ‘belong’ to the membership department and engagement is a sealed deal,” is dubious. They don’t, and it’s not.
In order to entice any audience to attend cultural organizations, these entities still need to “walk their talk” on their missions, engage on social media, develop desirable programs, and invest in targeted messaging.The member relationship may be appropriately managed by the membership department, but but’s still fueled by broader offsite communications and satisfying onsite experiences.
Cultivating, engaging, and satisfying members is – like so many other things within cultural organizations – a part of everyone’s job. It is intertwined in the work carried out by a multiplicity of departments.
3) Some people don’t know they aren’t members – be understanding!
The third reason people didn’t renew is that they didn’t realize they weren’t members anymore!
I personally understand this. I’ll confess: I can’t tell you what active museum memberships I currently hold – not necessarily because I have a lot of them (I am a proud cultural nerd and I do collect those cards), but because I don’t regularly keep track of when they expire.
Some of the people who walk into the membership entrance may have no idea that their membership has expired and aren’t trying to pull a fast one on the museum, as some membership staff believe.
Don’t let your staff become the “membership police” – those people whose sole job it is to check IDs and too proudly turn away inactive members! Research reveals that worst thing about a visit to any cultural organization is rude staff or volunteers. If staff handle expired memberships with suspicion rather than sensitivity, then they risk embarrassing critical constituents and potential evangelists for an organization’s cause. To make matters even more critical, the “membership police” are already a top dissatisfier for high-level members to cultural organizations in the first place.
Frontline staff matter – and membership frontline staff may be worth particular care in terms of training and placement.
Unique conditions facing cultural organizations mean that effective membership programs may be more important right now than ever before. A first step in cultivating successful memberships programs may be understanding why past members haven’t renewed. While the findings are probably not shocking, leaders may not spend enough time on the critical take-aways:
- Members are not “in the bag” as consistent or repeat visitors, and assuming so may negatively impact membership retention.
- Member experiences are interconnected between departments.
- The experience of being a member extends beyond the marketed benefits. Solicitations and “membership police” are also part of the experience in many cases. Knowing that members are not always aware of their membership status may impact how we manage these not-always-positive experiences.
Members matter to cultural organizations. Understanding members can help our cultural organizations matter to them.