Sometimes, you have no choice but to innovate. 

For decades, museums, aquariums, and other attractions have relied on the in-person experience to ‘sell’ their product to potential visitors. Then, everything changed. As the world began to lock down physical attractions to encourage social distancing and stem the spread of COVID-19, an entire industry found itself scrambling for solutions.

Illustration of parent and child looking at art in a museum.The result? Museums, zoos, and other exhibit-based attractions are getting creative. Social media videos of penguins exploring “their” aquarium are going viral. Virtual tours are everywhere. Cultural heritage becomes an all-encompassing digital event.

Right now, creativity is necessary. Museums and other, similar attractions are struggling in the face of this unprecedented situation. Many are facing significant budget cuts. At the same time, that struggle could become a significant opportunity.

That’s because the transition to digital doesn’t have to be temporary. Even as life slowly begins to return to normal, lessons learned now could lead to learnings that go far beyond just trying to stay afloat during a pandemic.

Below are just a few of the many ways in which museums, aquariums, and other attractions are transitioning to digital, and how those transitions can be made to last—to the long-term benefit of the attraction.

4 Digital Strategies to Elevate Museums in the Current Crisis 

1. New and Innovative Social Media Tactics

For many attractions, social media has been the first and most important go-to option during this crisis. It’s helped engage and build a follower base that would have otherwise become visitors, keeping them interested until the museum can finally open again.

Over the last 45 days, there a few tactics that are particularly engaging and innovative:

  • Attractions across the country have jumped on #MuseumFromHome, where they share their exhibits, ask thought-provoking questions, and build live virtual tours.
  • Some museums are beginning to solicit audiences for user-generated content, like the “Getty Museum Challenge.” The J. Paul Getty Museum, among others, are asking their followers to recreate art from their collections at home. The result? People post using the hashtag and the museums, in turn, get great user-generated content that highlights their exhibits and collections. 
  • Zoom is taking over the business and personal world. Virtual backgrounds can bring your attraction directly to those living rooms and home offices.

It’s not difficult to see these concepts expand and continue to be effective once life begins to return to normal. The expansion of social media content now has led to plenty of content ideas that can keep social media channels fresh and engaging to audiences trying to decide what attraction to visit.

2. Building and Expanding the Virtual Tour Concept

You’ve heard about the virtual tour. Prepare for the virtual tour, but cute. One helps you prepare potential visitors for their trip. The other lets even people who’ve never heard about your attraction know you’re there. Those images and videos of the exhibits themselves? They just naturally fit in.

For example, what happens when you unleash a bunch of kittens on your aquarium when no visitors are there? Hundreds of thousands of viewers could not wait to find out. When Georgia Aquarium unleashed kittens on its hallways and exhibits, it got countless social media impressions and views along with local, regional, and national news coverage.

Other attractions, like the penguins mentioned above, have followed suit. And the good news is that none of this has to go away. Puppies, kittens, and other animals won’t stop being cute. A cat-led tour through the attraction will always gain eyeballs and further increase your social media engagement.

3. Live Cams and Other Virtual Events to Showcase the Space and Exhibits

Mote Marine, a nonprofit aquarium and research organization in Florida, has fully embraced the situation:

  • In late March, it hosted a #HappyOtter happy hour with a live feed of its otters swimming around, perfect for that late afternoon beverage. 
  • One of the organization’s scientists, Dr. Tracy Fanara, is helping children of all ages perform simple science experiments at home.
  • Shark-feeding videos let audiences get a behind-the-scenes look at the aquarium and ask questions about those majestic sea creatures.

Zoos and exhibits around the world are following similar ideas to take their events virtual. Few are better than the Petersen Automobile Museum’s live streams, where kids can learn how to make a balloon car or create their own license plate. 

In most cases, these live virtual events are direct responses to not being able to perform the same workshop or feeding in person. But, that doesn’t have to be the case. Petersen, for instance, has been running its educational model for almost a year and attracted more than 25,000 virtual visitors. That shows the value and benefit of going digital, regardless of the situation.

4. Educational Opportunities for Learners of All Ages

Museums and zoos know about the importance of education as part of their mission. As a result, many of them have taken their educational experience online.

Take The James Museum as an example. Its exhibits are now digital, allowing viewers to learn more about the works as well as their larger context. Each week focuses on a different theme, while movies and other media are suggested as companion pieces.

Other attractions have followed suit. The Children’s Museum of Houston, for instance, has a new virtual learning center that can easily be integrated into the daily life of stressed parents keeping their at-home children at bay.

None of that has to be temporary. With school budgets anticipating major cuts throughout the nation, virtual educational experiences will become major focal points in classrooms for all ages. That virtual engineering workshop may not quite replace the field trip to the Children’s Museum, but it does come close.

The Benefits of Building a Long-Term Digital Museum Strategy

There are so many examples of virtual creativity. Keep digging, and you will keep finding more. As creativity has become a necessity, creative institutions have outdone themselves in attracting audiences and engaging them through online formats.

