Museum Marketing -Taking a risk

With museums nationwide facing increasing budget cuts and visitors reducing spend on leisure, arts marketing teams are finding that they can no longer rely on traditional methods alone to attract much needed audiences.

With museums nationwide facing increasing budget cuts and visitors reducing spend on leisure, arts marketing teams are finding that they can no longer rely on traditional methods alone to attract much needed audiences. Museum marketers have always been a resourceful bunch, working with budgets that most private sector professionals would shudder at, however, now more than ever those in arts marketing need to think more creatively and turn to new technologies to help make the pennies stretch further. Social media, digital marketing, partnerships and stunts have all had an important role to play during this tough financial climate but in 2013 these activities will be an essential part of the marketing mix, alongside one other key ingredient – experimentation.

This is something we know quite a bit about at the Museum of London. In the last few years we’ve made something of a name for ourselves by taking risks. In 2010, the museum was on the brink of an exciting relaunch, having been partially closed for three years for a major redevelopment. During the interim visitor numbers had nearly halved. A full rebrand took place in 2008 but there was a lot of work to be done to get the Museum of London back on the map and show the public just how much we’d changed. With a new positioning statement too – ‘a modern museum with ambitious future plans’ – we needed more than just a big ad campaign.

To that end we appointed creative agency Brothers and Sisters to develop something special. Our brief was to get London talking about us. And that’s how Streetmuseum came about. Having previously ruled out apps as a luxury we couldn’t afford, Brothers and Sisters showed us a new model of working, a collaboration where both client and agency benefited – new audiences for us, new business for them, and media coverage for everyone. With our content and their creativity and technical know-how we felt we could only succeed.

In May 2010 we released Streetmuseum, an innovative iPhone app which allows users to compare past and present London – not in a museum but out there on the streets of the capital. In a technology first, Streetmuseum used augmented reality to overlay images from the Museum of London’s extensive art and photography collection on the same view today. Standing outside Buckingham Palace users could see Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst being arrested while petitioning the King a hundred years earlier, just by looking through their device camera. Or they could catch a glimpse of the Salvation Army International Headquarters dramatically falling to the ground after bombing in 1941. Or 1970s hippies enjoying a music festival in Hyde Park. From the historic to the everyday, Streetmuseum captured the stories of modern London and its people. Rather than waiting for audiences to come to us we were taking our collections to them.

A few well-placed exclusives in local, national and trade press – including a double page picture spread in Metro – saw downloads soar. Word of mouth quickly spread round the world courtesy of journalists, bloggers and social media, and within one month Streetmuseum had already received 65,000 downloads. Today it’s just shy of half a million, and in that time Streetmuseum has picked up numerous awards, including a prestigious Webby, and continues to attract regular media coverage from Argentina to New Zealand. And back at the Museum of London visitor numbers shot up by 79% and were back at their pre-closure figures by the end of the first year.

Since then we haven’t looked back, and we certainly haven’t let budgets stop us from getting the Museum of London brand out there. Partnerships have been instrumental in helping us achieve our objectives. In February 2011 we launched a music trivia app called Soundtrack to London with Nokia, then in July we joined forces with TV channel HISTORY™ to follow-up on our first app with a Roman version called Streetmuseum Londinium.

Not wanting to rest on our laurels, this app built on the original’s innovation, taking the use of augmented reality a step further by applying it to video so users could watch gladiators fighting at the site of a 2,000 year old amphitheatre or see how rituals were performed where a temple once stood in the City. A digital excavation tool – another first for mobile technology – was added so users could ‘unearth’ Roman artefacts where they were found, while audio revealed the sounds of everyday life in Londinium. Over 160,000 downloads and extensive media coverage from The Times to The Guardian Tech blog proved that Streetmuseum hadn’t been a one-off and even teachers appeared to be turning to new technologies as downloads doubled when the schools returned in September.

In August 2011 the Museum of London became the first public location to introduce NFC (Near Field Communication). Partnering again with Nokia NFC tags were installed at both our venues to encourage owners of NFC enabled phones to find out more about objects on display, follow us on social media, take advantage of discounts in our shop and cafés, or join our Friends scheme. The launch drew substantial attention from trade press and 18 months on it still attracts visits from businesses as far afield as Japan, here on fact-finding missions to see how NFC can work for them.

And as the museum’s focus has turned to hosting major exhibitions, digital has not been forgotten and neither has our inclination to take a few risks. To coincide with the opening of Dickens and London, the first charging exhibition since the museum’s relaunch, we once more teamed up with Brothers and Sisters, this time to create an interactive graphic novel app for iPad and iPhone. Dickens: Dark London uses beautiful illustrations by David Foldvari and narration by actor Mark Strong to bring to life a series of Dickens’s short stories set in 19th century London.

Again we experimented with new ways of working to make our modest budget go further, introducing a download charge and agreeing on a commercial venture with our agency in return for reduced fees. Despite having a more niche appeal, Dickens: Dark London generated over 50,000 downloads and surprised everyone by the sheer number of visitors who came to the museum to take advantage of free downloads, proving that digital can generate actual audiences through the door.

Today budgets are as tight as ever, but we’re continuing to experiment by trying out new business models, taking advantage of opportunities that knock on our door, and by using our greatest assets – our collections and our brand – to negotiate deals that will ensure the museum is still being talked about. In the last year alone we’ve seen our objects photographed in stunning 360° hi-def for an encyclopaedic app of London’s history; lent our name, images and expertise to an app released to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee; and licensed a digital version of our popular London Board Game.

So if I’ve learnt anything from the last three years it’s try something new. Be bold, be different, and be the first to do it. Not every experiment will work but, if, like the Museum of London, you take a risk now and again you may find that it’s all you need to kickstart a new way of thinking and more importantly, a new way to be thought about.