The other day I hosted an afternoon tea and a lecture for our Friends group at Whanganui Regional Museum . Having just come back from a stimulating conference in Wellington hosted by Creative New Zealand, around building audience capital, my thoughts turned to how best to strengthen our membership, which we increased by 25% over the last year. While putting more effort into the size of our friends group is important, the conference’s theme of audience segmentation has focused my attention on the need to know more about who we’re catering for, what they want, and what it is – or might be – in our power to provide.
A few people have written about growing Friends groups in a museum context. Among them are Adam Reed Rozan , Marketing Manager at the Oakland Museum, who has explored this topic with an insightful blog post “Building from the Inside: Five Museum Membership Leaders Speak“. Various leaders in museum marketing gave their insights on strategies that work for them. These include:
- Blending demographics lifestyle with the museum’s mission – knowing the lifestyle habits of the members and catering to those
- Curator-led tours, movie screenings, major annual events, increased online presence, a green membership programme, kids’ membership programme
- Focusing on a deeper engagement that provides opportunities for learning and involvement
Carol Serventy, President of the The World Federation of Friends of Museums, the international non-profit, non-governmental organisation uniting all Friends of museums around the world, has published advice on how to start a Friend’s group. She points out that an essential first step for a curator, director or board is to decide why a museum needs friends, and for the membership to decide what tangible role they wish to play to be of benefit to the institution.
Twenty-five per cent of our Friends are also volunteers or, at the very least, regular attendees at lectures and gallery openings and events, in what Nina Simon calls “Affinity Groups“. These groups would not be happy simply giving their annual subscription with no further contact, and look to the institution to personal cultural enrichment. Many of them would maintain an involvement without the existence of a Friend’s group.
For the rest of our membership, most have expressed a desire to support the Museum, but don’t have the time or interest to engage directly. This is, of course, completely acceptable, and we’re very grateful for their support. A third group, and our most important to cultivate, comprises those people who would become actively involved, but haven’t yet found an outlet or topic that interests them. Increasing that value proposition means a richer experience for existing members which will, by the word of mouth of satisfied participants, increase the size of the group while becoming a more important benefit to the community.
A Friends’ group, like any branch of an institution’s activity needs to be underpinned by sound business practice. Our lessons have led to some guiding principles:
- Be clear about the purpose for the group – as simple as it sounds, it’s tempting to grow the membership so organically that it exists without any particular perspective. Does the group comprise your volunteer base? Do they come together as a fund-raising group? Is it more a subscription to a special annual events programme?
- Have a plan – having plans, both overarching and annually, will ensure that programming and activities link directly to needs and expectations of the group. Clear outcomes allow measurement of success, which is beneficial both to the Museum’s members and governance.
- Set annual membership targets – you can’t manage what you don’t measure, and without realistic targets measurement is meaningless. Targets should include demographic goals, satisfaction scores as well as numbers.
- Somebody to drive it – there needs to be somebody who’s job it is to grow membership. Whether a staff member or enthusiastic volunteer, the person needs to be the main point of contact for enquiries, and visible friendly face that instils confidence in the organisation. That person also needs to have ownership over the process and connect the thrust of the programme to the needs of the group.
- Ask – encouraging people to become members is the responsibility of everybody in the institution. Front line staff, curators giving talks, the website, mail-outs and advertising all need to work in concert, first to raise awareness for the existence of the group and, second, to demonstrate clearly the benefits.
- Understand your membership - providing an authentic and relevant experience for members is the only way to be sure about providing the right mix of programming and opportunities. Asking the membership what they want, through discussion and survey is essential to getting it right.
- Be authentic – Having a recognisable style should translate to everything the Museum does. Creating programming that reflects who you are authentically as an institution creates a picture of confidence and shows you’re thinking about the membership. As Saatchi and Saatchi point out in Lovemarks, the more people care about you and what you do, the more you can engage them.
- Demonstrate the benefits clearly, and follow through with them – be absolutely upfront about what you can (or can’t) offer, and come through with everything you promise. For museums especially, which trade on credibility, meeting the expectations of people who have paid money to engage is critical to ongoing patronage. People will be more accepting of a limited offer than they will be tolerant of disappointment.
- Word of mouth – every satisfied member of your Friend’s group is a potential ambassador for your programme. Encourage them to bring a friend to functions, give them membership brochures, create incentives. A successful programme has a buzz around it, and it makes sense to harness that enthusiasm.
- Make it easy – make it easy to join, both from the web and in person, with credit card, cash or cheque. Make sure that your systems are straightforward and easy for a potential member to use. Allow them to join at any time of year. Offer more than one type of membership, so that people can pick the level or nature of engagement that suits them. Be proactive (but not pushy) about renewals. Listen to, and act on, feedback.
- Make it value for money – whatever your ability to offer opportunities, make sure that your pricing reflects the value of your programming to your local community. Understand your community’s ability and willingness to pay, and adjust your offer and pricing accordingly.
- Have fun – a Friends’ group will only be effective if they – and you – are having fun. While membership fees can be important, it’s the involvement of the community and proving and opportunity to deepen the engagement with the museum’s mission that makes having and nurturing a Friends’ group core business.