Gaining By Giving It Away

Remember when it was an honor to be "nominated" for membership into an organization? Image Source:
Remember when it was an honor to be “nominated” for membership into an organization? Image from: The Seneca Falls Wonderful Life Museum

I recently read this article in the Wall Street Journal about New York City cultural institutions giving free one-year memberships to NYCID card holders. I have no opinion on the NYCID issue, but the idea of giving away free memberships on a large scale has me thinking (it’s too early in the NYC initiative to judge it’s success, though numbers in the article are noteworthy).

Museum membership programs have been used for many reasons: as a revenue stream, to generate lists of contact information, to build groups of “friends” and potential donors, to encourage repeat visitation and increase attendance numbers, etc.

However, memberships for many museums are declining or, at best, holding steady. We struggle with this at the historical society where I work. Our numbers are not increasing yet we still rely on the revenue it creates and seem to constantly be searching for ways to “sell memberships.”

We also talk much about trying to “reach new audiences.” People outside the normal age ranges of our current visitors; new arrivals to our city, our state, out country; folks on all parts of the economic spectrum. When we talk about reaching these audiences our conversations don’t dwell on membership, it’s more about getting them into our buildings, interacting with them, serving them, educating them, and making them feel comfortable.

Which has me thinking . . . if we want to reach these groups AND grow membership, why not give people free memberships? Why not just, for a limited time (say three months), give everyone who is interested free membership for a year? What would we lose? Practically, we would spend more on printing costs for our quarterly journal–still published in hard copy–and might miss out on a bit of admission generation at some of our sites. However, this could be worth the gain. Increased exposure, good will generation, new audiences becoming aware of our offerings and interacting with us, and possibly increased membership numbers at the end. I believe it’s easier to keep a member once they’ve joined than it is to convince someone to join to begin with.

I’ve forwarded this article onto our membership coordinator and look forward to further discussions in-house. What are your thoughts? Have you undertaken similar efforts–if so, to what effect? How has membership changed at your institution over the last decade or so?

–Deb Arenz

5 thoughts on “Gaining By Giving It Away”

  1. What we have done is partnered with local public libraries in our fall season. The patrons go in, sign out a one day family admission card (good for two days) and present it for admission. It has worked really well for both partners.

  2. I think it’s important not to “under value” the benefits of memberships or annual passes by giving them away for free — for many museums, this can be an important revenue stream. And what about your loyal customers who have been paying full-price for membership? A better strategy may be to add other enticements as part of a membership drive — day passes to share with friends & family; early booking opportunities for ticketed events, retail / food discounts etc. If your goal is to reach an underserviced audience — look for sponsorship to subsidize the cost of a membership (the library sign-out is a great idea)
    BTW, Heritage Park distinguishes between “annual passes” and “membership” – the latter is more focused on friend raising / fund raising.

  3. Good points, Susan, thanks. You’re right about the loyal customers. We may not have as big a problem with this as some museums as most of our sites are free and the benefits of membership do not represent a large cost-savings. Most of our members are members because they want to support us. However, the idea of some sort of annual pass is a concept that could be explored (in our case) and may have the same benefits as “free membership” without alienating current members.

  4. The Waterloo Region Museum just introduced a similar partnership to the one that Evelyn describes – with museum admission passes being available to sign out, just like a book, at the 10 rural libraries in our Region, with the expectation that we’ll extend the program to the three city libraries (they all have different jurisdictions). Our program is based on similar programs at the Cities of Toronto and Ottawa – and no doubt, many other places. There’s information about the program on our website.

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