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Posted on May 4, 2020
by Eric Holter

New Times, Different Membership

When museums had to close during the COVID-19 pandemic, many found new and innovative ways to keep their missions alive online. Whether with custom microsites (like VA MOCA and San Diego History Center) or videos and lesson plans, topical content created from home, for home, museums kept themselves relevant and valuable in the lives of their homebound members. Are there lessons to be learned about the importance of digital membership content that can transcend the necessities that came with 2020?

For museums who rely on memberships and ticket purchases, the Covid crisis was especially costly. Members failed to renew their memberships since they could not visit their favorite museums. But what if members kept their memberships active and renewed, because of the value of membership digital content?

By creating exclusive subscription-based content that can be accessed by anyone, anywhere in the world, for a small membership fee museums can build up a new and more resilient form of museum membership. Supplemental digital subscriptions can augment and expand upon your existing membership programs.

A Digital Content Club

Museums have no shortage of story ideas. Just think of how much content created around an exhibit gets left behind on the cutting room floor. What if you had a platform for sharing and monetizing this valuable content? Imagine that for every exhibition, you could offer your most passionate members exclusive behind the scenes videos and podcasts, members-only curator-led virtual tours, or exclusive streams of live performances, lectures, or films.

How many members do you think would augment their current membership with a digital subscription? And how many people who are outside your immediate vicinity would like to access this valuable content from their own homes? Now, and in the future, a digital content membership could be available to all.

How does this look practically? Let’s look at a timely museum campaign that exists already, and how a digital content membership could enhance it. James Madison’s Montpelier is currently offering a series of Virtual Courses led by its senior staff. What a valuable resource. If you are already a member of Montpelier, you can attend for free. And if you’re not a member, it costs $10. This model is already a clever one. It encourages nonmembers to join, and for those who want the content without the membership, it provides an additional revenue stream for the museum.

Now imagine taking a slightly different approach. While the lectures themselves offer plenty of value, there are surely stories that did not make it into the series, for time or other reasons. So, what if, instead of—or in addition to—providing these lectures for free to members, Montpelier created an entire package of content, exclusively available for members of the Montpelier Digital Club. Before the lecture itself, these digital-only members would receive exclusive articles or videos to help get them prepared for the lecture. And then, afterward, the lecture becomes free to stream as a podcast, along with a short podcast series of interviews with curators, historians, and educators who helped prepare the lecture. And maybe, for families, related activities and lesson plans could be released as well.

Premium Educational Content

In addition to augmenting your museum’s existing programs and exhibitions with digital content, you should also consider producing high-quality educational content for families who teach and learn at home, during a pandemic or otherwise.

We’ve seen a lot of museums step up to provide content for parents trying to balance work with their children’s continuing education from home. Education is a big part of most museums’ missions, and content like Arizona Science Center’s weekly Science from Home series, or the B&O Railroad’s storytime and activities, demonstrate that this is a time for your education department to shine.

But once schools and businesses are open again, this content may feel less urgent to produce digitally. But it will be no less valuable to parents who want to keep education woven into their family’s lives. Consider homeschooling families. It’s not out of the ordinary for a family to spend hundreds to thousands of dollars on their children’s curricula. Asking them, or families with children in schools, to pay an additional $5 monthly subscription for your content should not feel like a big stretch. And knowing that the content was developed at your museum will lend some weight when parents are trying to decide which lessons to buy for their children.

All You Need is a Platform

Regardless of which digital platforms you use today for ticketing, CRM, content management, etc., this exclusive digital content can live on its own subdomain of your site, on its own platform. Perhaps your museum already does something like this for your volunteers.

With today’s technology, we could quickly and affordably set up a members-only WordPress site with the Elementor drag-and-drop page builder plugin, and a plugin framework such as Ultimate Member Pro. Your digital-only members could sign up directly on the site and pay with Stripe. And then, all you would need to do is produce the content.

And while content creation is its own challenge, the tools for creating great stories and resources are readily available as described in our posts Make a Virtual Audio Tour with Google Tour Creator and Creating Museum Resources For Home, From Home.

And since everyone understands the current limitations of your museum’s personnel, there is a much higher tolerance for “low-fi” productions, even as there is a higher demand for meaningful content. If there were ever an ideal set of conditions to experiment with content creation methods, and new delivery platforms, the time is now.

As much as we’d like things to return to “normal,” we can also be learning from these new and challenging times. One of the greatest lessons, perhaps, is that your museum and your mission are more than just a building.

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