The tools and tactics successful museums use to attract new visitors
June 12 2019
By Carly Straughan
Through the past decade we have seen massive social change in the UK and around the world which, during the initial stages seemed dramatic, with the closure of many traditional community spaces and the increase in time many people are spending in virtual environments.
How wrong those predictions turned out to be. There have, of course, been huge changes to the way people socialise but I would argue that we are now more social than ever.
Today we are connected through the internet, able to find people with similar interests all over the world and able to travel and enjoy our leisure time in a way that would seem unbelievable to people from a few, short generations ago.
This new level of connectedness brings a wealth of opportunities to attract new museum visitors from all walks of life, with vast interests and varying social needs.
For many social spaces, including museums, social change is not the same as loss of socialising. If you’re looking to the age group where we tend to set the bar for socialising you will see there are many changes that weigh both positively and negatively for museums. As the children who grew up with social media become adults we are definitely seeing a shift in how we attract new museum visitors.
Generation Z are the current “social generation” and they are now entering the workforce, socialising as adults with disposable income and looking for physical spaces to inhabit and this new generation of adults are more politically active, community focussed and tech-savvy than previous ever before.
“But my collections are interesting to everyone!” I hear you cry but as Generation Z mature they don’t just want to look at interesting collections, after all they can do that from their smartphones.
They are looking for physical spaces they can invest in, communities they can engage with and tribes to belong to and Museums have a huge opportunity to be the recipient of their time and money.
With this social shift, and many related social changes, in mind it’s time to think about how museums can use this to their advantage to attract new museum visitors who are looking for different options for spending their leisure time.
Feed the FOMO
According to research carried out by Statista over 90% of all adults aged 16-54 owned a smartphone along with more than half of all adults aged 55+. With such easy access to information from all over the world it’s easy to understand why our cultural institutions worry about attracting new museum visitors when there is so much content already to be explored in a virtual setting. But we also know there are some experiences that are much more than the virtual world can offer.
It’s no secret that sharing on social media drives many people to visit places that they may never have heard of. How many times have you seen a friends online exploits and considered attending or travelling to somewhere they have visited? And how often has following a celebrity’s account given you a reason to visit a place even if by seeing it online you already know what the experience offers?
Using social media to show off the experiences you offer and how they affect people is the key here, you may be able to watch a video of the Boston Science Museum’s lightening show in 360 degree’s virtual reality but it’s a pale comparison to being in the room with the huge Van Der Graaff generator in real life.
For many people the reason for visiting may be a video they see online completely unrelated to your museum, online photos from an exhibition a friend visited or a celebrity visit. By making sure your online presence is available to everyone with interesting and relevant content you reach out to new museum visitors across the world and give them reasons to visit you in person.
For some potential museum visitors the ability to preview a show, exhibition or collection can actually improve the chances that they will attend in real life.
For anyone who likes to know what they are getting into before committing to a visit, including individuals with Autism, Asperger’s and other anxiety disorders, prior knowledge of what to expect when they come through your doors can make the experience much more manageable and enjoyable.
Making your collections searchable online, giving clear descriptions of upcoming and current exhibitions along with online previews not only helps people understand what they will be entering into but also allows people to imagine themselves in that environment.
This is both enticing for those you want to attract and soothing for those who already have knowledge of your museum but perhaps needed additional detail to convince them to invest their time and money into a visit.
Becoming more open about your collections, exhibitions and event online not only can you feed the “fear of missing out” that comes from seeing your friends, family and other connections visit a museum but it can help others to find something that truly interests them or give those that might have avoided attendance the confidence to join in.
Invest in when you open as well as what you open
If you are really interested in going the extra mile to attract new museums visitors you may want to invest more time into when you open your doors as well as what is beyond them. For many museum’s the option of opening outside of traditional opening hours may seem absurd and with budgets always tight anything that increases your costs is surely never going to cross your mind? But it should and for more reasons than purely financial ones.
When Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty proved such a blockbuster at the V&A, London it seemed like there were never enough hours in the day to allow all their tickets holders and members access. As the closing of the exhibition approached there was still a huge waiting list, memberships were still being purchased to guarantee entry and tickets were being snapped up as soon as they were released.
