Failing to Convert

The wonderful Indianapolis Museum of Art is free to all visitors, so becoming a member is an optional activity.  Because I value the institution and its work, I chose that option and paid my $50, receiving the online confirmation you see above.

It is wrong on so many levels I can barely stand it, but let's review a few of the most critical ones:

1.  It treats joining the community of individuals freely choosing to support the museum with an optional membership fee the same way it treats any other e-commerce on the museum website.
2.  The confirmation language is transactional and impersonal.
3.  It is generic and does not confirm the actual action I just completed.

The IMA redeemed itself slightly though with this email that I received shortly after joining online.  Note how it corrects many of the concerns I raised about the online confirmation: it is specific, it tells me what will happen next, it provides the name (which I have redacted) and email for a museum contact.  But there is one very important thing that it fails to do, something that so many other organizations (both for-profit companies and nonprofit institutions) also neglect to address: it fails to convert.

Even though the museum now speaks to me as a member, I remain just a joiner.  They have my money, but they can't be sure they have either my attention or my future participation.  They've left me in a potentially passive state when they should have intentionally converted me into an active participant or contributor: how about a simple "here are three upcoming events you won't want to miss".  Heck, it doesn't even include the pro forma "follow us on Twitter" tagline.  And what's up with that barcode?

I've written before about nonprofits failing to appropriately capitalize when they have someone's attention, but inadequately managing the membership process is a huge unforced error that few institutions can afford to make.  And they do so for a very basic reason: they equate joining with belonging.  They. Are. Not. The. Same.

In many of our organizations (rightly or wrongly) joining remains the necessary first step along the pathway to belonging, but many stops still remain. So it's your job to facilitate the conversion from joiner to member, from lurker to contributor, from spectator to participant, from consumer to creator, just to name a few. 

People join institutions because they want to belong, because they "be longing" for something.  It is your job to uncover what they are longing for and to connect them to the appropriate opportunities that your community or organization offers.

When someone gives you the privilege of their attendance at a performance, their attention on your website or to your newsletter (if I subscribe to your monthly newsletter will I have to wait 30 days before I get any content?), or their money as a voluntary contribution to become a member, you must be ready to extend the enticing invitation that might convert them into more interested, attentive, and engaged individuals.

So are you?  Ready?  Because ready or not, here we come.   Whether we stick around may very well depend on you.

Note: another irony is that I previously was a member long ago, but let my membership lapse.  I wonder if the membership database (yours or the IMA's) even checks the records for such things.  Saying "Welcome back.  We've missed you around here." is a much better confirmation to a lapsed individual than "Thank you for joining."

Update: January 10, 2013 

Sad to report that my temporary membership card was shipped to an address where I have not lived for five years.  That only happens when someone sees you're already in the database and simply ships things out versus comparing your actual membership application address to your old record.  Sigh.


Dionne said...

I love this. I work in a museum and I'm working on an outreach and engagement project with specific demographics in mind. I think what you write is important to think about.

Museums are looking at sustainability, but that sustainability can no longer just resolve in unengaged memberships that happen because someone finds "value" in the arts--enough value to assign a dollar amount. It is important to have that dollar amount of support, but the larger question becomes what do museums/nonprofits value about their members and how is that reflected in their work and programming? Do institutions take that into account when they program? Do they consider members, patrons, and donors as part of the museum or simply as a funding source?

Museums want patrons in their spaces, but what gets them there and keeps them coming? The institution is for the people, but does it program for the people or to only a select few? Institutions must be warm and inclusive and in today's tech age, that sentiment is even more crucial.

As I attend conferences, these are questions many institutions are looking at, grappling with, trying to solve. You raise good points, ones to consider in the years to come.

Paz said...

That's a full on content strategy fail. Which ironically tends to lead to a failure to convert, or at least to retain.

Jeffrey Cufaude said...

Dionne and Paz: thanks for reading and thanks for commenting.

My takeaway from what you both shared is that institutions need to be much more strategic about using their content and community to cultivate participation, interest, and contributions. Passive and half-hearted efforts no longer are sustainable, nor are missed opportunities at defining moments such as someone joining the institution as a member.

Joseph LaMountain said...

Your experience is not unusual. In my 20+ year career with nonprofits, I've found that many view membership (or donations) as the desired end goal of their experience with consumers. As a result, many membership-based organizations have extremely low levels of engagement and transactional, rather than personal, relationships with their supporters. This is a shame because these groups could easily use this untapped human capital to grow their influence and power.

I've personally experienced this. I was a long-time staff member at a major nonprofit patient group. My mother and brother both have the disease and I've served in leadership positions at both the national and local level. But impersonal emails come addressed to "Dear Friend," phone calls and emails aren't returned and ideas for furthering the organization's goals are generally dismissed. If you can't convert someone with as much skin in the game as me, that's a real problem.

It doesn't have to be that way. Associations need to provide meaningful, specific calls to action beyond the ubiquitous requests for funding (e.g. forward to a friend, attend this event, distribute this flyer). By doing so they would greatly improve their relationships with their strongest supporters, begin to cultivate future leaders, and simultaneously achieve many of their cherished programmatic goals.

Joseph LaMountain
Vice President, Reingold Communications
Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University

Jeffrey Cufaude said...

"Associations need to provide meaningful, specific calls to action" is such a great observation Joseph. If we want to engage and extract commitment from individuals, we need to extend much better invitations. Thanks for sharing your perspective.