Rewarding Changes in Museum Membership


Photo by Stefan Baudy

Edward de Bono, an internationally renowned thinker, once said: “It is better to have enough ideas for some of them to be wrong, than to be always right by having no ideas at all.”

Taking his words to heart, we present our newest Museumist recurring segment: “What If Museums…” Let’s throw some ideas against the wall and see which ones stick.


What if Museums…Offered Points-Based Membership Programs?

Let’s begin with a little background.

Inspiration #1:

On February 16th, Nina Simon wrote a post about the need for museums to have both value and affinity based memberships. Basic free annual admission for the value hunters. For those seeking a deeper connection to the museum, targeted programming, behind-the-scenes features, and enhanced communication. All in all, an excellent idea.

Inspiration #2:

One of the latest social media crazes is FourSquare, a site that allows you to “check-in” at venues across your city. For example, as I am writing this, Derek B. in Ann Arbor, Michigan just checked in at Bab’s Underground Lounge. Big deal, you say? Well, where FourSquare gets interesting is that you earn points for where, when, and how often you check in. If you check in at a particular venue more than anyone else that week, you become the Mayor of that location. Derek B. is the Mayor of Bab’s Underground Lounge. One can infer that Derek B. really likes that bar. Other features of FourSquare allow users to leave tips about venues (Ask for Amanda at the Hair Cuttery, she gives the best haircuts), to receive recommendations about other nearby points of interest (You’re at the Hopleaf in Andersonville? Well, here are some nearby restaurants you might want to try), and to discover where their friends are (You’re at the Atlanta airport. So is your friend Joe). Essentially, it is a platform for gaining knowledge, making connections, and earning rewards for loyalty to an organization.

How This Applies to Museums

Now if you combine Nina’s idea of separating value from affinity memberships and the reward system of FourSquare, you get a points-based museum membership.

Meet John. He is a twenty-something who has decided to visit an art museum. He’s standing in line at the admissions desk, a little unsure about forking over $20 for a spur of the moment visit. Buying a membership would be the financially savvy thing to do, but he’s not sure he will use the membership enough to make it a real value purchase. Hold on, what’s this? An inexpensive individual membership that allows him to earn points towards increasing rewards packages based upon his interests, now that sounds like something worth looking into.

A points-based membership would work like this…

  • Buy the membership, get x amount of points.
  • Earn x amount of points for each visit to the museum.
  • Earn more points for visiting on a weekday.
  • Did you buy something in the store? Tack on a few more points.
  • Sign up for the mailing list. Fill out a visitor survey. Provide feedback through a comment card. Points!
  • Attend a lecture, class, program, gallery talk, etc. and you’re one step closer to rewards.
  • Points for purchasing a gift membership or recommending a friend.
  • Attend an exhibit opening, special members event, or off-site museum event.
  • Bring a guest.
  • Participate in online forums – Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, YouTube, etc.
  • Volunteer at the museum. Points, points, points!

You get the idea. Now as you build points through participation and interaction, you can apply them toward rewards. Here are some reward ideas…

  • Discounts to the museum store.
  • Discounts on gift memberships, gift certificates, or add-a-member to your membership.
  • Behind the scenes tours.
  • Lunch with a curator.
  • Members night for individuals with a certain amount of points or discounts on facility rentals.
  • A museum tote bag. Everyone loves tote bags.
  • Tickets to the museum’s gala or fundraiser.
  • Free parking.
  • If its an art museum, give away prints or posters.
  • Living history museum? A chance to dress up as one of the “characters” for a day.
  • The museum can feature an interview with their member on their website.
  • Give away tickets to local events. Visiting the museum earns you points to score some tickets to a concert or film.
  • Magazine subscriptions. At children’s museums you could get Parents Magazine. Some obvious options would be National Geographic or Smithsonian. However, contemporary art museums could offer publications like Good, How, or Dwell.
  • Adopt a painting or artifact.

And the list goes on.

If you offer your visitors an either/or option like “Be a Value Member or be an Affinity Member,” you might face difficulties in transitioning that visitor between the categories. However, let’s say you offer an inexpensive individual membership that may initially bring in someone based solely on a value purchase. Through the points system, that visitor will feel encouraged to visit the museum, participate in its programming, and eventually become an invaluable advocate for your institution. You have made that transition from value to affinity member in a positive and rewarding way for both the visitor and the museum.

So, what if museums offered points-based membership programs? Well, visitors and museums might both reap the rewards.

3 Responses to “Rewarding Changes in Museum Membership”

  1. Will Cary on February 24th, 2010

    This concept is great, but I see two really big problems that would make such a program prohibitively difficult for any museum to implement.

    The first problem has to do with whether members would take advantage of, or care about, such a system. Other rewards-based points programs come with things that you would use whether they garnered you points or not because you use them so often: credit cards, supermarket/pharmacy cards, coffee shop punch cards, frequent flier miles, etc. I don’t know anyone who considers Museum Membership to be a part of their daily life. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that such people exist. In an extremely generous scenario, if 10% of your membership base (here in Brooklyn that would be over 900 people) are your “extreme followers” then you would be implementing a program that 90% of your base has no interest in. Even if over time more people became interested, you’re still creating something that appeals to only a small amount of your current membership base.

    Related to that problem is the issue of the rewards themselves. Because museum memberships are not part of people’s daily lives, the rewards–no matter how generous–would just not seem enticing enough to induce someone to visit THAT much more than they already would. Would you really come to, say, 20 events per year at the Museum just to get free tickets to the gala? That seems to be the most enticing reward you list. Other items on that list just don’t seem good enough (or worthwhile for the museum to give away) in order to gain someone who is an “invaluable advocate” for the institution.

