Museums are grappling with a key question as they navigate the digital future: are the benefits from digital programming worth the investment of staff time, new tools, and additional resources? In other words, what is the return on investment (ROI)? Understanding the ROI can help museum leadership make strategic decisions, meet audience expectations while being mindful of staff capacity, and communicate value to external stakeholders and policy makers.
Here are six metrics - both quantitative and qualitative - that can be most helpful in measuring ROI for digital programs.
Quantitative data is the most concrete way to measure if the investment in a program resulted in specific outcomes. Our museum partners have used the following metrics to measure the ROI of their digital programs:
- Membership renewal rates: One of our museum partners, which has 38,000 member households, analyzed member behavior from March 2020 to March 2022. The case study focused on multi-year members who had participated in at least one virtual event. Our research found that 20% of members who attended at least one digital program in that two-year span were more likely to renew. Even minimal virtual participation can have an impact.
- Donations: In that same research, “90% of members that participated in a virtual program made a gift. The size of those contributions were 2.3 times greater than they had been prior to the pandemic.” Providing virtual access enhances the value of the institution to members.
- Attendance: In another example, a museum partner with 30,000 member households scheduled four weekly member talks during a single month. Members were given a choice to attend in-person or attend virtually through an exclusive livestream. “Over the course of four member talks over the month, 2.6 times more members participated virtually when given a choice.” Digital programming increases access and attendance.
Numbers don’t always tell the whole story. Qualitative metrics capture other outcomes that also support program goals.
- Well-being: John Falk has been releasing research about the impact of museum programming on well-being. In a recent study with six institutions, he shared “the key insight is that museum experiences successfully create value by measurably enhancing a fundamental public need: the desire for personal, intellectual, social, and physical well-being.” In response to the pandemic, many museums found success with digital programs that emphasized meditation, mindfulness, and creativity.
- Relevance: Digital programs enable museums to be responsive and relevant to their communities. Instead of being reliant on months or years-long planning processes, digital enables museums to be agile and spin up programs in response to important news or events happening in their community. By creating a space for dialogue about topics that are important to different audience segments, museums can personalize their engagement and create meaningful experiences for visitors.
- Community: Virtual platforms like Gather enable visitors to extend the social experience and/or create a bridge to other like minded museum goers they may never meet in person. These digital homes can be a place for audiences like educators to create a community of practice, for subject matter experts to connect with one another, and for the museum to cultivate relationships with their various communities.
As museums consider how to measure their ROI, it's essential to ask: what are they optimizing for? The measurement(s) that are most important to an institution should be selected and digital program design should be maximized to achieve that goal. Whether it's increasing membership renewals or cultivating a sense of community, understanding the ROI of digital programs can help museums make informed decisions and allocate resources effectively. By balancing audience expectations with existing staff time and resources, museums can provide value to their communities in a way that is sustainable and impactful.
Additional Gather Resources