If your organization’s membership messaging is primarily focused on transaction-based benefits (e.g., free admission, discounts), then you may face difficulties attracting higher-value members.
The chips are still falling as cultural executives seek to understand audience motivations and behaviors in a pandemic-impacted world. One of the key takeaways emerging from the pandemic involves the marriage of an increase in trust in cultural organizations with the importance of effective membership programs. It’s manifesting itself in the growing delta between mission and transaction-motivated members.
Transaction-motivated members are primarily motivated to join for benefits such as free admission and discounts, while mission-motivated members purchase memberships primarily for reasons related to the organization’s mission. In our open-ended lexical analysis research processes, these are the folks who say that their primary motivations for becoming a member are to “support the organization,” “support the organization’s mission,” “mission impact,” or “belong to the organization.” They also list affinity-based motivating factors ahead of more transactional motivating benefits.
The idea that a member may be solely mission-based vs. transaction-based is oversimplified thinking, however. Indeed, even the most mission-passionate members and donors may appreciate the ability to bring their loved ones back throughout the year for free. This said, simply identifying whether a member’s primary motivation is mission or transaction-based can reveal a good amount about that kind of member and their potential value to the organization.
We first published findings on the key differences between the mission-motivated and transaction-motivated in 2016, and the bases of this video still remain true:
However, we’ve noticed a trend in value-related perceptions of members among mission and transaction-motivated members since 2016.
The charts below demonstrate the behaviors and motivations of 1,788 US adult high-propensity members. These are folks who are or have recently been active members to at least one cultural organization in the US. 618 of these members identified as primarily mission-motivated, and 1,170 identified as primarily transaction-motivated. (Again, remember that most members are a mix of both motivators, and this categorization is based upon a member’s primary reason for joining.)
“Percent ‘good’ value” shows the percentage of these current and likely members who believe that the indicated membership price point represents a “good” value.
Let’s start by looking at the $250 membership price point for a typical “family” membership product:
There’s a clear trend taking place since the start of the pandemic: the delta between the percent “good” value perception between mission and transaction-motivated members has widened. This trend is of note to us at IMPACTS Experience because the delta is reliably growing. A greater percentage of mission-motivated members believe that the $250 membership price point provides a good value. However, the percentage of transaction-motivated members who find $250 to be a good value has remained relatively stable in the same duration.
A close look at the $250 price point is not arbitrary. At IMPACTS Experience we’ve found that $250 is generally the price point where members start to regard themselves as donors to an organization. In other words, even though they may be deriving benefits from their membership, $250 is a perceptual price threshold where many persons start to consider some component of their membership as more analogous to a gift than an exchange of goods.
Does the trend hold up when we consider $500 membership levels? Take a look:
Similarly, the delta between the percent “good” value perception among mission-motivated and transaction-motivated members is widening at the $500 membership price point.
The research suggests that transaction-based benefits such as free admission and discounts may only go so far in motivating people to become higher-level members. Critically, the difference is growing.
The visitor-serving industry has a clear history of promoting primarily transaction-based benefits and training potential members to believe that these are indeed the biggest benefits of becoming a member to a cultural organization. After decades of this messaging, it’s no surprise that many potential members believe us. In fact, this may be why some believe that older generations are less mission-driven in general when it comes to becoming a member: Older individuals been told directly for decades that discounts, free admission, and tangible items such as publications are the benefits of being a member. Free admission is an important membership benefit, of course – people generally want to feel welcome to return to those organizations that they support. (Although, interestingly, mission-based members tend to visit less often than transaction-based members). Knowing that their membership supports what your organization does and stands for can be an even greater benefit, regardless of generation.
For many of the 224 organizations that we track, transaction-motivated members still make up an overwhelming majority of members – an outcome arising from decades of discounting memberships and misreading audience motivations. But it’s a trend that organizations can buck!
One organization that we monitor enjoys a full 50% of mission-motivated members. As of 2022, it’s not unheard of for select market leaders to have 20-35% mission-motivated members. Again, however, transaction-motivated members still make up a vast majority of members in the United States. It’s those institutions that have made active efforts to also highlight what they stand for that have seen positive movement. Interestingly, there is little observational data to suggest that highlighting your mission necessarily comes at the expense of people who are more transactionally motivated. You’re not “selling” a different product; instead, you’re highlighting many of the implicit benefits of membership in a way that compliments the explicit benefits. Organizations that claim more mission-motivated members don’t altogether ignore free admission as a benefit, but they also highlight how joining their organization helps them achieve outcomes relating to their mission.
Unsurprisingly, organizations with a higher percentage of mission-based members are also proving more successful in converting these members to donors and securing greater philanthropic giving.
This finding underscores the need to illustrate how your organization executes its mission, elevates its community, and creates memorable experiences. If your organization is still promoting transaction-based benefits at the exclusion of mission-based meaning, then the membership road may be harder for your entity.
This may not be a simple “if we change our message, they will come” solution. Cultivating a membership base of mission-driven individuals is a strategy that takes time, effort, and planning. But the research is clear: It’s important.
People are only willing to contribute so much for a discount or free admission.
But for the opportunity to elevate their communities, give to something bigger than themselves, create a legacy of meaningful memories, or inspire others? Those are more priceless contributions.
IMPACTS Experience provides data specific to organizations or markets through workshops, keynote presentations, webinars, and data services such as pricing recommendations, market potential analyses, concept testing, and Awareness, Attitude, and Usage studies. Learn more.
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