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How the Van Gogh Museum found digital success in 2020

As a fine example of a museum that was ahead of the digital curve when Covid-19 hit Europe, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam was perhaps better equipped than most to face the challenge of pivoting to digital in 2020. However, with a wealth of data and visitor insights to hand, the team at the museum still had many decisions to make – both in order to navigate a path through the pandemic and prepare for a prosperous future beyond Coronavirus.

Ahead of their talk at the MuseumNext Digital Summit in February, Website Manager, Fransje Pansters, and Ticketing Manager, Myriam Bruijne, explain how “continuous learning cycles” and A/B testing has rewarded them through these tough times.

“We’re very fortunate at the Van Gogh Museum to be an oversubscribed organisation with demand typically exceeding capacity,” says Myriam Bruijne. “For many years we’ve offered timeslot tickets in advance and have cultivated a substantial waiting list. So, from the perspective of managing visitor numbers during last summer, our job was perhaps a little easier than some other museums and galleries. We already had our funnels and our data protection policies in place.”

With a well-deserved reputation for managing visitors effectively, it is hardly surprising that Myriam and her team were approached by many other museums over the course of 2020 to help them implement and understand their own ticketing funnels through 2020. She says,

“It’s been enjoyable to be able to share our own experiences and assist other museums to avoid the mistakes that we made when we first introduced timeslot ticketing and began collecting data several years ago.

“Of course, no one could have predicted Covid-19 and, even for a well-prepared museum like ours, there is no escaping the fact that we went from being oversubscribed to refunding all tickets and closing our doors during the spring lockdown. That process was difficult and it presented us with some unique challenges.”

“We were already working on a new website for the Van Gogh Museum, which was due to launch in July 2020,” Fransje Pansters adds. “In that respect we were quite lucky to be working on our digital presence and the way we engage with visitors online. While the pandemic may have changed the scope of that project a little, we were already in a good place and weren’t starting from nothing.”

Within Fransje’s remit as Digital Communications advisor, she also manages the development of Blueconic – the digital tool used to combine the museum’s three website domains and ensure that users enjoy a more fluid and frictionless experience. That work proved particularly important in 2020 at a time when synergy between online collections, the museum shop and its booking platform was more important than ever.

The digital strategy at the Van Gogh Museum is built around what Fransje refers to as “Continuous learning cycles”. This is common practice in software and digital space but perhaps less familiar in other fields of work where project goals and outcomes are usually set more rigidly. As Fransje explains:

“The analogy I often use is moving to a new house. Typically, when you move home you build up your furniture and fittings over time – seeing what works and what your requirements are. This is how we approach our digital activities and the way we utilise data. We look at what we have, where there are issues that need fixing or where there are new opportunities. Until we know what the data is showing us, it isn’t always useful to have restrictive goals or targets in mind, because this can narrow the focus or force us to interpret the data in a predetermined way.

“In practice, this means we look at what the data is showing us and then perform A/B tests to explore which approach might work best. So, to put it in the context of our new home analogy, we aren’t drafting out architect drawings and completing renovation work before we’ve even moved in. Instead, we are choosing to live there for a while and make decisions based on our experiences and our growing understanding of what’s needed to make it a better environment.”

Turning data into donations

The Van Gogh Museum historically has a very strong international audience. But in 2020 it quickly became clear that there would no longer be regular visitors from the USA or Far East for some considerable time. Very quickly, the Van Gogh Museum board took the decision to offer refunds in the spring, working hard to retain goodwill with people who might also be fighting to get refunds on flights, accommodation and other holiday activities.

And as Myriam explains, the next step was to look at how the data from the ticketing funnel could be utilised to ensure the survival and success of the museum:

“While Fransje and I have always worked closely to align the ticketing funnel with the website, the closure forced on us by Covid-19 has required us to bring teams even closer together to ensure that we can still maintain relationships with visitors and ensure survival during this difficult year.

“One of the key factors here is the way that we accepted donations. Through our existing ticketing funnel we had a clear picture of who visits our museum over the course of a year: when they visit, what time of day and from where in the world they are coming. But, of course, we were now seeing those people heading to our website in the absence of a physical museum experience. Where we had previously encouraged donations as part of the ticket purchase process, we had to separate the two during lockdown periods – moving it away from the point of sale to elsewhere on the museum website.

