Here’s how often members and subscribers actually visit.
Note: We are including subscribers to performing arts organizations in our use of the word “members” in this article. You’ll see the organization types separately segmented in the data below.
It’s time for the reveal with fresh data, hot off the…omnibus survey instrument.
We’ve set up the sharing of this data over the last few weeks. First, we shared how often the average person returns to visit certain cultural organization types (such as a symphony or an art museum). Summary: People visit cultural organizations less often than you may think.
That finding begged the question: “Well, what about members? How often do they visit?”
It’s a good question.
Last week, we shared that nearly 20% of members do not annually visit the organization to which they hold a membership – and what we know about these non-visiting members. Today, we’ll dive into the approximately 80% who report using the free admission membership benefit annually and how often they attend different organization types.
As a weekly reminder, these data are pulled from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study, which currently includes over 124,000 individuals in the US. For these charts, we looked at folks who reported being an exhibit-based member or a performance-based member/subscriber to a cultural organization in the US.
Ready? Let’s uncover how often members visit different cultural organization types in the US.
1) How often do members (who visit) visit?
It may seem logical to start off by answering the direct question, “How often do members visit?” However, as we uncovered last week, not all members return annually to visit the cultural organization to which they hold a membership. To that end, let’s start by uncovering how often those who report actually visiting each year say they come through the doors.
The chart below shows the average re-visitation chronology for those who fit two criteria: (1) They are recent members/subscribers in that they indicate having an active membership within the past 24 months, and (2) they have redeemed the visitation benefit of their membership. In other words, these are the average re-visitation cycles of active members/subscribers who actually visit.
For exhibit-based cultural organizations in the US – including those not specifically shown here such as children’s museums – the average membership visitation cycle is slightly more than 11 months. The average member who takes advantage of free admission returns only once each year.
For performance-based organizations in the US – including those not specifically shown here such as ballets and operas – the average subscription visitation cycle approximates six months. The average subscriber who takes advantage of free admission visits twice each year.
Why do performance-based subscribers attend more often on average than exhibit-based members?
The perception of “nothing new to do or see” is a top barrier to visiting exhibit-based cultural organizations, but not performing arts organizations. The reasons for this make sense: Performance-based organizations regularly change up their programming, and subscribers can see different performances (with limited duration runs) throughout the year. This may be an innate benefit of the subscription model.
But this same strategy isn’t necessarily a solution for exhibit-based organizations. We often find that organizations whose business models depend primarily upon special exhibits are susceptible to increased financial challenges compared to those that do not rely upon a special exhibit cycle. (We have a deeper dive and major update on this coming your way next month.)
Moreover, performance-based subscribers tend to be more “niche” and are generally a smaller subset of the US population than those who visit museums. This allows performance-based organizations a particularly unique opportunity to “go deep” with subscribers as a means of long-term engagement. In this way, the performing arts engagement model is fundamentally different than the exhibit-based engagement model.
2) How often do members (overall) visit?
If we include non-visiting members, how do the membership and subscription attendance cycles shift? After all, considering all active members is the true way to consider how often members visit.
Interestingly – although perhaps unsurprisingly – things change when we include the nearly 20% of active members who do not report visiting annually.
For exhibit-based cultural organizations in the US – again, including those not specifically shown here such as children’s museums – the average membership visitation cycle for all members is 15 months. For performance-based organizations in the US – again, including those not specifically shown such as ballets and operas – the average subscription visitation cycle for all subscribers is 13 months. Members and subscribers do not necessarily visit annually.
The folks who do not report visiting annually are more likely to be members for reasons that are not transactional. Thus, some of these active members do not visit for years, because free admission may not be the motivating factor driving their membership or subscription as it is for many others. Or perhaps some intend to visit and keep renewing with the thought that they will but have not yet done so. Either way, these members are still members – and they are still active and engaged.
