Digital Engagement: 10 Tips for Science Centers and Museums

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, some science centers and museums had developed online and digital programs, but more often science museums’ digital engagement efforts focused on incorporating technology into exhibits within museum walls. During the pandemic, the closure of public spaces prompted science museums to be innovative in their approach to reaching their audiences digitally—and often to accelerate longer-term plans for expanding their digital presence. From online quizzes and podcasts to virtual field trips and livestreams, science museums found creative ways to share their knowledge and expertise from afar. As physical spaces have re-opened, digital engagement can and should continue to be a part of the strategy for science centers and museums. 

Taking what we learned through our Digital Engagement Inquiry Project, the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) has compiled 10 tips for museums looking to continue and increase digital engagement.

1 | Quality–over quantity–is key to creating successful digital experiences

Download a PDF of the “10 Tips for Digital Engagement.”

There are many different methods for engaging with your audience digitally, all of which have value and interest. But science institution guests are looking for highly engaging and personalized experiences, which require precious time and resources. Limit yourself to running 2-3 digital engagement projects at a time so you can build focused and intentional digital experiences. Dive deeper:

2 | Don’t undervalue your digital content

Sustainability is a key question when it comes to creating digital programs. Just like you charge an admission fee to enter your museum, you shouldn’t be afraid to charge for accessing digital content under the right circumstances. To keep your digital audience growing, strike a balance between offering paid and free digital engagement opportunities. Dive deeper:

3 | Ensure your content is accessible

Everyone benefits from accessibility. Many of the tips for creating accessible digital content are simple and expand your content’s reach. Designing for accessibility allows people to access your content in their preferred ways. Dive deeper:

4 | Create opportunities for staff to grow their skills and collaborate across teams

Successful digital programs require many different skill sets: online teaching, digital marketing, video editing, accessible design, and beyond. Provide your staff with professional development options that grow their skills in new domains. Tap into the expertise of your current staff to provide mentoring opportunities and increase collaboration across teams. Dive deeper:

5 | Get to know your digital audience

Because creating digital experiences increases your museum’s geographical reach, your digital audience may be looking for something different than your physical visitors. You should use both informal and formal audience research to get an understanding of what kinds of digital programs will resonate with your virtual guests. Dive deeper:

6 | Set goals and have a plan for how you will measure success from the beginning

It can be easy to get caught up in the creation of digital content and lose sight of the overall goal of your digital programs: reaching and engaging new audiences. Before you begin sharing your new digital programs, create an outline of what success looks like and how it will be measured. But don’t overcomplicate it! Digital systems often already have built-in data collection and analytics tools, which you can use to help guide and promote your digital program creation. Dive deeper:

7 | Effective project management gives staff the flexibility to be innovative

Digital programs require a lot of time and resources. To make sure you’re making the best use of your staff’s time–and to avoid staff burnout–manage your digital programs like special projects. Having a clear definition of expectations, timelines, and goals will free your staff up for problem-solving and innovating on your digital programs. Dive deeper:

8 | Treat your digital offerings as an introduction to your museum

For many individuals, the first time they encounter your museum will be through your digital experiences. You should consider your digital offerings to be just as much a part of your museum as the physical exhibits on display within its walls. To keep them coming back, or attract them to your museum for the first time, make sure your virtual guests have a strong understanding of your museum’s mission and what you have to offer. Dive deeper:

9 | Include local connections and organizations in your digital plans

Your digital programs have the potential to reach audiences well beyond the geographic area of your museum, but they can be just as meaningful to guests that are within your museum’s immediate reach, especially since geography is only one factor in making your institution available to your community. During the pandemic, many museums saw huge success in offering virtual field trips and digital classroom experiences to schools within their area. These kinds of local connections ensure your digital programs are being seen and can lead to further engagement in the future. And the best news: once these digital experiences are created, they’re very easy to share with other schools, scientists, local businesses, and organizations. Dive deeper:

10 | Connect with other museums and experts in the field

Every museum is going through this learning process at the same time. As we move into the future, collaboration between museums and experts will lead to long term sustainability. Don’t be afraid to ask your colleagues at other museums about their digital experiences and what has been successful for them. And vice versa, make sure you’re sharing what’s working for your museum and guests with your colleagues in the field. Dive deeper:

Overdeck Family Foundation logo

The ASTC Digital Engagement Inquiry Project was generously supported by the Overdeck Family Foundation. The ASTC team launched the Digital Engagement Inquiry Project to learn about our members’ experiences, challenges, and opportunities when it comes to digital engagement.

These tips were developed from the virtual discussions, expert interviews, and literature review that were created as part of this project. You can learn more and access additional resources produced on our project webpage:

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