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How Are Museums Making Money Online?

With so many museums operating with reduced visitor numbers in 2020 and 2021, generating income in new ways has never been more important. Of course, in many cases, galleries, museums and other visitor attractions have had to shut their doors for months on end as local, regional and national lockdowns have come into force around the globe. This has meant that income streams have been even more restricted in the recent past than ever before. Only 18 months or so ago, museums and galleries were offering a raft of in-person services which are now outside of their normal functions.

For example, zoos, museums and country estates have all monetised overnight visits in the last few years. Without operating as a hotel, such institutions have successfully offered overnight stays to visitors who are willing to camp out on their premises, some theming their provision on a ‘Night at the Museum’ model. With the advent of the pandemic, these sorts of fundraising activities have not been possible, of course. The same goes for gala or so-called black-tie events where paying guests might attend a dinner and dance, either on the institution’s premises or elsewhere.

In other words, virtual fundraising has become the norm for any institution that needed to keep some form of revenue stream in place. Yes, costs have been lower for many institutions – especially those which have shed staff – but online earnings have necessarily needed to go up for many museums to survive. In a socially distanced world, online services have been just about the only way that museums have been able to secure any sort of future.

True, there has been some funding from public money and this should not be overlooked. In the UK, for example, a rescue package was put together to help museums, art galleries and other cultural institutions. However, it should be said that such public funding was shared right across the arts sector – it was most definitely not just for museums. This meant that the museum and gallery sector in the UK could only take a proportion of the new government money. Much of it had already been swallowed up by the music industry, the theatrical sector and other parts of the arts in the country. Although the money on offer was certainly welcomed at the time, many financial directors in the museum soon realised that it would not be enough to sustain them in the long-term. Indeed, the British minister for culture, Oliver Dowden, said at the time that any future public funding streams would only be made available to those institutions which commercialised their operations.

Of course, some museums and galleries work on an entirely commercial model already. For others, however, winning grants and surviving with public money while providing a public service meant a significant amount of adjustment during the lockdown periods. And yet, both types of museum have shifted to a commercial footing that embraces the power of the internet more fully. What have some of the most successful institutions around the world been doing in recent times to earn money online and what can others in the sector learn from their activities? In some cases, the answer was to augment the sort of online activities they were already engaged in during the pre-pandemic period. In others, it often meant a wholesale shift to a new way of operating.

Artefact Adoption

It might sound like a very simple concept – largely because it is one – but having patrons adopt particular items in a collection is a straightforward way to generate income. Of course, such an income stream is suited to both in-person and online revenue generation. Zoos and animal rescue centres have been asking people to adopt their animals for many years but the approach can be extended to inanimate objects, as well, including many of those in museums.

After all, many artefacts require special attention, having ongoing care costs and, in many cases, a unique personality all of their own. Perhaps this is why artefact adoption tends to work well in the context of specialist museums where patrons will be particularly interested in certain types of artefact? This certainly seems to be the case with the RAF Museum which is now successfully running a fully digitised adoption scheme for its many historic artefacts. As Edward Sharman, head of development at museum put it, artefact adoption provides a ‘fantastic opportunity’ for the public to become part of military history while obtaining something unique in return for their support.

Virtual Visitor Donations

This is one of the simplest ways for museums and galleries to earn income from virtual visitors. Yes, of course, museums could choose to put all of their online content behind a paywall which would mean that anyone who is mildly curious to see what is on offer is likely to simply turn on their virtual heel and look elsewhere. Unless you have one of the leading brands in any sector, paywalls are not likely to work. Basically, there are so many online offerings that are made for free that you cannot compete if you charge on a pay-per-view basis. Just look at the readership levels among newspapers’ online editions. Only the leading brands operate with a paywall and their readership numbers suffer for it.

On the other hand, some media outlets simply ask visitors to make a donation so that they can continue to provide their services freely. A good example of a big internet brand that does this is Wikipedia. No one can visit the online encyclopedia for long without being asked to make a donation. Consumers are used to this model and they will make donations for content they consider to be valuable even though, of course, some visitors have no intention of coughing up and will never do so.

