Attracting Millennials to Museums: Your Complete Marketing Guide

Liam McGarry

February 16, 2021

Attracting millennials to museums isn’t as hard as it might seem. It does require more than contrived Instagram photo opportunities and the offer of a craft beer (although this can definitely help; more on that later).

The elusive bracket of visitors born between roughly 1982 and 2000 are a key demographic for museums who want to be – and stay – relevant. They’re a varied, diverse group, 46% of which have children of their own. Millennials combined with Gen Z make up approximately 63% of Earth’s population in 2019. That’s a lot of potential visitors.

Tackling the millennial stereotype is a key part of unlocking their potential, but this has proven tricky for an industry that’s all about tradition.

One common misconception is that millennials aren’t interested in visiting museums. They are; they just want it in a more colorful outfit.

Another idea is that they are anti-social. While the Net Generation are often more attached to their smartphones than their vital organs, it actually means they’re more social and reachable than ever before.

The new breed of museum-goers are drawn to interactive learning and tactile experiences. They want to feel part of an exhibition and go away feeling both educated and entertained. Edutainment is key, and there’s endless opportunity to provide it. It’s a concept at the very heart of museum culture!

Millennials want to share experiences: with their friends, with their families, with the guy or girl they met on a dating app a few hours earlier. The trick to harnessing that social sensibility is providing an experience that millennials see as worthy of their time and energy.

While still a necessary pillar of the museum offering, traditional content like text-based displays, guided tours and audio guides can be as appealing as a trip to the dentist for millennials.

With these notions in mind, here are some creative marketing strategies for museums which can provide “easy” wins in the battle to attract millennials, with best practice examples from some forward-thinking venues.

1. Reconsider traditional opening hours

“If you’re basing your opening hours solely on tradition or on when your staff think you should open, it’s highly likely you’re missing a large part of your community.”

Carly Staughan, MuseumNext

When you’re making plans with a group of friends, how often is finding a time to suit everyone the biggest hurdle? Quite a lot, right? The same can be true for your audience.

As with any B2C business, the customer comes first. It’s about being representative of your community, and part of that is working to their hours, not yours.

This doesn’t mean unlocking the doors and leaving the janitor to explain the exhibits (although we’re sure Bert would do a mighty fine job). It’s about making your venue fully accessible in a world increasingly less dependent on a 9-5 workforce.

Provide for different audiences 

Take California’s Exploratorium as an example. This San Francisco science museum attracts more than 800,000 people each year, with a mission to create inquiry-based learning through interactive exhibits. Perfect for those inquisitive millennials.

However, their core audience is families. So how do they reach the scores of culture-hungry young professionals without kids that inhabit San Francisco?

“If your daytime hours are heavily attended by those with children in an almost 100% interactive museum, that experience can be overwhelming to adults without kids.”

Jason Davis, Director of Marketing at Exploratorium

Thursdays After Dark allows Exploratorium visitors to get lost in over 650 interactive exhibits surrounding perception, art, and science. It’s the same museum, minus the hordes of excited children.

Night-time visitors are treated to craft beers and locally sourced food, and encouraged to experience the museum’s world of wowing science. There are movie screenings and one-of-a-kind activities. There are interactive weekly workshops and guest speakers, delving into subjects ranging from cannabis to the sex lives of sea urchins.

If you’re asking: “What do randy echinoderms have to do with my museum?” Well, since launching in 2013, Thursdays After Dark has drawn over 75,000 visitors and regularly attracts between 2,000 and 4,000 people per event. A sizeable chunk of these visitors are millennials. It has also allowed the museum to build up a membership program, helping to cultivate customer relationships and increase return visits.

Create specialness and exclusivity

This is just one example of attracting millennials to museums with creative marketing strategies; there are plenty of ways you can bend time to make your venue more appealing.