3) Overall, an average member or subscriber attends less than one time per year
If you’re having a hard time with this, you’re not alone. I saw the overall member findings (chart 2) before I saw the visiting member findings (chart 1), and it clashed with my cognitive biases so hard that I angrily demanded IMPACTS pull the data again. It had to be wrong!
It wasn’t. My defensive demands never result in a reality change.
(And if you have good data, then yours won’t, either.)
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t loads of members and subscribers visiting several times each year! There likely are! But those visiting several times each year don’t visit often enough (and not in high enough numbers) to offset the length of time between those who do not visit annually but are still active members.
Consider this: How often you take advantage of the memberships that you have? And as a cultural executive/insider, you probably profile very strongly as a person who is likely to visit cultural organizations frequently!
On average, members and subscribers visit less than we may think.
But this finding may also matter less than you think
What’s the goal of your organization’s membership offerings? Unless the goal is solely to get people to return as many times each year as possible, then this finding may matter less than you think.
My guess is your goal is more strategic than getting as many people as possible to take advantage of free admission. Often, the real goal of membership is to create a community of people who play a critical, ongoing role in supporting your organization. The benefits they use may only be important insofar as they match the benefits that members actually want. Some members want to support you, but don’t visit every year. That’s okay!
…To an extent. We don’t see glaring data that this phenomenon is bad, or even that it’s new. But it does highlight some opportunities for thinking about how we engage with our members.
Here’s where the rubber hits the road: The top reason why expired members have not renewed in 24 months is because they intend to do it when they next visit. The second most prevalent reason is that they forgot. The third most prevalent reason is that they didn’t even realize they were no longer members!
The take-away here may not be that we primarily aim for members to return as often as possible (though it’s not a bad idea). It may also be that we aim to keep them engaged in the way that they need to be engaged in order to continue their support. Organizations benefit by engaging members online/offsite, too. This helps keep the organization and its mission top-of-mind, and allows us to connect with members on an ongoing basis – whether they fit in our annual membership visitation timeframes or not.
4) What might this mean for membership and subscription strategies?
These findings may have implications for the direction of an organization’s membership or subscription strategies. Here are two considerations underscored by these findings:
A) Consider alternative approaches to annual memberships
Memberships do indeed positively influence visitation cycles, but perhaps not as strongly as an organization may hope. One option – informed by this data – is to consider longer-term membership periods (e.g. two-year membership terms instead of one-year membership terms). People who purchase a two-year membership may be more invested, and, thus, more likely to renew. This option could give people willing to invest more and commit longer the opportunity to do so, and the longer-term better aligns with actual usage patterns.
Effective membership strategies are arguably more important than ever. Our industry may be at a critical point in revolutionizing membership programs, how we approach them, and how much we value the staff members who manage them.
B) Understand member motivations
What arguably matters more than which benefits members use (which may be limited to what you market to them as a primary benefit) is which benefits members actually want. Research suggests members often primarily approach their commitment in one of two ways: A transaction-based membership (i.e. an “annual pass”) and a more mission-based membership (“supporting the cause”). We know mission-based members buy higher-level memberships at higher price-points and are more likely to renew them.
For some organizations, it may make sense to work to parse out and identify these two member profiles. Doing so may allow certain organizations to identify the best audiences for “going deep” with experiences in order to cultivate philanthropic giving.
However, we also know that in today’s world of corporate social responsibility, transaction-motivated members also want to support an organization’s mission. Regardless of your way forward in terms of mission vs. transaction-based members and how to best engage each type of person, offering the opportunity to support something meaningful often matters to both audiences.
Knowing what makes your members tick is important in today’s world in which people increasingly expect targeted, personalized experiences.
These findings do not clearly indicate a win or a loss. Instead, they may simply open our eyes to the reality of member behavior so organizations may create the most successful membership strategies in a more data-informed era.
People believe that the single best thing they can do to support an organization’s mission is become a member. Members or subscribers may join for different reasons, but these audiences represent an opportunity to cultivate a community of advocates for our organizations.
It’s in our best interest to make it as easy as possible for members to support us – and understanding the reality of visitation cycles can help.
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