This approach will suit many types of institution which see themselves as fulfilling a public service role. In such cases, putting publicly funded content behind a paywall may be seen as something that is inappropriate. However, this will leave such museums in a situation that means they are not monetising their online offering at all. Simply keeping the museum website up and running and updated with new content does not come for free, however, after all. Asking for a freely given donation, just as you might as visitors enter your galleries, also makes sense in the online world. Typically, payments can be handled with web hosting plug-ins that are designed for this sort of thing or through typical commercial services such as PayPal.

Commercial Sponsorship for Online Content

The flip side of asking for virtual visitor donations when they come to your website is to provide it for free but promote a commercial sponsor instead. This sort of model will offer an advantage over donations, whereby income streams can go up and down outside of your control. Essentially, striking a deal with a commercial sponsor will allow you to budget more easily because you will know in advance how much your sponsor is willing to pay for the level of sponsorship on offer.

Of course, choosing sponsors is not without controversy. Several large public institutions have come under fire for commercial sponsorships with oil and gas companies in the past, of course. Big pharmaceutical companies have sponsored wings of galleries and both temporary and permanent exhibitions and these decisions have meant protests as well as disruption, in some cases. That said, the same sort of commercial relationships that exist in the real world can be taken online.

For example, some museums will provide video content on their YouTube channel which they also embed on their own website. Simply topping and tailing such content with the corporate logo of your sponsor can mean you are able to generate a reliable income stream so long as you keep making such content available. There again, putting your sponsor’s details on your website and social media posts will also afford a further opportunity to promote your partner or partners.

Premium Online Offerings

The idea of a putting up a paywall between your audience and your content may not work for many museums and galleries, especially those with a remit to educate. That being said, institutions should not rule out monetising virtual attendance of at least some of their online offerings. If you intend providing some premium content, then why not sell virtual tickets to it in advance? The rest of your online content can remain free to view, whether it is sponsored or not, but how about charging for your premium or limited edition content?

The idea here is to make a two-tiered online service. So long as the majority of your content is freely available and operating as a loss leader – as commercial operators tend to refer to it – then specially curated online content can be charged for. This sort of income stream can build, too. As you get used to what your paying audience likes to see, so you will be able to adapt your style to their preferences. In many cases, it will be possible to enjoy plenty of word-of-mouth recommendations that ensure future paid-for content becomes more popular. Typical premium online offerings would include access to behind-the-scenes operations, virtual gallery tours of newly curated content and even games and activities that support the learning of your freely available content.

Web Advertising

Slightly different from showing your sponsor’s logo on your site, web advertising is put in place according to the surfing history of your visitors. This sort of advertising attempts to track what people are interested in and then display associated marketing content on the sides of web pages that are subsequently viewed. Typically, these ads are run by services from Google and others. All that web developers need to do is to make space on their side for so-called banner adverts to appear. The more visitors you have to your site, the more such web advertising will generate in terms of revenue. That said, there is necessarily some compromise that will be needed for the look and feel of your museum’s website.

Virtual Fundraising Events

Staging a black-tie fundraiser or two has long been the preferred method of generating income among wealthy patrons for certain types of establishment. During the recent past, however, it has not been possible to even think about hosting them. This does not mean that they cannot go ahead on a virtual platform, however. Yes, any social event that aims to raise money will be very different in an online format but that hasn’t stopped some institutions from giving it a go.

A good example is the Manhattan-based Museum of Arts and Design which hosted just such an event, featuring a number of virtually live performances last year. While much of New York City remained under orders to stay at home, the museum’s fundraising team put together an online version of its annual ball. Not only did this keep some of its revenue stream flowing but it reminded its patrons that such activities would once again become the norm in the near future.

Online Staff Interactions

Chatting to educators, curators and other museum staff is what makes a visit to an institution special for many people. Such interactions will often add greater context to the various displays but they can also personalise the experience and make it much more meaningful. The same can be said of online visits, too. As such, charging for online staff interactions should not be ruled out as a potential money-spinner. Certainly, zoos having been offering these sorts of virtual meetings, both with animals and their keepers.

Setting up online interactions with staff will mean a proper booking system needs to be put in place – many museum employees remain busy despite lower visitor numbers, after all. However, you don’t need anything more technically sophisticated than a Zoom call or a WhatsApp video session to deliver these sorts of live interactions with paying members of the public once their booking has been made. What’s more, providing these sorts of sessions will afford an opportunity for many museum staff to do what they like best – enthuse on their particular specialism.

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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