The top reason why members and subscribers do not renew points toward the need for interconnectedness of departments within cultural organizations.
We recently published an article called Stepping Out of Silos: Five Things That Are Everyone’s Job In Cultural Organizations. Cultural executives and staff members tend to wear several hats and manage seemingly endless moving parts within their organizations. (Your work is important, and you often manage it with limited nonprofit budgets and staff support, with little free time, to boot.) But it’s difficult for any department to succeed if it’s too cut off from the others, and this can make it harder for the organization to succeed. From championing a mission to satisfying onsite visitors, cultural organization departments benefit by being as connected as the people they serve today.
For instance, when someone becomes a member, they do not become an alien-member-human impacted only and exclusively by the Membership Department. Members are people like everyone else, and engaging people is what cultural organizations do.
This week, we’d like to dive back into perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors of members to exhibit-based organizations and subscribers to performance-based organizations. Why? Like successful engagement on the whole, engaging members is the coordinated work of everyone within a cultural organization.
The top reason why members/subscribers do not renew may be surprising
When you hypothesize as to why members or subscribers may not have renewed their memberships or subscriptions, you may come up with the common ideas: Maybe they became disinterested in the organization. Perhaps membership is too expensive. It’s possible that they didn’t enjoy the exclusive events and didn’t think they were valuable. You may even be asking yourselves, “Did we do something wrong?”
But when we ask open-ended questions to people who haven’t renewed their memberships or subscriptions in over two years and inquire as to why they haven’t done so, the top response may surprise you.
The data below represents the first quarter of 2019. The orange bar indicates lapsed subscribers to performing arts institutions, and the blue bar indicates lapsed members to exhibit-based institutions. It is cut for members to exhibit-based organizations (zoos, aquariums, museums, historic sites, botanic gardens, etc.) and performance-based organizations (symphonies, theaters, ballets, etc.). The data is in index value, which is a way of assigning proportionality around a mean of 100. Those items with index values over 100 are particularly worthy of consideration, and are primary factors.
The top reason expired members and subscribers haven’t renewed isn’t because they do not like the organization. They simply intend to renew when they next visit!
They just… haven’t returned in over two years.
And may not return again anytime soon (or ever).
(The second and third reasons may surprise folks, too. These are communication opportunities. Just because we “have always” sent communications via snail mail doesn’t mean it’s always where people notice it.)
Members/subscribers follow the Visitor Engagement Cycle like other guests
The thing is, these expired members haven’t visited in the last two years – and saying that they’ll renew when they next visit doesn’t mean that they necessarily intend to visit in the next two years, either. They’ll just renew when they feel compelled to come back.
It’s our job to compel them to come back, just as we aim to compel everyone else to come back, too. And it’s not just a “membership effort,” as these folks were once members and may become members again when they return. The task of getting members and visitors to come back falls on everyone’s shoulders within a cultural organization. It’s a combined task for membership, operations, marketing, education, and everyone else who plays a hand in motivating attendance on the whole. It’s a group effort.
If you are a regular reader of this website, then you probably know a thing or two about the The Visitor Engagement Cycle. It’s a helpful framework for how to think about motivating attendance to organizations. We may call it “The Visitor Engagement Cycle,” but, given the top reason members do not renew, it relates to members and subscribers as well.
The average person who visits a cultural organization type doesn’t visit another of that type for two or more years. Thankfully, members tend to visit more often, though perhaps not as often as one might think. On average, 20% of members to cultural organizations do not attend them annually, but of the 80% who do, they visit exhibit-based entities once each year on average, and performance-based entities twice each year, on average. (A word to the wise: Don’t write off members who do not visit. Research suggests they may be your most valuable of all, in some cases.)
The very fact that visiting members have different visitor engagement cycle lengths than regular visitors is a win for membership and subscription experiences. It suggests that, indeed, member benefits may play a role in shortening attendance timespans. That’s a good thing.
But the fact that not all members have this shortened cycle isn’t surprising, either. Again, the average visitation cycle for people in the US is 27 months, for those who actually attend these types of organizations.
While we often talk about members and non-members, it helps to remember that the member and non-member identity can easily shift. A person can be a member one year but not the next and then become a member again the year after that.
Members can be incredible advocates for organizations, tend to be inspired by your mission, and they are generally more satisfied with their visits. However, approaching members as if they were a different species of human belonging only to the membership department risks them being lost not just to one department but the whole museum. Members still see your television ads, experience your onsite programs, and tag you on Instagram posts like other visitors. And like other visitors, retaining members often means enticing them to come back.
Cultivating and retaining members is arguably more important than ever before
You may be thinking, “This is interesting and all, but why does it matter?”
Membership has arguably always been an area worthy of attention, but there are three unique conditions that make it particularly important for cultural organizations at this moment in time.
The first is that expenses are outpacing revenues for cultural organizations. We are spending money at a steeper rate than we are securing earned and contributed revenues. This is a sad equation that may spell trouble over time for many institutions. On average, a member is worth 4.5x more than a visitor, and it may be less expensive to retain a member than it is to attract a new one. Strategic membership programs can help build a community of supporters that are efficient sustaining support.
The second reason why membership is particularly important is because there is a membership opportunity facing cultural entities. While we have a way to go in engaging new audiences, research shows that organizations are increasingly good at welcoming the same people back. More people coming back means more opportunities to hook people on our missions and experiences and entice them to join our community.
The third reason why membership is particularly important right now is because becoming a member is generally seen as the top way to support an organization’s mission – even more than making a donation. Paying attention to membership programs means paying attention to our missions – specifically, paying attention some of the core people who support those missions.
(Compelled by these reasons and want to share them? Here’s a whole article about them with data and more information.)
It may be tempting to consider “members” and “non-members” to be hard categories made up of very different people, but this isn’t always the case. People can switch between these categories. The goal may be to convert attendees to members or subscribers, but when we silo this task too much, we may risk self-sabotage and miss the point:
Member or non-member, we want folks to come back.
And that’s an ongoing job for all of us.
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