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The Power of Data-Driven Member Research to Drive Growth & Build Resilience

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Title slide for The Power of Data-Driven Member Research to Drive Growth & Build Resilience

This is a recorded session from the 2023 AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo. Members are foundational to museums’ financial and social success—yet the sector has lacked rigorous study of the complex web of pain points, priorities, and underlying needs that motivate individuals to join a membership program. In this inspiring session, gain insight into leading-edge research and digital tools designed to help museums expand their reach, nurture engagement, and build resilience into their membership programs.


Dan Sullivan:

Hey, everybody. Welcome. My name is Dan Sullivan. I’m the VP of Growth and Partnerships at Cuseum, and I’ve got the privilege of introducing our panelists today. And one thing just worth noting, Cuseum is really proud to partner with Rosie and FIVESEED on the research that we’re going to talk through today. So I’m really excited about this groundbreaking study.

So, a couple quick facts about me. I have two little people, a two-year-old and a four-year-old, that dictate basically everything that I do. In my free time, I’m really into the outdoors. I love Bigfoot, and also I like doing triathlons in my free time.

So Rosie, sitting behind me, Rosie is the CEO and founder of FIVESEED and the author of Museum Membership Innovation, unlocking Ideas for Audience Engagement and Sustainable Revenue. She’s also co-authored a comprehensive resource for membership managers titled Membership Marketing in the Digital Age. I think you can find those in the store, in the bookstore.

Rosie’s the principal researcher of the Member Motivation Study, co-founder of the Membership Innovation Group at the Museums of Progress, and also serves on the board of directors at the Denver Police Museum. When she’s now researching and helping arts and cultural organizations. She likes watching sci-fi movies, enjoys traveling and scotch-tasting. Woo.

And then also I’d like to introduce Jamila Wicks. Jamila is the advancement director of the Illinois State Museum Society, with more than two decades of experience in the nonprofit and government sectors, she’s responsible for coordinating public relations and fund development plans to ensure ongoing support for the Illinois State Museum. And previously she’s worked at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, overseeing their annual campaign and securing funding for the museum’s public programming. She’s also led strategies and programs to increase visibility and funding at previous nonprofits, such as Points of Light and Books From Birth, an affiliate of the Dolly Parton Imagination Library. And originally from Georgia, Wicks holds a master’s degree in public administration and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia. And fun fact, she is an aspiring horse owner.

Next we have Angela Tharp. In her two decades at Indiana University, Angela has helped campuses promote and measure their marketing efforts. She created the first known customer survey panel in higher education, and she’s facilitated hundreds of groups and interviews. She returns to arts administration one year as the director of membership. One year ago, as the director of membership for the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, and she nurtures member relationships, campaigns, revenue, as well as attendance, using research to guide membership towards better outcomes. Fun facts, she likes reading, running, crafting, and most of all travel. And she and hubs have been to every Disney Park in the world. That’s something to aspire to.

And last but not least, we have Erica Wainwright. Erica has worn many hats during her 10 years at the Cincinnati Museum Center. She’s held management positions in floor operations, ticketing and membership sales and exhibitions. Her current role is that of director of membership, or sorry, director of featured exhibitions and exhibit business development. And she works closely with external and internal teams to help facilitate exhibit projects at the Cincinnati Museum Center.

In 2020, as we all worked through these operational dynamics that COVID threw at us in the museum field, she stepped back into a leadership role in ticketing and membership sales and the department that she started in the beginning. Her previous experience as member of visitor services team, combined with her years of working behind the scenes in exhibits, informs her perspective as they continue to attract and serve guests, strengthen the membership and provide enriching experiences. When Erica somehow doesn’t get enough exercise at work, traversing the 500,000 square feet of the museum’s historic home, Union Terminal, she finishes out the day by taking a ride on the Peloton or walking her little Yorkie, Joey.

Awesome. So really excited to have our panelists. Thanks for being here. I’m just going to talk through a couple quick, high-level items, basically for perspective. So as I mentioned, Cuseum is partnering with Rosie and FIVESEED on this project, and a lot of the work that we do revolves around helping cultural institutions and membership departments better engage their visitors, members, and donors. And a lot of our solutions are verticalized in the membership department. So everything from engagement to communication to cost-saving and resources as well.

We work with a lot of organizations. I’m going to go through this quickly because I know you all want to know the results of the study. And we’ve done a number of different projects that have caught the eye of the international media, which we’re really proud of. And something that actually is near and dear to my heart is we recently ticked over a really incredible milestone, sending over 7 million digital membership cards. And for me, as someone who’s very conscious of the environment, that meant a lot, seeing that us, as an organization, can really have a significant impact on the environment, much greater than our individual selves. So I think that’s something that’s just worth mentioning.

