Making the case for marketing

In an era of budget cuts and constraints, marketing is often one of the first areas to feel the pinch. Yet, as marketing and audience development consultant Christina Lister explains, used strategically it can provide the vital bridge between museums and their audiences.

Often a misunderstood and maligned field, marketing can be seen as a dark art made up off-putting jargon, and an overwhelming, ever-changing digital landscape to keep up with. The term may also (wrongly) be used interchangeably with ‘promotion’ – marketing can be seen as something to be tacked on at the end of a process, once plans for a new exhibition or programme have been rolled out. And if that exhibition or programme isn’t a success? Then that promotion is often seen as the issue.

Some museums can be hesitant to request adequate sums for marketing in funding applications, fearing that funders will be reluctant to pay and that the ‘build it and they will come’ mantra will suffice.

The stark reality is that there is vast competition for the public’s attention, time and money from other cultural and heritage organisations, attractions and days out; an ever-growing range of digital experiences; as well as other personal and work commitments and pressures. Added to this, a range of barriers still exist for many people, preventing them from visiting and engaging with museums – these will not just be overcome by a bit of promotion such as a Facebook post or a flyer.

I view marketing as a vital way to build mutually beneficial relationships that provide something that both audiences and museums value. Museums get audiences’ time, attention, money, support and input, and in return audiences get to learn something and have an enjoyable experience and so on.

For this to happen, museums need to understand who their existing and potential audiences are – their needs, preferences, behaviours, and crucially, their barriers – and segment them to allow tailored approaches to each group.

Museums also need to understand the competitive environment they operate in and how they can position themselves to stand out in a crowded marketplace.

And ultimately, museums must provide a compelling and relevant offer (a service and/or ‘product’) that their identified current and target audiences will want and value, at the right price, place and time. Is the potential reward to audiences from a museum visit or interaction enough for them to overcome potential hurdles, hassle and risks they would face in doing so?

Done well, marketing can help museums to develop lasting relationships with audiences and ultimately drive visits, participation, donations, sales, as well as cement new partnerships and entice strong job applicants.

But effective marketing doesn’t just happen automatically or overnight.

Having a clear purpose, mission and vision is a good starting point. It requires a plan with a clear direction and goals; an investment of time and ideally some – but not necessarily a vast – budget; and a sustained effort.

Making decisions based on insights drawn from data and research takes a lot of guesswork and subjectivity out of the equation, whilst monitoring and evaluation mean that approaches and activities can be finetuned and improved.

The Covid-19 pandemic has created both enormous challenges and opportunities for museums’ marketing. So many museums have adapted creatively and with agility, and whilst the focus has had to be short-term due to ever-changing circumstances, I hope that attention can now shift to longer term thinking and planning to enable strategic marketing to support museums’ recovery, and evolution.

Want to find out more?

Christina Lister is hosting a Hallmarks at Home on 23 February 2022. Reinvigorating and planning your marketing for 2022 is exclusively for AIM members but is free to attend. Click here to book your place for this event>>

Christina is the author of AIM’s Success Guide: Successful Marketing for Museums. Click here to read the Success Guide>>

Click here to visit Christina’s website>>