March 11, 2021 / News & Blog

The Future of Membership Programs

This article is part of the “Forged in Fire: New Models” issue of Hand to Hand.
Click here to read other articles in the issue.
Q&A with Jane Greenthal, Project Coordinator,
Harvard Business School Association of Northern California Community Partners

Convened by the Lawrence Hall of Science, the Bay Area Science and Children’s Museum Consortium (SCMC) is as a loose coalition that formed following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent “stay-at-home” order in California. SCMC currently includes eleven institutions, ranging widely in terms of budgets (from $2 to $70 million), earned revenues (from $1.5 to $20 million), and annual visitors (from 100,000 to 800,000).

Initially made up of institutions focused on high-touch experiences, consortium conversations ranged from advocacy to day-to-day operations. Of particular interest were membership models and how each institution was handling the change in demand for traditional membership services, e.g. free admission. Several institutions had already been looking into alternative models.

This sparked questions that led the group to seek advice from the Harvard Business School Association of Northern California Community Partners (HBSCP), soon leading to a partnership to explore membership models in a post-Covid world.

HBSCP serves about fifty different nonprofits each year, providing pro bono consulting and advisory services through about 200 HBS alumni volunteers in the Bay Area. Over the past thirty-five years, clients have included social-service nonprofits focused on families and children, housing, food security, healthcare, homelessness, and education, as well as cultural organizations such as museums and performing arts organizations.

What follows is a Q&A with HBSCP Project Coordinator Jane Greenthal and some of the project team members.  They share what they discovered about how museums are adapting traditional membership models to meet today’s needs. 

What new museum membership models have you examined?

We looked at several other museums nationwide. The monthly subscription model is new but seems to be gaining notice. The Dallas Museum of Art added a Kids Club at a $50 annual fee atop their regular membership for digital access to children’s online programming and events. The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York has several add-ons, including digital access, for additional fees. The Brooklyn Museum has offered shorter term options, such as six-month memberships. We looked at time-based pricing for admission, and joint museum memberships as well.

Are there membership models from other types of organizations that bear relevance to museum models?

Subscription models have been sweeping the business world. So many more people are now not only digitally connected but also digitally accessing many of the services once delivered on a single transaction basis, e.g., movies, car services, or toothpaste. Subscription models appear to increase the connection the consumer feels to the provider and also the amount of information the producer/company/museum has about what the customer wants and enjoys, allowing the provider to better tailor services.

What have you learned from regional membership managers about the current state of memberships? What do people want from a membership now?

For the most part, memberships have been relatively transactional, especially for children’s museums. New memberships are traditionally gained onsite, when a visitor realizes that a membership is a better “deal” than paying a single-entry fee. Memberships, for the most part, have been priced this way as well.

With the pandemic, museum visits obviously fell dramatically, throwing into question their value. Most museums reacted by extending the memberships for the period of their closures to the public, or longer. However, these extensions didn’t address the fundamental assumption that membership value was tied to onsite visits. Many institutions shifted to creating a digital presence, but found charging for online content challenging given the availability (and expectation) of similar content free elsewhere. Moreover, demand began to weaken as parents didn’t want more screen time for their kids. While families still want place-based experiences, decoupling memberships from museum visits provides new opportunities to add value in terms of content and outreach not limited by geography.

How do museums determine and communicate the value of their memberships? How should they?

There’s great interest in a membership model that is more subscription-based than the traditional annual renewal model; however, this ups the ante on what value you provide beyond a discount on museum visits. This is where children’s and science museums could learn from fine arts museums that have cultivated members with intangible benefits such as shared mission and status, as well as access to exclusive content, events, and experiences. Creating more emotional value can also enhance loyalty and philanthropy.

Museums in the project range widely in terms of budget, size, attendance, key audiences as well as content. Traditionally, people join different types of museums for different reasons. Art museum memberships may be associated with use but also status and tend to have a longer renewal life, while children’s museum memberships are highly transactional and have a short life (children age out quickly). In what ways are all membership programs in this project’s scope similar? How will you identify and account for differences?

Membership strategies for family-focused museums are moving away from patronage models towards monthly subscription models—the latter being more relevant to children’s museums, where the visiting population stays for only a few years. In contrast, art museums may have non-resident and life-long members.

A number of subscription initiatives are already taking place: A group of eleven children’smuseums in Northern California has developed new monthly membership models, at $25 permonth per person and $60 per family.

In another post-Covid development, regional subscription-based membership programs often include online reciprocity components. These appear successful because online costs are much lower and leave room for discount incentives on shared virtual tours and children camps.

Our study revealed that all SCMC members are interested in monthly subscription models in some form. We identified three main reasons:

1) Subscription models allow much better targeting of new populations. For example, a large SCMC member experimented with the data they gathered to increase participation of lower economic demographics—with demonstrable success.

2) In this digital age, monthly subscription models give their promoters a much-increased ability to understand their members’ priorities.

3) Families are key to all SCMC members. They all have a strong education orientation and need membership programs oriented towards families—even though they may also have corporate programs catering to employees of Bay Area companies. Not all SCMC members have such corporate membership programs. Monthly subscription programs, on the other hand, are likely to be developed by all SCMC members.

Were you surprised to learn anything about how museums operate, particularly related to memberships?

How small membership revenues were as a percentage of total revenues for some. There’s also an obvious overlap between membership and development, but they were distinct functions in many institutions with some missed opportunities to share data and collaborate.

Will new membership models specifically help museums through the pandemic and recovery? Or will they have application for a longer future?

We’re predicting that many institutions will begin to experiment with new membership models, more likely as adding to, rather than replacing, current annual models. This could include less expensive monthly subscriptions for lower income and otherwise underrepresented audiences. Compared to full-price annual memberships, these may be limited by number of visits, number of family members admitted, or limits on visits on the most crowded days. We may also see digital-only subscriptions or lower-priced memberships for non-resident members.

The additive upside we see for the subscription model is that it is less transactional, i.e., “I join because I get something tangible such as visits, in-person lectures and tours, or merchandise discounts, etc.” Non-traditional membership models have the opportunity to be based more on identification with the museum’s mission, values, or cause.

Project team members included: Jane Greenthal, Rita Koselka, SB Master, Qingxi Wang, Etienne Deffarges, Arthur Hindman, Helena Geng, and Jim Mills.