Museums benefit greatly from memberships, as do members. Members of museums have four and a half times the long-term value of non-members, according to IMPACTS, a cultural institution research firm (Dilenschneider, 2019). Members typically benefit by receiving free admission, access to member-only events, discounts at gift shops, on special events, and more. Interestingly, free admission is not the only driver of membership purchases; another is the concept of supporting the museum’s mission. This ranks second, closely behind free admission as one of the top-ranked reasons for joining (Dilenschneider, 2018).
In other words, a visitor who becomes a member is an admirer, a fan, and believes in the museum's values. This suggests that membership is a win-win for all parties. It is perplexing then why cultural organizations in our digital era, with the ubiquitous use of Zoom, live streaming, etc. in the post-COVID era have not leveraged digital capabilities as an opportunity by offering online memberships. I am suggesting that an online membership tier be added to a museum's membership offerings--one that is at a slightly reduced rate from the museum's traditional membership price point.
Some museums do offer online events that include courses, talks, live stream events, etc., which makes me think there is an opportunity to offer online visitors who are already engaged and interested, membership options. Doing so would create a relationship between the online visitor-turned-member and the organization.
What Is Offered Online?
Museums that do offer online events include The National Gallery in London, The Frick, The Met, The Barnes Foundation. Events include courses, talks, draw-and-learn sessions, lectures and more. Some are free, others are fee-based, and some, specifically at The National Gallery offer member-only online events (included in traditional memberships), though events are not promoted as a benefit.
Below is a selection of event calendars that include online options.
Unfortunately, the majority of museums don't offer events for digital audiences, including the world's most visited institutions such as the MoMA and the Louvre. Nor do they, or the ones I mentioned above, offer online memberships.
Museums Shift to Digital – Or Not?
Surprisingly, museums that offered more digital content during COVID are now scaling back. A study conducted by Katherine Jones and Kathryn Petterson shows that 54 percent of museums surveyed in 2021 reduced their digital offerings post-COVID, and 7 percent ceased their digital output entirely (Lu, 2021). Considering that museum attendance in the first quarter of 2023 is projected to be less than that in 2019, according to IMPACTS data, it would seem that museums need to think outside the box, literally, to leverage opportunities to increase visitor numbers and potential members (Dilenschneider, 2023).
It seems a no-brainer for museums to develop a strategy to garner visitors digitally and offer exclusive online-only memberships. And to clarify, by engaging visitors online I do not mean with "virtual tours," which are typically a clunky and cumbersome method to view paintings or artifacts.
By engaging members online, I mean by offering online events, exclusive digital content, including videos, live streamed events, and interactive digital elements that explore or share the institutions’ artifacts or content.
Three Suggestions for Museums’ Digital Revamp
To begin, museums' websites should be revamped so that they target ALL visitors, including digital ones. Most museum websites are geared to in-person visitors with the message "plan your visit" featured on the home page. Why not include online visitors in the "plan your visit" invitation?
Suggestions for a Digital Revamp
There is no doubt that the above suggestions for online memberships and digital programming requires a shift in strategy, yet the benefits of including digital visit strategies are exponential for museums and visitors.