Millennials and Museums: Oil and Water?
Summer means a lot of things for me. Most of these connotations are wonderful—fond memories of days spent at the beach with family, outdoor concerts with friends, rooftop barbecues and other festivities.
Now that I am out of school, summer also means it’s time to revisit the state of my student loans. So I sat down to approach this task just a few days ago, as it had been weighing on my mind for some time.
And after months of entertaining this as “a nice idea, in theory” I decided it was time to act.
Also on my mind has been the desire to visit a museum. And after months of entertaining this as “a nice idea, in theory” I decided it was time to act.
When I’ve googled museums in the NYC area in the past, I specifically looked for those with free admission, and my search usually did not yield much. Sometimes I would come across a museum that offered free admission once a month on some date which I could never remember. Often, it would be on the weekend, and the prospect of spending a Saturday doing something that was so structured, planned in advance, and which potentially involved lots of commuting, just did not fit with my life.
I don’t have a calendar and can never keep track of such things, and if I happened to remember, well, New York City has a dizzying array of offers for my age group, and if something else guaranteed that my friends would be interested–really any combination of live music, dancing, cheap food and drinks–it wasn’t difficult to make that decision. If these free admission days happened to fall on a weekday, they were instantly written off—I work like everyone else.
The abundance of competing activities offering value suited to my tastes presents an enormous barrier to museum attendance for millennials on its own.
The abundance of competing activities offering value suited to my tastes presents an enormous barrier to museum attendance for millennials on its own. Add to that the request that I pay $15, $20, or even $30 just to enter, and without the promise of these same offers, forget it. I’m not rich; in fact, like so many of my college-educated peers in their mid to late-twenties, I’m in debt. How I’m spending the money that I do have matters.
It took some creative maneuvering of my work schedule to actually get me through the door, but finally I made it …
Yesterday, a friend and I paid a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Before choosing, I did my research. I was looking for a place accessible by subway (I live in Brooklyn) that had a large enough collection to warrant the travel, and that—most importantly—was free. Or cheap, and by cheap I mean about $8 or less. Luckily, the Met is somewhat sympathetic to my situation and suggests a donation, but does not require any payment whatsoever.
Despite this, I was a bit taken aback by the amount of this “suggested donation.” Set at $25, I found this to be somewhat of a slap in the face. Despite the fact that it was not required, it still seemed steep. Almost as if it were designed to keep people like myself out. I felt a bizarre mix of genuine regret that I could not afford to support a great and important cultural institution, and offense at their lack of sensitivity to my financial situation.
Emotions are not rational and they do dictate consumer behavior.
Although I understand the lack of any substantial reason to take it personally, emotions are not rational, and they do dictate consumer behavior.
Here’s the thing. I’m an art lover and a born and bred museum kid. My mother began working professionally in the museum world many years before I was born. My father leads an architecture firm which specializes in museum and exhibition design, of which my parents are both principals. As a child, I was happily carted around the country to see my parents’ museum projects in the early stages and participate in test runs of individual exhibits.
In addition to this, my mother would sometimes plan mother-daughter trips for us to Pennsylvania and around the tri-state area to see great works of art in some of her favorite museums, many of which I remember fondly and which have had a profound influence on my interests as an adult.
Suffice it to say, I have a deep appreciation for museums and for art. When enough time passes without my visiting a museum, I notice. I feel a longing for what we generally term “culture.” This need had been nagging at me for many months prior to my visit yesterday.
The Met was the only museum in New York City that met my requirement of being technically free. I made plans with my friend to meet up by the entrance and jumped on the subway. Upon arriving, we were both hungry, but anticipated a high price for mediocre cafe fare and opted for a food truck outside, which seemed to promise both low prices (not exactly true) and multicultural fare. Interestingly, the museum cafe was actually not even advertised from the outside, though my suspicion in retrospect is that prices and quality would have been comparable.
It’s not enough to rely on the “intrinsic awesomeness” of your collections. If I don’t know about them, they don’t exist.
In terms of pre-visit research, I had not actually looked up what special exhibitions were on offer, I just kind of wanted the “museum experience” and to be able to browse their extensive collections. I assumed that, it being so large and having such varied offers, I’d probably find many things that would hold my interest.
It wasn’t until my friend and I were sitting on the steps that we noticed the banners advertising the special exhibitions. He expressed some interest in seeing one about fashion that had recently opened, but once inside we were overwhelmed by the array of interesting offers in the permanent collection, and by the new additions and modifications that had been made since our last visits: the sculpture garden on the first floor with the modern decorative arts balcony overlooking it and old favorites like the Temple of Dendur, Arms and Armor (one is never too old), Japanese art, and the Martin guitar exhibit.
All told, we spent about two hours browsing leisurely, without any particular agenda.
