Increasing Attendance at Your Museum, Science Center, Historical Property, or Nature Center

I often get asked “How do we make people come to our museum?” Or “How do we increase attendance at our science center, history center, children’s museum, nature center…” You get the picture. These are questions asked with concern and maybe even confusion. The organization creates great exhibits or brings in exciting traveling shows. It serves school children and has formed productive collaborations with like-minded destinations and partners. It seems innovative. It offers summer camps and after school programs. It offers programs for families and adults. It works hard to be of service to the community. If it has collections, they are well cared for, even if challenges exist. And on and on.

So how DO you “make people come to the museum?” First, you cannot “make them.” As every marketer or director knows, there is a lot of competition out there for personal time. And just because you think you have something everyone ought to see or experience, not everyone will feel compelled to do so!

Not everything you do will be popular…not everything you do should expect to be seen by many. Projecting museum attendance is necessary, but keep in mind that niche activities and specialty topics might need more realistic attendance goals. The projection could be created based on various criteria including past experience, where else people can get the same or something similar, virtual experiences, attitudes about the offering, even time of year, kids’ soccer schedules, allocated marketing dollars, staff resources, competency of your marketing staff, or the schedules and openings at other nearby museums and places of learning.

I once moved from a large city to a smaller city to serve as Executive Director. I was told by staff that Friday nights would never draw a crowd during football season, and they were right. We never opened exhibitions or programmed on Friday nights for that reason. Football was king! We even moved our annual gala to another night!

So what time of day and day of the week do you present your family, children, or adult programs and films? I have friends who have busy careers and love history. Our local historical society usually programs interesting speakers at lunchtime, which is great for some people, but not for my working friends who are constantly disappointed that they cannot attend. (Their inability to get engaged has a deleterious effect on the historical society’s membership renewals and financial support, I believe.) While it is great to get older adults into the museum, perhaps it would make sense to schedule the same speaker for two presentations – one for a brown bag and one for the evening to reach working adults.

For many museums and historical societies or science centers, programs sometime jump out of a “good idea” watercooler conversation. Or, a Board member will make a suggestion and staff members feel they must make the suggestion a reality. Sometimes these programs draw a crowd, other times you might be asking staff to stay after work so it looks like the speaker has a good audience.
I suggest that you take a step back and make an honest, deep effort to connect to your members and top target audiences. Listening sessions, surveys, focus groups – all have a place to try to understand the needs and wants of your constituents. Get expert help, decide what you need to know to do a better job, then gather the data. Make decisions, (or some decisions) on what you have learned.

I once had a curator tell me that this strategy “is the tail wagging the dog.” If you feel that you can “build it and they will come” then you will continue to ask how to make people attend, because serving the community is about using your mission to meet people where they are, while balancing your leadership roles and responsibilities.

Marketing decisions include “product” decisions. These programs and classes and field trips are your products, along with changing exhibitions and permanent galleries. It is often easy to say yes to a good idea versus taking a hard look at a good idea to determine if it actually matches your mission, strategic initiatives, customer/visitor wants, and museum resources to see it through. It may be hard to say no to a good idea to stay the course, but it could be worth it if engaging more visitors and improving marketing results are two of your goals.

More power to you!

Tuesday, July 16th, 2019 Uncategorized

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