    And one note about those “invaluable advocates” as well: most members already ARE invaluable advocates for your institution. The marginal increases in “advocacy,” however you would define that, don’t seem to justify the incredible cost to the museum in terms of implementation and ongoing staff resources.

    That brings me to the second big problem with a points-based program: it would be extremely expensive, time-consuming, and a massive drain on staff resources to implement and maintain such a program. Here at the Brooklyn Museum, our membership department is 6 people (including two part-time employees that staff the membership desk in the lobby). Among peer membership programs at other NYC Museums, that makes our membership staff the 5th largest (behind Met, MoMA, Natural History, and Whitney). The 20+ other art museums in NYC either have one or two staff for their entire membership department. That’s it! As incredible as it sounds, a program of, say, 5000 members can be run by one or two people. It’s a remarkable amount of work on a day to day basis, and I don’t know anyone working in membership at an NYC museum who couldn’t use more help.

    There is simply no way, given staffing in museum membership offices, for someone to physically track and enter points into a database for thousands of members. For swipe-card technology (like those used for credit cards, airline miles, and pharmacies) to make this easier for museums to track, such technology would have to be invented specifically for museums, and be affordable and easy to implement across several museum departments. Even if you were to do some sort of punch-card (like coffee shops do), that only takes into account physical visits to the museum (and covers none of the online ideas you mention). And again, I can’t imagine museum staff having the time to take a stack of filled-up punch cards on a Monday from the weekend and enter all that data into Raiser’s Edge or whatever other database their is. Pulling such info from RE would be, on the surface, a difficult prospect as well.

    I don’t mean to demean the open-minded thinking going on here. I think that Museums often rely on old membership ploys that just don’t work anymore. We, as museum staff and advocates, need to re-think what museum membership means in the 21st century. At the same time, foremost among our concerns should be the limited resources that all museums have, in terms of both human capital and finances. Any new membership ideas have to pass two critical tests: would enough members–new or old–take advantage of this, and would it therefore bring enough value to both members and the institution, and, secondly, would it be easy to implement, cost-efficient to maintain, and not add too much additional work to already-burdened staff.

    Shelley Bernstein, our Chief of Technology, and I spent months thinking about every possible addition to our workload before we agreed to launch our 1stfans membership program. The fact that we both agreed that it was a good idea didn’t automatically mean that it was worth it to implement. I think that’s critical to keep in mind when floating these ideas, and every museum’s membership department is composed differently when it comes to handling the workload.

  2. Museumist on February 24th, 2010

    You raise some great points here. Having been part of one of those two people membership programs trying to manage over 5,000 families for over two years, I am very aware and sympathetic to the plight of limited resources and time that burden museum membership departments. As you mentioned, how to track these points – database entry, punch cards, swipe machines, etc. – would be a big hurdle to overcome for membership departments regardless of size. However, I do believe that a solution could be found that was time and cost-effective.

    In my mind, the points-based membership program (just like traditional membership programs) isn’t about pleasing all of your members. Surely, everyone that bought into the points program would not take advantage of all it has to offer, just as many people that buy museum memberships may not return for a second visit. However, the aim would be to 1) attract individuals who perhaps don’t connect with a museum’s current membership offerings and 2) to create supermembers.

    At the Web Wise Conference in D.C. last year, Shelley Bernstein spoke about the Brooklyn Museum’s experience with joining Flickr’s Creative Commons. Paraphrasing that account, at first, it was overwhelming, too much for the museum to handle. But, just when she was ready to throw in the towel, she realized that a small community of advocates had developed that could step in and handle questions when either the museum couldn’t make the time or in the rare event that the museum didn’t know the answer. That’s sort of how I envision the best participants under the points based system would be.

    I am very grateful that you – especially as an employee of one of the institutions I really respect and as one of the minds behind the innovative 1st Fans program – would take the time to join the discussion. As you said, museums don’t keep pushing old membership tactics because they are lazy or don’t know any better. There are real and complicated issues that limit what museums can do. The purpose behind this post (and future posts) is not to ask “Why Don’t Museums Do This?” but rather “What If Museums Did This?”

  3. BM on February 24th, 2010

    In order to properly think about ideas I think its important to stretch them a bit and I’m glad that someone has taken the time to work through, expand, and toss out for discussion an idea that Nina Simon briefly glanced over in the referenced post.

    Nina Said:
    “I’ve been working on one project in which we are conceptualizing membership as something you can achieve through multiple visits/contributions, not something you can buy right off the bat. The idea is to model membership off of more natural forms of relationship-building between humans–the more time we spend together, the more substantive that time is, the more we get to know each other and to provide for each other.”

    It’s important to realize and expand on forward thinking models such as this. Museums have traditionally solved problems after they have them instead of creating things that serve both their current members and the younger generations who will support them in the future. It’d be remiss not to at least think about and discuss these ideas and even though it may be hard or difficult to implement that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be done.

    Some of the discussion on twitter today has revolved around the simple punch card but frankly as a member of the digital generation whose sees things like foursquare, twitter, social gaming, and Facebook as native, if that punch card isn’t on my iPhone and doesn’t gain me benefits beyond being ‘allowed’ to spend more money I’m not sure anyone my age will care.

    I hope that discussions like these continue and that they are seen as exactly that, discussions. I hope that more young museum fans such as myself will join them and that people in charge of providing us the experiences we love will be open and listening. Our future selves will be forever grateful to them for it and who knows, one day we may become regular old family members and benefactors of the museum we grew to love.

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