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Museums’ survival depends on their members – and post-pandemic they're voting with their feet. Julia Protesaru proposes a new model for friends and membership schemes.

Two people looking at a phone in a museum

Memberships that once represented a dependable and lucrative stream of revenue for the UK’s cash-strapped cultural treasures are on their way out. New research conducted by digital product studio Freestyle at the end of 2020 shows that just 7% of people renewed their memberships last year and a worrying majority – three out of five – are likely to cancel them this year. 

The decline in cultural memberships has undoubtedly been accelerated by Covid-19. Just this month, the Royal Academy (RA) reported a loss of 18,000 members since February 2020. Other organisations should prepare themselves for a similarly large exodus. 

Tough competition

At the onset of the pandemic in the UK, a charitable energy swept the nation. Many museum members happily continued to pay their subscription fees to support organisations in their time of need. But goodwill is beginning to run low. Only 15% of respondents to our survey showed compassion for the challenging situation membership organisations faced, stating that they “did not mind that my membership organisation has not been flexible.” This low figure tells us that most members now expect organisations to evolve swiftly to keep them on board. Consumers recognise inflexibility and expect you to adapt to them. 

Museums are up against big players too. Survey respondents report being more likely to keep music and film subscriptions like Spotify and Netflix. Users want the same thing from their memberships as their streaming services; a physical experience or product (33%), community interaction (31%) and an online experience (28%). Essentially, they’re looking for an enjoyable way to spend their spare time.

Memberships in the cultural sector are generally based around access to a space, meaning Covid-19 has had a bigger impact. In the RA’s case, their loss of members has resulted in a £2.5m drop in income. With museums set to re-open, you might ask why this research is a concern in the long term? Museums are set to experience their own form of “long covid” with disruptions to in-person visits expected to last three to four years. The appetite for digital content will not disappear when sites reopen. Revolutionising your membership programme now is a way of futureproofing it.

Competition for people’s leisure time and disposable income is tough. If three out of five people are planning on cancelling at least one of their subscriptions this year, you need to make sure it won’t be yours. 

Evolving alongside customers

Extending your museum membership offer by an additional three or six months in light of recent closures is a good way to thank your loyal members. You could also consider discounts on renewals. But neither of these will necessarily be enough to retain or attract members. You will also need to be able to show value, recognise the needs of your customers, and adapt accordingly. Almost half of our survey respondents, for example, reported that mobile apps are easier to use than their memberships. 

Often the simplest place to begin is within your user experience. How convenient is it for your members to access, sign up, and renew? Mobile apps, online sign ups and payments are the foundation of any modern membership programme. If you don’t offer them, chances are that, in your visitors’ eyes, you’re already behind.

User-based insights should drive the evolution of your membership programme. Existing members are a valuable database that can help you make decisions. A simple online survey or call for feedback is a great place to begin. You’ll want to know who they are and why they took out membership with you. A staggering 96% of our survey respondents did not prefer the adapted offer that their membership organisations put together after the pandemic. Gathering insight before making changes will save you wasting time and money – and identify what your members really value. 

Membership 2.0 

Your membership programme can no longer serve only one type of customer or have just one purpose (for example, discounted repeat visits for a year). A cost-saving membership can be part of your offer – it can’t be where it starts and ends. Changing customer behaviours point to a multi-channel membership programme with a variety of offerings to suit different users. We call this Membership 2.0.

Membership 2.0 has three core components:

  • Multifaceted: It provides a broader offer to suit your range of customers, enabling you to attract more users. Know who they are and their reasons for subscribing and build a multifaceted offer accordingly. Take a product-based approach. For example, you might develop one money saving membership for regular visitors, a subscription entertainment service for your global activity seekers, and a community and advocacy forum for philanthropists and avid supporters. Collaboration between membership, learning, curatorial and events teams within your organisation will help build this broader range of content. 
  • Digital: Covid-19 has quickened the demise of traditional memberships, but it has also forced many organisations to accelerate digitising their offer. The past year has demonstrated an increasing appetite for digital spaces and experiences. Even after you reopen, there will be an expectation of ongoing digital content from your customers. Take inspiration from streaming providers, like Birmingham Museum have done with their new On Demand service. Invest in your existing digital products -- websites, shop fronts and mobile apps. Convenience is key. 
  • Collaborative: Create your offer for your members, with your members. Identify ambassadors to support you along this journey. Make use of any existing communities around your establishment and use surveys to drive your decision making. Remember the memberships we subscribe to say a lot about us as people; there is identity in belonging. Co-create with cultural organisations near and far as well as with businesses, services, and communities.

Museums must make their membership offers more relevant if they want to survive and grow. They can do this by addressing value, enjoyment and ease of use. Those who fail to evolve fast will become a luxury that customers can do without. There is also an opportunity here to use digital products and experiences to attract new types of customers to your membership offer. Remember that investing in your digital sphere means you are no longer limited by geography. Perhaps for the first time, your member base can be truly international. 

Julia Protesaru works at Freestyle Agency

Link to Author(s): 
Julia Protesaru


I work for an organisation that has GAINED 75 new Friends since April 2020 (around 21% increase). People have come out in support of us as they care about the us and what we do, even when we're not able to offer any of our live events. Did we get the messaging right - the musicians themselves asked for support and donations at our online performances? We're not a museum, we're a performing arts organisation, so there are obvious differences. And yet?