Downloading is the New Membership

This is what museums look like in the physical world: unique and obvious.

The Mall, D.C.

Museums and their collections have personality, unique to the institution and like personalities, they can be friendly and engaging or bi-polar and schizophrenic – but interesting and engaging all the same. That’s what makes visiting a museum an experience, like visiting a friend or relative, your crazy uncle, your quirky aunt or your very grand grandmother.

Its easy to see how we have created successful membership programs (yeah, right) for our museums by offering discount in the store, free parking, free entrance to special exhibits, all things that have a benefit and a return, giving us status when we visit – a special relationship. But they require a visit. At its root, membership plays to our ego, its about recognition and familiarity, not unlike the recognition, familiarity and attention we get when we visit our favourite aunt or the night club equivalent of having our name on the list. Membership is a relationship with a special relative or friend.

This is what museums look like in the online world:

Museums on the Internet

Somewhat indistinguishable from each other but all vying for our short-lived attention:

attention span length

In the online world its a lot harder to be unique and obvious. It makes no difference whether its a website, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr or Pinterest, we kinda all look the same, and therein lies the challenge. This is particularly true when thinking about what membership means in the online world. Is anyone surprised that we haven’t seen another online-only museum membership program since Brooklyn’s 1st Fans, which sunset in 2008? Yes, DMA has their Friends program, but badges and rewards are only unlocked when you visit the DMA. How do you give status, privilege and perform ego massaging in the online world? You can do it, but you need content behind it. Is there a model out there that would provide an online-only membership program, that paid?

In the physical world, folks may visit your museum as much to engage with your architecture and grounds as to engage with your collection, but no one wants to visit your twitter or facebook page just to see the chrome and theme image you spend all of a minute selecting. Success here is all about the content and its interpretation, and that sounds like a curatorial or content interpretation job to me. Any membership program in this world is not about PR, Marketing, or even about traditional Development and Membership, its about content pure and simple, requiring an expert’s knowledge of the collection.

Any museum expecting to translate their physical membership successfully online is in for a rude awakening and tears before bedtime. There are very few museums who have acknowledged the effort it takes to be successful (really successful) online, much less put their money where their mouth is and do something about it. To be really successful online would mean that folks would pay to access your content, in the same way that they pay to see your special exhibition or would pay The Times for access to premium content. If museums put as much effort, resources and budget into creating on online experience as they do to creating the physical experience, particularly exhibitions, maybe we would have the basis for an online membership.

If our online content was unique or offered a unique experience, maybe we’d have a chance but we haven’t seen another program because the online world is fickle, there’s just too much choice, nothing stands out, where’s the draw? Commitment to physically visit a museum is made weeks, months or perhaps years in advance, in the online world its seconds or worse, the accidental visitor who’s only visiting your website or twitter page by pure happenstance and often by mistake – your bounce rate will tell how accidental your visitors are.

In the online world there’s no loyalty. You can simulate it by providing a constant feed of content to address your audience’s attention deficit disorder, but stop feeding that beast and let’s see how loyal they are. The act of following or friending is less an act of loyalty and more of a knuckle-jerk response to an interesting tweet or post. The best a museum can hope for is downloading and installing an app, which might be considered an act of commitment making downloading the online equivalent of membership.

But don’t be fooled. Try charging for that download and see how committed your audience is, even a nominal fee because there is a chasm between free and not free. Just like the newspaper industry committed hari-kari by making their content freely available online and now have the ordeal of Sisyphus in trying to re-train its audience to pay for news content, so it is for museum content. We used to sell it as books and catalogues, then we gave it away, so its optimistic at best to think we can go back to charging for it – at least directly.

What’s the likelihood that we will see a museum subscription model for our collection content? If it’s a direct subscription with our audience, I’d say pretty unlikely – as likely as a one-legged man winning an arse-kicking competition. But if there was some indirect benefit, like… ooh, I don’t know, an art history degree credit and the subscription was being paid by a college, that seems a little more likely to me.

I’m skeptical of a successful online-only, paying membership model, downloading is the closest we’ll get to a commitment from our fickle, attention-deficited, online-miserly audience. But I can see a revenue model based on our intellectual property feeding a re-imagined online education system, teaching from primary source materials and objects, or their 3d-printed surrogates, the burgeoning and hugely-inflated costs of the current system will help us enormously.

Downloading is the new membership, museum is the new college and curator is the new professor.


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