The pandemic brought about a seismic shift in the way we live, work, and engage with the world around us. As remote work became the norm, people have become increasingly comfortable with digital content, seeking new ways to learn, explore, and connect online. The museum industry was not immune to these changes, and pivoted quickly to adapt. To stay relevant and top of mind, museums had to rethink their strategies, focusing on meeting their audiences’ changing expectations. As we emerge from the pandemic, museums are keeping multiple doors open at once, offering both in-person and online experiences to meet the diverse needs and preferences of their various audiences.
Today’s audiences expect multiple ways to engage with a museum. This means museums need to find ways to bridge the physical and digital worlds, offering experiences that build on the in-person experience or invite audiences to engage with the museum online, or somewhere in between. As Rob Urstein, co-founder of Gather, shared in a recent convening, “we've all gotten used to a world where we can choose different ways of interacting with lots of different experiences…We know that we can choose to dine in at a restaurant. Sometimes we'll want to pick up takeout on the way home, or sometimes we'll want to have things delivered. Few of us would want a world where any of those options disappear completely, even if one of them is our preference.” The way in which audiences want to walk through physical or digital doors also depends on their preferences, interests, or motivations.
Despite these expectations, there are still fears among museum staff of how to respond to these changes. Some staff may be concerned that they have to open all the doors, all at once, and at the same level of intensity. Or, based on limited staff time and resources, that staff have to choose in-person or online programming.
Museums can not only meet those expectations, but can change the paradigm of what it means to personalize experiences. As Urstein shared, “when museums think about personalization, it's most commonly transactional. [For example], members can log in to purchase a discounted ticket. [But] there's another way to think about personalization that stems from a sense of belonging. What does it signal to someone when you invite them in, when you recognize who they are, when you can learn what they like and dislike more easily, when you can engage them in a conversation, and how can that translate into delivering better experiences and better value for every audience member?”
Personalizing museum content can happen in small steps and in conversation with your audiences:
- Begin a dialogue: Create listening sessions, advisory committees, surveys, or focus groups to hear from or prototype ideas with specific audiences. Visitors are usually willing participants when asked for their input to help the museum improve. By involving their communities in the process, museums build stronger relationships with them and learn more about their preferences. In turn, museums can learn how to best open multiple doors that are aligned to institutional goals, resources, and audiences needs.
- Leverage digital platforms: Welcoming your visitors and members in--and giving them a logged in experience--is positive for both individuals and museums. Creating personalized digital experiences can cultivate a sense of belonging and welcome for visitors, while also providing museums with information about their preferences and interests. Tracking this information can be more difficult if visitors are sent to public platforms to engage with museum content.
The value of taking these small steps can lead to a larger strategy to help museums stay relevant in a changing landscape. Audience needs will change and evolve. A weather event or renovation may close the museum. Being in close contact with audiences and keeping multiple doors open will help museums better serve their communities:
- Increase Revenue: By creating experiences that are tailored to specific needs and interests of audiences, museums can transform the exchange from transactional to experiential. When audiences feel that museum programming is meaningful and relevant to them, it becomes more valuable. Visitors may be more interested in donating, becoming a member, or giving a membership. They may also be more likely to sign up for events, camps, or other programs.
- Expand Access: It’s important to recognize that some visitors–and even many members–will never set foot in a physical museum while still being interested in its mission, collections, and programming. By providing digital access to these assets, museums can have a broader impact beyond their walls. Additionally, using audience segmentation can also increase access to specific audiences, such as members. For example, one of Gather’s museum partners created a digital home for members to provide expanded access to its online programs and events. Urstein shared that, “that institution saw a 30% increase in attendance across all their events. And a 22% increase in renewal rates for their members who had participated in their digital member home.”
- Grow Every Audience: When members and visitors feel that their needs and interests are being listened to, they become more invested in the museum’s mission and programming. As Emily Kotecki, an independent museum consultant, shared during the convening, “relevance can be defined as ‘making connections that unlock meaning.’ And unlocking that meaning can mean different things for different audiences.” Visitors who have positive experiences, become ambassadors for the institution, spreading the words to their family and friends, encouraging them to visit as well.
In addition to the benefits listed above, creating multiple entry points, personalized for different audiences creates a resilient museum mindset that can weather any challenge. By involving audiences, museums create a relationship of trust and collaboration, leading to increased engagement and advocacy. It takes trial and error, but by doing so, museums ensure their relevance for years to come.
Let’s keep the conversation going: