Following ASTC’s virtual convening “Exploring Sustainable Approaches to Digital Engagement,” we followed up with three of our speakers to dig into strategies that can contribute to the financial sustainability of digital engagement efforts. This issue is especially timely: as many institutions pivot their focus back to in-person experiences, they are making decisions on whether to abandon, adapt, or continue the digital programs they created during the pandemic. We spoke to:
- Steven Beasley, Principal of Field Theory, who specializes in helping museums of all kinds to use digital to educate, entertain, and inspire. Before Field Theory, he spent 14 years at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, leading teams to create thoughtful digital experiences for guests and students in the exhibit gallery, classroom, and at home.
- Nik Honeysett, CEO of the Balboa Park Online Collaborative, a San Diego-based, non-profit consultancy that provides technology support and development services, and business and digital strategy for the cultural sector.
- Rosie Siemer, Founder and CEO of FIVESEED, which specializes in museum audience development and membership innovation, guiding dozens of museums in the development and execution of data-informed strategies that deepen member engagement.
For more resources on digital engagement in science centers and museums, see ASTC’s Digital Engagement Inquiry Project.
Digital isn’t going anywhere
Steven, Nik, and Rosie all believe that science centers and museums should keep digital engagement as a critical piece of their strategic planning. Digital experiences can help overcome barriers to in-person visitation, allowing institutions to engage people that they could not otherwise reach, growing museum membership and attendance.
Rosie pointed out that “digital is not going anywhere, and any organization that is not preparing now for the future is going to be lagging.” She added that while “museum teams are exhausted, and it has been a stressful and tumultuous time,” it’s important to recognize the good that has come out of the past few years. In summary, “keeping the digital momentum going will pay dividends.”
Steven urges museums to not completely return to pre-pandemic strategic plans. He cautioned that “you should run away from anyone that says they know exactly where things are going to go in the next 18 months.” Rather, it’s important to remain flexible and open to many possibilities as the coming months will be a unique point of transition.
Nik observed that for many museums, membership “tanked during the pandemic because membership was connected to physical benefits.” He said that museums should be developing more resilient strategies that blend physical and digital offerings in a form that appeals to more and more audiences, such as subscription models. He recommended that even as physical spaces are re-opening, museums should develop a digital strategy to “fish where the fish are,” including emerging online platforms like TikTok and Twitch.
A digital strategy is core to financial sustainability
These experts believe that digital strategies are extremely valuable but require intentionality and thoughtful consideration to reach their potential. Institutions should be selective about the opportunities they pursue, ensuring that they add a new dimension or reach a new audience, not just add to an increasingly noisy digital space. In many cases, the answer will be “less is more”. Digital offerings should be high-quality, desirable content experiences that align with the strengths and mission of the organization.
Rosie recommends making digital strategy decisions based on your institution’s unique situation. For example, “some might find that they have a really digitally engaged audience and they might need to do 50% or more of their programming in a virtual format or look strongly at hybrid models. Whereas other organizations might be looking at 25% virtual or digital engagement, where that 25% might be split between live events and asynchronous, on-demand digital content.”
Steven recommends that institutions focus on projects that are consistent with their mission, capabilities, and reputation. “Don’t go running down a path of doing something that is not in your wheelhouse. Yes, a grant or gift for an out-of-character project might cover salaries or the resources to get it done, but later support and maintenance will likely suffer and potentially damage your relationship with the funder in the long run.”
Similarly, Nik reminds institutions that quality is important when developing digital strategies. “There’s so much stuff out there. You have to focus on improving the quality of what you’re doing. The only way to do that is to stop doing some of the things. It doesn’t mean that you never do those things again, it just means that you focus attention. You figure out how to create quality programs that rise above the static of everything else.”
For any digital effort, it’s important to collect data and use those data to determine the effectiveness of the selected strategies in meeting established goals.
It’s okay to charge!
Because funding can be a significant challenge when trying to implement digital programs, we asked each of the experts to share their thoughts on funding strategies. All three emphasized that it is okay to charge audiences for digital experiences, that people value what they pay for, and that they will pay for what they value. There are many different successful financial models—you just have to find the best one for your institution.
Rosie acknowledged that it may be difficult to convince people to pay for things they are used to getting for free, and that “it might take a little while for people to warm up to the idea,” but consumers have adapted to similar pricing changes in other fields in the past. Additionally, Rosie pointed out that with all the upheaval in the marketplace, now is a good time to start experimenting with new price strategies, “before things settle…back into the same habits and norms.”
Nik observed that “museums are in the same place that newspapers were 15 years ago, when they moved everything online with free access to all the news. And they wondered why their business model tanked. This is exactly the same as where museums are right now—giving content away for free. No other industry would give away stuff like that without some kind of ulterior motive, without getting back something in return that is more valuable.” Nik encourages museums to look for a middle ground where some things are free and others available for a fee. For those experiences that require payment, “be clear and describe the reason why there is a premium for it.”