“We explored the best ways to create dedicated donation options, appealing to visitors at various points on their journey through our website. That’s been a crucial learning for us, and something that we’re excited to share in more detail at MuseumNext’s Digital Summit.

Fransje says that while the Van Gogh Museum has always had a loyal following and enduring popularity, the willingness to support the museum – and many other cultural institutions like it in the Netherlands – through the pandemic has been heartening to see. She says people have suddenly gained a new appreciation of what museums can offer when faced with a cultural vacuum:

“It’s maybe like breathing air. It’s always there and you don’t always think about how important it is until it’s taken away. We’ve now seen a glimpse of a world without museums and without the freedom to have cultural experiences at any time. People have now realised how valuable it is to quality of life. That realisation as a society is quite remarkable and, given the opportunity, many people were more than happy to make donations to support us.

In return for their continued support, the growing number of online visitors were able to enjoy the extensive and fast-growing content available via the Van Gogh Museum’s website.

“To some degree the wider public weren’t aware of just how much content we had available for free online,” Fransje says. “As a museum, we’ve been featuring collections online for ten years or more. But I think that the willingness of people to search for this content has increased dramatically in 2020.

“It is difficult to transmit the same experience online that we can provide in person. The Van Gogh Museum is renowned for making people feel quite overwhelmed by the art and even crying in some instances. Those deep emotional connections are not easy to translate to online – but it’s been a challenge we’ve tried to tackle as best we can.”

“In order to develop that immersive experience and nurture a sense of community we’ve developed new initiatives like book clubs, complemented by live Q&As to get people talking and invested in our subject matter. We didn’t’ know how successful this would be but people really have taken a deep dive and loved this type of programme.”

Fransje says that as new content was developed – both online and for the physical exhibitions during the summer and autumn of 2020 – it was crucial to be led by the data in order to make decisions:

“If you look at our annual report we welcomed visitors from 110 different nationalities in person in 2019. Compare that to 2020 and we saw mainly Dutch visitors and a relatively small number of visitors from neighbouring countries. That’s a huge shift for us – and it drove us to work hard on shaping our on-site and online content correctly.”

Digital’s role in the future

As the Van Gogh Museum looks forward to a post-Covid future, Myriam says that the growth in online engagement is set to continue. But that shouldn’t be seen as a threat to the physical museum experience:

“We see time spent online as a time of learning. In many ways we might expect that giving people the opportunity to gather information about collections and discuss artworks with others will deepen that experience when a visitor returns in person.

“From a ticketing perspective we’ve also had to use the digital content in a slightly different way. Where previously we’d add messaging to say ‘Buy in advance’, 2020 has forced us to improve our last-minute ticketing for our local audience – because we were seeing fewer tourists from outside of Europe.”

“This last-minute model also places more emphasis on mobile. We’ve had to optimise content and ticketing for mobile more than ever before. In many ways this has been positive, we’ve had to evolve and adapt to demands.

“We’re very proud of the creativity that has been shown in our organisation over the past 12 months. We’ve responded positively to change rather than being scared of it and choosing to simply close and do nothing.”

Fransje believes that through events like the MuseumNext Digital Summit, bringing the expertise and experiences of museums together now will all play a role in making museums more connected with their audience and resilient to challenges in the future:

“Every museum has had a slightly different experience with their audience and were at various different stages along their digital journey pre-Covid. But what’s really exciting about the Digital Summit is that this represents the opportunity to get together, share insights and learn from each other. Each institution will have collected data and had their own experience of what works and what does not.”

“I’m keen to hear about others’ experience of trialling various digital formats. Having read a little about crossover between the gaming industry and museums, that’s another thing I’d like to explore further.”

And for Myriam, the Digital Summit represents an opportunity to explore how, should closures ever be forced again in the future, museums like the Van Gogh can offer ticketed experiences:

“Guided online tours were offered by some museums during lockdown and I’m interested to find out more about the difficulties and successes that others experienced in delivering these services.”

About the author – Tim Deakin

Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.

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