Museums change lives. They educate, entertain and inspire. They provide spaces for social interaction and reflection. And they make valuable contributions to their local communities. Some involve audiences in active participation; some play active roles in supporting social change. There’s no doubt that museums make a difference to the world. But, if you’re not a regular museum-goer, the value of visiting a museum isn’t always transparent.
One area where museums are comfortable defining and describing their value is in communications with donors and other supporters. Informing these groups about how their contributions impact culture and society is a crucial aspect of fundraising.
How do museums describe their value within society?
Browse around most museum websites and you’ll find missions and visions that talk about building, caring for or preserving buildings or collections. Some link these internal activities with the external impact they hope to realise. For instance the mission statement of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art states that the Museum ‘collects, studies, conserves, and presents significant works of art across all times and cultures in order to connect people to creativity, knowledge and ideas’.
Big picture statements like this do a good job of convincing funders and supporters that the museum has a clear, important, purpose. If these statements refer to issues funders or their organisations care about, even better. For example, copy on the ‘Donate Now’ webpage for London’s Natural History Museum refers to climate change and biodiversity, stating that museum scientists, ‘are unlocking answers to big issues facing humanity and the planet’. That’s a compelling case to support the institution.
In a more targeted bid for funding, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) recently wrote a business case that aligned the benefits of a planned redevelopment with State policy. By communicating the organisation’s value in terms that addressed the State government’s needs and wants, ACMI secured over AUS$30m to support the project.
In contexts like this, museums know their value and are adept at communicating it. However, as museums increasingly reach out to audiences beyond their traditional visitor bases, there’s a growing need to consider the value museums offer to individual visitors and how best to describe that value.
For some museums this is a new challenge. That’s because, when you’re marketing to traditional audiences, you can focus on raising awareness of the institution, promoting new exhibitions and events or building long-term relationships to drive deeper engagement. Regular museum visitors, after all, have an appreciation of the kind of experience they might get if they choose to visit a museum, even if they have never been to that specific institution before. The value of a visit is, to some extent, inherent.
Museums that want to attract new audiences need to think more deeply about the value of visiting, and present it in terms that address people’s needs and wants – or the ‘jobs’ they are trying to get done in their lives. A good starting point is to develop a clear value proposition.
What is a value proposition?
A value proposition is a brief statement that describes the benefits audiences gain from visiting or engaging with the museum. Developing a value proposition can be a time-consuming exercise, which may question the very nature of what the museum stands for. However, taking time to create and agree a value proposition has a number of benefits.
From an internal perspective, the process forces organisations to tackle tough questions and engage in challenging conversations. It might surface simmering conflicts and prompt discussions about ways the museum needs to change to build relationships with new audiences. By the end of the process, everyone should be focused on the same goals, uniting staff in one clear purpose – and, just as importantly, a purpose that matters to the target audience.
From a marketing perspective, a value proposition provides a standard, agreed offer that underpins every marketing message. The value proposition almost certainly doesn’t comprise the actual words you use in a marketing campaign. But it does give you a framework for the benefits your campaigns needs to highlight. And those benefits should be consistently communicated across all marketing activities, from a visitor’s first Google search and social media interactions to the moment they walk in through the door.
Without a value proposition, even the most creative marketing initiatives may fail to connect with their intended audiences. With a value proposition, an institution can go beyond communicating its offer to rethinking aspects it takes for granted, such as opening hours, ticket pricing, events programming, online content and on-site facilities and policies. For instance, when Oakland Museum of California developed an exhibition for teens, audience research showed that the adolescent visitors valued it as a creative, hangout space where they could express themselves without judgment. In response, the Museum launched co-created ‘Loud Hours’ events, when the hangout space was filled with music, open mic sessions and other performances.
How to develop a value proposition
A value proposition is often a deceptively simple statement. Deriving such a straightforward offer from the complex activities of most museums requires gathering information and insight in three broad areas:
The ‘jobs’ your target audiences need or want to get done and what stands in their way (these could include tasks like learning something new, spending quality time with family, finding space to think or being creative),
the experiences the museum develops and offers (both on and offline, including aspects like access routes, shopping and catering), and
how the museum’s activities compare with other experiences accessed by the target audience.
All this information is then used to craft a statement for each target audience that summarises how the museum can help someone complete a job, by relieving the barriers that stand in their way. It should, ideally, unite what the museum is best at and what matters most to visitors.
As an example, a museum that discovers that potential visitors enjoy spending time with family, but find many family attractions too expensive, too crowded or too limited, might end up with a value proposition like, ‘We offer an ever-changing range of free, family-focused events and a spacious café with a healthy, affordable kids menu, all open seven days a week’.
Gathering audience insight
A value proposition is not a blanket statement about what the museum is or what it does, though thinking through those issues can help to derive it. A value proposition is a statement that describes the museum experience from the point of view of what matters to its visitors or other audiences.
