Valuing virtual museum visitors

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Your public is online — serve them there, too

In April I had the pleasure to visit Vancouver to attend the Canadian Museum Association and Museums and the Web annual conferences. They are two of the leading annual events for museum professionals, and a great place to learn more about the industry, meet new people and return inspired with new ideas. Since museums are one of the areas we are most passionate about at Plank, I’m happy I got the chance to immerse myself in thinking about them for days on end.

Ultimately, the technology and usability challenges of these essential organizations all come down to people. And the people I started to think about were those who visit a museum website but will never step through the doors of the physical building. I believe there’s a huge — often missed — opportunity to reach online-only visitors that museum leadership needs to pay attention to.

Online visits on the rise

During his presentation, Ken Amaral from the  Department of Canadian Heritage shared some recently captured sectoral data from 2015. The focus of his presentation was to explore the current state of museums and where they might be headed. While he offered a vast array of data about the sector (did you know Canada’s Heritage sector employs 36,000 people?), it was the specific information on online interactions that got my attention.

  1. Online visits 203 million, up 50% since 2011
  2. 30% (60.9 million) of these are instead of a physical visit
  3. Online exhibitions have doubled since 2011

It’s great to see the growth in online visits, and it’s clear that museum websites are very useful planning tools. But what really interests me is that slice of visitors who choose the online over the physical visit, the proliferation of online exhibitions, and the associated opportunity for growth. 

A childhood without the arts

Thinking back to my childhood, I don’t have any memories of going to a museum. I remember going to amusement parks, baseball games, and the circus, but don’t think I ever gazed in fascination at a painting. Growing up in a lower middle class, divorced household, exposure to arts and culture was not at the top of the activity list. I suspect art galleries and museums were seen as places not made for people “like us”. 

When I was in my early twenties, I finally discovered the world of the internet and purchased my first 2400 baud modem. It was slow, and my Mac Classic could only display 256 shades of grey, but it gave me the opportunity to pursue my love of music and learn about album jacket designers. Eventually, that would turn into an interest in poster design, and magazine design and… you can see where I’m going here. My ability to discover and consume information online led quickly to an emotional connection with art and design that didn’t exist before.

When I consider the relationship with any cultural institution and digital technology, I think about my younger self. With no adult-driven introduction to the arts, I had no opening to experience it or have it become a part of my DNA. Today, with access to the internet, a child or a teenager has the chance to visit and learn about the arts online. They have access to a world I never did as a child of the 1970’s. Growing up now offers the freedom to connect emotionally with the arts, and that’s through digital, first. 

Digital first

Museums need to expect and plan for the vast majority of first interactions to happen online. In addition to the individual I’ve described above, anyone planning a trip to a new city will research what to do online. The chances of them visiting your institution are going to be greatly weighted by how you are presented on your website, social media, and reviewed by their friends and acquaintances. A potential visitor’s opinion of you will be shaped by digital, first.

Some people will never visit

While converting digital visitors into actual attendees to your museum is a key goal, I want to take the time to consider why you should invest into the people who may never visit your museum. 

The reality is that a lot of people, for a variety of reasons, will never visit your museum, ever. The Louvre, the most popular art museum in the world, had 8.1 million visitors in 2017. For everyone on the planet to visit the Louvre, it will take 938 years at the current pace. The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada’s most visited museum, with 1.3 million visitors in 2017, will gladly serve the whole world in 5153 years. 

As special as your museum is, there are so many legitimate reasons someone will not or may never visit. 

Even the most adventurous and well-resourced traveller can’t go everywhere. In larger cities, the competition is high for tourist dollars, and smaller towns may not get a lot of out-of-town visitors. Locals may be too stuck in their routines to visit, or perhaps they’re uncomfortable in crowds or have a physical challenge that prevents them from visiting. 