That creativity does not have to go away anytime soon. Consider the significant benefits of building your digital strategy in a long-term, sustainable fashion.

1. Counteract Existing Cultural Trends

The current pandemic has brought visitor streams, the lifeblood of most attractions like museums and aquariums, to a standstill. But it’s not necessarily a reversal of recent trends. 

Museum attendance has been in decline for decades, and the same has been true for most zoos. Audiences are more distracted by other, more ‘exciting’ alternatives while many simply choose to stay home. Digital lessons learned during the Coronavirus may well play a major role in beginning to reverse that trend.

Millennials and Gen Z are the least likely age groups to visit museums, finding many experiences irrelevant for them. They also happen to be the age groups most likely to retweet penguins waddling through an aquarium or participate in virtual learning experiences.

The lesson: they’re not opposed to the concept, but look to be engaged differently. Building creative digital strategies will help to keep them engaged, even as the in-person experience begins to become an option again.

2. Stand Out from the Competition

We’ve highlighted quite a few examples of creative virtual marketing and engagement strategies in this article. In truth, though, many attractions have not been able to transition as smoothly. A slight update to the web or a few more tweets per week may be all they’ve done to optimize their marketing presence.

That, in turn, provides a major opportunity for attractions who are making those types of comprehensive digital shifts. They now have a significant advantage over their competition for audience attention, and that advantage is unlikely to go away anytime soon.

Consider the scenario in which a strong digital experience is paired with the returning in-person experience. Combining the two will make your attraction seem more comprehensive, and attract more audiences, than your competition focusing only on one side of the equation. That alone makes building out your digital experiences worth the effort.

3. Enhance Your Physical Visit Experience

Speaking of which: while virtual visits and other digital events are great opportunities now because they’re the only option, they can remain effective even while in-person experiences return. Higher education, another largely non-profit industry reinventing itself due to the current pandemic, has long realized this duality.

Colleges and universities effectively promote their virtual tours, even as they drive to campus visits and enrollments. The virtual tour is more snackable, providing some preliminary information necessary to make the larger and more consequential decision.

On a micro level, the same is true for museums, zoos, and aquariums. A strong virtual tour, or a viral video, does nothing to take away from the actual visit. In higher education, they actually make the physical visit more likely. A continued, strong digital strategy with fun and engaging content, whether it’s education or simply informational, can have the same effect.

4. Make the Case for the In-Person Visit

That, of course, brings us to the last point. Put simply, the right digital strategy makes the perfect case for an in-person visit (once it’s possible again, of course).

Take the educational experiences mentioned above as an example. A parent or teacher may go through them with their child, learning about specific animals. How much cooler would it be if next up on the agenda was a visit to the zoo or aquarium to actually check out that animal? How could a virtual workshop hosted by the children’s museum lead to a physical, communal experience with other children?

Built right, these virtual experiences are the perfect argument to make the visit. They show, not tell, why checking out your attraction in person is so beneficial. You never even have to tell your audience that it’s the right thing to do because they’ll intuitively know it.

After the Content Comes the Promotion: Getting the Word Out About Virtual Museum Content

The creativity brought out by the pandemic, coupled with the long-term benefits of building these creative strategies, can lead to immensely effective content that shows your attraction in the best possible light and engages your audience.

Still, you have to work hard to actually get in front of your audience. Not everyone is lucky enough to let some kittens loose and get thousands of retweets and tens of thousands of likes. More likely than not, you need a comprehensive marketing strategy designed to get eyeballs and audience attention.

In other words, you need to get the word out. Exactly how you do that should not be a surprise: this is where your marketing channels come into play.

Digital marketing for museums and other attractions is complex. It includes a couple of core parts that you can never forget about:

  • Understand and be able to communicate the value of marketing, particularly if you have to invest resources into your strategy and execution during budget-strapped times.
  • Build your target audience, which includes both understanding who that audience is and finding different ways to define it through demographics and interests/desires.
  • Focus on the right digital channels, defined not by hunches or your own preferences but those of your audience. Even if you prefer Twitter, your audience may be in love with Instagram. Follow them instead of making them find you.
  • Create creative, visual, attention-grabbing content. That’s what the rest of this guide has been about, but it does need to meet your audience’s needs and expectations.
  • Run targeted, focused digital ads that ‘close the deal’ by driving your audience to the virtual events you need them to experience.
  • Continually measure your ROI to understand which of your tactics are working and why. That helps you make improvements over time and build a better marketing campaign in the long run.

COVID-19 has forced museums and other attractions to get creative, but that creativity doesn’t have to go away once business goes back to normal. In fact, the strong emphasis on digital channels is a significant opportunity for both short- and long-term marketing initiatives.

The good news: you don’t have to build it on your own. In fact, a few of the examples we shared above have been some of our own clients!  Work with us to transition your communication to digital channels during this difficult time, along with building a comprehensive marketing strategy to promote and optimize that content.