Friday, November 19, 2010

Retaining members

Ensuring that members renew their memberships each year is a key objective for most membership based organisations. For instance at the National Trust of Australia, with which I am closely involved, we know that we have regular core members and then opportunistic ones, the latter being those that either join to support a particular heritage cause or more pragmatically to get free entry to National Trust houses world wide when they are travelling. The core group tend to renew unprompted, the opportunistic ones may need chivvying along. The traditional way to do this is by personally phoning them to encourage them to renew, with the added advantage of getting feedback on the organisation. However this is expensive in terms of resources and may have only limited success.

Most museums and galleries have major membership programs. The highly successful MOMA membership program boasts an astonishing 130,000 members. But in times of economic downturn membership renewals are often the first to be chopped from personal budgets.

A couple of interesting case studies I have come across show some different ways to retain members. ICOM News reports that at the Tate in the UK, membership had risen to 90,000 when the GFC hit in 2008, at which point retention rates, having been around the 90% mark, started dramatically falling. So at what sounds like considerable cost to the management, an external data analysis company, Tullo Marshall Warren was brought in to help solve the problem. Members were broken down into eight segments, based on their propensity to lapse. Particular focus was made on the frequency of visits to the various Tate galleries (Tate Britain , Tate Modern, Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives), as it was discovered that if visits start to tail off in the last six months of membership, there is a high chance of lapsing. If a member has lapsed for over 24 months, it was a waste of time targeting them.

It may all sound like the bleeding obvious and Tate themselves acknowledge that there were no major surprises. But what it has helped them do is to work out how better to retain members before they reach the lapsing stage. After three months of membership an email is sent to members, offering a ‘Tate treat’ in the form of a designer travel wallet when they next visit. At six months they are sent a pack of post it notes with reminders of the exhibition schedule and at nine months, just before the renewal process, the ‘Tate treat’ is a free coffee at the Museums’ cafes. Retention rate is back at 90% so it seems to be working.

Meanwhile across the Atlantic at the Whitney in New York, a different route is being employed to retain members, by offering a ‘Curate your Own’ membership. Members can select one of five specialised buckets of benefits to add to the core admission and discount member benefits. Driven initially by falling membership as the GFC hit, the Whitney wanted to find a way of connecting with their members and the experiences they most value at the Whitney, admittedly off a much smaller base than the Tate of 12,500 members. Through focus group work, they discovered five strong attitudinal segments, each of which was developed up into its own package of benefits.

The five are:

  • Social, for those who enjoy cocktail parties and previews, and social gatherings around cultural events
  • Insider, for those who like to see behind the scenes and be able to talk directly to curators and conservators
  • Learning, providing regular lectures and gallery talks, and access to educational programs
  • Family, providing such benefits as kids passports, stroller tours, and guest passes for family carers
  • Philanthropy, for those wanting to support the Whitney’s work
Sounds like a great idea, but very labour intensive to organise and deliver. It is also unclear at present if it has helped retain or grow members at the Whitney.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director


  1. Dear Julian, I came across your blog a couple days ago, this post in particular, and was wondering if you might have the links to the actual studies to which you are referring. That would be a great help for the work I'm dong now. You can email me at ni (at) garageccc (dot) com. Many thanks! Nikolai.

  2. Hi Julian, I was also wondering if you could send me the links to the original article? It would be a great help to my thesis.

    Thanks, Kristen

  3. Hi folks - apologies for the long delay.
    I am remiss in not keeping notes of all the articles from which I draw info, and cannot immediately lay my hands on these studies.I'll keep looking but in the meantime ensure I embed any references in the blog.