Is an exhibition particularly popular? Extend the opening hours, like the V&A Museum did for its record breaking Alexander McQueen exhibition Savage Beauty in 2015. The all-night event was even more popular than the traditional opening hours. Who would have thought?

This ‘specialness’ is key for the Australian Museum in Sydney, whose Jurassic Lounge event has been a hit with the millennial crowd. The entire museum is open and hosts DJs, silent discos, vintage games and a choice of boozy beverages. The museum bills it as an “after-hours playground for adults”.

As successful as the events are (53.5% of attendees were aged 25-34, and 100% of those surveyed said they would return to Jurassic Lounge), understanding the millennial mindset is key.

“You might sell out every night, but it might lose its coolness. That’s also why we only do it in seasons, so it keeps it a special thing,” David Bock, the Australian Museum.

Millennials value exclusivity; opportunities that are not afforded often or to everyone are all-the-more appealing. Can you open an hour early for a small group of visitors, so they can explore near-empty halls and enjoy your treasures without peering between heads?

Many of the big hitters in the museum and attractions world don’t or won’t entertain the notion of altering their hours. Those who do are offering something different and exclusive – millennial buzzwords – while also putting the needs of their customers first.

How can you alter your opening times to appeal to different audiences?

2. Aim for millennials in your own backyard

“…to reach a millennial audience, what we decided to do was target the people in our own backyard, our local audience of millennials.”

Susan Evans McClure, Director, Smithsonian Food History Programs via MuseumNext

Whether you’re an internationally renowned institution or a provincial culture spot, there’s probably a millennial audience right under your nose (unless you’re the indomitable Tristan Traditional Thatched House Museum, located within the isolated Atlantic islands of Tristan da Cunha. We respect the hustle, guys).

For example, to coincide with the return of the city’s student population in September 2019, Boston’s Museum of Science opened its doors exclusively to study buddies. This allowed free access (usually $28) to its permanent exhibition and discounted entry to its BODY WORLDS exhibit, planetarium and 4D Theater. There were queues forming outside well before opening time.

There was also an emphasis on participation, with games and competitions attached to the museum’s regular offering.

Not only does this initiative serve as an activation event for a huge group of potential new community members, but it is also timed to perfection; on Fridays between 5 and 9 pm. The ideal precursor to a cultural night on the town.

Are you situated in a university city, or one buzzing with young professionals? What initiatives can you come up with to attract local millennials to your museum?

3. Get the most out of social media

The typical Millennial owns 9.3 social media accounts, according to Global Web Index. We’re not suggesting you need to cultivate communities on nine different platforms, but it’s a number that reaffirms exactly where to reach a millennial audience.

At this point, using social media to attract visitors to your museum is less genius hack and more basic requirement. Still, many magical attractions are missing opportunities to engage with new and existing audiences on these platforms.

Selling your museum on social media is like pitching up a stall in the middle of a busy shopping center, armed with beautiful flyers and an outgoing personality. With a smile on your face, you set to work trying to start conversations with passers-by and passionately tell your story. If you looked at your social media strategy like this, would you do things differently?

It’s important to remember that social media shouldn’t be seen as a place to spam with ‘buy now’ messaging, as tempting as it may be. Social posts don’t need to yield direct monetary conversion – ticket sales will come as a byproduct of an engaging brand.

If you’re under pressure from the powers that be to rake in cash from your museum’s social media campaigns, just hit your boss with this (don’t actually hit them), another nugget from Global Web Index:

“Social media is the second-most important product research channel for millennials after search engines, but this audience is still turning to traditional commerce websites to complete purchases. Brands should be careful to take an omnichannel approach to social commerce, recognizing that it holds a greater role in brand research and discovery than it currently does for completing purchases.”

Global Web Index

Adopt a unique tone of voice

Your channels are a place to share the passion which gave birth to your institution. Take your mission, and spread it in the most attractive way possible, in a tone that represents you and your audience best. If you deal with a deep and sensitive issue your tone will reflect that, but you can still develop a personal, human-style that suits a social media audience. 

