Taking Membership Digital

Allegra Burnette, USA


The Museum of Modern Art in New York has created a members only site, which initially offered only membership management features such as joining, renewing, an upgrading a membership. Recently, however, that site has been expanded to include exclusive content for members. This paper and the subsequent presentation look at the strategy and research behind creating the site, the features that are available, and some of the preliminary findings.

Keywords: membership, tours, benefits, global audience, members


Membership programs have long been a part of museum practice. Traditionally, visitors show their support to a museum they visit regularly by purchasing a yearly membership. In return, they receive benefits such as free admission, advance previews of exhibitions, magazines or newsletters, and more. However, as digital initiatives have expanded the museum’s reach to a larger audience and increased access to its content and programming, what does that mean for this traditional membership model? How has the membership audience changed, and what are its interests? And what does it mean to take a museum membership program digital?

This paper looks at how the traditional model has been adapted within an online environment and the emergence of other digital-centric membership models. It also provides background to a presentation that will take place in April 2013 at the Museums and the Web conference. The goal of both the paper and the subsequent presentation is not to outline a one-size-fits-all digital membership program, but rather to prompt a discussion of the possibilities and the current explorations being undertaken, including those at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Most of the examples of digital membership programs included in this paper are from art museums in the United States.

Exploring membership models within a digital context

The Brooklyn Museum of Art was arguably the first museum to try out a different membership model built on a digital backbone. In December 2008, the museum  announced a new membership program called 1stfans, which Will Cary, Brooklyn’s membership manager at that time, described as “a ‘socially networked’ Museum Membership” (Cary, 2008). The membership offered both in-person and online benefits: for the cost of $20 a year, 1stfans were provided exclusive in-person events, the ability to skip the ticket line, private online and social networking channels, and a separate Twitter feed.

As Nina Simon (2009) wrote,

1stfans builds benefits onto two programs that were already successful at connecting people to the Brooklyn Museum: free Target First Saturdays and online social media outreach. The people who engage in these programs already have pre-existing positive relationships with the institution, but they don’t buy memberships. 1stfans is an attempt to change that by providing specific benefits targeted to those audiences’ needs…1stfans is one answer to a universal question: “How do we create a membership to serve visitors who already have a positive relationship with the museum but have not chosen to purchase traditional memberships?”

That question is also key in discussions about creating online membership benefits for a global audience, where visiting the museum is not necessarily the primary driver.

The 1stfans program ended three and half years later, in July 2012. Shelley Bernstein (2012) posted an eloquent and honest assessment of the program on the Brooklyn Museum’s blog, saying:

It was the deep engagement of the program that was incredibly successful, but 1stfans was its own entity that was never fully integrated into the Membership structure. This separation made it difficult to gain awareness for the program and, as such, the growth rate stalled. Most importantly, this separation made it difficult to move 1stfans up the membership ladder—something that’s incredibly important in development and the lifecycle of membership growth. Simply put the program was too separate for its own good.

This is another key issue: how do we create new types of membership programs that are sustainable within existing structures, growth strategies, and workflows? And how do we continue to get the word out about these initiatives when they are no longer new?

In 2010, the Whitney Museum of American Art launched its Curate Your Own Membership program. Members are able to choose from five categories of add-ons: Social, Insider, Learning, Family, and Philanthropy. The benefits listed on the museum’s website for the five categories are geared towards in-person experiences (http://whitney.org/Membership/CYOM). In addition to the ability to mix and match membership benefits, the museum has added related online features; for example, members can manage their membership online and see a “For You” badge on special events that match their particular membership level (http://new.linkedbyair.net/CurateYourOwnMembership).

Looking at additional examples of digital benefits and programs, the Metropolitan Museum of Art offers a membership geared towards the online audience called Met Net. The benefits listed on their site are the same as regular membership except for the exclusion of exhibition previews and the printed bulletin and calendar. Access to the members-only site includes account information, recipes and reservations for the Members Dining Room, and the digital archives of the printed bulletin. The Art Institute in Chicago has turned to apps for some of their digital offerings, creating an iPad app for their member magazine and allowing members to access their membership cards through an app. These can be scanned on site directly from the member’s phone, a feature MoMA’s members are also requesting for our mobile app.

At the time of writing, the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) is launching its free admission and rewards program in place of its previous admission and membership models. A new partnership program replaces the current members program and starts at $100 a year, and a free DMA Friends program was added where people can earn points by engaging with the museum—points that can be exchanged for benefits such as free access to a special exhibition (DMA, 2013).

