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Listening to Members to Develop Loyalty

Roger Vacovsky

Yesterday at the Americans for the Arts Annual Convention in San Antonio, attendees engaged in a session that asked them to reconsider the classic membership model and theory behind membership and subscription programs.

As we are circling around this concept of “the new normal,” we must begin to look at the fact that the changing culture of our work force has different wants and needs. With regards to membership, this new crop of individuals want the tangible, the direct benefit, and the question that will be asked after (or instead of) “Why should I join?” is, “What am I going to get for my money?”

We also know that “we’re doing it this way because this is how we’ve always done it” is OUT. If you’re membership is declining, it’s time you try something different.

Membership, in many cases, is utilized for financial reasons more so than for purposes of engagement. As membership is a revenue strain (and, as we membership folk proclaim, our job depends on that revenue), it is important to consider the ‘why’ when promoting membership.

Deborah Obalil, who moderated the session asked participants to “be honest with yourself about why you are doing it. Memberships can inspire, or fail to inspire loyalty” without a defined goal in sight.

Obalil then asked attendees to think of their own membership program with regards to what they do to inspire loyalty. The loyalty of a member to an organization consists of the following:

  • Belief in the mission
  • Tangible benefits: “what are they getting out of it?”
  • Recognition/validation “wearing membership as a badge of honor” 

Seems pretty straightforward? This equates, then, to three key types of loyalty programs:

  • Affiliation (being a part of something)
  • Reward (not unlike the grocery store that offers gas points)
  • Recognition (relative to development; sponsor logos on publications)

Obalil indicated that you must figure out what type of program you’re trying to do before you do it. She introduced the first of three “real world studies” of arts organizations that decided to try something different to build loyalty, engage members, and of course, increase membership revenue.

Kristen Denner, membership director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, took the wants and desires of her members foremost into consideration when redesigning her membership programs.

She conducted a study that evaluated what members find most intriguing about the Whitney, and broke them down into categories based on their interests. She then tailored membership “tracks” that individuals can select in addition to their core benefits. With her data she was able to construct the Curate Your Own Membership Program, “a membership program based on individuals’ needs.”

Denner dared to answer the question that was in every attendee’s minds in the session: should an organization have a membership?

After a short pause, “Yes.” Denner explained, “It’s the beginning of a beautiful relationship.” From a fundraising aspect, “it’s the first rung on the ladder of significant giving.” Denner went on to note that even her Chairman Emeritus started as a $50 member.

Denner believes that by attaching the extra benefits as a result of the segmentation, the “proclivity to give is enhanced.” From an engagement aspect, “members are your biggest fans” Denner cited that she uses both low tech and high tech means to get the word out about the Whitney. Members who use social media generally retweet and like on Facebook; the old-fashioned method of word of mouth works well, too.

Denner concluded with a powerful point: members are willing to express their interests and wants to you; listen to them! It was because of her research that she was able to construct the value-added membership, and she still listens to her members to preserve the total member experience. Listen to your members; be as loyal to them as they are to you.

The whole recorded session of “Are Subscriptions and Membership Programs Still Viable Strategies?” is available as part of Convention On-Demand.

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