It’s obvious that you can only generate a value proposition if you know which audiences you are targeting and what jobs they are trying to get done. While major institutions, or those who have gained funding for audience development projects, may be able to undertake bespoke audience research, gathering audience insight can seem like an insurmountable task for museums with low, or non-existent, budgets. Even when data is available, thinking about the institution from an audience perspective can be difficult for some staff, who may spend their daily lives focusing on collections, systems or other inwardly focused activities.
There are, however, cost effective ways to access some of this information. As part of a National Lottery Heritage Fund bid, The Royal Marines Museum in Portsmouth conducted an audit across the whole museum, identifying what the institution already knew about its audiences. The exercise united quantitative data – like visitor figures, event bookings and shop sales – with more qualitative research, like evaluation reports, visitor surveys and visitor enquiries. Once the audit was complete, the Museum could then plug gaps in the knowledge base and implement new systems to capture information on an ongoing basis. The marketing team at Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park in Warwickshire have used a similar approach, including training front of house staff in collecting visitor data.
Looking beyond the physical museum, web analytics and social media can be useful sources of audience insight. London’s British Museum analysed thousands of TripAdvisor reviews to discover that its visitors care more about temperatures than crowds and more about toilets than object labels. The institution was even able to segment needs and expectations by visitors’ first language.
There are a number of freely available sector-wide resources that can supplement your own research. The Audience Agency’s Museums Audience Report shows that a fifth of all audiences cite ‘to spend time with friends and family’ as their single greatest motivation for visiting a museum, with over half selecting learning as one of their motivators. While regular visitors often perceive museums as places for entertainment, the report suggests that people who are less culturally engaged expect to learn something. A value proposition for this audience might therefore focus on opportunities for visitors to learn.
The Morris Hargreaves McIntyre (MHM) Culture Segments provide another way of categorising people’s motivations and behaviours. For instance, people in the MHM ‘Release’ segment feel time-poor and avoid doing things that sound too complicated. A value proposition for this segment might focus on the ease of visiting and what can be seen or done in a short amount of time. Or it might set out an online-only offer, removing the barrier of travel logistics entirely.
How do museums communicate their value to consumers?
Defining a value proposition – or, in reality, several value propositions, each for a different audience – is the first step in communicating your value to potential visitors.
The following examples of visitor-focused communications are taken from the first line that appears in a Google search listing or from the main headline on a website. They therefore give a flavour of the first encounter a visitor might have with a museum’s messaging. Unlike institutions that describe themselves as some sort of museum (for instance, the largest, oldest, only or best museum of ‘blah’), these all present the experience a visitor might encounter.
Some focus on what happens in the museum space, giving audiences an idea of what is going on:
‘A place that fuels creativity, ignites minds, and provides inspiration’
(MoMA, New York)
‘A place where art is made, exhibited and debated’
(Royal Academy of Arts, London)
‘A gateway to the Ice Age, right in the heart of LA’
(La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles)
‘A new great day out for family and friends’
(RAF Museum, London)
Some focus on how the museum compares to other local attractions:
‘One of the best things to do in Reading’
(The Museum of English Rural Life, Reading)
Some focus on what the museum does in general terms. These statements can, of course, apply beyond the physical site:
‘Sharing stories of the immigrant experience’
(Tenement Museum, New York)
‘Puts technology at your fingertips’
(Living Computers Museum + Labs, Seattle)
‘The story of European art, masterpiece by masterpiece’.
(National Gallery, London)
The most audience-centred statements highlight what people can do, using active verbs like explore, meet and discover, and issue a call to action. Again, these can apply to online or outreach activities as much as those in the physical space:
‘Hear the untold stories of enslaved people and learn about historical and contemporary slavery’
(International Slavery Museum, Liverpool)
‘Explore how brands shape our world’
(Museum of Brands, London)
‘Discover the history, culture and heritage of Jews in Britain’
(The Jewish Museum, London)
‘Inspire your creativity’
(Columbus Museum of Art)
A particularly simple and direct version of the call to action is this two-word offer:
(Please Touch Museum, Philadelphia)
Whatever you think of these marketing lines, they are only as effective as the impact they make on their target audiences. That’s why testing is an important part of value proposition design – so you know you have understood your audience and have pinpointed what matters to them. The central component of any process to identify and communicate value is therefore listening. Museums may change lives, but appreciating how and why those changes happen requires museums to engage with people and listen to their views about what the museum means to them.
About the author – Anna Faherty
Anna Faherty is a writer, trainer and consultant who collaborates with museums to find and share stories in an eclectic range of exhibition, digital and print projects. She shares her passion for audience-focused approaches to content development with students at City University, London and University of the Arts London.