Closures and physical distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic are forcing arts and cultural organisations to ask themselves an important question:
What role do they have when they cannot currently exist in their previous capacity? Drawing on my experience as an insights professional, I would answer that question by looking at the organization’s impact on its communities, local arts and cultural scene, audiences and visitors, and trying to place a value on its existence. Each organization that is currently closed due to the pandemic is leaving a uniquely shaped hole in its surrounding landscape.
I want to take a look at the impact this moment of change is having on one of the most loyal segments of many arts organisations: members.
Before the crisis, we typically saw two main types of membership offering: transactional and philanthropic. Both have distinct values and motivations, and offer members very different things.
Transactional membership is a benefit-led proposition in which the individual gets something tangible in return for their membership fee. Benefits tend to include member discounts, special access or priority booking, usually in relation to the live performances or events they put on.
In contrast, philanthropic memberships grant people a special status or membership level in exchange for their contributions to an organisation. It’s about doing something good for a cause that you care about, and being recognized for your gesture.
“Each organization that is currently closed due to the pandemic is leaving a uniquely shaped hole in its surrounding landscape.”
Let’s start with transactional members. The membership they are purchasing is focused around enhancing the event experience. This may be through priority booking, which offers access to the best seats first, or in some cases any seat to a sold-out show; it may offer discounts or access to private ‘members only’ areas within the event venue. In the moment we find ourselves in today, what are you actually offering in return when asking members to renew? What value do they get from your existence during this time?
Meanwhile, philanthropic membership may seem unaffected during this same period, as the ability to contribute and be recognized is more prominent than ever during a crisis. But even this type faces its own issues.
The urgent need for philanthropic support during this pandemic has created a culture of fear within some organisations. In some cases, people have acted with such urgency and reactiveness that they fail to follow their usual good practices for personalised communication. As a result, they have overlooked key information about the customer, such as the patron’s relationship with the organisation, their tenure with the organisation, their prior giving history and importantly, their membership status. As a result, these members can feel like they are not getting the recognition they deserve. This can leave them feeling unappreciated and undervalued, a feeling which may lead them to choose not to renew, when in fact this is not the case at all for the organisation which badly needs their support.
“The urgent need for philanthropic support during this pandemic has created a culture of fear within some organisations.”
The blended approach
As organisations begin to adapt to this time, we’ve begun to see a new type of membership forming. This new approach blends both transactional and philanthropic elements.
Benefits have become digital. Members now have the ability to access content in their own time, from the comfort of their own homes. There is no ‘best seat’ to fight for, no queueing to get into the show. Instead, there are behind-the-scenes interviews, or intimate video chats with directors and curators. For many, this has fulfilled their need for artistic connection in this moment while they are unable to physically attend a performance.
We’ve seen priority booking become gated content. Some organizations are offering restricted access to special digital content so that those who have contributed or become members have a digital equivalent of a ‘members area’. This means they can provide exclusive content and continue to make those vital supporters feel special.
Where shows are still being put on sale, limited capacities due to social distancing will potentially create a greater demand amongst those wanting to attend. Priority access will likely be even more valuable now, as it takes less capacity to sell out a socially distanced show.
“Priority access will likely be even more valuable now, as it takes less capacity to sell out a socially distanced show.”
We have also seen discounts extend beyond tickets. Organisations have shifted their messaging to highlight their presence within their community and a wider ecosystem locally. Some have even paired up with local suppliers, cafes, bars, shops and creative spaces that are congruent with their values. These partnerships help support the local economy while highlighting the organisation’s place within a local creative network.
It’s important to remember that these are entirely new offerings for members. The new benefits will not convince all of your existing transactional members to renew during this crisis. You’re acknowledging that your offering has had to adapt to the current climate, and you’re asking them to be philanthropic: to renew as a sign of support while accessing the limited benefits that you are able to provide at this time.
Meanwhile, your philanthropic members may prefer to contribute specifically to campaigns related to COVID-19 and receive the recognition there instead of as a member. The desire to support the very specific need in this time and place may outweigh the feeling they would get for making a contribution to a philanthropic membership right now.
In both cases, this product offering is not a direct replacement of what they had before. Members that don’t have a deep emotional or personal relationship with your organization may decide not to renew. That’s because membership was a product for them, not a relationship that they bought into. But these members don’t need to be lost forever.
“The new benefits you offer will not convince all of your existing transactional members to renew during this crisis.”
Identify lapsed members
It’s important to identify any lapsed members in your database during this time. This way, when you reopen and your original offering is resumed you can contact them and ask them to renew. Or, you could continue to cultivate the membership relationship, acknowledging that they were a member and that you understand the benefits they seek just aren’t available right now. In either case, when your benefits are accessible again, these individuals will feel valued. It might take longer than usual to renew, but if you recognize them as having been members before this time and continue to engage with them, there’s a chance that they might just be lapsed, not lost.
I’d like to close with a list of what every membership-based organisation should be thinking about right now.
Five key factors to consider for membership renewals right now
1) Acknowledge that this is a transitional period. What you have here and now is so different to anything you’ve been able to offer before as an organisation. In this moment, your organization as you knew it may have ceased to exist.
2) Take the time to understand what has changed for your members: what do they need from you right now? What is the main benefit of your membership offering in this moment? Are there any benefits you could offer them that would be of value that you don’t currently?
3) In light of your members’ wants and needs, consider revising your offering. Work out what your own blended approach might be.
4) Use this time to review internally what value your members place on you as an organization. Ask yourself: what would they do if you no longer existed? What would happen to your community, the arts and cultural landscape and your local area? Find your place in their lives, and demonstrate it to them however you can.
5) Finally, recognize that some members may take longer than normal to renew, identify those members who have lapsed, and when business resumes ensure they’ve had the engagement and acknowledgement they need to ensure they are lapsed and not lost.
Top photo by Jamie Davies on Unsplash