A Close Look at AMNH’s Museum Membership Solicitation Letter

Tyler Vawser - Business Development

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Membership letters are the staple of small and large museums. Members provide reliable support, attend new exhibits and are more likely to donate. Although there are endless possibilities, museums use a familiar format when writing membership letters: solicitation and renewal letters.

Today, we’re looking at how the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) writes their membership solicitation letter.

Read on to see:

  • What the letter does well
  • An in-depth analysis of improvements to make
  • Takeaways to consider for your own membership letters
Download our visual analysis

Analysis of the American Museum of Natural History Membership Letter

Here’s a look at the letter:

Membership Letter Analysis & Breakdown

We took apart the letter line by line and looked at it as a whole (including its inserts) to better understand the offer and analyze the motivation of the sender.

In analyzing this letter we had to make some assumptions. There might be alternate versions of the letter based on testing, recipient data, and past direct mail results. We also don’t know the results of the mailing or its success.

What it does well:

  • Nails best practices: The letter is a great example of best practices put into…practice. The formatting, font and styling all follow the checklist. Important lines are italicized, bolded, and underlined.
  • Great opening paragraph: The letter starts off great! The opening paragraph is exciting and true to the museum’s experience and mission (it even has the hint of a story). It quickly says, “If you want to see the world, here it is! We’ve laid it all out for you.”
  • Focused on the “customer”: The membership letter is customer focused and benefit rich. It’s offering a deal and listing out what the reader gets in return including bonus tickets, special access, early entry to special exhibits. (Compare this to a donor appeal letter, which is mission focused.)
  • Clear offer: It’s impossible to miss the offer “Sign up now and get $20 (or more) off your membership”. It’s repeated multiple times, including the postscript (P.S.)
  • Good follow through: The online landing page matches the letter (yay!) and includes the correct pricing and discounts. Moreover, the “/join-now” URL works even if the reader mistypes it as “/joinnow”.

Analysis & breakdown

Mission vs. benefits

The opening line is aimed to help the reader feel a sense of wonder. It IS incredible that the AMNH has been able to capture and present a world’s worth of animals, habitat, and environment in a single location. And, a few lines later, it compares that grandiosity with saving $20.

It’s difficult to equate the museum and a small discount as being equal “very big deals”.

This Museum lets you explore more of it, more easily, than just about any other place on Earth.

That’s a very big deal.

And since Membership is your key to enjoying the Museum to the fullest, I’m thrilled to provide you with another very big deal:

Comparing the magnificence of nature to a $20 bill feels cheap and disingenuous!

Membership letters are more transactional than donor letters, but we feel that writing story into a letter is more than just a donation tactic. Stories are powerful. Potential museum members see thousands of ads and receive hundreds of offers every day. They want something that lifts them out of the mundane and into a place full of wonder (sound familiar?). But that has to be a story  — not a simple offer to save.

Personalize where possible

Both the envelope and the return slip include the recipient’s name, but the letter opens with “Dear Friend.” Was that intentional? We assume it was, but it’s a mistake.

While there’s a risk that using a first name is too forward, the opposite (Friend) is just as risky and feels more forced. Personalization goes beyond names. In this case, the recipient lives in New York City  — a mention or line could be dedicated to readers that live within a 15 mile radius of the museum.

Personalize when you have the information and skip generic openings like Friend, Patron, Donor, Art Lover.

Limit their view

Providing options and choices is important. The insert included with this letter (viewable here) tries to fit every possible membership level and individual benefit onto one page. The result? It feels overwhelming and confusing.

It’s classic example of the paradox of choice. More options make it more difficult to say yes and make the experience of choosing far less enjoyable.

There are smart attempts to reduce that confusion. For example, the visual aids showing admission for adults & children and free tickets helps. It even includes a key to help, but that seems to be an admission of complexity.

One option is to include two separate inserts one for individual class membership and the other for family memberships that highlight only the most significant benefits at each level.

Takeaways to Use in Your Next Membership Solicitation Letter

1. Offer a grand (or entertaining) story.

Membership letters are known for listing out benefits, and AMNH’s letter is no exception. The opening paragraph should have led into a story of a historical figure visiting the museum, an anecdote of the average New Yorker’s daily trek through the concrete jungle, or the hidden backstory behind a room or exhibit at the museum.

A good test for story is to ask yourself, “Will my readers be able to tell a friend what was in the letter a week after they read it?” or “Would they want to tell someone?” Good stories are capable of being remembered. But grand stories are relatable and repeatable  — readers want to share what they read with others.

For example, AMNH is most well known and talked about for its giant blue whale.  It’s the highlight of the museum for kids and first time visitors. Sharing an inside backstory (or as we say the “juicy gossip”) about the whale, how it came to be, how it was made and moved into place, or even how the whale is cleaned each year, is one great way to entice prospective members into learning more.

All it takes is one real-life experience to remind us that stories have power, power that we can tap into if we’re not too afraid to reach out and take hold of it. Skip the standard format and focus on story. Save the benefits list, bullet points and membership level for an insert or a follow up letter.

2. Appeal to emotion.  

The American Museum of Natural History is known as a favorite museum for children. And the membership levels and offerings reflect that. Yet, the letter itself never mentions what a magical place it is for children or how adults can share these experiences with their children  — or even better than sense of childlike awe when you walk in and see the Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Appealing to emotion is very difficult to do in a membership letter and all but impossible without a strong narrative and story. But that’s the job of museum and development professionals! Tell a great story that makes someone think, feel or remember more!

The Hayden Planetarium is an incredible space (pun intended!) and one that can move children and adults alike. While the letter mentions the planetarium, it (again) never shares a story that captures the sense of wonder that we all feel when looking at the stars.

There’s an opportunity to share a story about how the planetarium came to AMNH, what it is like study galaxies or have young students understand just how small our world is for the first time.

3. Focus on what matters most today.

AMNH knows its mission better than anyone and yet the letter doesn’t mention just how important that mission is today  — right now — for prospective members. Like other [museum fundraising letters], there is an opportunity to infer relevance on climate change, the need for nature in a screen-obsessed society, and the importance of understanding our relationship with animals and habitat.

This letter and others in the future have an important opportunity to tell a grand story about the effects of climate change that appeals to emotion.

The letter is certainly focused on the member’s benefits. It gets high marks for staying on track and highlighting the wide range of benefits. We’d love to see more membership letters that feel comfortable keeping some perks hidden so that they can talk more about their mission (in the context of story!) and how members support the larger mission.

Download our visual analysis

We’d like to share and review other membership and development letters in the museum world. At Museum Hack, we look closely at the unique elements to “hack” stories, art, even letters.

Have a letter you want to analyze? Send it to us at [email protected] and we’ll consider reviewing it in a future post.

We’ve been looking at letters of all types from museums and non-profit organizations. Most recently, we analyzed a fundraising letter from the Tenement Museum.

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