So since the theme of today’s conversation is data, I figured a couple interesting statistics would be worth mentioning. So first of all, 54% of museums are capturing basic feedback or demographics, which is really shockingly low if you think about it. How can you really cater to your audience if you don’t understand who they are or where to find them? Secondly, about 18% use audience data to shape their efforts and offerings. Again, these numbers, we hope with the work that we’re doing in this study to see these increase. 41% don’t have defined goals and KPIs or outcomes to measure. And then lastly, this one is really the mind-blowing one, 3% are continuously tracking against those goals and KPIs with real-time data. So there’s clearly a need to utilize data in a more effective and efficient ways to help organizations cater to their constituencies more effectively.

So on the leveraging data side of things, there’s a lot of ways you can use it. One big way is to analyze membership trends. Significant portion of our attendees are in the membership space. So understanding, are we trending upwards, downwards, and what is the equation that would put in to get to where we are? And how can we use data to understand how to improve our processes? Secondly, enhancing personalizations. You all think about your own experiences in institutions, and many of the research studies we’ve seen, a more personalized experience leads to a better overall experience for a visitor, a member, a donor, whatever it may be. So there’s lots of ways that you can use data in a way to increase that experience.

Secondly, targeted marketing, I think everybody is on the same page with that. And then, real quick, improving the visitor and member experience like I was alluding to. And lastly, making evidence-based strategy decisions, rather than the old gut check, “I think we should be doing this. I think this is a direction we should go.” You can use data to actually understand and say, “This is something that we need to be doing. Look at the engagement, look at the statistics.”

And then as far as benefits along the member journey, couple things real quick. Optimizing acquisition, so, understanding where are the best places to find your constituents in the most cost-effective ways. Secondly, driving engagement. This is front and center for all membership as well as development-based organizations. A more engaged member or donor is somebody that’s going to be more likely to support in a continuous way. Next up, improving retention is another critical component to that as well. As I mentioned before, fostering loyalty and then ultimately fueling growth of your organization. So with that, that’s a bit of a high-level on the way that Cuseum is thinking about these things, and why we wanted to partner with Rosie and FIVESEED on the study. So with that, I’m going to hand the mic over to Rosie to take it away.

Rosie Siemer:

Check. Check. All right. Hi, everyone. My name’s Rosie Siemer. I’m the founder and CEO of FIVESEED. We are a strategy and research organization, and we partner exclusively with museums and cultural organizations. And we have a special expertise in membership and audience development.

So today I’m very excited to be sharing the findings of the initial phase of research from The Member Motivation Study. And as Dan mentioned, we’re very happy to be collaborating with our good friends at Cuseum on this research. They’ve been an amazing champion of this project, and I am very honored to have them as a partner. I would also like to give a shout-out and a very big thank you to all of the 30 museums that participated in this initial phase of research, including our three panelists here today. Without you all, we wouldn’t be here talking about this exciting research.

So let me tell you a little bit about the Member Motivation Study. This is a first of its kind, multi-year initiative to develop an evidence-based model for member behavior by understanding the hidden motivations for why people join. For this first phase of research, we focused on a very specific intervention around the value proposition of membership. Our hypothesis for this first phase of research was to investigate and see if those prospective members who were exposed to a social identity-framed value proposition would be more likely to click the “Join Now” button than those who saw the control.

So let me show you what that looked like. This is our control. So when we establish this control, what we wanted to do is position this value proposition the way that we traditionally market membership in the museum space. So this has a transactional frame around it. It’s all about access, access to free admission, access to exclusive member benefits. And the copy here reads, “Become a Member and save today. Members enjoy exclusive benefits plus free admission all year long.”

Next, what we did is we developed a set of distinct social identity-framed value propositions to test against the control. So here’s our first social identity frame. This is about sense of belonging. So for example, if I view myself as an art lover, I want to do things that reinforce that identity. One of those things might be to become a member of the art museum, so I can be part of that community. So this copy reads, “You belong here, join a community of like-minded science, sports, and play enthusiasts.”

Now I’m showing you examples from the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, but each organization had branded landing pages. Everything was exactly the same, with the exception of the logo. And the “Join Now” button was based on the organization’s brand standards. And then in this case, for this landing page, we did tweak slightly the copy. So if it was a history museum, it read, “Join a community of like-minded history enthusiasts.” It was an art museum. It read, “Join a community of like-minded art enthusiasts,” and so on.

