How to Reverse the Churn in Museum Memberships

A large membership association survey* across the U.S. and Canada found that membership associations like museums and cultural centers all experience the same issue—a never-ending cycle of membership churn. In fact, 58 percent of the organizations surveyed reported a decrease or no growth in membership size. Among the findings, some of the most insightful were the top reasons members don’t renew their memberships (more on that later), what attracts them to become a member in the first place, and most importantly, what deters them.     

But, if the old business adage “it costs five times more to acquire a new customer than to keep an old one” is to be believed, museums and cultural centers should focus on making the membership experience worth the members’ while. Spending time on membership drives and marketing campaigns designed to bring in fresh members, who may ultimately decide not to renew their membership due to a less than optimal experience, can start the cycle all over again. 

However, as Wharton Business School marketing professor Peter Fader pointed out in an article with Forbes magazine: "Here’s my take on that old belief: who cares? Decisions about customer acquisition, retention, and development shouldn’t be driven by cost considerations—they should be based on future value.” Enter a customer’s lifetime value or CLV. Identifying a member’s lifetime value can tell a museum how much revenue they can expect from different types of members. Our friends at HubSpot have made calculating this number easy with their CLV calculator. Once this number is determined and a solid member persona and journey map is created, museums can then utilize marketing automation and CRM software to tailor their content to the precise information members seek. As a HubSpot Platinum Partner, The Old State has fine-tuned these tools and made the experience of “nurturing” a customer or member all the more strategic and efficient. 

But first, let’s examine the mindset of a member. According to the same Membership Association survey, some of the top reasons why members don’t renew their memberships include the following. To combat these concerns, we have compiled member retention strategies for each...

1. Budget cuts. No surprise here. The top reason members don’t renew their membership comes down to the almighty dollar. During the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic downturn, many people—families, in particular—are cutting their household budgets significantly. Over this last year, discretionary income has been in short supply (or at least hoarded away in savings accounts), so anything extra beyond the essentials is examined with much more scrutiny. To counter this, museums have to make sure their value proposition is not only clearly communicated at the beginning of a membership acquisition but consistently reinforced. In addition, museums must ensure members feel extra comfortable with their COVID-19 safety protocols. Again, it’s all about the experience. 

2. Lack of value (little or no return on investment). This reason is pertinent regardless of a global pandemic. Unfortunately, many membership-based organizations tend to think in terms of “what’s in it for them,” when in fact, they should prioritize “what’s in it for the member.” Focusing on the member in all aspects of membership marketing is key, no matter the outside circumstances. A member should always feel valued and essential to the organization and should be able to clearly convey to friends and family why it’s worth it to be a member of a particular museum or cultural center. Members can be the most vital ambassador for a museum or the worst, depending on how well the museum has communicated its value to them. With savvy nurture efforts and compelling content marketing, reinforcing a museum’s membership value proposition can be achieved and then some. 

3. Lack of engagement or interest. Museums can combat this mindset with an entirely re-tooled marketing strategy. Simply reaching out to members via email or letter on occasion—as many museums still do—or contacting them only at times of the year when it’s important for the museum, can backfire and create a one-way relationship that is self-serving for the organization rather than serving the member. Instead, museums should focus on consistently delivering a “surprise and delight” marketing experience. Entertaining members with well-thought-out emails and newsletters and interrupting their social media scrolls with compelling content can keep them engaged and feeling connected to the museum. It can also reinforce a sense of pride that they are a member even when they’re not visiting in person. 

4. No time to participate. Convenience is key. Making participation or membership perks as easy and hassle-free as possible is critical to any membership marketing strategy. Many members, especially those with families, have limited time to take advantage of their membership perks, and when they do, the interactions must be easy and seamless. Memberships at children’s museums, science museums, natural history museums, zoos, and aquariums are extremely attractive to families. According to a report by Culture Track**, parents are 21 percent more likely than non-parents to join a loyalty or membership program that simplifies their planning and 31 percent more likely to join if organizations provide follow-up information so they can easily stay involved. Today’s families—and frankly, most people—have short attention spans and little patience for cumbersome interactions with brands. Their time (and money) is valuable, and they don’t want to waste it on substandard experiences. Making their time at the museum and especially their digital experience as easy, enjoyable, and hassle-free as possible is paramount to ensuring their loyalty. Clunky website experiences, poorly designed mobile interactions, non-relevant emails, and even paper or plastic membership cards can contribute to them having an inconvenient experience.  

Finally, if a member doesn’t renew their membership, spending time trying to find a new one to take their place isn’t an efficient long-term strategy. Museums should invest in marketing automation and CRM software to get to know everything they can about their members, and when they don’t renew, the first response should be to ask why. Digital survey tools, focus groups, and yes—even making phone calls—can provide museums with insightful qualitative data that can help them change course and turn their members into lifelong customers and loyal brand ambassadors who contribute to a stable bottom line so museums can continue to serve and delight their communities. 

Learn how The Old State can help your museum or cultural center reduce customer churn. We’ve worked with local Dallas institutions like the Dallas Arboretum and Klyde Warren Park and helped organizations like the American Quarter Horse Association increase their membership base. Let us help take your membership program to the next level.

* 2017 Association Survey Results - Growth Zone 
** The Loyalty Revolution: Establishing lasting relationships - Culture Track