What Is the Future of Virtual Membership?

Think back to 2019 and early 2020. How many cultural organizations were actively prioritizing digital benefits and digital access in membership? While we cannot travel back in time, the answer is likely “not many.” Indeed, prior to COVID-19, the core benefits of membership were related to the onsite experience: unlimited free admission, member rates for in-person events, and discounts on gift shop purchases and concessions.

In the pandemic era, all of this changed. With the first wave of lockdowns in Spring 2020, the primary value proposition of membership vanished overnight, and closures caused many museums to reinvent their benefits and programming in digital formats.

How did virtual membership offerings emerge? And where is membership headed? Register for bbcon on-demand to see Cuseum explore these questions in-depth.

The Rise of Virtual Membership

Within the first weeks and months of lockdown, we witnessed pioneering cultural institutions spearhead new digital content to keep their members and visitors engaged during unprecedented closures. At that time, “virtual membership” was still an experimental and fledgling idea, but at Cuseum, we were instantly intrigued. In response to the novel modes of member engagement we observed in the early days of the pandemic, Cuseum organized a webinar panel in May 2020, featuring some of the very first arts and cultural professionals to initiate digital transformation in membership. In that inaugural discussion, membership innovators from the Exploratorium, Carnegie Museums, and National Steinbeck Center shared some of their early trials and successes with virtual member events, digital benefits, and even a virtual membership level.

It turned out this was only the very beginning of a profound wave of change. As 2020 progressed, we saw a growing emphasis on digital evolution in membership across museums, gardens, zoos, and aquariums cultural organizations of every shape and size. At Cuseum, we experienced an explosion of interest in our flagship Digital Membership Card solution. And, as member engagement via online channels became more commonplace, we also began to identify several distinct modes of virtual membership.

100+ Membership Leaders Share Their Priorities For Digital Transformation in Museum Membership

With the rapid growth and maturation of virtual membership initiatives throughout 2020, Cuseum set out to better understand this new landscape. At the beginning of 2021, we conducted a survey of over one hundred premier membership leaders across a range of cultural organizations. The goal of this study was to examine five modes of virtual membership and why industry professionals were making them a priority for 2021. These included:

  1. Virtual Member Events
  2. Online Member Benefits
  3. Digital Membership Cards
  4. Virtual Membership Levels
  5. Virtual Member Appreciation

This report was published in Spring 2021, and can be downloaded for free here.

What Is the Future of Virtual Membership?

Since we published this report on the state of virtual memberships less than six months ago, much has already changed in the arts and cultural sector, and the world. As COVID-19 vaccinations have become widely available, the majority of museums have finally reopened to the public. Many institutions are even offering in-person programming once again. Of course, in our current moment, it remains to be seen how the Delta variant may impact the cultural sector.

Thus, the question emerges: what is the future of virtual membership? Will organizations continue to prioritize online member benefits beyond the pandemic? What digital modes of member engagement are here to stay? And, what lessons have we learned over the past year and half?

See Cuseum’s bbcon session on-demand, “Exploring Priorities for Digital Transformation in Museum Membership,” to learn more about this topic! In addition to sharing insights from our 2021 report on virtual membership, Cuseum’s Head of Growth & Partnerships, Dan Sullivan, was joined by Adrian Hill (Chicago Children’s Museum), Amanda Tadajewski (Tellus Science Museum), and Elizabeth Bowers (Anne Springs Close Greenway) to discuss the future of virtual membership.

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