Our next social identity frame is around being a facilitator. So those of you who are familiar with John Falk’s research around museum investor identities, this will sound very familiar. This is about facilitating and experience for someone other than yourself. So this might be a parent facilitating an experience for a child, or it might be an individual facilitating an experience for a friend or a spouse or a partner. The copy on this landing page reads, “Memories are made here. Share something important with someone important to you.”

Our next social identity variant is around sense of responsibility. Now, here, what we wanted to do is look at the mission aspect of membership. Now, often what we see in the cultural space is the mission is tacked on to the transactional value proposition of membership. So it sounds something like this, “Join today and receive all these great benefits, free admission all year long.” So this idea was to decouple the mission aspect of membership and see if it could stand on its own. And so what we did here is generalize this idea of sense of responsibility. So you’ll notice that the messaging is not institution-specific or even cause-specific. It’s more just about making a difference. So, “Make a difference. This is your moment, become a member.”

And our last social identity frame is around this idea of being an explorer. This is also inspired by John Falk’s research. And so this is kind of the idea that there are many of us who consider ourselves to be lifelong learners. We want to discover new things. And so we wanted to see if we could create a value proposition that tapped into that idea and activated that social identity. So this landing page reads, “Experience the unexpected. You’re naturally curious, discover something new every time.”

So let’s look at the study design. As I mentioned, we had 30 organizations participating in this initial phase of research. This represented a wide range of disciplines, size of organization, geography, and also admission types. So we had a mix of free and paid admission organizations. Each of these organizations sent out the exact same email to a list of their non-member and lapse member contacts within their database. That email, as you can see, is pretty generic. It’s not very sexy membership marketing. And it was intentionally designed that way so that we didn’t bias anything on the front end. We didn’t want them to be exposed to any membership messaging. The only thing we wanted is that if they had an interest in membership, they’d self-select in and click that “Learn More” button. For each organization, it was branded for their institution with their logo, an exterior image of their building without any people. And then the button color reflected their brand standards.

Now, once someone clicked that “Learn More” button, they were taken into our experiment. So I want to stress that this was not a survey. We didn’t ask people to tell us how they felt about these messages. We wanted to actually see how they reacted. And so they didn’t know they were in our experiment. We were observing them in the wild, and we got to see how they actually responded. This is known as a randomized controlled field experiment. It’s the gold standard when it comes to research. And once they came in after clicking that button, they were randomly distributed to either the control or one of the four variants.

So I’m going to walk you through the funnel from our results, so you can get a sense of the size and scope of this study. We had over 745,000 emails sent out across those 30 organizations. That’s a massive sample there. Of those, 724,000 were received, 297,000 of those emails were opened. That represents about a 41% open rate. Over 9,000 of those folks that got the email clicked on the email, that’s a 1.3% click-through rate. We generated over 10,000 arrivals to our study landing pages. Now, some of those arrivals came in from social media because we did ask each organization to post one organic post that mirrored the email on either Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. And so some of that draw came from a little bit of external audiences there. And that resulted in over 6,000 clicks on the landing pages, and that was about a 0.8% click-through rate.

So before we take a look at the findings, a little bit of context for you all about what this data means. So first, all of the percentages assumed that landing page visits were randomized exactly to each condition. We also, as for this study, we performed a statistical test called a one-tailed z-test, and we measured the likelihood to click from either the control or one of those four variants. When you see either of these two symbols, it’s a little hard to tell on the screen, but the blue hexagon with the single asterisk indicates that we had a statistically significant result, that we are 95% confident that what we are seeing is due to our test variant, not a fluke. The diamond in beige with the little carrot, that indicates that we are 90% confident in that result. We have a marginal significance. But I do want to stress that when you see these symbols, both of those indicate that we had significant results. We are seeing evidence that that social identity or the control is meaningful.

Drum roll, everybody, help me out with a drum roll. All right, here we go. So the first outcome is that prospective members were in fact more likely to click the “Join” button from our social identity-framed variants than from the control. And for our first variant, sense of belonging, we had a 90% confidence that that result was a real effect that we were seeing. For our social identity frame of a facilitator, we found statistically significant results, that that variant outperformed the control. For our sense of responsibility, we did not see any significant results for this social identity variant. And finally, for our explorer, we did find statistically significant results that this social identity variant outperformed the control.

So now I’d like to walk you through the results by admission type. So we did some slicing and looking at paid admission versus free admission. And what we found is that different social identity variants performed differently for paid admission organizations compared to free admission organizations. We had statistically significant results for the facilitator social identity frame and the explorer social identity frame for paid admission organizations. And for our free admission organizations, we saw statistically significant results for that sense of belonging.

