Museum Marketing with Don Draper

Marketing: the dirty “m” word

There’s no faster way to generate an eye roll from a curator, educator or fundraiser than to ask about their museum’s marketing effort. In my experience, museum marketing is characterized by other departments as sleazy, self-serving and/or a waste of precious resources.

I’ll admit that early on in my museum career I felt this way too. It seemed unsophisticated to “sell” museum work. Museums matter, damn it! Why should you have to sell that?! But, over the course of my career, marketing has come to dominate my work. As a technologist, it was a natural transition to focus at least part of my energy on marketing. Now, before you label me a sellout and go back to scrolling Facebook or the latest museum Tumblr…hear me out.

Marketing has the power to make your work more relevant – and more successful.

If it’s done well, marketing can make difficult topics seem more accessible, help spread the word about projects and priorities and make more money for your museum. Those are all big wins. But there are some very real reasons why these results are few and far between in museums.

5 reasons why museum marketing fails

1. Marketing works in a silo. When there’s no functional communication between departments, marketing that’s led internally or by outside resources, will result in stilted campaigns that fail to energize the staff, let alone audiences.

2. Non-marketers don’t own marketing success. The fault doesn’t fall only to marketers in the communication breakdown. Other departments must feel equally accountable for marketing success in order for it to work.

3. The line between content and marketing isn’t blurry enough. The best marketing is content that people care about. Skilled marketers can add a call to action to sell a ticket, get a new follower or convert a new member, but content should be leading the way. Museums are filled with content creators, but they aren’t frequently at the table for marketing discussions.

4. Sometimes we forget that visitors are in complete control. Social media has turned the tables in a big way. Businesses, non-profit or otherwise, can’t expect to push out messages at people and see results. Marketing is now a conversation, a response to the needs of customers. They expect to be able to affect the work you do and to hear from you about the things that matter to them. It can’t be a one-way dialogue or it just won’t work.

5. The budget isn’t big enough (or it’s being spent on the wrong things). If you have low (or no) dedicated marketing budget, you are going to find it very difficult to stand out. You’re not competing with other non-profits. You’re competing with Netflix, sports teams, public parks and a hundred other leisure activities for a very small piece of the time pie. To stand out, you have to spend marketing dollars, and spend them wisely. And, if your marketing budget isn’t dominantly supporting digital strategies, you’re in big trouble. Old school channels like tv, radio, outdoor and print ads have limited reach for the majority of your audiences and continuing to spend dominantly in those channels is delaying your progress.

So, what can you do to right the ship?

  • If you are a content creator, extend an olive branch to your marketing lead and present some ideas that can turn into stories or promotions.
  • If you are a marketer, evaluate your plan. Is it using the latest technology to its fullest or is it filled with the same old thing? Find a partner, internally or externally, to help you revise your plan to include inbound marketing strategies that will build new audiences over the long term.
  • Ask visitors what they want – and listen. You don’t have to do what they say verbatim. It’s true that sometimes people don’t know what they want until they encounter it. But, if you don’t know where they’re coming from, you have no place to start. And, don’t assume that some national study is relevant to your community. It isn’t. It’s all about relevance and that means speaking to your specific audiences.
  • If you’re a leader, challenge your marketers, educators and curators to work together like never before to create engaging content that can be used to promote your museum. This could easily extend to collections, conservation, exhibit design and other areas, but start with the public facing stuff and ease into other teams.
  • Be open to a challenging dialogue about how content and marketing intersect. Teams will have to compromise to make it work, but the end result could be more people through the door to experience the labor of love you all work together to produce every day.

Have a question about how you can improve marketing relations in your museum? Or, is your museum nailing it? Share below.