Beyond the Media Buy: Marketing Museums with Today’s Techniques

By Meg Winikates, Membership & Advocacy Manager, New England Museum Association

Museums have a rare brand. Seen by our fans and frequent visitors as trusted sources of authority, purveyors of taste, storehouses for knowledge, and launching pads for curiosity, museums know how to reach those who already support us, to remind them of what we have to offer and to invite them to participate in new exhibits, programs, and initiatives. Museums have an equal desire, however, to reach those who are potential visitors, collaborators, and supporters, and to that end marketing and public relations are a vital part of museum strategic operations.

In speaking with museum professionals around New England, it’s clear that in general museums have a strong grasp on the traditional essentials of marketing and public relations: building relationships, using print and broadcast media where and when available, and working with local and state support like chambers of commerce and tourist bureaus to spread the word. Even a presence on social media, particularly the large scale platforms like Twitter and Facebook, has become part of the standard marketing package.

Increasingly, however, museums are more willing to try out innovative ways to reach new audiences or to engage existing audiences in a more constant way. The rise of content marketing plays to the strengths of museums, and experimenting with content created specifically for new platforms is allowing museums to deliver on experience as well as information.

For this issue, we reached out to marketing and public relations museum staffers across New England, representing institutions of different sizes, locations, and disciplines. We asked for their input on targeting audiences, making the most of pairing new and traditional media, balancing and prioritizing efforts, and their thoughts on the future of museums in the public eye. Many thanks to the museum staff who responded to our inquiries!


On Finding and Defining Your Museum’s Audience

Who visits your museum? Who isn’t visiting but might? Audience targeting is a key element to marketing, but not all museums approach identifying their audiences in the same way.

An encyclopedic museum like the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has a broad set of targets, and must choose where to put their emphasis. The MFA’s director of marketing, Gary Mak, says “We currently serve both a strong membership audience as well as a non-member visitor audience that is broad in demographics, geography, and behavior. As such, historically we’ve focused on strong local coverage and awareness.” But Mak notes that they are currently undergoing a strategic planning process which includes reexamining their target audiences.

Mak also points out that not all marketing has the same purpose, and that members receive different messages than general visitors. “For membership efforts, we work through database marketing to attract that very defined group. For our more general audiences, we start with geography, and begin to layer on considerations based on demographics, behavior (Have they visited a museum? Have they visited the MFA?), and specific proximity [within the previously targeted geography].”

For other institutions, visitor demographics change based on the time of year. Chuck Clark, executive director of Castle in the Clouds on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, notes “We’re in a tourism heavy location, so the majority of our visitors are regional, national, and international travelers visiting the area for vacation. Our shoulder seasons tend to be more locally focused. Because tourism plays such a large role in our attendance, we belong to our local tourism association which helps with marketing our location as a part of the larger region. We also spend a significant amount of our marketing budget pushing our wedding venue, as that is a large revenue stream that helps to support the other work that we do here.” As we heard from many museum professionals we interviewed, Clark mentioned that improving data gathering from visitors is one of their key initiatives, in order to continue to refine and improve targeting.

While print marketing remains important, targeting within the digital realm is a growing issue, as everyone’s inboxes fill and messages get lost in the deluge. Jeremy Clowe, Manager of Media Services at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, says they pay particular attention to targeting their e-newsletters. Analytics from digital campaigns are particularly useful, whether by tracking open rates such as in the Rockwell’s e-newsletters, or by analyzing the metrics on Facebook ads and events. Phelan Fretz, executive director of ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center in Burlington, Vermont, notes that the availability of analytics for social media means that those platforms, strategies, and target audiences are now very closely linked, and can be used to define those multiple levels of marketing message. At one level, targeted social media serves to promote special events “where we are building momentum toward participation or purchase of single or series of events,” and the more general “maintaining ‘top of mind’ for ongoing opportunities such as exhibits, our live animals, teen program, school visits, etcetera.”


Priorities, Balance, and Budgeting

There are always more ideas than money or time. Wish lists are long, and resources are short for most museums, and even in the best of circumstances there’s that golden idea that hovers beyond your current capabilities. So how do you allocate your resources of staff time and budgets? Which things get priority in a press release schedule or a marketing ad buy?

Whitney Van Dyke, Director of Communications at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts, says their press priorities work on a flexible scale. “It’s a balance of institutional priorities: when there are specific announcements from the institutional leadership, they take first place. Otherwise most of our time and energy is spent on promoting exhibits and programs, building campaigns that integrate press communications with the marketing materials.”