Let’s take the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It’s cool, intelligent and inspiring, and its social media style reflects this.

Its Instagram feed is a curation of fun and illuminating content. It reflects both the depth of the museum’s collection and enticing spaces, while ticking off part of its mission, to translate art into “…meaningful educational, aesthetic, intellectual, and cultural experiences for the widest array of audiences”. Edutainment, in a nutshell.

For some, the term ‘art history’ prompts bad memories of dusty classrooms and droning high-school teachers. Through LACMA’s laid-back social storytelling on Instagram, the “meme-ification” of their collection, and liberal use of emojis, the preconception that art is boring is brushed aside.

“Regarding the meme-ification of visual artworks, we’ve found that it’s a great way to connect with at least one large segment of our audience—particularly those who skew younger. It lowers the “intimidation factor” traditional art history might have, and provides an easy entry point for people whose interests may not fall squarely in the visual art realm.”

Lucy Redoglia, former Social Media Manager @ LACMA, via Webby Awards

Show off your venue and its atmosphere

Social media is also a great way for you to promote your beautiful spaces. Members of your community don’t need to be culture buffs to come and enjoy your cafe, gardens or library. 

Whether they have a passing interest in your subject or an obsessive one, an atmospheric hangout can be just as big a draw for millennials as what’s on the walls. Can you provide a place to study, a spot to grade papers, or just somewhere to have a quiet walk?

LACMA is located within a dog-friendly 20-acre campus, and the museum’s #DogsOfLACMA campaign does a fabulous job of presenting the outdoor areas as a place to enjoy some downtime.

This type of content creates a positive image of your venue that doesn’t rely on exhibits, which may not appeal to everyone immediately. It also encourages community interaction – more on that later. Plus, who doesn’t like puppy pics?

Over on Facebook, LACMA’s tone is still light and personal but targets a different audience, promoting news, family-friendly events and dates for the diary. Experiment with your platforms, and see what content works best, and where.

Keep the conversation flowing

Sometimes, especially when building a community from the ground up, working on social media can feel a bit like screaming into the void. The best brands engage directly with their audiences to create a two-way conversation. Millennials want to belong to tribes and communities, and interacting with them can help forge a real connection.

Across your social feeds, ask questions, and encourage your followers to get involved in your posts by tagging friends or responding with a GIF. Not only does this project an image of a brand that’s interested in its followers, but it also sends a message to the all-powerful algorithm that your content deserves to be seen, and gives it a bit of a push.

Take the time to respond to comments and questions. These come from engaged users, who want to be a part of your community, and who are most likely to one day activate their interest in the form of an entrance ticket. Don’t take their intrigue for granted!

Team up with millennials to sell your museum

Joining forces with social media influencers can also help drive millennial visitors to your museum, and get eyes on the witty, interesting content you’re now posting.

The following of an influencer can be anything from 1,000 to millions of people. The number is indicative, but it’s not the only consideration when looking to partner up. 

A personality with a community of 2,000 engaged users that will identify with your message can be more effective than someone with more, disinterested followers. Anyone you choose to work with has to align with your ideas and come across as authentic. Users will quickly see through a disingenuous partnership.

Do your research and try to find influencers in your area. There are a host of tools that can help you find the right influencers for your niche or in your local area. The guys over at WordStream have written a really handy blog going into detail on how to find social media influencers in your industry.

Invite them to your venues and press viewings, and work with them to come up with cross-channel content that suits everyone. 

Could you let an influencer take over your account for the day, allowing them to tell your story from another point of view? Could they be granted special access to an exhibit or a night-time event to build a buzz? Could they create a video tour of your museum for YouTube?

Even if you don’t work together directly, you can invite them to explore your spaces for photoshoots; a simple tag at your venue has the potential to reach thousands.