Now I’d like to show you by discipline. So here we have our discipline clusters. For each of these, we saw some different results. For our art museums, we saw statistically significant results that the facilitator, social identity frame, sense of responsibility, and our explorer frame all outperformed the control. For our gardens, we found that the facilitator social identity frame outperformed the control with statistically significant results. And for our multidisciplinary organizations, we found that the sense of belonging, facilitator, and explorer, those social identity frames all outperformed the control at a 95% confidence level. We did not find any significant differences for our science, history and children’s museum cluster.

And now what I’d like to do is take you through three institution-level findings. First, starting with the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. Here, for this organization, we did not find any significant difference between the control and our four test variants. They all performed equally as well. We weren’t able to tell any difference there. For the Cincinnati Museum Center, we did find some interesting results. We found a 95% confidence for sense of belonging, outperforming in the control, as well as the facilitator social identity frame, and the explorer social identity frame. And Cincinnati Museum Center is a multidisciplinary organization.

Lastly, for the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, we did find some very interesting results here. Nelson Atkins Museum is a free admission museum. We found a very strong result for our sense of belonging social identity frame at that statistical significance level. And for our facilitator social identity frame, we have a 90% confidence level in that value proposition.

So I’d like to close with a quote from Nicole Eubanks, senior development director of fundraising strategy at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art. Nicole says, “The Member Motivation Study has helped us make data-driven decisions and encouraged our museum to focus on better understanding what influences the decision to become a member. As a free museum, we’re excited to translate the findings from this research into a strategy to grow our membership program.” I love that.

So I have always been curious about how social identity plays a role in the decision to become a member. Membership at its core is all about group affiliation. And so now with this research, we have empirical evidence that we can be more effective leveraging social identity, especially with our sense of belonging, with our facilitating an experience for someone else. And when someone sees themself as an explorer, those social identity frames are powerful drivers in membership. So I’m very excited about what we have learned with this study. I hope that all of you are excited about the possibility that we have to transform membership with this research. I invite you to join our community and help us to continue to build on this study and continue learning together. So thank you all very much.

Dan Sullivan:

So I guess my first question is what assumptions did you all have about the motivations of your member base coming into this? And how have those assumptions been challenged or reaffirmed by the study’s findings?

Erica Wainwright:

I can speak to this. So in our museum, we see membership is very transactional. And maybe it’s because that’s a lot of times what you see when people walk in and buy a membership in person. And so that’s where our framework sometimes is. I know myself and our VP of marketing both came from ticket and membership sales. So that’s also what we’re bringing when we’re looking at things.

Our membership department lives in ticketing and sales. So I think it’s set up in our brains this way, but what the study’s kind of showing is that’s not necessarily how members see a membership. I think there are people that see it as transactional, but a lot of our members are actually there for much more than that. They’re joining for much more, and they’re not just looking for the free parking. It’s the whole experience that they’re narrowing in on.

Just to play off that, something that we noticed is we were expecting to lose a ton of members during COVID, and we lost members, but not nearly what we thought. I think we were expecting more of a 70% drop, and it was like 20. So people are buying into the mission, too. They’re supporting us. It’s not just a transaction. Like we had really been thinking,

Dan Sullivan:

And if anything, I think this research really reinforces a lot of what we were hearing where during the pandemic we were saying, “Oh, well we need to shift to being more mission-focused,” and this really validates that. Any of our other panelists want to add anything?

Angela Tharp:


Dan Sullivan:

Cool. And I was really excited about these findings because I think that in so many ways we say, “Oh, well, how do you get answers from your constituency?” And one, is you ask them. But the other is, like Rosie was alluding to, so many other research studies are just surveys. What would you do? This is actually what they did. And I think that’s why it’s so interesting and so much more powerful. And actually that being one of my biggest surprises and takeaways, I’m curious to know from our panelists and from Rosie as well, what surprised you about this and the takeaways from the study?

Jamila Wicks:

I think for me, when I saw the simplicity of the marketing, it surprised me that we had people who responded to it being that simple. When I know with our marketing and advertising, we’re always working to make these really dynamic membership appeals. And just for us to put our building, picture of our building and say, “Do you want to become a member?” And to get memberships off of that, that was surprising to me.

Angela Tharp:

So I have to say that I expected transactional to be really strong for us. I’m with the Children’s Museum, Children’s Museums lose people over time because people age out. And so it makes sense that people are very transactional. And they’re also at a stage in their lives where they may be more economically-challenged, and they just have a lot going on. So they’re very focused on how much does it cost? And how many times am I going to be able to get in for that cost?

