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How to make a membership valuable beyond the walls of the museum

Allegra Burnette, Chiara Bernasconi and Maggie Lederer on how to make membership valuable and attractive beyond the walls of the museum. For many museums, membership programs have long been an integral part of their operations and revenue streams. Membership benefits have traditionally been organized around free admission, advance previews of exhibitions, and more. In other words, more physical, in-museum benefits. But as more and more visitors to museums come through websites, social networks, and apps, how do we extend membership benefits to those who may never walk through our doors? How do we make a membership valuable and attractive beyond the walls of the museum? What is it that compels people to become members in the first place, and what does it take to retain them as members?

As with all museums with a strong online presence, The Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) has a digital audience that is many times larger than the number of actual yearly attendees. Our membership program consists of approximately 140,000 households that are, primarily, locally based. The question we set out to address with creating an expanded online presence for members was whether we could enhance membership’s appeal to a wider audience, going beyond the physical visitor to a digital one. This new online initiative has the potential to both re-engage lapsed members and convert new prospects or prior visitors who want to be connected to MoMA in a way that was not previously available. If successful, we could increase retention of the membership base, increase members’ involvement outside the walls of the Museum (making them more likely to renew), and present revenue opportunities for other departments by providing a platform to highlight offerings from retail, education, MoMA PS1, and publications.

On its initial launch, in 2011, the Digital Member Lounge featured basic membership-management features such as joining, renewing, and upgrading a membership, as well as aggregated content like member events, member retail sales, and a digital version of the printed monthly member calendar. Recently the site has been expanded to include a variety of original content produced exclusively for all MoMA members, including virtual gallery walk-throughs, online previews of exhibitions, and member gallery talk videos. To date, the focus of the exclusive content has been on providing materials that extend the in-museum membership benefits with a digital equivalent. For example, member gallery talks are recorded and made available on the Digital Member Lounge. We also focused on creating new content rather than reallocating what is already offered for free to our general audience.

The enhanced Digital Member Lounge has been available for several months now, and we’re still analyzing the results and refining our processes. A project like this is inherently resistant to analysis; unless we ask people why they joined or renewed their membership, it’s very difficult to measure the impact the enhanced content has had on them. A recent survey showed that there is low awareness of the Member Lounge among non-members, so we certainly need to improve promotion, but that means getting the word out for a site that is not freely accessible without a membership ID. And as no dedicated staff has been added to this project, another challenge centers around the additional workload required to launch new content on at least a quarterly basis, if not more frequently.
In terms of the actual experience of the site, we know from Google Analytics that the virtual walk-throughs are the most popular content, and that members are spending a lot of time on them. They are also watching the videos all the way through, which is impressive given that most of them are about twenty minutes long. Anecdotally, and through some initial findings, we know that members view the site as a supplement between visits to the museum, and as an overall enhancement to their membership. While the initial response from members has been positive, further experimentation, promotion, and evaluation through ad hoc surveys and focus groups are necessary to determine the program’s long-term success, scalability, and sustainability.

Allegra Burnette, Creative Director, Chiara Bernasconi, Project Manager, and Maggie Lederer, Senior Producer – MoMA Digital Media Department

Twitter: @MoMAmembers

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