Customize Your Membership Program

A museum offers its members programs that fit their interests and needs.

What's the great idea? Let members build a custom membership package.

Who's doing it? Whitney Museum of American Art

What's involved? It's no secret your members are unique, but are you offering a unique membership experience? Kristen Denner, director of membership and annual fund for the Whitney, says the museum was looking for a way to differentiate its membership offerings and create a program as diverse as its membership. "We [knew] that members value different benefits, well, differently. Some never miss an opening reception; some never ever attend them at all. ... So we wanted to capture the idea that a membership program should not be one size fits all."

To offer a custom experience, the Whitney launched the Curate Your Own Membership program in September, which allows members to select an individual or dual membership with core benefits at a base price and then add on different series of additional benefits from five categories: social, insider, learning, family, and philanthropy.

Denner says the categories came from extensive qualitative research, including focus groups with members and prospects. "From there, we went into creative work sessions to ‘blue sky' and reimagined benefits and structures that would respond to what we learned. Finally, we tested the new benefits and also gathered tremendous amounts of information through a quantitative research study that was conducted via an online survey delivered to members and prospective members."

Working from collected data, curatorial and education staff collaborated to identify the best benefits members were looking for.

What are people saying? "The most interesting thing about the new structure is that it allows members to take a moment to really think about how they use their membership and to consider what kinds of experiences they could have," says Denner. "By taking the time to assess interests and select a series, members take an important step in figuring out how they want to interact with the museum, and we think it will allow a deeper, more robust experience."

Denner says the museum hopes to draw 2,000 new members in the first year and convert 2,000 of its existing members at the "classic level" to the new program. So far, Denner has heard positive feedback from members through social media, and the museum's membership grew 10 percent in the first month of the program.

Online Extra: Create Your Own Custom-Membership Program

Kristen Denner, director of membership and annual fund for the Whitney Museum of American Art, shares how the museum has communicated Curate Your Own Membership program to current members and what to do if you're thinking about creating your own custom membership plan.

Associations Now: How are you communicating this change to current members? How will they be transitioned into the new structure?

Kristen Denner: Current members are learning about it when they visit the lobby, and also in various communications, including our e-news, member calendar, and in their renewals notices. We will actively work to transition current Individual and dual members to the new program. It's not so much about an upsell—the price difference is negligible. It's more about giving members a richer experience and also communicating with them in a more relevant way. The classic memberships will stay in place, certainly in the short term, but we expect most to transition to the new program in the next 12-24 months. It's a great program and a terrific value, and there is a lot of enthusiasm for moving over.

What are some of the biggest challenges that you've faced so far?

So far, knock on wood, the launch has been smooth and there are no real issues. People seem genuinely enthusiastic about the program, and we've received a lot of positive feedback. The biggest challenge was probably getting everyone at the museum on board with doing something so radically different, but we are so fortunate to work with open-minded, creative people. They shared our enthusiasm for the vision, and with a solid business plan and research, we all felt confident that the result would be very positive for the museum.

What are some of most positive outcomes so far?
It's been really gratifying for my team to see how membership could be more of a focus for the institution as a whole. This project required strong collaboration with departments and leadership across the museum, and I think it was really meaningful for us to be able to work closely with colleagues in curatorial and education [departments] to make some really special benefits happen for members. Curate Your Own Membership is a highly visible project and because it was truly collaborative. We were able to make it a museum-wide endeavor.

Is there anything left in the process to complete? And if so, what are you working on moving forward?

The launch process is complete. From a retention and cultivation perspective, we plan to continue refining the communications strategy with each series member to make sure we are coordinating information and giving members the best possible experience. We are also developing new reports for effective tracking of these new members and their benefits fulfillment.

What advice would you give to someone at another membership organization considering this kind of custom-created membership structure?

Please don't copy off my paper!

No, seriously. I think it's important that if you are going to try something innovative like this, you really need to do the background, foundational work through research and strategic planning. It's a serious process and one that is critically important to making the right choices available to your constituents. You also need institutional support to make something like this happen. Taking our idea and applying to your program will not be as successful if you don't take the time to go through a thoughtful process.