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This California museum has turned its events into marketing machines

There are lots of reasons why museums run events. They can be one-off events, collection launches or a regular series. An event can tie in with a national calendar date such as Black History Month, or International Women’s Day. It can be an excellent way of reaching a particular section of a museum’s audience. Events can target seniors, children or people with additional needs. Museums all over the world have calendars full of interesting and exciting events. But what if your event schedule could work harder for you, and form a key part of your marketing strategy?

Crowd Surfing Museum

One museum has been working on a way of turning its events into marketing machines. The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History likes to do things in a different way. It has a strategy to get maximum value from events. At the MuseumNext Marketing Summit in February 2019, Victoria Lee and Ashely Holmes presented their approach.

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, California

The MAH calls itself “a place where there is always something happening”. It hosts events and exhibitions all year round, co-created with community partners. The museum’s mission is to bring people together. It aims to get people to experience and connect with art and culture as a community.

How to turn an event into a marketing machine

The MAH tells us that events can become a museum’s signature way to invite in new audiences and reach more people. In fact, the MAH views events as the most important way that it communicates with the community. One of the museum’s main aims is to connect with people locally, and events are a great way of achieving this. Whereas many institutions will focus their marketing efforts on new collections, exhibitions or artists, the MAH works to highlight its events. The museum often holds unconventional functions. For example, on Valentine’s Day, it hosted a ‘Speed Weddings’ event. On the day, 20 couples got married in the museum back to back, followed by a big joint party.

During their presentation, Lee and Holmes discussed the importance of approaching an events schedule in a joined-up way. Firstly, they identified three potential problems that a museum may come across while planning an event. These are; the event doesn’t speak to your brand story, you assume you know what your audience wants, and your communication is too broad. Throughout the presentation, they provided solutions for these issues.

Museum events that echo the brand

For an event to be relevant to the brand, a museum needs to ensure collaboration across departments. Holmes says that this makes sure that “your events tell your brand story and truly help you achieve your membership, revenue and other institutional line goals.” The MAH has a deep-rooted collaborative way of working across all teams. This includes everyone, from front-of-house, to events, to marketing. Every team is aware of the MAH’s event strategy and takes part in the planning process. This ensures everyone is on the same page throughout.

The MAH has a set of priorities which it keeps in mind when organising events. An example of this in practice is the MAH’s annual ‘Race Through Time’ event. This local history scavenger hunt takes place across Santa Cruz. Teams find clues, solve riddles and win prizes. This event meets many of the MAH’s goals. It reaches new audiences, adds value to existing patrons and gives people a chance to connect with others.

Museum events that the audience wants

Museums are experts when it comes to their own content. However, they might not always know what their audience wants to engage with. Lee talks about the importance of social media analytics. These tools can help institutions find out what people want to hear about.

As an example, the MAH uses Instagram a lot. They track the number of impressions, comments, likes and shares. This tells the museum what is interesting to its audience. If a topic doesn’t get high engagement, the MAH is able to rework it or try it on alternative platforms. It gives them an insight into the types of events that its audience wants to see.

Museum communication that reaches the right audience

With a busy calendar of events, the MAH found that its communication was quite broad. To deal with this and target the right people with the relevant information, the museum segments out its communication. There could be many ways of doing this; age, profession, income, for example. But the MAH chose to separate out different parts of its audience based on values and behaviours. An example of this might be the value of “I want to find ways to share my cultural heritage with my family”. Or a behaviour such as only attending after-hours events at the museum. This data is simple to capture. It makes it easier for the museum to target people based on the type of event that is likely to interest them.

When the MAH started segmenting their weekly email newsletter, the open rates increased by about 15%. The content is broadly similar but worded in a way to speak to the values and behaviours of different audience members. For example, a newsletter to an existing member might focus on the perks they will get when attending a particular event. Whereas a newsletter to a volunteer may focus more on the impact of the event on the local community.

If members haven’t attended any events in the two months after joining, they get an automatic email appearing to be a personal invitation to an event. They also receive a thank you after attending. This invites them to give feedback and stay engaged with the museum. Through this strategy, the museum has increased event attendance by about 30%. This segmented communication makes life easier for the audience. It means that they don’t have to hunt for information that is relevant to them.

Reaching more people through events which add value

By using these techniques, the MAH has increased its visitor numbers dramatically. In 2011 the museum had 17,000 visitors. This figure rose to 148,000 just seven years later in 2018. Perhaps more telling is this figure; in 2011 the museum hosted 25 events. In 2018 it hosted 800.

Victoria Lee is the Community Experience Catalyst at the MAH. Ashely Holmes is the Marketing and Brand Catalyst at the MAH.

About the author – Charlotte Coates

Charlotte Coates is a Brighton based writer working extensively in the arts and cultural spaces. Charlotte has explored a wide range of museum related subjects since she started writing for MuseumNext in early 2019.

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