The DMA Partners program will retain the most preferred membership benefits (complimentary parking, exhibition previews, guided tours, etc.) and add new dimensions of access and experience with the DMA. Some of these benefits purposefully will overlap with benefits offered to engaged DMA Friends to potentially attract their interest in becoming a Partner and advance the notion that participation and support are mutually reinforcing. (http://www.dallasmuseumofart.org/Visit/Friends/index.htm)

This is by no means a complete listing of what museums are doing with membership online, but it does provide background for initiatives that have been undertaken in the past and others that are just getting underway, including the Digital Member Lounge on The Museum of Modern Art’s website, MoMA.org.

Goals and research

One of the key goals of the Digital Member Lounge (DML) project is to enable growth of the Museum’s national and international audiences. On average, annually 60 percent of the visitors to MoMA come from outside the United States, 25 percent from outside the New York area, and the remaining 15 percent from New York City. There are approximately 140,000 active MoMA member households, 45 percent of whom are in the five boroughs of New York City. Membership brings in about 13 percent of the Museum’s annual revenue, or an even higher amount if you consider that the program also helps drive revenue to the Museum’s retail initiatives, educational courses, and more.

Since membership benefits have traditionally been about those you can enjoy in person, the question we wanted to address with the DML was: how could we make the membership program have a wider appeal? And if someone becomes a member during a visit to the Museum, how could we make it more appealing for them to renew and continue that membership? This new online benefit has the potential to both reengage lapsed members and convert new prospects or previous visitors who want to be connected to MoMA in a way that was not available before. If successful, the DML could increase retention of the membership base, increase members’ involvement outside the walls of the Museum (making them more likely to renew), and also present revenue opportunities for other departments by providing a platform to highlight offerings from and directing traffic to retail, education, MoMA PS1, and publications.

The Marketing department recently undertook a couple of survey projects whose findings have been used to test ideas for the DML and plan for future developments. MoMA 360, the Museum’s most comprehensive survey to date, took place from November 2011 to February 2012. The survey was conducted in eight languages, with over 7,000 interviews conducted via posted internet links to the survey and e-mail invitations. Of the respondents, 27 percent were members.

In summarizing the findings, Gerstein Bocian Agne, the consultants implementing the survey project, characterized MoMA’s audience as two types: 1) “mass audiences” that have broad participation, including Museum visitors, retail shoppers, and MoMA.org visitors; and 2) “core audiences” that participate in multiple aspects of the Museum, including members, MoMA PS1 visitors, education participants, events attendees, and filmgoers. The core audience tends to be New York City-based or work in arts-related or creative fields, and their typical connection to MoMA entails visiting the Museum and participating in two or three other aspects, such as attending film screenings or education programs.

In general, existing members expressed a very high level of satisfaction with their MoMA membership and intended to renew. But the survey summary identified a couple of audiences with growth potential—including international visitors—and suggested that the idea of a digital membership could be effective for engaging an audience that is interested in membership but feel they live too far away to take advantage of its benefits—the response of 90 percent of the international audience and 88 percent of the U.S. audience outside of the Tri-State region (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut).

In the summer of 2012, MoMA conducted another survey, as well as its first online focus group, with people assembled simultaneously from multiple countries. There were intentionally no MoMA members included in this round, and 20 percent percent of the respondents had never been to MoMA. The questions posed were geared less toward an online platform as an add-on to membership and more toward gauging a general interest level in different kinds of online content and models of access, including a digital-only membership or subscription.

One of the findings to come out of the second survey and focus group was the central role that region plays in the motivations for engaging MoMA online. New York City and Tri-State audiences engage MoMA online to learn about the latest happenings at MoMA, which makes intuitive sense as that is the audience most likely to visit in person. Americans outside of the Tri-State area and an international audience engage MoMA online in order to stay connected to the Museum and enjoy everything the museum has to offer. All audiences, regardless of their region, expressed a love of art and engage with MoMA online because art plays an important role in their lives. The survey summary indicated that people’s motivations for engaging MoMA online have little to do with being part of “the MoMA community,” and more to do with a connection and love of art. In other words, they were more interested in connecting with the museum than with each other.

