Museum Marketing: Engaging Visitors by Thinking Outside the Box

January 21, 2021
Graphic background of multiple people taking smartphone photos of painting at modern art gallery exhibition, copy space

Smart, engaging, unique programing is what we all want. With museums closed and virtual experiences becoming more difficult to stand out from the crowd, it’s time to take a moment and regroup. There are still plenty of ways for museums to stay relevant throughout the winter, with or without in-person visitation.

Museums beyond contemporary art galleries don’t always look to pop culture or recent trends to weave through their shows and programming, but it happens occasionally. The Smithsonian has its share of pop culture artifacts, after all. For museums looking to get more eyeballs on its exhibits, virtual or otherwise, experimenting with pop culture now, while the pandemic has thrown all norms out the window, is an opportunity like none other.

What does this mean for museum marketing efforts moving forward as fewer people are visiting physical galleries this winter? It means creating digital spaces and virtual experiences that do more than just showcase what you’ve got, but to make history and art relevant to this new environment we’re all inhabiting.

It’s time to start tapping into conversations and experiences that people are already having related to pop culture and technology. It’s classic piggybacking, but it allows everyone to win.

Partner With Pop Culture
People are spending a lot of time in front of Netflix recently. We’re all guilty of it. Museums are starting to lean into this by engaging “visitors” where they are. The Brooklyn Museum, for example, created an online exhibit using costumes from both “The Queen’s Gambit” and “The Crown.” The result was a virtual exhibit that attracted viewers of the popular shows, allowing fans to experience all of it on the very same screen they enjoy the shows.

Engaging with pop culture isn’t a new phenomenon. As stated, the Smithsonian has some of TV’s greatest props on display. Thinking outside the box – or the gallery, as it were – is just one way to rethink museum programing. Evaluate where people are spending their time and what pop culture means in this moment, and then take stock of your museum’s own resources.

Smartphones, TikTok and Instagram are all major players, facilitating new trends and practices that can inspire a new show in your museum or gallery. It doesn’t have to be a world-class permanent exhibit. Everything is ephemeral now. Instead, by being clever you will be able to remain relevant as we enter the new order when museums are open again and become fixtures on travel itineraries.

It may take a while, making it all the more important that people remember you for that cool, innovative, maybe even tongue-in-cheek virtual exhibit you pulled together based on some viral TikTok post. Finding how you can you create programing that fits your brand while also piggybacks on cultural trends already will create a recipe for success.

Create “Then and Now” links
Nostalgia sells. For some, that’s problematic, as it creates a false sense of history, which in today’s world of inclusivity is often critiqued. It’s all too easy to erase the past by glorifying certain parts of it.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the past can’t resurface in fun, innovative ways. By looking to the past and creating links to it, to understand how things have changed. You’ve seen shows before where modern fashion stands next to some historical artefact that influenced it.

Let’s take this idea to COVID-19. The past doesn’t have to be centuries away, even if February 2020 feels like eons ago. We are all nostalgic for pre-pandemic times, so programing that explores these changes will appeal to people now and in the future, even as we emerge from lockdowns.

Consider changes we can witness between now and then, a time before COVID-19, at the onset. It might seem impertinent to try and showcase recent history so quickly, but these are unprecedented times, aren’t they? We’re already seeing literature and TV shows embracing storytelling around socially-distanced romance and pandemic story lines, so it’s not too soon to start reflecting on it.

As a globally-shared experience, there is no end to the types of ideas that museums can consider. You may never have considered a show about bread making or, but this may finally be the moment to get creative.

Spark new conversations
There are already many conversations going, notably with the #MuseumfromHome hashtag on Twitter reaching as far as the Louvre in Paris. Inspired by a UK museum specialist, the online trend has allowed museums worldwide to stay relevant and pertinent by jumping in on the trend. If your museums has missed the trend, it’s not too late to jump in. If you’re feeling even more ambitious, starting your own conversation.

Remember when museums were fighting over who had the best depiction of a rear-end over the summer? Simpler times. But this is exactly what people want and more important need during the pandemic. Levity may not have served in your museum’s programing before, but times have changed when it comes to engaging audiences.

Meeting museum goers where they are is a key to success, and they are – and will be – online for some time. Keep all of this in mind when creating programing. Smartphone-friendly, relevant, and lighthearted content will be the mix that keeps us all interested in museums as we brave through the winter together.

Visitors will return one day to gawk at the Renaissance paintings, the taxidermized animals, the senseless postmodern art that will leave them saying, “My kid could do this.” Museums are built into our travel mindset. Which museums attract those visitors, however, depends on which ones stay relevant and engage their audience throughout 2021. Again, it’s not too late, but it’s not the moment to keep waiting for the vaccine to fix all of your worries.

Excited about starting something new or making a splash in the digital space that will last beyond the lockdown? It’s time to get thinking. Visitors will be back soon enough, but the digital environment will not die down, so creating effective and engaging digital practices now will only help you in the future. Get in touch with Susan Break at [email protected] to learn more about how DCI can help your museum marketing efforts.