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Museum Marketing for Non-Marketers

Museum marketing

Marketing is a big term. What is marketing in the context of a public-facing institution like a museum? What is museum marketing when you do not have a large or consistent budget for it or even a dedicated marketing department?

For some institutions, marketing is “the M word”—that means nothing good—and given the practices of some commercial marketers, marketing is not always easy to defend. But it’s also true that if you are bringing value to the world or your community, not to market is a crime.

Bronx Museum Marketing

Marketing is not about selling stuff to people that they don’t really need. It is not about creating demand or changing people’s views. It’s about communicating the unique and valuable offers that you have to those who are ready to listen. Essentially, it’s about letting your existing and potential audiences know what great things you are up to.

It’s very important to remember that, for the most part, marketing never convinces anybody of anything.

What marketing really does is connect a consumer (customer) who is ready to buy with a product that is suited to his or her needs. That’s all. So it’s really about communication.

Marketing is about communicating what you offer in a way that your audience will appreciate and understand.

You have products: your exhibits, memberships, public programs. Your customers have needs: to see an interesting exhibit, to be part of something, to have their children learn about something.

You already have what your customers need. They just don’t know about it yet. This is the role of marketing and advertising—effectively letting them know what you are doing and doing this in as engaging a way as possible.

To get you thinking about this a bit, here are some thoughts on marketing gleaned from over two decades of doing the devil’s business for organizations seeking to do good in the world:


14 essentials of museum marketing

Updated January 29, 2019

I have updated this list of recommendations to help you become a more effective museum marketer. Think these through to your particular situation and they will force adjustments to how you market your museum. Someone might even thank you for doing that.

  1. Know your audience. In marketing terms, know your customer. Know the customer that you actually have, those who know and like you. By ‘know them’ I am not talking about their demographics and zip codes, although that’s important. What do they care about? What are they buying when they give you something you want like a visit, a membership, or a donation? I’m using the word “buy” because we are talking about a transaction, even if you offer free admission. Be careful to distinguish this existing audience from the audience that you would like to have. More on this in #6 below.
  2. Understand and step into your role as a marketer.
    • As a marketer, be clear on what marketing is. It’s not just promotion. At its highest level, it is customer understanding applied. This has far-reaching implications for a marketer. It means, for example, that you need to have a lot of close collaborators in your organization, including visitor services, web content, development, membership, programs, and curatorial. All of these disciplines are windows to your customer and you need all the insights they can give you.
    • What is your contribution as a marketer? One is to synthesize all this into an actionable communication strategy and another is to fight for the customer in the “decision room.” You, as the marketer, are responsible to make sure that all the other working arms of your organization are not getting so steeped in their own juices that they make customer needs an afterthought.
  3. Once you know who your customers are, think about everything you are doing and saying from THEIR perspective.
    • Your marketing conversation is with your customers. You need to make sure your message is something they can hear. It is all too easy to focus just on what you want to say or what you are being asked to communicate and forget that if you are not touching on an existing interest or recognized need, you might as well be yelling into the wind.
    • If you find representing the customer’s perspective difficult, develop target personas for all your key customer targets and make sure your team is using them and others are aware of them as well. You might go as far as to make a large cardboard model of the customer and walk her into meetings when needed.

