Association Membership Model: Why Can’t We Be Friends?

In January, the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) began offering free admission and membership. Visitors can enroll as a DMA Friend, the museum’s new “platform for engaged participation.” In a paper presented at the Museum and the Web conference in April, DMA Deputy Director Robert Stein and Bruce Wyman of USD Design/Mach Consulting said:

“One of the underlying goals of the program is to create long-term relationships with visitors while offering them value and benefits tailored to their experience and engagement with the museum. This long-term connection and repeat participation is seen as key to establishing the hoped for relevance of the museum in the lives of visitors.”

Instead of a transactional business (and membership) model based on the exchange of money for services, DMA built a new model based on relationships. Since any membership priced less than $100 was a net loss for the museum, they’re now focusing on member participation, believing revenue will come from members’ deeper engagement with the museum.

Like associations, museums have long had a traditional and predictable membership structure. But in the past few years, museums like the Whitney and the DMA, have tried new approaches to maintain, grow and, hopefully, deepen connections with their audience. DMA still offers higher-priced membership levels, but the Friends program is a way for them to connect with entry-level members. Could your association offer something similar to those who aren’t currently interested in paying for traditional association membership benefits?

Points, perks and badges

By scanning their membership card at checkpoints throughout the museum or texting an activity code upon entering a gallery, DMA Friends earn points and digital badges for activities such as asking staff a question, visiting a specific gallery, taking a tour or attending an event.

Points can be redeemed for perks like free parking, admission to ticketed exhibitions, shopping and dining discounts and behind-the-scenes tours. They can even be used like cash to pay for higher levels of membership. Most of these perks cost nothing extra for the museum to provide.

In April, DMA director Maxwell Anderson said they were signing up an average of 84 new members a day — more than 90 percent of whom were new contacts in their database. Based on activities and point redemption history, DMA can now send these members targeted communications about exhibits and events that may appeal to them.

Data delivers insight and member delight

To measure audience or member engagement, museums, like associations, have traditionally relied on qualitative surveys requiring considerable staff or financial resources. In addition, “such qualitative analysis is frequently designed with specific questions in mind, making the discovery of new patterns of participation slow and cumbersome.”

The new Friends program allows DMA to collect not only demographic data on its visitors/members but also data about their interests and habits – where they’re swiping their card, how frequently and which perks they redeem. Because of this actionable, and often real-time, data, the museum can create opportunities to interact with members. For example, if they notice that a large number of Friends have swiped their card in a specific gallery, staff will send a text to them offering a guided tour.

Make the human connection

Stein and Wyman believe: 

“…the heart of any successful engagement is the individual human connection that can happen in the museum. In large museums, this individual attention can be difficult; therefore, this project sets its focus on building an institutional infrastructure that can support many kinds of participation without getting in the way of a great museum experience.”

Associations have the same challenge. A “one-size-fits-all” approach works administratively but does it work for members? How can you offer a more meaningful, valuable and personal membership experience given limited resources?

Like DMA, associations can leverage technology to collect and act upon member, attendee and website visitor data. By seeing what data reveals about behaviors and preferences, you can offer your members and audiences the level of programs, services and products that aligns with their needs, interests and habits while deepening their engagement with the association.

A free membership level, like DMA’s Friends, is a way to connect with non-members who aren’t willing or able to purchase a traditional membership. In exchange for basic benefits, you can learn more about them while becoming part of their life. Who knows where the relationship might lead!

Deirdre Reid, CAE is a freelance writer who is a bit obsessed with the museum world.

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