I was a little surprised on our end that there weren’t significant differences though with some of the specific social identities. I would’ve expected facilitator to be huge for us, we’re a Children’s Museum. But I do have some thoughts about why that might be, and I think we might get into that a little bit later. But explorer, even though it wasn’t significant, was a little higher for us. And so I am really intrigued by that whole explore theme.

Erica Wainwright:

I think I kind of said what was a bit surprising for us, just really expecting it to be transactional. Before this study came across my desk, we had been talking about segmenting our marketing and how to do more targeted marketing. And our CEO had been pushing for more information just to go out about our collection versus just doing what’s the discount, what’s the traveling exhibit, what’s the theme weekend type of thing, but really focusing more on what we do regularly every day well than just the special things. So I think it really helped pull some of the people that maybe weren’t necessarily buying into that idea a little bit more. There was a little bit more data there to convince them that it’s worth a try.

Dan Sullivan:

And I feel like that’s why it’s so interesting also is it eliminates that theoretical, it’s this is what happens. And I think so many organizations feel like they need to reinvent the wheel with their marketing. And if we looked at those landing pages, very simple, but we saw the statistical significance of how they can drive change.

Erica Wainwright:

I don’t know if I’ve seen your guys’ numbers, but when they clicked through, it eventually went to your membership sales page, and we had 82 people buy memberships off of that marketing. So somehow, just the picture of our building, and a “Join Now.” We have questions.

Dan Sullivan:

I’ll run the mic out too.

Rosie Siemer:

I’m glad.

Dan Sullivan:

We’re in a room with a bunch of savvy people.

Speaker 1:

I’m not. This mic [inaudible 00:30:00].

Dan Sullivan:

Oh. All right. We’re in a room with savvy people. So immediately my thought goes to, “Okay, well we’ve got segments of our audience.” So for instance, we’re at art museum, a small art museum, but we have children’s programs that have been literally successful, and it’s been really great to see memberships attracted for those. And so then I find myself thinking, “Oh gosh, well, is there any hope for targeting some of these specific activities of children’s programs?” Do you feel like you’ve learned lessons about segments of the museum-going population, as well as sort of specific sectors of the museum field? Or how segmented do you think some of this is?

Erica Wainwright:

We are teetering in that world of you don’t want to get so segmented that you’re not catching people that would surprise you that they’re interested, and they’re just not aware then because they didn’t fit somehow in your segment. We are trying to do it a couple different ways where we’re hitting a lot of our members, but we’re breaking up our marketing calendar.

So throughout the renewal process, the lead isn’t, “Your membership’s about to expire,” or, “You’re this close to expiring.” The first email has something to do with a mission-oriented program or new exhibit. We just came out of a big restoration. So we’re also rebuilding permanent exhibits. So something very mission-oriented, educational kind of across a lot of different age grade groups too. So having an adult program, a young children’s program, all kind of in that package, not saying a single thing about how much the membership costs, or if you get 10% off if you do it now or anything like that.

We do have one that is a, “Hey, save 20% off if you renew your membership now,” type of a thing. And then we have another one that’s just, again, something very mission-oriented, like, “This is something coming up that is a family-oriented event,” or, “This is a new movie,” but it’s not a value-driven type of a thing, it’s just highlighting something that’s coming up. So then our goal is to who’s clicking through what? And then breaking that down a little bit.

We have a new member portal where we’re having members self-select into what are their favorite topics. And so essentially you’re putting yourself on a mailing list for a certain thing. But also that’s how you may get invited to the opening of a ocean-based OMNIMAX film that we’re opening. But because it’s like we’ve also see that you go to all these water-based experiences that we’ve had in the past too, but. So trying, it’s the next step that we’re kind of tipping our toes into.

Dan Sullivan:

All right. Other questions?

Rosie Siemer:

Let me actually respond to that, too, just quickly about segmentation. So one of the limitations of this first phase of research is that once everyone clicked into the study, they became anonymous to us. So we didn’t know who they are, what their background is. And as you can tell from the imagery that we used, it’s very specific. A male with a child might not resonate with me, as someone who doesn’t have children, or might resonate with somebody who’s a grandparent, maybe not as strongly. So one of the things I think is really important is that to make these findings actionable, we have to know more about our audiences and our members to be able to present them with the right kind of content and information. But also that I think it’s important to note, too, that any one of us might respond to any one of these variants, including the control, depending on our goals at that moment, our mindset, and the role that we’re playing.