With no option to extend the exhibition the V&A came up with a way to increase capacity, improve guest experience and attract visitors for whom a visit to the V&A would normally not be possible; they chose to open through the night for its final two weekends helping to make the exhibition the most successful the V&A, London had ever seen.
By increasing their opening hours the V&A, London attracted not only those visitors who simply couldn’t get tickets for the daytime opening in the first instance but also allowed those who would not normally be able to visit during regular operating hours a chance to see the exhibition.
Late night events openings, early mornings for members and other none traditional opening hours will allow you to attract new museum visitors and, as the workforce continues to become more flexible about working hours, people will expect museum services to keep pace or they will find something else to spend their money and time on during their leisure hours.
And it’s not just about the money, diversifying your opening hours can dramatically increase your chances of diversifying your visitors. When Nina Simon asked for feedback from museums as part of the of/by/for all initiative the feedback from over 1,000 respondents was that most museums feel they do not accurately reflect their diverse communities in their board members, staff or exhibitions.
If you’re basing your opening hours solely on tradition or on when your staff think you should open it’s highly likely you’re missing a large part of your community. With gender and race showing huge differences in the numbers of shift workers those night-time, evening and early morning sessions might just allow you to attract new museum visitors and connect with parts of your community you normally miss.
Museums for everyone
In a world where everything seems to move at the speed of light, quality time and shared experiences can be hard to come by. Whether it’s spending holidays with our loved ones, catching up with friends over a weekend or meeting for a first date, physical spaces are vital for our social lives and our health and well-being.
Technological changes may have made us more connected in a virtual world, made it easier to keep in touch with family and meet new friends with similar interests but the we have also seen social spaces diminish over the past decade.
Whilst may traditional high streets have given way to on-line shopping and austerity has closed many community centres, libraries and drop-in centres people will always need physical gathering spaces.
Museums can offer a space for reflection, creativity and collaboration and the exhibitions that you host and your collections can be a fantastic jumping off point for activities to attract new museum visitors.
You collection may not even be the source of your event, imply by inhabiting a physical space your museum can host events that may seem to be of no relation to your mission but isn’t that sort of the point? If you want to engage new communities and attract new museum visitors you need to look beyond your obvious allies. Your collection may be highly focussed but your café, conference and outdoor spaces can play host to all sorts of community groups that don’t share your obvious interests.
And in some cases, whilst the collections you maintain may not solely be about a specific topic, I can guarantee there are links to communities you don’t see until you find the right community partner to deliver new experiences alongside you.
When the V&A began its LGBTQ working group it probably seemed that more involvement from the LGBTQ community, including it’s own team members, would bring new knowledge to the museum. The working group have, however, made dramatic changes to the way the V&A works with the LGBTQ community and vice-versa.
This acceptance of a community has allowed a real relationship to flourish with enough trust to make physical changes to the museum such as gender-neutral bathrooms.
This trust, along with its promotion of LGBTQ events, tours and specialised blog not only provide the V&A with interesting new content but also gives a sense of ownership to the community itself, attracting new museum visitors who may not have visited the museum otherwise.
By offering your spaces and collections to community groups you may just find yourself on the receiving end of additional new visitors that they communicate with, some of whom may never have visited a museum before.
If you have the resources to offer some unusual events without the need for community engagement it still might be a good idea to involve the communities you wish to reach. These relationships with community leaders can help you authentically attract new audiences and help you spread the word as you embark on your new endeavour.
As Thomas Jefferson is often quoted saying “if you want something you’ve never had. You must be willing to do something you’ve never done.” This same logic applies for attracting new museum visitors too, what worked for museums and cultural institutions previously may not be successful now or in the future.
To be able to continually attract new audiences you must strive to keep your museum attractive, interesting and relevant as a social space and community resource. You will need to promote yourselves online, open your doors as and when people need you and commit to relationships; not just for your local community or your collections enthusiasts but for everyone.
About the author – Carly Straughan
Carly Straughan began her career working in tourist attractions on a 3 month contract until she found a “real job” and almost 15 years later she is still here. She now works with museums, arts and heritage, and tourist attractions worldwide and she is a passionate supporter of the industry.