Jeremy Clowe from the Rockwell Museum agrees, and adds that planning reasonably far in advance is crucial. “We typically put together an overview for the year, and schedule our press outreach several months before hand. News gets sent out more intensely the closer we get to the date of an exhibition or event.” The need to reassess regularly throughout the year is also apparent, as demonstrated by Ashley Bleimes, Public Relations Manager from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “Our Senior Director of Communications sets quarterly priorities for our team’s media outreach and social media content, which are based on Museum exhibitions and institutional goals and projects for the fiscal year.”

The museum’s priorities are important, but recognizing the priorities of your partners and audience are equally so, according to Maine Historical Society’s Communications Manager, Dan D’Ippolito. “I do my best to put myself in a reporter’s shoes and give them pitches and releases that they will find useful. It’s critical to know your audience – a writer covering business will not care about your spring gala, but may care about a new grant you received and how it’s being used, or any innovative practices in your organization, like green energy. We have events happening on a regular basis, but I only pitch the bigger ones to the media, which often either have unique or timely programming. It’s their job to provide their readers with strong content – and they can get literally hundreds of pitches a day – so I’d prefer that when my name pops up in their inbox they know it’s worth opening and is relevant to their focus area. It’s a two way street: they’re helping you by giving you press, but you are definitely helping them by providing strong content.”

Thinking about budgeting, Chuck Clark from Castle in the Clouds advocates spreading out marketing dollars over several markets. “Roughly a third of our marketing budget has been going to radio advertising. The other two thirds are dedicated primarily to print (newspaper and magazine ads, rack cards, etc.) with a small portion experimenting with digital advertising. I’ve started to notice a shift in our audience that makes me think that digital will become a much more important part of our marketing efforts moving forward.”

The MFA’s Gary Mak agrees: “We approach each campaign differently based on the projected audience.  Budget permitting, we typically try to employ a multi-channel approach, layering on print, broadcast, digital/mobile, and out-of-home.”

“Tiny-budget” marketing, or as PEM’s Van Dyke terms it “the drip-drip approach” is seeing rising popularity, referring to the small investments in boosting social media posts. Most of the museums we spoke to have been experimenting with these small-budget options. Van Dyke says just one dollar’s worth of investment behind each Facebook post alters the algorithm and makes PEM’s posts more visible overall. Castle in the Clouds and the Maine Historical Society both also highlighted Facebook as a worthwhile investment. Castle in the Clouds’ Clark says “The cost is very minimal, and it has been a nice way for us to get the word out about some new initiatives we are trying this fall which we didn’t budget to market in any other ways.”

That being said, other forms of social media marketing, discussed below, take much more time and investment, so ‘social media’ as a bucket is growing ever more imprecise in terms of budgeting, priority-setting, and staff time.

Though frequently paired, marketing and public relations are distinct areas of expertise, and many museums we spoke to reflected that, with most of our interviewees focused primarily on one role or the other. Where necessary, sometimes staff time is split by season, as in the case of Castle in the Clouds, where Clark says “Pre-season the focus is more on pure marketing, while in season we focus more on PR about specific programs or activities.”

Social media is, once again, the category which defies categories, sometimes living with the marketing staff, and sometimes with public relations. At the MFA, Bleimes says, “Our social media team is part of the PR Department, which works closely with the Marketing and Creative teams. So, while each team has its own staff, we work together closely on almost every project and initiative.”

Meanwhile, at the Maine Historical Society, D’Ippolito says the opposite: “Our balance is probably around 20% PR to 80% marketing. The majority of our communications efforts fall under the marketing category, and about 70% of that is digital: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, e-newsletters, online calendar listings.” That being said, “’earned media’ [the term generally applied to publicity gained through promotional efforts other than advertising] is something we make concentrated efforts to obtain. Minus the cost of time and energy, earned media is ‘free’ and its impact and potency are unmatched.” With so many news outlets referring to social media to spot trends and events, not to mention incorporating tweets and user posts to enhance their news coverage, social media is a hybrid that serves the purposes of both PR and marketing, so its floating status among museum departments is understandable.


Relationships and Partnerships

Museums banding together for a marketing campaign is a proven technique; the popularity of tourist trails such as the Art Museum Trail in Maine, the success of Museums 10 in Massachusetts, and the recent collaborative triple-exhibit of illuminated manuscripts by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Houghton Library at Harvard, and the McMullen Museum at Boston College are three disparate but excellent examples. Other kinds of partnerships can be equally effective, however, and where they cross out of the museum world into other disciplines, they can create opportunities for wider exposure to new audiences.

One such example is the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center’s partnership with one of the broadcast stations in the Champlain Valley. Executive Director Phelan Fretz says the museum’s strategy has been to focus on this one deep partnership rather than to court all the four available networks. While this does cause some difficulties in getting widespread coverage, “if we are truly newsworthy, we get coverage,” Fretz says.