So that’s important too. It’s not that we have one winner, but it’s that if we are social identity forward, we can be more effective and tapping into that more emotional connection with our audiences. That’s a really good question.

Quickly that we are going to be announcing the second phase of research soon. In fact, Cuseum is going to be hosting a webinar June 1st for us to talk a little bit about that. We’d love to have you all join to hear that conversation, but I think we need more investigation. So definitely we need to do some more exploration on the messaging itself, the variations of different social identities. I mean, you could go down very deeply into each of those social identities. And then generally researching more around, just as you’ve suggested, who responds to which message? But I love that you have that in your tagline. That’s great.

Dan Sullivan:

And anybody that’s interested in participating in another phase of the study can come talk to Rosie.

Speaker 2:

As part of your initiative to continue further the studies, would you also be interested in exploring the retention rate around the different strategies that you’re using?

Rosie Siemer:

Absolutely. I think that is certainly the future of this research because the initial reason you join may be a little different than the reason that you renew. And we all know that loyalty is so important in membership. And so I think that would be something that I would hope that we can explore in future phases of research.

Speaker 3:

Do you already have certain type of support maintenance?

Rosie Siemer:

For me? I’d really love to continue looking at social identity as it relates to retention, but there may be some things that we learn as we build on this research that might change that a little bit. So yeah.

Angela Tharp:

I’ll go ahead and start then with Facilitator. So I don’t think we can necessarily say that it absolutely doesn’t work well as a social identity. I think there’s a lot of additional testing that has to be done. And I think that you do these studies, and they’re experiments at the start, and you’re trying to get a model that you can continue to replicate and grow upon.

And one of the things that I think is going to be really important are the kinds of images that are chosen, the specific kinds of text that are chosen for each museum that tries to do this and for various stages along the way. So, for example, we all had to use the same imagery because we’re part of this study together. We would have a lot more children in the various images. I’m also in the state of Indiana, nothing against the state of Indiana, but we do have some issues or more issues at times with racial bias.

So I’d be particularly interested in seeing if that played a role or if the groupings of people play a role, whether you’re choosing a bigger group or a smaller group and what that group looks like, whether it’s a family structure that’s traditional or not. Those are the kinds of things that I think have to be explored next before anything is off the table.

So I have to give huge kudos to Rosie for getting us started down that path. For showing us a way that we can actually do this in-market testing. And then it behooves all of us to take it further and to see what works at various stages along the journey. Because the goal at the end of the day is getting the right message to the right people at the right time in the right format for them. And that’s going to benefit them and that’s going to benefit us as an institution.

Rosie Siemer:

And Jamila, I wonder if you might talk a little bit about as a free museum, kind of how you’re thinking about shaping-

Jamila Wicks:

Yes. So-

Rosie Siemer:

… your membership.

Jamila Wicks:

So when Rosie came to us, we had been closed by the state, so we reopened. We went through COVID, and we went through some leadership changes, and then we became free. So my membership took a dive.

Angela Tharp:

Ours, too, ours, too.

Jamila Wicks:

And I was new coming in. And so I’ve been with a destination museum, and we have a destination presidential museum in the backyard. So I’m used to doing that. I was used to that transactional, thinking about, “These are the benefits that we offer, this is why you want to become a member.” And then for us with Rosie’s study, we really were able to think about not the transaction, not the numbers. And we really started to put a face and an identity with each member, and we were able to change that language and change the language in our marketing instead of saying, “Here are the benefits,” we do use, “You belong here.” And it has gotten us so much closer.

And when we talk about retention, I’m thinking, “Yes, we’re going to see retention,” because I no longer just think of member A as member A, and they have a family membership. I’m like, “That’s Judy, she has a granddaughter. She wants to make sure we connect her to different experiences.” And then also being free and being this inclusive accessible museum, we also have to be thinking about, “Well, what kind of membership experiences can we have?” We don’t get to say, “Oh, we’re going to offer this program for $10,” and give members an $8 fee. It’s just not what we are modeled at the Illinois State Museum. So now some of our options are, okay, we’re going to have a lecture, well, let’s take 20 minutes or 30 minutes prior to that lecture and give our members an opportunity who are explorers, who want to learn more and get a deeper connection with the member, and invite them in.

So it’s really helped us to talk, how we talk about membership, how we talk about the identity of our members, how we talk about when we’re talking with our programming staff. How we say, “Well, that’s great, how is this program, or how is this opportunity connecting with our folks who want a sense of belonging, who want a sense of exploring, who want to share their memories that are being made?” So it’s really helped us internally and really to change our language, not just from our membership department, but from our membership to our frontline. And then, I know something that’s always been difficult for me is how do you say, “Hey, yes, you’re a member, but we also need you to be an annual fund donor.” And because you’re making that personal connection, it is, I think, one, we’re going to retain them, and we are seeing members who are members, and they are more than happy to be donors.