In general, the people surveyed showed significant interest in a new kind of MoMA online platform with extended content. The top content included engagement with artists and curators, viewing exhibitions, and accessing video of past programs. The people surveyed expected commercial or service items such as workshops, courses, and e-books, and even live interaction discussions with artists and curators to cost money (whether as part of a membership or for a separate fee). Informative material or recordings (e.g., recorded artist and curator commentary) were expected to be free. The international participants and people under 50 years old showed the most interest in an extended online platform. Age also had an impact on frequency of new content expected, with younger audiences preferring weekly updates. Older audiences were content with monthly or spontaneous updates (with notification). And the majority of all respondents (90 percent) preferred desktop access to this content over phone or tablet.

One underlying message from this survey was that there was an interest in a digital-only subscription or membership, but that the type of content and frequency of updates played a bigger role than if the digital offerings were an add-on to an existing membership program. In a way, it seems as if the expectations for value and quantity at this lower cost digital-only model are higher, perhaps because there are no perceived “physical” benefits. Nomenclature also appears to play an important role in perception. As our survey findings summarized, people did not like the term “subscription” because it conveyed a transactional or logistical relationship. “Membership” had a more positive connotation of connection or investment, but was felt not to be as accurate a term as subscription for a digital-only offering without associated physical benefits.

The MoMA 360 survey project began as the Digital Member Lounge first launched. The second online survey came out last summer as we worked on adding extended content to the DML. Both surveys served as a lens through which to view the work we had done to date, but also aided our thinking about planning and growth in the future.

Implementation and outcome

Digital Member Lounge home page

Figure 1: Digital Member Lounge home page

Over the years, we had added membership-related functionality to the website, including the ability to join, renew, and give a gift membership online. In addition, we had added a log-in on MoMA.org to allow visitors to bookmark works of art and other functionality. In November 2011, we tied that together and added additional features under the newly branded Digital Member Lounge (figure 1). The initial site included enabling members to access and view their membership information (figure 2), allowing them to renew or upgrade their membership, request tax receipts or replacement cards, and also provided a digital version of the traditional printed member calendar. Members were then invited to opt out of the mailed printed calendar, thereby saving the museum a significant amount in printing and postage costs. The price of membership increased at the same time that the Digital Member Lounge was launched, so the new online features provided additional value to a membership as part of that price increase.

Figure 2: Manage My Membership screen

Figure 2: Manage My Membership screen

The following year, in September 2012, MoMA’s National and International membership category was changed to a Global membership. While still offering some in-museum benefits such as free admission, the Global membership is geared towards the person who may not able to come to the museum often enough to take advantage of the benefits of a regular membership, but who still wants to stay connected. All levels of membership have access to the DML.

In January 2012, we met with a company from Spain that had developed a new way of creating photo-based virtual walk-through tours. Rather than the jump-and-spin approach of many virtual tour solutions, their approach “pushed” into images in a way that felt truer to being in the real space. An additional appeal was that no special equipment was needed—the tours were made up of standard images taken with equipment equivalent to what the museum already owned. The appeal of the walk-through tours was not just as an advancement in technology, but also because offering free virtual tours of the museum to our members felt like the digital equivalent of offering them free physical access to the museum. If they couldn’t come visit in person, perhaps a digital representation might make them feel more connected to what was happening in New York. Or it might prepare them for what they might see when they were able to visit. So many of the comments we get through Facebook and elsewhere are “Wish I were there.” Maybe we could get them to feel as if they were virtually here.

The Museum of Modern Art has been a participant in the Google Art Project since it first launched. We support the idea of centralizing a way to view many works across multiple institutions, but there were also parts of the project that we were interested in pushing further. For one, the image quality with the Gallery View tours was not ideal, with galleries often looking too yellow. In addition, the image rights restrictions forced us to include blurred images in the galleries, and greatly limited what galleries we could include. Those rights restrictions are significantly reduced by presenting the walk-throughs from our own site, enabling us to show much more of the Museum. And finally, new galleries could be added and others updated through our own site much more regularly than through Google’s Gallery View.

In order to enhance this Global membership, and as an added benefit for all membership levels, we created new content exclusively for use in the Digital Member Lounge. The initial content that was released included the virtual gallery walk-throughs (figures 3 and 4)—interactive self-guided tours through MoMA’s galleries with the supplemental audio and label content from those exhibitions—as well as videos of member gallery talks. The gallery talks are approximately 20-minute video recordings that correspond to the talks led on site twice a month by Museum educators. Members also have access to the preexisting Member Lounge content: the digital member calendar, the various online communities for members, account management preferences, and more. So far, the focus for the content has been to prioritize material that extends the in-museum membership benefits (free admission to the museum/virtual walk-throughs of the museum, in-person member gallery talks/video recordings of those talks, etc.), while also ensuring that we are not taking away content that is already on offer to our general audience for free, or that might be used for broader outreach.

