Hiring a Museum Marketing Agency: 7 Tips

You’ve been thinking about how much more you can accomplish with a marketing agency. Your team has laid the groundwork, but you need outside experts to really hit the accelerator the way you want to — and you’ve finally got some extra money to do it.

But who do you hire? Choosing a marketing agency to work with your museum is a big step, and it’s difficult to know what to expect at the outset.

That’s why we’ve put together 7 tips for finding the right marketing agency for your museum.

Collage of a marble sculpture from a museum, graph lines, and colorful circles

How Do Museums Use Marketing Agencies?

Chances are your museum already has branding, public relations, donor drives, basic advertising — you couldn’t live without them. The goal with a marketing agency is to accelerate and refine those efforts and to supplement your internal marketing with specialized work that’s too technical or time-consuming to do in-house.

You’ve got a functional website, but you need a great one. You get some traffic online, but you need SEO optimization. You have a healthy donor base, but you need the kind of growing, dependable support that will let you build out your institution. You’ve advertised online but you need stronger messaging and a better ROI.

7 Tips for Hiring a Museum Marketing Agency

That’s where an agency comes in. Here are 7 tips for picking the right one.

1. Decide on your museum marketing goals

At the outset of any project, it’s important to begin with a clear sense of exactly what you want to accomplish. Maybe you’re looking to drive a set number of new visitors to your institution — decide exactly how many and how you’ll measure success. Are you looking to increase the average daily number of admissions? Maybe there’s something strongly seasonal about attendance at your museum and the goal is a total number by the end of the month or the quarter.

Maybe your goals are less focused on admissions and they’re more centered on attracting new donors — or better yet, retaining donors and encouraging previous one-time contributors to become regular supporters.

Perhaps the major hurdle for your organization is spreading broad awareness of your museum. You’ve been around for a while but you haven’t managed to move past a certain niche audience.

Or maybe you just have specific tech needs. Perhaps your website needs an overhaul or you want to migrate to a more powerful CRM like HubSpot.

Whatever it is your organization is looking to accomplish — it doesn’t have to be just one thing — your goals should be specific, measurable, and achievable. The more clear-headed you are at the outset about what you need, the more clearly you’ll be able to communicate those goals with the marketing agency you consider.

2. Start your search with referrals

You might be tempted to start with a Google search. We live in an online age where it’s second nature for us to take any new question to a search engine moments after it’s sprung to mind.

But in this arena, word of mouth and direct referrals from colleagues, friends, and other organizations is still your best bet. Ask your colleagues in the industry. Check with other museum professionals on a listserv, LinkedIn, or professional Facebook group.

Search engine results are going to be difficult to sift through at this early stage and Google reviews aren’t very reliable for this category. If you do turn to searching online, directories like Clutch actually interview agency clients and present more objective reviews with that information.

3. Research typical marketing costs for museums

This is where the rubber meets the road. How much money do you have to work with and what should you expect from the budget you have? To find out the answer to that second question, you should start researching how much money your peer institutions put into marketing.

Obviously, your budget will depend on a variety of factors, one of the biggest of which is the size of your organization. Most mid-sized museums spend about 2% of their total budget on marketing. But for optimal growth, cultural institutions should spend about 12.5% of their earned revenue on bringing people in.

4. Ask for case studies

Case studies are an important source of concrete information about what an agency can do and what you can expect. Any good marketing agency will be ready to provide you with instances of the work they’ve done for organizations like yours. Hopefully, you’ll be able to see some of your marketing goals reflected in what they’ve accomplished — it’s also a good way to get a sense of the scale and scope of their work and of the institutions they’ve partnered with.

I’ll go ahead and say it: here at Big Sea we love showing off what we do with case studies. Everything from

Whatever agency you’re considering, ask them for studies that demonstrate they have experience helping organizations like yours meet their marketing objectives.

5. Catalog previous marketing efforts that attracted donors

You’ve determined what you want to accomplish with a marketing agency, but you don’t know yet what particular strategy is going to accomplish those ends. One good place to begin tackling that question as you communicate with a prospective agency is by taking stock of your previous marketing efforts.

What’s worked for you in the past? Maybe you ran print advertisements in local newspapers to draw new visitors. Maybe you’ve worked to build an active and reliable email list that you can count on for steady donations. Maybe you’ve dabbled in search engine marketing before but it was difficult to assess the results.

The whole reason you’re looking for a marketing agency is to find new ways to promote your institution, but one way or the other, what path you take in the future will be shaped by what you’ve already done — if only because you might have some parts of your marketing already optimized and it’s time to branch into others.

A good agency will show how to put the results you’ve already achieved to work in new campaigns. You might be sitting on a wealth of great information about your target audience that will help you target new donors on social media. Or perhaps you’ve learned enough about how you get foot traffic that a few well-placed billboards or ads on public transportation will do the trick.

6. Ask about project planning and management

Once you’ve narrowed your search down to a few possible agencies, you should start asking them about their approach to planning and managing client projects. How often will you communicate with them and through which channels? How do they structure their timeline for deliverables? How do they handle ad-hoc work requests? Who will be your point of contact at the agency and how often can you expect to hear from them?

Ask to meet the team that’ll be servicing your account. The more you understand the day-to-day details ahead of time, the better you’ll be able to assess your compatibility with the agency and their approach. Some of it comes down to gut — but a lot of it comes down to technical details.

7. Get a clear estimate and scope of work

When you’re reviewing a marketing agency’s proposal, you should look for clear descriptions of the work they’ll perform, or, at least, of their process for determining the scope of work once you’ve begun. Be wary of organizations that promise too much, and look for concrete pricing information.

Whatever agency you choose, they won’t know the exact list of all the deliverables until after their research phase, but they should be able to provide you with comparable scope of work proposals they’ve created for other clients with similar goals and similar budgets.

Museum Marketing Agency FAQs

Unless you work at the Museum of Ice Cream, most museums usually have to fight the idea that by nature they’re a little stuffy or buttoned up. Which is one reason many museums have turned toward partly interactive exhibits — particularly ones that embrace smartphone culture and social media — to draw new visitors. These exhibits not only engage people in person; they get people posting their experiences online, and that provides invaluable earned media exposure.

Podcasts are also a popular trend for museums. They’re relatively inexpensive to produce, and you already have access to a team of subject matter experts with interesting stories to tell. With a podcast, you can cultivate a new audience for your museum and promote new exhibits throughout the year.

What services do museum marketing agencies offer?

It depends on the agency. Here at Big Sea we offer a range of mostly (but not exclusively) digital marketing services, such as web design and development, paid media advertising, email automation, and SEO-optimized content marketing. Look for an agency that specializes in services where you have the most need and the least expertise.

What are the benefits of rebranding my museum?

Depending on the scope, rebranding your museum can be a significant undertaking. Formulating new messaging, designing a new logo, setting new style guides: these all take time and investment and are time-consuming to implement, especially when you’re dealing with physical objects in your museum and not just digital space.

That said, rebranding is a chance to fundamentally re-shape the way new visitors think about you when they first make contact. We pick up all sorts of subtle cues not just from names and taglines but from the fonts and colors we see and associate with an institution. Rebranding lets you sculpt those associations from the ground up to make sure your messaging is consistent.

Not All Museum Marketing Agencies are Alike — Find the Right One

No one’s ever going to understand your institution as well as you do. But with the right museum marketing agency, you’ll have an expert partner with the depth of industry experience to know where to begin and the receptive nuance to grasp the particulars of your organization and deliver on your goals. Schedule a call with us to tell us what you need.