How do you get the word out?

This week, I am thinking about marketing museum programs. Museums generally have a variety of programs to market, often to a range of audiences. And our success varies:  At the PlayHouse we have some workshops that are full, and others we have to cancel due to low registration. When I worked at The Noguchi Museum, we had some lectures that were standing-room-only, but other events that were under-attended. I have seen this at almost every museum I have visited or been associated with: I once took my kids to a great animation workshop at the Museum of the Moving Image and there were only two other families participating; I have watched a film at the Guggenheim where I was one of only two or three people in the audience. And of course, both of those museums have active audiences, and often sell out their programs.


An advertisement for programs at the Baltimore Museum of Art, from Style Magazine, found at

I met this week with Richole Ogburn, a senior account manager with the Kansas City-based advertising agency Muller Bressler Brown. I wanted to gather her thoughts on how museums can think about marketing holistically, rather than focusing on the individual components of a strong ad, or using facebook regularly, or generating quarterly program brochures – all, of course, necessary components of marketing. Inspired by thinking about fundraising campaigns, I wanted to learn more about what a marketing campaign might look like. Here are some of the things she shared with me:

  1. Marketing doesn’t need to be based in a large advertising budget. Participating in community events is one of the most effective forms of marketing to new audiences, because it shows involvement in the community while promoting the museum, and is a great way to reach people who have not yet visited.
  2. Facebook is a great way to get the word out there, but it works best if:
    • You have an event page (rather than just a post) for any program or event, so that people can add things to their calendar, get reminders, and invite others.
    • People have ways to engage – links back to the website, questions to answer.
  3. For each program, it is worth thinking about the particular audience for that program, and how best to reach them. Each specific marketing campaign may involve research into ways to best reach this audience.

I suspect that marketing departments in large museums actively plan and execute strong campaigns for most new exhibits. Exhibits (rather than programs) are our primary attraction, are planned for years in advance, and can potentially attract visitors in the tens of thousands (more for some museums), and revenue to match.


A subway ad for the Guggenheim’s Kandinsky exhibition (2009)

But programs are trickier. Many museum programs are, essentially, “one-offs” – we expect at least some people to attend because the topic interests them, even though they are not part of a larger series. For example, museums hold education workshops for families or older children that are a few hours on a single afternoon, rather than part of a subscription or series. Or offer a lecture by the author of a new book related to the collection. Or feature a discussion or afternoon-long class led by an artist-in-residence. And to compound the issue, museums tend to have varied interests and broad audiences. Our programs do not all address the same interests, or the same age groups.

I think this marketing challenge may be an unusual one, faced primarily by museums and libraries. Most organizations either offer the same workshop experience regularly – for example, paint your own pottery places – or extended classes – for example, parent and child music classes, or after school classes. I don’t think (but let me know if this is wrong!) that there are many other businesses out there that regularly produce one-off lectures and programs.

How can museums market these programs as effectively as they market exhibits? Do all programs need to fall within a larger series, and offer similar content within that series, in order to market them effectively? Would we be better served to offer fewer programs, but expend more resources on marketing these programs?

I left my meeting with Richole realizing that every time we plan a new program – a family workshop to make superhero capes, or a panel presentation with the local symphony  about cultivating talent and interest in children – we need a marketing plan, and significant resources (in particular, staff time) to dedicate to getting the word out. And that this is nearly impossible within the current structure of most museums I have worked in or with.

It is problematic that museum staff expend so much energy, and often money, on programs without also having the resources to ensure that potential audiences know about these programs. Should we stop planning programs for which we do not have a marketing plan in place?

I would be curious to hear from museums that dedicate this attention to marketing programs. Or from museums, particularly those in smaller markets, that have found ways to effectively market individual programs or workshops. How do you do it? How do you get the word out?

Please add your thoughts to the discussion!

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