National Aquarium—the jewel of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor—is one of the top aquariums in the country and one of Maryland’s highest-rated attractions. With more than 20,000 animals living in award-winning habitats, the Aquarium fulfills its mission to inspire conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures by welcoming more than 1.3 million visitors per year and stewarding 26,000 member households.
Schultz & Williams began our partnership with National Aquarium in 2018 with the goal of helping the Aquarium elevate its membership direct response program to maximize growth, improve overall retention, and inspire more members to make an additional philanthropic gift to support the Aquarium’s mission. During our initial year, we worked with the Aquarium to:
- Develop a direct response acquisition strategy aimed at growing membership and feeding the donor pipeline
- Implement an aggressive multichannel monthly renewal series to improve retention
- Increase philanthropic outreach to members through appeals and cultivation
- Target member prospects for mid-level support
New messaging for acquisition and renewal efforts emphasized both the value of member benefits along with the value of member support for the Aquarium’s conservation mission. By highlighting the benefits of year-round free admission, special opportunities and member discounts for the single cost of membership, the messaging maintained a strong offer for prospects motivated by value. Incorporating messaging around the importance of member support for the Aquarium’s mission helped to lay the foundation for future cultivation, appeals and renewal solicitations.
The Aquarium’s past acquisition outreach to new member prospects (rented names) yielded a low response and net negative revenue. We revised the rented-list strategy to mail high-performing lists targeting a more appropriate audience for the membership offer (at a lower cost thanks to consortium advantages) to yield a higher response (+88%) and positive net revenue from new prospects over two acquisition campaigns.
New Look & New Channels
Updated creative aligned with the Aquarium’s overall brand and email outreach integrated with the mail campaign helped lift overall acquisition response (+342%) and revenue (+922%) over the previous year. Increased multichannel notices to members, along with updates to the creative to align with the messaging and present a cohesive member journey, helped lift retention by 5% over the previous year.
In an effort to better align membership with their conservation mission, the Aquarium committed to eliminating promotional discounts in membership acquisition and renewals. Although we faced the potential risk of losing members accustomed to and primarily motivated by discounts in membership solicitations, our objective was to spur growth and strengthen retention in a competitive market without leaning on promotional discounts to drive response.
Our philosophy has always been to attract members with a great offer and, once acquired, engage them with the organization’s mission to secure sustained support. Though promotional discounts and premiums are a powerful marketing tool to attract prospects, the right messaging that highlights the intrinsic value of membership—access, enhanced experience, special opportunities, etc.—along with the value of belonging to a community of mission advocates has proven to be a powerful case for member support for the Aquarium.
With a focus on targeted messaging—combined with strategic list planning, multichannel outreach and strong creative—the Aquarium has achieved a significant increase in response and revenue through their membership direct response efforts despite eliminating promotional discounts.
Combining internal improvements to the membership program with a refreshed direct response strategy, National Aquarium has set a new standard for communicating the value of membership, helping to grow a member base that is poised to provide sustained support for the Aquarium for years to come.
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