Figure 3: Walk-through landing page

Figure 3: Walk-through landing page

Figure 4: Fifth floor gallery walk-through

Figure 4: Fifth floor gallery walk-through

At the time of writing, walk-through tours are available for the fourth- and fifth-floor Painting and Sculpture Galleries, the first floor and Sculpture Garden, and the special exhibition currently on view for Edvard Munch: The Scream. Plans call for tours of the other collection galleries, as well as rotations of special exhibitions as image rights allow. In addition, we have added eleven member gallery talks, and special videos, such as Tom Stoppard interviewing the members of the Rolling Stones during the exhibition The Rolling Stones: 50 Years on Film.

Figure 5: Exclusive content menu

Figure 5: Exclusive content menu

The extended content on the Digital Member Lounge (figure 5) has been up for about four months at this point. It is a bit early to glean many findings, so more of those will be included in the conference presentation. Anecdotally, the feedback from our members has been positive, with some members thinking we upgraded their membership; others said they weren’t able to come for a while and were looking forward to visiting virtually. Many saw it as a supplement between visits and an overall enhancement to their membership. A few things we have learned about the usage and the initiative at large include:

  • People spend multiple minutes touring the walk-throughs and are really “walking” rather than using the map to jump from point to point. A significant proportion use the auto-pilot feature of the tours.
  • Adding new content means adding workload and requires additional financial and personnel resources. While we have allocated some additional funds for the tours and reallocated funds for the video, we have not yet added staff or freelance resources to manage this project. The challenge therefore has been to keep to a steady launch schedule when the work has to be juggled with other projects that may have stricter deadlines.
  • Getting the word out requires an ongoing commitment and is made more challenging because the content is not readily available to the public.
  • Measuring the success of the program is not straightforward. We know that two measurements are acquiring new members and having existing members renew, but how do we measure the impact the enhanced content has had on those new and returning members?

We also plan to try a few new approaches:

  • Break up the tours so that we can highlight individual galleries: for example, going directly into a gallery of Brancusi sculptures rather than having to navigate there either through the path or figuring out where it is on the map.
  • Offer more sample content outside of the Digital Member Lounge. It is often difficult for people to know what they would be getting if they signed up.
  • Hold a focus group to understand how people use the DML, what they like about it, and what could be improved or added in terms of the content and experience.

The Digital Member Lounge keeps members continuously connected and engaged by providing them with benefits and content in an online space—that is our goal. And while the content and functionality currently offered meets that goal, we don’t yet know the level of impact the DML has on bringing in new members or retaining existing ones. Additional time, experimentation, promotion, and evaluation are all necessary to more fully understand the success, scalability, and sustainability of the program over the long term.


This paper represents the work of several teams, including the Membership department, under the leadership of Meagan Johnson; the Marketing department, under the leadership of Kim Mitchell; and my fabulous Digital Media team.

In addition, I would like to thank the Voovio team, the museums mentioned in the paper above, and those museums and individuals referenced below.


Bernstein, S. (2012). “A sunset for 1stfans.” Brooklyn Museum. May 11, 2012. Consulted January 30, 2013. http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/community/blogosphere/2012/05/11/a-sunset-for-1stfans/

Cary, W. (2008). “introducing 1stfans: a socially networked museum membership.” Brooklyn Museum. December 5, 2008. Consulted January 30, 2013. http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/community/blogosphere/2008/12/05/introducing-1stfans-a-socially-networked-museum-membership/

Dallas Museum of Art. (2013). “DMA Friends & Partners.” Consulted January 30, 2013. http://www.dallasmuseumofart.org/Visit/Friends/index.htm

Simon, N. (2009). “1stfans: An audience-specific membership program at the Brooklyn Museum.” Museum 2.0. February 12, 2009. Consulted January 30, 2013. http://museumtwo.blogspot.com/2009/02/1stfans-audience-specific-membership.html

Simon, N. (2010). “Curate your own membership: An interview with the Whitney’s director of Membership.” Museum 2.0. September 20, 2010. Consulted January 30, 2013. http://museumtwo.blogspot.com/2010/09/curate-your-own-membership-interview.html

Cite as:
A. Burnette, Taking Membership Digital. In Museums and the Web 2013, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published January 31, 2013. Consulted .

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