Economic and class barriers will also limit your in-person visits. Some people simply cannot afford the time, transportation, and/or entrance fees, while others don’t see your museum as a place for them. I think this was the case with my own family. They saw a museum or an art gallery as high culture, places for fancy people. As a result, I had no frame of reference for what a museum really offered until much later in life.  

I’m obviously not suggesting that your museum website could ever reach the entire population of the globe. But why not broaden your scope and think about how to engage people who will never walk through your doors?

A duty to serve with generosity

As an employee, patron, visitor, or supporter of your institution, I realize it may seem counter-productive to think about catering to someone who won’t set foot in the building and interact with a collection that you love. But I truly believe that museums have a duty to serve a larger community than those who are compelled to visit in person.

Museums and heritage organizations are driven by a mission to educate and to inspire curiosity. Their physical buildings preserve and interpret objects and artifacts carrying great scientific and cultural significance. While physical preservation is an important function of museum buildings, display and interpretation don’t need to be confined by physical walls.

Making collections available online may be initially costly but, if you serve researchers, it can significantly free up staff from responding to information requests. Offering interactive companion experiences to physical exhibits can inspire curiosity in non-visitors, and extend the engagement of an in-person visitor. Online exhibitions have great educational value and are an excellent classroom resource – with the bonus of exposing young people to your museum.  

Whatever your institution’s mission, your goals should be outward-facing. You are entrusted with important knowledge, and I believe it’s a duty to share as much of this as you can. Making use of digital platforms to spread the knowledge you hold is a question of sharing access to information with a generosity of spirit. You exist to serve the public good, to make our society a better place, to ensure the next generation makes humanity better. 

What comes next

By connecting with the next generation, you are ensuring the future viability of your institution. As each generation is different, the way you reach out to them has to be different. The way you get them involved is going to be very different than your current attendees, donors and board of directors. By using digital platforms effectively, you have the opportunity to inform, educate, and inspire this impressionable group. Digital is one of the main, if not the most critical touch point for outreach and connection.

In reviewing the Twitter accounts of different museums, I see an opportunity for digital growth. Comparing the number of annual museum visitors to 10 major museums to their total Twitter followers, roughly 1/6th the total annual attendees are social media followers. This represents the opportunity to develop a continued conversation with some commitment from the organization. When a visitor is at a museum, you have an opportunity to develop a deep relationship. With social media, you have the opportunity to develop a shallow but persistent connection, which you can grow and deepen over the long run.

Money matters

While some museums have come to understand the importance of digital, in many cases, the financial commitment still isn’t there. Unless there is a commitment to build an internal team or have a dedicated digital partner, the digital budget is a small line item in your marketing budget. If you are willing to invest vast sums of money on the acquisition of a new collection or to update your facilities, you should consider your digital experience with the same level of thought and commitment. 

As the main channel to communicate, reach new audiences, and connect with people who may never visit your museum, digital should be an essential and heavily funded part of your overall image and strategy. Let’s also remember the other benefit of digital, which is that you can measure your investment in many different ways.

Funding digital projects that have no associated fee requires a shift in budget allocations. But entrance fees tend to be a small percentage of a museum’s revenue. Sotheby’s states that The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC sees only 2% of their operating budget from entrance fees. (The aforementioned Canadian Heritage survey reports 10% of total revenues from admission fees.) They also suggest that museums look to licensing as an untapped revenue source. They’re pessimistic about donor revenue, but here’s an area where increasing the quality of your digital presence could make a big difference. The next generation of donors are out there, they’re digital natives, and they value emotional connections. It’s time to speak their language. 

Connections beyond transactions

While your site can be a revenue generator and a great marketing platform to get people through your doors, your focus can be much more than transactional. You have an opportunity to do more than use digital to capture visitors; you have a chance to connect emotionally with people and offer them new, fresh and companion experiences. Your real opportunity is to ensure the long-term existence and relevance of your museum by developing meaningful connections, in person or not.

Interested in funding opportunities for Canadian museums to develop virtual exhibits?