Analysis of The Whitney’s Membership Renewal & Upgrade Letter

Tyler Vawser - Business Development

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Membership renewal letters are critical to sustaining your museum, engaging members, and reengaging them. All the time and effort acquiring new members is lost if they don’t renew.The importance of these letters can’t be overstated.

Members leave for many reasons but the most unforgivable loss is when museums assume members will renew.

Most museums see renewal rates between 50% and 79%* — that’s a wide gap.

At 50% retention, a museum can lose all of its members within a couple of years without major acquisition efforts. Similarly, increases or decreases of annual renewal rates by just 5% each year can impact revenue and programs.

So how can a museum retain more members and upgrade their membership? With a well-written and effective renewal letter. In this post, we’re going to show you exactly how to maximize your renewals by analyzing a renewal letter from the Whitney Museum.

Three Key Elements of Membership Renewal Letters

Before we analyze the Whitney’s letter, keep these three aspects in mind:

1. Mission

Why it’s important: While members are interested in benefits, they often identify with a particular aspect of the museum’s mission or stated purpose. Most members can’t join every institution they visit and chose their membership based on shared values.

2. Benefits

Why it’s important: Including the value and benefits of membership is essential. Although members already identify with your mission, they still must make a choice between supporting the museum and other countless demands on their finances.

3. Exclusivity

Why it’s important: Only appealing to your member’s wallet isn’t the fastest way to grow your support and annual fund. By providing unique events (like Escape the Museum) and early access to new exhibits, individuals members feel a sense of belonging and participating in something scarce.

Bring each of these aspects together and you have a powerful, effective renewal letter. Now let’s dive into the Whitney letter and review it based on these three criteria.

In-depth analysis of The Whitney’s Letter

Click here to download the full analysis

Benefits:

The letter thanks the member and quickly jumps into the benefits of renewing. It offers an immediate upgrade, special access (see exclusivity below), and a physical gift (if you pick it up — saves costs, brings in foot traffic, and gets them back into the museum’s space).

It also offers a financial benefit: 4 one-time-use guest passes worth $100. Notice how offering added value compares to cost saving. Offer members value without cheapening the experience: “$100 value” vs. “get $100 off”.

We especially love the format of the benefits list. Hashmarks over bullets and brief descriptions make it read easier and seem more friendly.  

Exclusivity:

It offers new benefits that can only be accessed soon. Look closely and the exclusivity is promised is relational (cocktail party) and scarce (one night only – July 12). The early access is an added exclusive benefit, but not nearly as appealing as letting “the cool” wash over you as you meet new people, get drinks and view art steps away from the highline.

Most importantly, the deadline isn’t artificial! When writing exclusivity into your own letters include dates and deadlines but make sure that they are meaningful and real — not just a tactic.

Mission:

The letter is focused on offering exclusive experiences and benefits. That leaves little room for its mission and institutional story. Membership renewal letters can get away with this in some cases. First, members already know about the museum and second, they’ve “bought into” that mission already.

If we look closely, we see that the Whitney letter does allude to its mission through its two new exhibitions.

The letter gets high marks for mentioning the new exhibits AND for providing useful, exciting context. An enticing preview of each exhibit reinforces the exclusivity of each. Notice the words that are used regarding the new exhibitions: “rare opportunity to experience” and “first full-scale retrospective in the United States.” The descriptions are a micro view into the mission of the Whitney.

Tactical Takeaways

Now let’s look at the specifics of the letter and specific tactical takeaways you can use in your own letters.

Offer to Upgrade

While it’s important to reach out for renewals, it’s even better to move your members to a higher level of membership and donation. As a benchmark, you should be moving at least 30% of your members to a higher level each year.

As a rule of thumb, send upgrade letters to members who visited 3 to 4+ times a year, used their guest passes, and/or made a separate donation. Depending on your preference, you may want to focus on simple renewals for members that visit only 1 or 2 times during a year.

Call to Action

A good membership renewal letter has these three key elements. But a great and effective letter needs a well-crafted call to action. The goal: make it easy to upgrade or renew.

The Whitney letter does this effectively.

Early call to action: The reader is presented with a number and web address in the third paragraph. It’s atypical to do this, but we find its effective because it:

  • Makes it easy for engaged members to quickly act
  • Increases curiosity about the rest of the letter
  • Is personal and unique (“accept my invitation”)

Second call to action: While there is an early call to action, after the letter reinforces the next step by including specific instructions at the end once at the top which focuses on exclusivity and at the end after recounting all of the benefits

Auto-renew program: The Whitney gets high marks for making it easy to renew by mail. The member can add their initials, return the slip and skip renewal the next year.

Personal

The letter is highly personal and it reads naturally. Many lines include personal pronouns (you, we, my, I). Write your letter as you would to an old friend you haven’t seen in a few years and error on the side of making it overly conversational.

> “I’m writing to invite you to become a Whitney friend.”

> “To accept my invitation.”

> “We are so grateful for your support.”

Although less obvious, the letter also uses a friendly tone by using a conversation “closed loop.” Notice how the letter mentions the exhibits early on, but doesn’t go into details right away. Instead, it saves the explanation and details until the end of the letter. Like a true conversationalist, the writer is polite and waits to share more information until the end.

Delivering renewal letters to your members is essential to institutional health and to the member’s involvement. As a recap, make sure that the whole of your letter addresses benefits, exclusivity, and mission. At a tactical level include an enticing offer to upgrade, write a clear call to action and strike a personal tone that uses personal pronouns.

Send us your letter

We’d like to share and review other development letters in the museum world. At Museum Hack, when we see a great story our natural response is to look closely at the exact elements and “hack” it to better understand it.

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

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