ECHO partners with the local NBC station, which has a “hipper” reputation that suits ECHO’s core audience of members and guests that are mostly young families. ECHO plays host to a regionally famous meteorologist, and provides live footage available to their NBC partner through their rooftop webcam, which is used multiple times daily as part of news and promotions.

Fretz says “The meteorologist broadcasts live from ECHO on the evening news at 5, 5:30 and 6 - two nights a month. We are now prototyping two noon news segments per month live from ECHO.  These live segments include 2-3 minutes of an interview of ECHO staff with visuals or activities and then 2 minutes of weather.” Such a program requires a fair amount of institutional investment.

Fretz continues, “We define the messaging on the live news segments - live animals, partners, latest exhibit, STEM, etc.  Our talent is on air, including myself for the Hometown Hero awards segments. We spend significant cash on the partnership. They create 6 commercials per year and additional public service announcements and run them at often high-priced premier times because of the partnership, such as during the Olympics.”

Integration of the partnership within the museum includes a popular "you can be a meteorologist" green-screen exhibit, which  presents the meteorologist, with mission-focused b-roll delivering the museum’s message, and includes an email capture which visitors input to get their green-screen final video. ECHO also features the NBC weather report as part of their lobby promotion screens, and the 2-3 minute segments produced on air are re-used in programs, promotions and other venues.

The collaboration also extends to the digital world, with links between NBC’s and ECHO’s digital platforms. The “Live Lake” information section, which includes water levels and other indices, is one of the most visited sections of the ECHO website. The partnership continues to grow, with ECHO now serving as a host site for public events, such as the gubernatorial debates which are televised by NBC.

While the depth of the partnership between ECHO and their local NBC affiliate is perhaps unique, the importance of building relationships is recognized as universal, with museums being lucky in having much to offer their local media outlets.

Maine Historical Society’s D’Ippolito credits their status as a go-to source of state history for the success of their recent exhibition, Images of Destruction, Remembering the Great Portland Fire of 1866. “We’re lucky here at MHS that we often get reporters contacting us just looking for historical information or images, so we’re very happy to help when there’s a story being fleshed out. One of the biggest things in getting earned media is timing and relevance, be it to a current event, local or seasonal trend, holiday, time of year, etcetera. This year in Portland marked the 150th anniversary of the Great Portland Fire of 1866, and our exhibition opened right at the time the fire happened, on July 4. We did very little outreach – almost all of the major print and TV outlets in Maine reached out to cover or feature the exhibition in some way, or to just speak with an expert on the topic.” While reputation is helpful to keep lines of communication open, D’Ippolito admits that when it comes to a big success like Images of Destruction, “Timing is everything!”


Social Media, Responsiveness, and the Informal Voice

There is no doubt that social media in its many and varied forms is the rising star of marketing options. The Norman Rockwell Museum is on Snapchat, as is the MFA. The Peabody Essex Museum is a fan of Instagram, with Van Dyke praising its “authentic, genuine engagement,” and reporting that they’ve seen rapid growth through reposting and responsive commentary, with their engagement levels growing 330% per year. “The informal tone, the approachability is so important,” she adds, “People like to know there are people on the other side of the account, and taking the time to respond to people who tag you or comment makes such a difference.”

Bleimes also notes that the tone of social media postings is different from traditional “institutional voice” marketing, using the MFA’s Snapchat account as an example: “We tailor our message to the platform, keeping the tone light and somewhat irreverent, while still staying true to our mission. Our weekly feature, “Emoji Art History,” explores an aspect of the collection through emoji, educating viewers on the breadth of works we have on view in our encyclopedic collection.”

The other recent development in social media that’s getting a lot of attention from local museums is the ability to live-stream video over platforms like Facebook Live and Twitter’s Periscope, which most notably garnered national attention recently during the sit-in conducted by Democrats in the House of Representatives. In the museum world, live video streaming is allowing museum staff to invite visitors ‘backstage’ to tour storage and conservation areas, talk to staff members who don’t usually have the opportunity to greet the public, and even to conduct a virtual exhibit visit on a live-streamed tour of a gallery with a curator.

Chuck Clark points to the Smithsonian as an example he’s interested in emulating: “I’ve really been enjoying some of the Facebook Live videos that the Smithsonian has been doing. Giving people across the country real time access to the work of the museum seems like a great way to build buzz, especially if you are a museum that draws visitors from farther afield. Our museum has several active restoration projects going on, so I would like to do a few live feeds during interesting portions of that work.”

