The challenges and opportunities in unprecedented times

As a consultant I’ve spent eight highly enjoyable years specialising in developing, implementing and transforming membership schemes in the cultural sector, and a decade prior to that heading up Tate’s ground-breaking membership programme.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic came close to overwhelming us all in March 2020 most institutions’ doors have had to be firmly shut. 

There have been various decisions made by the UK’s museums, galleries, theatres and other cultural organisations as to how their membership programmes should respond: to extend, or not to extend? How prepared were we for such a challenging scenario?

  • Did our risk registers include a plan for a global pandemic? 
  • Did we ever imagine we would not be able to open our buildings for weeks and months on end?
  • Did we rehearse how to balance the organisation’s needs against the interests of its members? 

What value is a membership if the benefits it unlocks suddenly evaporate? To what degree are our members driven by the benefits they receive, or by philanthropy? How will our members be impacted by potential reductions in their own income and challenges in balancing household budgets?

The offer – the product, if you like – at the heart of these schemes is free or priority access to paid content, discounts in retail and catering, and other special incentives to engage members more deeply via repeat visits and additional spend. Membership works as a way through a paywall, a convenient tool to ease access and minimise fuss, a competitive edge, and a method for displaying interest and loyalty.

Many organisations consider their members to be potential donors and emphasise the importance of the support element of subscription fees while encouraging additional secondary spend. Others hammer home benefit messages while paying less heed to the philanthropic aspects. 

It is interesting to note that membership can sit in one of several places in organisational structures: sometimes in Development, sometimes in Marketing, occasionally in Visitor Services. This positioning can often inform how the scheme is delivered and its principal strategic purpose. There is no right or wrong in this, and it should not be a determining factor in relative success so long as the route to market is clear and the strategic intent is backed up by action.

The eternal membership balancing act is in allocating resources efficiently between acquisition – getting new members – and retention – keeping them. If you imagine your members all sitting comfortably in a great big sieve, the job of effective retention is to make the holes in the sieve as small as is possible. With acquisition activities severely curtailed for the time being, now is of course the time to focus on retention. 

As the crisis broke, some organisations were very quick to extend the validity of memberships to all members, although there was no way to know for how long this situation would continue. Others, while offering an extension, also gave the option for members to waive the offer. Some have held steady and not made any across-the-board gestures. Most have tried to shift the emphasis to a digital offering, promoting virtual tours of galleries and special insight from curators, or special free kids’ activities and streaming of past productions with free digital programmes to try to fill the void left by the impossibility of visiting, viewing, sharing and breathing in the cultural offer.

Meanwhile across the office in the ticketing department, there have been appeals for customers to donate the value of their tickets back to the organisation, rather than seek refunds. The Royal Court Theatre in London has reported that, of people who had booked for performances which have had to be postponed, 69% have either given a donation or accepted a credit to see the work in the future.  

Perhaps the central challenges in deciding what to do and what to say are these: 

  • How much do we know about our members’ behaviour and propensities? 
  • How much customer-level data do we hold, and to what extent have we analysed it? 
  • To what degree have we articulated our Case for Support? 
  • How advanced are we in devising and implementing CRM strategies and deploying the business practices required to deliver them? 
  • Have we been able to invest in robust supporting systems and how confident are we, therefore, that we can make intelligence-driven decisions which are right for our members and for our organisation? 
  • Are our communications agile and adequately focused to respond to a suddenly and radically changed environment? 

The challenges we face now demand a response that is communications-based.

It may be a luxury, particularly for smaller organisations, to allocate resources to develop the degree of insight required. Or it may be that our focus is more on higher-level donors than on those who, while recognised as potential prospects, have yet to be incorporated into our broader Individual Giving Campaigns. 

My hope is that if there can be positive outcomes from this terrible situation, one of them is this: that we will stop to reconsider the purpose of membership schemes, we will align them with our organisations’ strategic intent, and we will consider whether all members are indeed potential donors and whether we should steward them accordingly – individually, appropriately, responsively. Via insight, surveys and research we should form a greater understanding that while it may be the ‘what do I get’ proposition that gets a member to engage on day one, it may also be the case that their motivation changes over time. We should therefore put in place structures and systems to respond in a way that is mutually beneficial – for the long-term.

The value and needs of our beloved cultural organisations are now more acute than ever before. We all have a part to play so as we work towards re-opening the doors let’s also open our minds as to how we can rebuild together.

Martin Barden
By Martin Barden
Martin established the boutique agency Culture Consultants Ltd in 2012, specialising in membership, audience engagement and commercial strategies for cultural institutions. Martin brings to his work 25 years’ experience of building loyalty and revenues both independently and in senior roles in organisations including Tate in the UK and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Australia. Martin is also a Trustee of the Henry Moore Foundation. Since 2012 the Culture Consultants team has worked with a wide range of cultural institutions including the Victoria & Albert Museum, Natural History Museum, Somerset House, British Library, Ashmolean Museum, Wigmore Hall, Postal Museum, Horniman Museum & Gardens, Leighton House Museum, Oxford University, National Portrait Gallery, and the National Gallery of Ireland.
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