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In Alex Youel’s second article on membership schemes, he shines a light on operational aspects as the scheme grows.

Image of National Arts Pass card

Art Fund

In my last article I looked at the big picture stuff of strategic fit and scheme design. Now I will consider what happens as your newly launched scheme starts to take off. Initial joy can be, all too quickly, followed by that OMG moment: What have we done? Here are a few tips on how to maximise the delight and minimise the sleepless nights (oh yes, you’ll have them, as I have, if you deal with membership issues).

First comes the absolute requirement for efficient, all-round rock-solid and completely trustworthy administration. Excel spreadsheets are fine up to a point, but very soon you are going to need a proper database which can reliably handle not only the relatively straightforward stuff of names and addresses but also communication preferences (email opt-in for marketing communications, for instance), membership type, renewal date, payment history and preferred method of payment, campaign information and notes. Theatres and event venues will want to fully integrate ticket bookings, including advance online sales, with the central system.

Time spent in researching, shortlisting, procuring, thoroughly testing and finally commissioning just the right system for your needs is time that will not be wasted. With each new member added to your database, you will have just cause for celebrating your considered choice of the right system. There are hundreds out there to choose from, but only relatively few that are built with memberships and ticketing in mind. Scalability is important, as are arrangements for data back-up, business continuity and disaster recovery.

First comes the absolute requirement for efficient, all-round rock-solid and completely trustworthy administration

If you would prefer to concentrate your efforts on the personal side of getting to know your members, or simply to focus your organisation on what you do best, you might consider outsourcing your administration to a third-party provider. The website of the National Outsourcing Association has some useful best practice guides and there is advisory help out there if you need it. Good governance coupled with robust plans for exit management and transitioning to a new supplier are important elements in your contract if you go down the outsourcing route.

Once you have your perfectly chosen and thoroughly reliable system in place everything becomes possible (the converse is also true). If you have set it up to deliver a range of key reports, perhaps in dashboard form on your screen, then you can quickly see for instance:

  • where and when your new members are joining
  • which membership categories are proving most popular
  • member deletion and retention rates
  • most popular payment methods (including monthly vs annual, direct debit, credit card, cheque or cash)
  • most effective campaigns, with the best return on investment
  • percentage of gift aid declarations and associated income (for charities)
  • complaint types.

As your data becomes richer and your analysis of it increasingly confident and subtle, you can begin to identify characteristics of those members who are most likely to lapse, and then experiment with different intervention strategies aimed at keeping them as members. Perhaps an incentive to visit, a free tea, or an exhibition preview, will be sufficient to do the job. With your fine system, you can trial a variety of approaches and see which works best.

There are however some important cautions about data. First, only collect what you need and will use. It is all too easy to try and gather in oodles of information, but it may make your members wary, it will clog up your system, be difficult to maintain and it is likely to complicate your reporting. Second, make sure you keep up with data protection requirements (itself a whole topic). Among other things you will need to register as a ‘data controller’ (see the Information Commissioner’s website), since you are processing personal information.

On the communications front, magazines and newsletters are costly to produce and depressingly expensive to post. But they are pretty much an essential part of your benefits package, and they deliver your brand in a great way, right into your supporters’ homes. Regular, but not irritatingly frequent, e-newsletters (delivered via such programmes as MailChimp, ConstantContact and Dot Mailer, and there are many more out there) keep your content fresh and encourage members to make the most of their membership, which in turn boosts retention.

Doubtless you already have a great website – members expect no less. But can new members truly join online and not just download a pdf? And can existing members sign in to a secure area to update their own details, renew their membership and access dedicated in-depth content not available to non-members?

So, in short, a membership scheme can be a terrific idea but only if:

  • there is a good ‘fit’ with your arts business
  • it is designed right from the outset
  • you are prepared in advance for the operational requirements (people, processes and technology) and governance implications
  • you are in it for the long term.

The rewards, voluntarily generated by your increasingly loyal supporters, can be truly very great indeed. As examples, the National Trust (4 million members and £140 million in membership income in 2012/13) and the Art Fund (105,000 members – up 12% year on year – and £4.1 million from membership in 2012/13) can readily testify that.

Alex Youel is Managing Director of membership consultancy Your Membership Matters.

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