Rosie Siemer:

So those perspective members were all within each organization’s existing database. So they were current audiences, which I think is another important piece of this puzzle. We need to also be learning about external audiences, prospective audiences, who haven’t yet visited. We don’t have their email address. We also need to be learning what they think and how they might respond. But all of these in this study were known audiences. These organizations already had the email address. And for those that might not be able to read the small print here, the only copy that was included is, “Interested in becoming a member at X, Y, Z organization.” So very simple.

Speaker 4:

Do you have a hypothesis about why there was not a difference with history, science and children’s museums statistically when there were in other types of museum disciplines?

Rosie Siemer:

I do, and I’d love to hear if anyone else has some thoughts on that too. One thing to note is that we did not have a large enough cohort of history museums to be able to pull them out on their own. I think if we had, those results might look a little different. Because they were clustered in with science centers and children’s museum, I think that there was a stronger pool there. And as Angela mentioned, I think we all in membership know that audiences at science centers and children’s museums with young families tend to be a little more fickle, a little more transactional just in their orientation. So I think that’s probably what we’re seeing in this data. But as Angela also mentioned, I think this is a starting point and what we really need to do is explore and investigate further to really know more.

Angela Tharp:

And I just want to say one more thing, and I think it’s really important to think about all kinds of research and bringing it to the table. So this was great in terms of in-market testing, but there is a role for surveys to play. There is a role for qualitative data where you are asking questions, digging deeper, doing focus groups and interviews. So it’s layering all that data together that’s going to give us a more complete picture of what works and doesn’t work.

Jamila Wicks:

Oh, we are definitely doing all the categories. It’s just a way to think about your folks. Because I think when you said, you segmented, you said that you saw this person comes to a lot of these programs. Well for me this answers, “Oh, this is why they come, they’re an explorer, they need this.” And we need more opportunities for explorers.

Angela Tharp:

This was one point in time. And so anything can happen at one point in time. And so again, I think it has to be repeated. I also think, within our individual institutions, we have to think about whether these are the right social identities. So we have been going down a path at the Children’s Museum of a lot of Falk identity work and persona building. And so we have our own sort of mashup of Falk identities, along with some others that we think are specific to our museum. So we will be heavily testing all of that, but very much so using the model that Rosie has set up for us.

Erica Wainwright:

We’re already working on email marketing segmenting and really building up our membership data. We know how many kids are on your membership, but we don’t have an idea of age range unless you get really granular and somehow have the time to really focus in on trying to dissect what they do when they’re here, what tickets they’ve bought before or anything.

So I think the thing is, is that we’re getting a good response out of a lot of these, out of almost all of them. So it’s not like, “Oh man, they don’t care about a discount. So no need to do those anymore,” or anything. So I think it’s what does that look like? And don’t lean really hard on one or really hard on two because then you’re going to miss out on a whole another group. And like Angela said, depending on where you are, what really your mission is, you might be missing a category, a social identity, on the list as well. So trying to think of what are segments and then what is wide-cast and should be wide-cast because that’s how you’re bringing. We sent out over 200,000 emails for our part of the study. So we went back, I think, to the limit, 10 years, I think, was the limit or something like that.

Rosie Siemer:

I want to say 2019, but.

Erica Wainwright:

It was something crazy. It was something-

Rosie Siemer:

It was a lot.

Erica Wainwright:

… crazy. It was a lot of people. And so it’s like some of those haven’t been members since then and haven’t visited in a long time. And so what do you want from us because we’re here for you, so. We have renewal letters that we still send out in paper form, and we’ve taken the discount off of a lot of them because that’s not where we’re trying to hit you, and you send that anyways. So we’ve taken that off of a lot of those. I think we’ve added it on if you’ve let it lapse, if you’ve lapsed within 60 days or something, you can get a discount if you join.

We do a member newsletter that’s quarterly. And in that, we really do try to lean in towards what’s happening behind the scenes. Is there any new collections ideas? Is there programs that are happening? I largely work in exhibits, and no one knows what we do until it is physically on the floor. So doing different, even staff spotlights, I think people really find it interesting of what does it mean when you work at the museum and everything. So highlighting some of those different things in there instead of it being the discounts or just the calendar.