The Peabody Essex Museum recently experimented with a curator-led livestream tour, featuring the current Childe Hassam exhibit and curator Austen Barron Bailley. “We had 32,000 eyeballs on it,” Whitney Van Dyke reports, “and it convinced us that it was worth investing in some better equipment, different microphones and such, to up the quality of what we can do next time.”

Live events are never without difficulties and drawbacks, even with a top-notch microphone. Bleimes notes about Facebook Live that “It’s a great tool for reaching large audiences, but it’s definitely a challenge to manage the ‘live’ aspect.” Thus far, they’ve experimented with performance art, concerts, sneak peeks, and party interviews, and have deemed it “a successful tactic for increasing reach and engagement.”

Though not live video, Van Dyke also gave an appreciative nod to the MFA’s recent exhibit ‘movie trailers,’ created specifically for social media platforms. “They’re visually appealing, sophisticated—they don’t feel ad-like, as if they’d been repurposed from a TV spot.”

Finally, as museums’ comfort with broadening social media platforms grows, so too do the opportunities for international aspirations: China’s WeChat and Weibo are increasingly popular: by some reports Weibo is now worth more than Twitter. For museums with strong international collections looking to attract international visitors, these are options worth exploring.


Seizing Serendipity

As in the case of the Maine Historical Society’s excellent publicity run for Images of Destruction mentioned above, sometimes the best successes in marketing and public relations happen without planning for them. At that point, the best thing to do is make sure you have the ability to spot and support them, as in the case of the viral video of a small child dancing at the Peabody Essex Museum’s recent exhibition on Rodin: Transforming Sculpture.

The video, shot by a mother in the exhibition, shows her daughter imitating the movements of one of the dancers in the gallery. The dancer, one of the team from the BoSoma Dance Company which created choreography meant to evoke Rodin’s inspiration and bring attention to the capacities of the human body, interacted with the child in a way meant to encourage her to keep dancing, and the video and related Facebook post soon went viral.

“It was an amazing thing to witness,” says PEM’s Van Dyke, “And you can’t always predict when that’s going to happen, you can plan all you want, but in the end you just have to listen in this interconnected world, pay attention to your tags, and then follow up,” as PEM did with a blog post and interview with the family.

Of course, planning and pre-existing partnerships do help. Ashley Bleimes of the MFA points to the success of the #mfaNOW Overnight: Launch Party, which “created extensive buzz around an all-night event in our Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art. Coverage from outlets like, and Boston Magazine drove a significant amount of web and social traffic, especially when we were able to amplify that coverage through our own social media accounts.”


What Comes Next?

The museum field is full of creativity, so we asked what was ‘cool’ on the recent scene that museums here in New England were interested in emulating. Gary Mak of the MFA, points to the partnership between the Art Institute of Chicago and AirBnB, inspired by Van Gogh’s bedroom. “It was a great example of how a great online experience, a strong partnership with a big digital player, and a solid ad and social campaign, can drive awareness, buzz, and great media coverage.” Mak also highlights a local marketing effort that tied the physical to the digital: “I really liked the Museum of Science, Boston’s Spider Alive! Campaign.  Similar to the Van Gogh example, I really liked how they linked their digital (microsite, video, ads) to their social (#ISawASpider) and brought it to life in the physical world.”

And what’s on the horizon? Mak believes the social element of the museum experience is only going to gain traction. “The tourist is going online and seeking advice from family/friends and review sites, so it’s important for museums to continue to pay attention to these areas and be visible and responsive. The tourist is also increasingly reliant on their mobile devices, so mobile search and buying proximity based keywords is seeing growth.”

Chuck Clark of Castle in the Clouds sees a growing tension between the traditional marketing and the desire to have all activities serve the museum’s mission: “I think a general trend, and one that we are certainly dealing with at the Castle, is the need to blend marketing in a strictly tourism focused way with wanting to share more of our mission through our marketing as well. The reality is that to be as successful as we want to be both financially and in terms of our educational goals we have to embrace the blended nature of being a cultural tourism destination. Too much focus on either end of the spectrum will put as at a disadvantage.” For many museums, the rise of multimedia platforms for content marketing seems to be the location of that balance.

Content marketing also has a growing niche in podcasting, according to Whitney Van Dyke: “I find the rise of museum podcasts really interesting and exciting. Certainly we’ve been having a lot of fun with the PEMCast, and with the 30% rise in popularity of podcasts every year, there’s a lot of room there.” The best thing, to Van Dyke, is the way podcasts allow for new collaborative opportunities. “It’s not just about telling our own stories, but about introducing people to other things that fit our brand. PEM’s central themes [for the podcast] are about curiosity, delight, and wonder, which lets us explore what other interesting projects people are doing in the cultural sector.”

“This is a natural fit for museums, and I’m looking forward to seeing what could happen next,” she says.


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