This photo, posted by fashion and lifestyle blogger Lydia Millen, was taken as part of a photoshoot for British fashion chain H&M, at the National Trust’s Standen House and Gardens in England. 

While the shoot was organised and paid for by H&M, Standen made sure to take advantage of their moment in the spotlight. 

This post alone received over 25,000 likes in a few hours, and the influencers involved all geotagged Standen as the location, spreading the beauty of the venue far and wide.

Remember what we said about joining the conversation? Standen maximised the exposure by replying to people who commented on Lydia Millen’s post showing an interest in the magical backdrop.

Content like this drives “organic” interest in your institution. For some millennials, having a person they respect give the seal of approval to a venue results in more credibility than museums themselves can achieve.

How can you use your social media presence to engage millennials in your museum?

COVID-19: Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.

The advent of Coronavirus added weights to museums and cultural institutions who were already treading water. Many relied on government finance or crowdfunding initiatives just to stay afloat.

It’s feared that up to 10% of museums in the USA could be sunk by the effects of COVID-19. In the Netherlands, it could be as high as 25%. 

Marine Corps philosophy and museum best-practice ideas aren’t subjects with common crossover, but desperate times call for innovative measures.

Improvise. Adapt. Overcome is a mantra that’s allowing some of the luckier venues to navigate the pandemic and keep a steady stream of Millennials engaged with the museum offering.

For many, the pandemic provided the ideal opportunity to create easily accessible virtual museum tours, opening up their collections to a world stuck at home.

Plenty brought their exhibits to the people via live streams, or scaled-up their social media offerings to keep in touch with their audience. But some museums went further.

The Getty Museum added their entire collection – 79,000 paintings – to 2020’s record-breaking video game Animal Crossing. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art followed suit soon afterwards.

Photo via Getty Museum

The life-simulation game for the Nintendo Switch is played by millions of corona-affected people worldwide. And guess which demographic makes up almost 50% of the Switch’s player base? That’s right, those fun-loving Millennials.

In the Netherlands, the Rotterdam Ahoy exhibition hall and Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen joined forces to create an improvised drive-thru art exhibition to be enjoyed from the comfort of enclosed electric cars. Socially distanced and planet friendly.

These outside-the-box solutions might be out of reach for your museum, but how can you enact the spirit of Improvise. Adapt. Overcome to reach your millennial audience during the pandemic? Perhaps you can arrange a virtual live tour – check out this checklist for hosting virtual tours

International travel is at the back of our minds, possibly until 2022. This makes cultivating your neighborhood audience all the more important. How can you engage with local millennials based on the corona restrictions in your area?

When lockdown begins to lift, make sure you’re ready to welcome back your visitors

Recap: 4 strategies for attracting millennials to museums

1. Create access and events outside of traditional hours
2. Harness the energy of millennials in your local area
3. Speak their language through fun and engaging social media
4. Ask for feedback and have them tell you what they want

“Appealing to millennials may, in fact, improve visitor experience for more than just 18 to 34-year-olds… Things that young adults expect as a matter of course – a welcoming environment, engaging storytelling, good food and coffee, innovation, free WiFi – are not exclusive to this age group.”

Krystal Young, the Iris

Attracting millennials to museums doesn’t have to mean a dramatic increase in workload. Do what you can within the boundaries of your organisation. 

The key to it is to think like millennials and to think outside the box. Be creative and embrace experimentation – don’t be put off if ideas don’t work immediately. Ask for feedback and hone your offering to their needs. It takes time to know your audience, and sometimes the best way is to encourage some healthy constructive criticism.

Incorporate some of these ideas into your museum’s program (and develop your own!), and you might find you create a more enriching experience for everyone.

Adopt a mobile strategy to hook millennials

The world runs on mobile. Google even began ranking web pages on a mobile-first basis earlier this year.

At Tiqets, we build mobile-first ticketing solutions that help attractions increase visitors, revenue and conversion. If you want help improving your mobile ticketing strategy, get in touch with our experts.

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