Membership programs are ubiquitous. From credit card companies to professional associations and cultural institutions, it seems like everyone is vying for our loyalty, engagement, and money. In a society based in consumerism, the ways we engage members are looking more and more alike across sectors and fields. That consolidation is quickening as consumer expectations shape when, where and how we engage.

So, how might arts organizations differentiate their programs and offer compelling reasons to join?

To gain a bit of perspective I sat down with Rosie Siemer, Founder and CEO of FIVESEED. Rosie consults with museums, arts, and conservation organizations worldwide to engage new and diverse audiences. An expert in museum audience engagement and membership innovation, Rosie has consulted internationally for leading organizations, including the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Museum of Science, Boston, Saint Louis Art Museum, Desert Botanical Garden, and Space Center Houston.

This blog is a compilation of my interview with Rosie.

Online engagement circa 2011

It is difficult to remember what it was like before we could swipe, hover, or press for fingerprint recognition. Rosie reminded me what it was like in the early days of member engagement using online tools. When Rosie started in membership engagement in 2011 online and social media were new, and especially new to those running marketing and membership programs for arts nonprofits. She got to see the earliest application of social media – and saw first-hand what worked well and what didn’t. It’s difficult to believe that the early adopters of 2011 were beginning to use email and social media for donor outreach. (Can we imagine our membership programs without these marketing channels today?)

Rosie reminded me, “Just remember, Facebook didn’t have a sophisticated advertising platform back then. This was back in the time of fan gates and page tabs—before the advent of Facebook’s social graph and mobile ads.”  She went on to note, “Algorithms weren’t dominate in the early days of social media. You had a lot more control over the timing and placement of your membership program marketing. Plus, you could get in front of your audience much more easily.”

Membership managers have less control over placing their messages online now that algorithms rule the world. When you have less control over what your audience sees it becomes harder to break through the flood of messages and engage authentically with them.

In essence, social media is a customer service channel today. It is the channel through which members reach out 24/7 with questions, complaints, and suggestions. Membership programs increasingly function as customer service. Wait, what? I thought guest services was responsible for customer service.

Social media is typically run out of the marketing department, which means that member input and comments go there first when in fact they may need to be addressed by the membership department. As Rosie has observed, “In some cases marketing is the middle-man between membership and the member. This situation can be very challenging for members if the social media manager is not responsive.”

The shift to member-centric models

The classic membership model has fallen short of meeting the needs of different types of members. While the classic program may be relatively easier for the organization to manage it can feel static and off the shelf. Too frequently a member finds themselves saying, “I guess I’ll take that even if it isn’t what I need.”

Rosie pointed out that arts organizations have lagged in product development when compared to other offerings in the leisure and entertainment industry. Since they have limited budgets and limited staff to dedicate to member engagement they haven’t been able to keep up with broader consumer trends.

More arts organizations are recognizing that their members are whole people with expectations, needs and demands that extend beyond membership. The expectations they have for their Amazon Prime membership inform their expectations as a museum member.  Rosie  is seeing arts organizations implement a distributed management approach to member engagement. This, in turn, is disrupting the way organizations are structured.

“Membership has historically been a stand-alone division or housed within the Development department. Membership is now being rolled up under marketing or under a division with guest services, which makes a lot of sense. You miss the opportunity to cultivate members and donors over the long-term when organizations have silos. I’m seeing that organizational structures are changing; they are becoming more integrated and holistic in how they steward the customer journey and member lifecycle.”

Increasingly, consumers across generations – from Gen Z to Boomers – share the same expectations. Rosie noted that “in many ways millennials are exhibiting the early indicators of what older generations want too. It is a lifestyle issue, and membership is increasingly about convenience, cost and customization.” This trend is expected to continue.

What is on the horizon?

Rosie’s new book is expected to be published by 2020. She is focusing on membership innovation and audience development. As she wraps up her research she’s wondering if some initial shifts will become major trends. Will cultural organizations extend their service offerings to include transportation and cohort experiences for groups? As loneliness becomes a bigger and bigger issue, along with lack of access, might museums radically reinvent the way they design their experiences and meet people where they are at? Might we envision a membership program that addresses those barriers? Rosie can.


If you want to learn more check out:

Membership Marketing in the Digital Age: A Handbook for Museums and Libraries – Rosie is a co-author of this go-to resource for membership programs.