Increasing Visitors and Donations in the Shadow of the Great New York Museums (Case Study)

Back in the fall of 2003, when Mark Albin, Newark Museum deputy director of marketing and public relations, started his new job, he faced what seemed like an overwhelming challenge.

The Challenge – Low Numbers All Around

Museum visitors were few and far between to this incredible art and science resource with a planetarium, a restored 19th-century mansion, representative works of American art, historical galleries and much more.

But low visitation wasn’t the only issue. The low number of visitors capped funding (many funders gauge gifts on visitation, among other factors; and most major donors evolve from the visitor base) and, ultimately, the Museum’s impact.

A tough a way for a new staff member to start off, despite his marketing expertise.

The Strategy: Shaping the Marketing Response to Audience Perceptions

Albin, who has spearheaded a host of museum marketing efforts from Liberty Science Center to the USS Intrepid, didn’t know off hand how to boost numbers. But he knew audience research was the way to find out. “We needed to know why folks who weren’t coming to the museum weren’t coming; or what visitors liked about it,” says Albin.

After all, the Museum hadn’t talked to its audiences for a decade or more. And the last decade was one in which Newark has evolved to a generally safer, cleaner and culturally-prolific place (especially with performance venue New Jersey Performing Arts Center/NJPAC), and the Museum had expanded as well.

After some initial brand discovery work with Museum colleagues, during which Albin took their pulse on how they perceived their own areas of work and the Museum overall, he turned to external audiences. Albin launched a full-scale getting-to-know-you campaign, including focus groups, onsite surveying and phone interviews. “We got in touch with target audiences. culture consumers within the five-county/30-mile area the Museum focuses on, including those who knew the museum and those who didn’t,” he recalls.

These phone interviews, in combination with focus groups implemented for various audience segments – museum members, family visitors, and families and individuals who had never visited the museum – generated some very useful findings.

Members and others who had visited the Museum were very positive about their experiences. But they cautioned Museum staff against increasing visitation too much. These supporters were invested in keeping a good secret to themselves, to a certain degree.

Prospective visitors (who had never been to the Museum) had absolutely no idea what collections and events the Museum featured. Most (88%) had heard of the museum, but 90% of those who knew of it mistakenly believed it featured the history of Newark or Newark artists. Of equal concern was the fact that these prospects thought the Museum had only one to three galleries (there are 80) and didn’t know where the Museum was, although most had been to NJPAC, just blocks away.

The Solution: Clearer Messaging, Broader Outreach and an Energized Core of Staff Brand Evangelists

“We knew that establishing a clearer understanding of what the Newark Museum offers was the first step to increasing visitation,” says Albin. “But that in itself was a tall order.”

After all, how do you clearly, succinctly and broadly convey the value a diverse cultural institution provides to its varied audiences. Albin knew that the right tagline was the place to start, as those few memorable words would be the core of the campaign he would role out to engage neighbors in the five counties.

Tagline creation is among the most challenging of marketing endeavors, because you have so little (less than 12 words is a must, six or less ideal). But writing shorter is always harder – just ask any short story writer.

Albin narrowed his focus to two essential points: The Museum’s many and varied galleries, and its collections and exhibits in art (offering inspiration) *and* science (offering exploration). This pithy and descriptive, yet intriguing, tagline was the powerful result of all this hard work:

80 Galleries of Inspiration & Exploration

The Museum’s graphic identity was tweaked to convey modernity, activity and excitement with a new palette of colors and typefaces to be used consistently throughout online and print campaigns. However, Albin left the logo – an urn developed by architect Michael Graves who designed a major addition to the museum in 1990 – untouched. He resisted the impulse to complete the graphic switch at this time, looking forward to the 2009 centennial which will be heralded by all-new iconography.

Nice restraint, Newark Museum team. It’s never a good idea to change logos twice in five years.

What Albin and his team faced next was choosing the right strategy to get the word out to NJ culture vultures. Since the initial marketing goals were building awareness and visitation, and targets lived in five surrounding counties, broadcast marketing (reaching everyone in a certain geographic area, rather than targeting specific groups within those areas) was the way to go.

Moving forward quite boldly, as the need for investment in marketing was inarguable, the Museum rolled out its campaign via:

  • Billboards on area highways
  • Frequent radio ads
  • Full-page ads in local newspapers such as the Newark Star-Ledger.

The third leg of the Museum’s branding stool was Albin’s training of colleagues in what visitors needed to know, and how to talk about the range and depth of collections and programming in the arts and science arenas. “Since we had engaged them in the branding process right up front, my colleagues were eager to integrate the new Museum messaging into their daily conversations with colleagues and museum visitors,” says Albin.

Results: Museum Visitors at All-Time High

The Newark Museum hasn’t tested tagline recognition, but visitation figures confirm the success of the new look and tagline. The Museum is headed into a third straight year of double-digit percentage increases in attendance. Some shows are generating even bigger gains: The 2006 Spring exhibit generated 112% higher attendance than that the previous year. An increase in giving is sure to follow.

Albin says the Museum brings 300,000 people into downtown Newark each year, which makes the Museum a great partner for NJPAC.

Museum staff members are pleased with the Museum’s new identity, and now find it much easier to succinctly convey an understanding of where they work. Win-win, Mr. Albin.

Next Steps: Promoting Permanent Exhibits, Enhancing Understanding of Museum Offerings and Engaging Niche Audiences in More Active Involvement

A marketer’s job is never done. So Mark Albin is hard at work on next steps, and ramping up for the 2009 centennial.

He’s working on:

  • Motivating niche audiences to get to know the Museum. Mr. Albin hopes a new photographic and video show called “India: Public Places, Private Spaces” will attract the Indian populations of Middesex and Morris counties.
  • Engaging specific audiences to become more active. From my own personal experience, family members receive countless mailings from the Museum inviting us to kids activities, special events (which are indeed special) and Museum-sponsored vacations. We definitely participate in many more of the family activities than we would if the mailings didn’t keep the Museum top of mind. I couldn’t forget the Museum, even if I wanted to.
  • Going beyond the tagline to effectively promote the Museum’s permanent collections.

The Museum has some incredible holdings, including an extraordinary collection of Tibetan art. But not surprisingly, permanent collections just don’t get the same level of attention as the special exhibits. Albin is striving to change that via a campaign consistent with the new brand.

But the strongest sign of the Museum’s marketing success is its continued focus on audience research. Albin implemented major visitor studies in fall 2006 and spring 2007. Those findings are complemented by visitor surveys that have been distributed almost every time I visit the museum, where respondents are motivated to participate by the lure of great prizes.

Take a cue from Mark Albin’s focus on audience research as the key to effective marketing. Its enabled the Newark Museum to increase visitors and giving in just a couple of years. Imagine how the strategy can grow your organization’s marketing impact.