Angela Tharp:

And I would say that I am thinking right now a lot about our print magazine, which we do three times a year, about our overall theme, which is something that I’m ready to revise. But those are just thoughts at this point because I really want to do a lot more digging in and understanding. But I also do want to do more in-market testing too, where we’re sending stuff out, and then we’re asking people about it, and how they’re reacting to it. So it’s kind of both of those things happening at the same time, a longer-term plan. And how are we using it in the short-term?

Rosie Siemer:

Are you doing any direct mail [inaudible 00:49:00]?

Jamila Wicks:

Yes. Yes. We do nothing but direct mail. I mean, we do digital, but direct mail is a very, very big part, and if we stop it, we get a call every day.

Angela Tharp:

I would say one other thing, though, since you asked specifically about digital, I do think one of the lovely things about the design of this project is the simplicity of the messaging. And I think it translates well to digital. And what I love is it forces us to be really intentional about where people are in their journey instead of just throwing everything at them, which is our tendency, I think, in membership. So I feel like this gave our team more freedom to be able to focus.

Speaker 4:

I want to open that little bit at the conversation, ’cause I think another moment is super important to gain members is onsite journey. ‘Cause they’re already there in your museum, and they visit the collections, and maybe they are pleased by what they see. So that’s a key moment to make them become members. So I’m curious about what you think about language on onsite signage, like membership-oriented language.

For me, I think, “Become a member,” will, although it’s super transactional, but the advantage is that super simple and super clear and straightforward. So when people pass by, and they see this sign, they know what is about. Whereas you not here, or whatever, it’s more vague and maybe not that straightforward. So I’m just curious about your thoughts about what sort of language works better in terms of onsite signage to get people become member.

Rosie Siemer:


Erica Wainwright:

I don’t have any thoughts on this.

Angela Tharp:

So I think one of the things you’re getting at is just the importance of a continuous theme. And that we want to make sure that we’re bringing that to every stage of the constituent journey. So I think that we can use these identities at different stages, but we have to figure out which identities work at which stages. And there does need to be a real understanding of the environment that you’re in.

When you’re on-site, at least at the Children’s Museum, we have kids tugging on their grandparents and their parents and aunt and uncle’s arms all the time. They’re moving in every possible direction. Simplicity is going to be super important. And so I think social identity informs what happens on-site, but basic usability is always going to be huge. How do we get the information to people that they most need at the time that they need it?

Rosie Siemer:


Jamila Wicks:

And so we are struggling with that, and I don’t think we’re going to do the “Become a member.” We definitely aren’t doing the, “Become a member, get a free gadget,” because we’re a free museum, so that’s just is not working for us. And we’re a smaller museum. So we’ll definitely lean more into the social identity factors. I’m not sure if Rosie has talked about it. I know you talked about it because we’re a Midwestern museum, so identity is a lot.

And what Rosie shared with me in some of the things with her next stage of her study is about the biases that came out of this study, and that’s something we’re waiting to see, so that we can incorporate that. And I don’t want to fast-forward you, but that was a really good thing that I didn’t know. Seeing the photos of the different people and how people identify with those particular photos. So I don’t want to rush you, but I really like to hear more.

Rosie Siemer:

Yeah, no, and I think that’s so important. And I’ll just briefly speak to the question about on-site. I mean, I think that what we do know is that when people come for a visit, when they’re standing there, and they’re kind of looking at admission ticket prices and membership, they are doing the math in their head, and they are thinking about, “Well, I could join, and then I could come back. If I come back two times, membership pays for itself.”

And I don’t think we want to lose that. I certainly don’t want anyone to walk out of this room thinking that you should stop talking about the transactional aspect of membership. Really what I hope is that we do continue to test. I love what Angela says about how to take this forward and that this is a starting point, not the end. And so I really encourage all of you to take these findings and this learning and take that back to your home institutions and do your own testing.

Start learning more about your own members. I also really love what you said about that because this was a field experiment in-market does not mean that surveys are not helpful, or that they’re useless. That’s not the case. We can gain a lot of valuable information from surveys and from qualitative research, interviewing and focus groups. Those are methodologies that need to be layered in and applied to round out this kind of research. And we just are at the beginning. So we have so much more to learn, which is why I hope all of you will join us for our next phase of research, so we can continue learning together.

Jamila Wicks:

And just to be clear, so right, yes, the transactional piece, but just for us being free, we don’t have the person standing up and say, “If I buy this membership, then I save this amount of money.” We just need to do a deeper dive in people and why they want to be connected with us.

Dan Sullivan:

So we are at time. I just want to, first off, say thank you to our panelists for being so… Round of applause for them.

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