  4. You cannot educate through marketing. Sure, you can surprise and educate a visitor or program participant once you have them in the door, but no amount of marketing is going to make something interesting if the prospect is not actually interested. The museum experience can and should educate; marketing needs to work with what’s already there in your customer’s mind. (See #3 on knowing your customer above.)
  5. You cannot be for everyone. The best marketing is extremely targeted. You cannot win by fuzzing things enough to appeal to everyone. Fuzzy targeting usually means it will go unnoticed. Most marketing dollars are wasted for this reason. It’s important not to delude yourself into thinking that museums are a mass market product that everyone loves. You have to earn attention from a customer. The price of that attention is relevance for them in particular. Every marketer knows the platitude that if you appeal to everyone you get no one, but it’s much harder to act in accordance with this principal’s ultimate consequences. As a museum with a modest marketing budget, you are going to have the greatest impact if you can activate an enthusiastic micro-target via their pre-existing passion for whatever it is. While PR can target broadly, marketing is far more effective if it does not. The key, therefore, is target selection. Again, know your customer and this will differ on a product by product basis. So the targeting per exhibition, for example, will vary.
  6. Seek to attract new audiences judiciously. The innate attraction of bringing in customers outside of your natural core (described in #1 above) is undeniable. It’s naturally part of nearly any growth strategy. There are a collection of questions worth asking when making the attempt to pull in a new audience. Here is a partial list:
    • Determine if the effort will undermine your core brand promise. Are you going to have to bend out of shape to satisfy this new group that the brand will suffer as a consequence? Imagine this effort gets more PR than you ever got when doing what you want to be known for—are you okay with that? Does this help you in the long run?
    • Will this be a one-off and never again? How will you continue to have something of value for this prospective group going forward?
    • Are you guessing what this new group cares about or have you really done your homework? It’s often easy to think you know what a new customer cares about, but unless you’ve done the research, you are probably wrong or partially wrong.
    • The corollary for the above: Do you have the right product to deeply satisfy this proposed target? Are representatives of the intended target represented in the decision room? Are they involved in the creation of the product? This is a crucial point and reaches beyond marketing responsibility.
    • Does everyone understand what you are doing? Again, this is about interdepartmental coordination. If you have a marketing strategy that is not business as usual, you need to share this with everyone else involved so that they, too, can plan accordingly. This should be done regardless of the fact that if marketing fails and the prospective target does not materialize, then the failure will be obvious. This is the price of learning. The price is worth it.
    • Generally, the effort to bring in new audiences is substantially greater than the effort required for your natural core. Assume double or triple the effort, so if this is not reflected in the budget for example, you may want to raise a red flag.
  7. Recognize that all other public-facing institutions in your community are both collaborators and competitors. Work with them as much as possible since all ships do rise with the tide, but also recognize that you need to occupy a unique space in the minds of your customers. You must carefully differentiate your offers from theirs. This is doubly true when you are not the dominant player. There are very few instances when “me too” is a good position. Strike out on your own and stake out a territory that you can own completely.
  8. Do whatever you can to involve the community or the community of interest surrounding the project you are marketing. Your enthusiastic fans will do a lot to supplement your marketing efforts if you can recruit them. Ask them what they want and give it to them. Do not delude yourself: word-of-mouth is an astoundingly powerful force at the heart of marketing success.
  9. Be extra kind, generous, and inquisitive locally. Local activities enrich and nurture goodwill. Unless you are a virtual museum, your local community is likely to always be the greatest source of support and commitment you have. Never denigrate, snub, or skip your local community, no matter how green pastures may look elsewhere.
  10. Care about your museum’s product. You are hopefully never put in a position where you feel you are being asked to promote something that is not worthy of your museum’s brand. It is your responsibility to be interested in the product and to fully understand it. This is another reason why you want to be close collaborators with all the other departments of your museum. You need to trust them and they must trust you.
  11. Measure, measure, measure. Carefully evaluate all of your marketing efforts. Determine what has worked and what has not, and use this to learn. This sounds obvious, but this analysis is often skipped or given short shrift because everyone tends to be very busy or alternatively for fear of exposing failure. Set goals and predict performance so that you can see when things do work out as planned and be able to productively examine why.
  12. What you choose to measure is what you choose to have matter so choose the things you measure thoughtfully. This reality applies more broadly than marketing, of course, and it again underscores the need to actively collaborate across functions. The measurement work that you put into effect should interconnect the museum’s activities and help everyone understand what is contributing to success and failure.
  13. Try things you have never tried before. You should never stop learning and experimenting, as new ways to engage with people are always being devised. Allocate some of your budget to trying new approaches and keeping the ones that work. In the long run, the extra spending on experimentation and learning will save you money because the most effective methods of engaging with your best customers will shine through.
  14. Celebrate failure. Don’t hide from or bury failures. Failure is your best friend, because it is your greatest teacher. Look at what did not work and talk about it openly to try to fully understand what learning can be gleaned. The learning is almost never, “Let’s not do that again.” It should be “How can we do this better?” Was this a product problem, a marketing problem, a systems problem, an execution problem? There are at least nine types of failure and it’s important to remember that seven of them are undeniably praiseworthy rather than blameworthy. As a general rule, if you are not failing, you should be fired for professional incompetence.

This is really the beginning of museum marketing, and all of these have only come to me the hard way—I have failed my way into this knowledge. That said, it’s valuable knowledge given freely in the hope that you will use it to do a better job as a marketer and as a contributor to your museum’s capacity to live up to its mission.


The photograph for this article shows signage we did for the Bronx Museum of the Arts. This signage solved a tactical user-level interface problem that they had, and it contributed significantly to a subsequent doubling of museum attendance as noted in the New York Times.


Illustration for target personas created by Sage Einarsen for Tronvig Group

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