My trips to museums are so infrequent that I seldom go just for specific exhibitions. When I see them advertised in the paper or elsewhere, I tend to either write them off as something I will probably not have the time for, or, if it’s something that really interests me, I will think about it a little harder, tell myself I “really should go,” maybe make a vague plan to do so, and then ultimately miss it when a better social offer presents itself at the last minute.
My friend, who has a lot more free time and substantially more disposable income than I do, actually does make it to a number of museums and galleries around the city. He is my age, a native New Yorker, and has a keen interest in art, culture and music, pretty similar to me. But this marked disparity in available free time and income seems to make all the difference.
My experience at the Met was great. Soul-replenishing in the way that trips to museums and galleries always have been for me. Will I make another museum trip soon? I sincerely hope so. But will I part with a precious $20 or even $15 to do so? Mmm … well that all depends.
Here’s the critical question for those of you in the museum world: Will you make it worth my while?
Allow me to generalize for my age group and marketing segment: Will you offer me live music? Cocktails and snacks? The opportunity to socialize with others my age? How far are you away from me and how easy is it to get there? Will you give me a discount if I come with a friend? Or better yet, just keep admission between $10 and free and I’m sold.
Here’s the critical question for those of you in the museum world: Will you make it worth my while? And how?
Am I worth it?
My time and my money are scarce at this stage of my life. Make it worth my while and maybe I will reward you greatly when I have more of them. I’ll even bring the kids.
The bottom line is, right now I’m not in a position to give and attend in the way that your older, more established core audience and donors do. However, it may be in your best interest to treat me and my peer group like a long term investment.
I recently interviewed someone for one of our museum clients, asking about her favorite museums in the community (a major metropolitan downtown district) in an attempt to find out what they were providing for her that our client did not seem to have. She fell into the category of “active empty nester,” having plenty of free time, enough money, and a desire to be out and about exploring her city and all of its offers.
Why not? Well, largely because she has no previous connection with them.
The museums she cited as her favorites, the ones she returned to frequently over the course of many years, were those she had established a firm connection with before starting a family, and, interestingly, even before she was on firm financial ground.
She fondly recalled afternoons spent at small concerts within their grounds, walking there from work and leisurely browsing the collections, spending time there by herself and with friends—time she would later spend on her children, husband and managing a household while virtually unavailable to museums and other cultural institutions.
For a time, visits to such destinations that she’d forged a connection with in her twenties were pretty much ruled out … radio silence. However, when her kids had all gone off to school, she “resurfaced,” having regained the time and ability to choose her activities “selfishly.” Now, she is able to regularly attend the museums, galleries and other institutions of her choosing. She is not, however, visiting our client’s institution. Why not? Well, largely because she has no previous connection with them.
Are you “grue”?
In college and graduate school I studied philosophy. In philosophy, we like to talk about the connection between words, concepts and associations. Say the word “green” and I will associate it with many-toned leaves, summer and spring, being outside, environmental conservation. “Blue” brings up images of the ocean, reflective lakes by snowcapped mountains, clear summer skies with puffy white clouds. “Grue” and I have no idea what you’re talking about.
Our client’s museum is so much like “grue” to this empty nester.
Our client’s museum is so much like “grue” to this empty nester. She has no negative or positive associations with it. And though she may already have a pre-established tendency to like green and blue, grue is just not on her radar.
The opportunity for our client to cement a connection with this particular persona has passed. Going after her now will cost them a sizeable portion of their marketing budget that simply cannot be sacrificed on someone who has already made her choice about which other similar institutions she prefers.
For me this is telling: turn your attention to those who have not yet started families (which for many kinds of institutions will effectively take them out of the visitor pool) and your institution can reap the benefits later.
Millennials and museums
It’s not enough to rely on the “intrinsic awesomeness” of your collections. If I don’t know about them, they don’t exist. In fact, even if I do know about them, that’s probably not enough to get me to come. Where do my priorities lie? Well, I’m trying to save money, I like to socialize and blow off steam with my friends—we like concerts and cocktails, seeing art and going dancing.
So, what can you offer me?
Make me an offer that guarantees a good time at a reasonable price and I’ll gladly come. Then when my kids are off at college I’ll remember you, and when I have more free time and financial resources I will spend some of them on you.
When it comes to strategic marketing in the museum world, this “rubber band effect” is stronger than many may realize. The prospect of targeting millennials today may invite a reaction along the lines of “why waste the effort?” We do not seem able to offer you much. But you may reap the rewards down the road when I remember the fun I had at your mixers and concerts. One day I will bring my family back to visit your collections, and when my kids are grown up and my time is my own again, I will make a point to visit my favorite wing and bring friends and relatives.
Believe it or not, one of your worst customers today may turn out to be one of your best tomorrow.
Invest in us, and it will not go unnoticed. Believe it or not, one of your worst customers today may turn out to be one of your best tomorrow.