Even if the programming is offered for free, Steven reminded that the work required needs to be paid for somehow. He recommended first examining the strategy and deciding “if it truly maps to your purpose, and if it’s a perfect digital extension of who you are.” If the strategy does make sense for your institution, it is important to develop a revenue model that works. Experiences can be “ticketed, absorbed in operating costs, or be paid for by a group, sponsor, or donor” and if they are not, then they cannot happen.
Strategies to bolster digital engagement efforts and generate revenue
Throughout the interviews, Rosie, Nik, and Steven gave examples of successful strategies to better market, monetize, and bring in revenue for digital engagement efforts that they have seen work at various institutions. These include:
- Better branding—Brand events with terms that people will understand and be interested in, such as subject or topic rather than the internal designation. People are much more likely to attend events on “geology” rather than a “Friday night lecture.”
- Corporate sponsors—Corporations like to sponsor digital events and programs, often appreciating the larger reach available online.
- Data capture/email collection—Offer free experiences or benefits in exchange for simple data capture, such as an email address. Contact information is valuable.
- Digital monetization—A large variety of digital platforms offer monetization opportunities. You can monetize on platforms such as YouTube, affiliate links, and blogs. Content can be reused across various platforms.
- Digital sponsorships—Garner digital sponsors through sites like Patreon.
- Digital subscriptions—Offer digital subscriptions to your content. Subscription models can include a “freemium” tier that is offered to the public for free, and then a paid tier for more or higher-quality content.
- Embed your content with other institutions—When you create content, consider other organizations that might benefit from using that content. Your content can be embedded into their websites, or they can point traffic to your site.
- Evergreen content—Content that can be repurposed and used in multiple ways by multiple audiences at the institution.
- Grow membership—Offer extra perks for members, including surprise delights or rewards for loyalty.
- Marketing campaigns—Invest in marketing. Many museums do not devote enough resources to marketing, and even the best strategies will fail if no one knows about them.
- Repackage content for different audiences—Content that is created for one audience can be repackaged for use with other audiences. For example, content made for virtual field trips might also appeal to nursing home residents, special interest clubs or organizations, or STEM workers looking for professional development.
- Rights, reproduction, and licensing—Museums are creating unique and valuable content and should be thinking about the realm of rights and reproductions. Digital content can be licensed and the licenses can be sold to other institutions for their own use.
- Serial programming—Create content that is produced at a regular interval and let audiences know when and how it will be released.
- Target new audiences—Look for audiences that would benefit from virtual interactions, particularly among groups that traditionally have barriers to visitation. For example, people with autism, differing abilities, odd work schedules, lack of childcare, or lack of transportation.
- Tiered membership—Offer various levels of membership—including a free level—so that folks can pay what they can afford.
- Tiered ticketed events—Sell tickets to events and programs and offer additional perks for additional fees. Additional perks can include things such as behind-the-scenes experiences, live Q&A sessions, or access to special content.
- Virtual fundraising events and galas—When compared to in-person events, virtual events can accommodate more people at less expense.
Markers of success beyond revenue
Revenue (the net amount of money that membership, an event, or a program brings into the institution) is most certainly a marker of a successful digital program or initiative. However, there are many other markers that can be used to identify a successful strategy. These could include:
- Additions to email lists—An increase in the number of people who are interested in receiving communications from your institution.
- Attendance—The number of people who attend an event or program. Look for ways to understand whether digital programming has influenced attendance.
- Engagement—The depth of engagement or number of people engaging. Look beyond “vanity metrics.” For example, do they stay connected longer, engage more fully, or come back for subsequent events?
- Early Excitement—Having a large number of people indicate that they are interested in an opportunity—whether or not they actually attend.
- Increased membership numbers—An increased number of people who financially support your institution by becoming members.
- Value to the neighborhood—Provide things like training, certification, jobs, programming, and content for your community.
New strategies take time to work. Implement strategies, make tweaks and adjustments, collect data, and see how it goes. Our experts recommend giving new strategies time to work and tracking the impact on these markers to assess the success of your strategy.
Want to learn more?
Browse resources produced by ASTC’s Digital Engagement Inquiry Project, including insights from several science centers and museums on sustainability in digital engagement.
You can also read Rosie’s recent blog on Museums as Progress, called The “Good Old Days” which discusses how to leverage digital content and virtual experiences to keep audiences connected to your museum. Nik has a chapter in the 2021 book Museum Innovation: Building More Equitable, Relevant and Impactful Museums, called “Sustainability, Resilience and Growth through Digital Innovation.”
Thank you to our partners at Oberg Research for conducting these interviews!