5 Ways Museums Can Grow Earned Income—Besides Opening a Hot, New Restaurant

EXHIBIT PLAY: A mini-golf course designed by artists attracted new (and existing) visitors to the Indianapolis Museum of Art

Foodies weren’t the only ones with their ears (and appetites) perked the opening of Marisol at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Decision-makers at cultural institutions all over the country no doubt watched closely as well. After all, they, too, are always exploring new ideas for increasing audiences and revenue streams, from staying open late on Friday nights, to offering kids activities to opening their doors to alternative uses. Take the Lyric Opera of Chicago, which proposed opening the house for events, all part of its effort to, in the words of Crain’s Chicago Business, “survive the 21st century.” These are all great ideas, but one thing we have heard in various conversations with leaders at cultural organizations is that it is often difficult for them to know which ideas are smart investments. Here are a few things to think about when considering earned income growth strategies.

1. Focus on people’s lives, not your offerings or needs. To grow, it behooves institutions to think more like innovators developing a user-focused product. It’s not about “we need more younger audiences” or “we need to sell out our season”; it’s more about “how can we help people make progress in their lives?” People “hire” leisure activities for the jobs in their lives, from having pure fun to slowing down; it is critical to align around a plan for getting hired more often for the jobs in people’s lives. Plans should be less about what we as an institution are trying to accomplish and more about what people are trying to accomplish—their underlying motives for seeking leisure and entertainment activities to make progress in their lives.

2. Get “hired” more often by members. Your members love you already. Find more ways to romance them. Find out what else they are doing in their lives, and give them a chance to do it more often with you. Are they seeing a lot of movies? Are they in book clubs? Are they nature lovers? Create VIP and other experiences that will get you hired more often by those who already want to spend time with you.

3. Entice new audiences with activities that will pave a path to membership. When setting out to attract new audiences, it is key to have a plan for creating a pathway to membership—not just investing in multiple programs and experiences that could meet a lot of jobs (because it’s simply too hard to do everything well). Think about well curated experiences targeted at specific jobs in people’s lives, such as a series of fun but purposeful experiences for a date night that don’t blow the budget vs. social scene experiences targeted at young professionals that are hard to pull off in a matter that satisfies everyone. Identify those who are most likely to consider you and offer them experiences that will keep bringing them back—enough that membership starts to look more attractive to them.

4. Leverage assets for broader audiences without distracting from core mission. Significant earned revenue opportunities can be unlocked by larger-scale experiences (or experiences that draw larger swathes of the population) that happen with less frequency but have the potential to draw a lot of people who would normally not visit cultural institutions. While it’s important not to undermine your institution’s promise in a quest to attract the masses, recognizing that some jobs in people’s lives are simply about being a part of something fun—no matter the venue—can be valuable. A good example is what the Indianapolis Museum of Art has done (informed by a strategy we helped them develop). The museum created a mini-golf course with holes designed by local artists. This new initiative allowed the museum to keep its core audience and fulfill its desired job, while simultaneously stealing visits away from the zoo, a park, a street fair, or other playful activities that both kids and adults would enjoy. The museum attracted an even broader swath of the Indianapolis market by opening a beer garden on its gorgeous grounds.

5. Talk to people differently. All of this earned income strategy is not necessarily about creating new programming. It’s also about communicating with people in a way that better connects with the jobs they need to get done in their lives. Don’t just promote what’s special about your institution, talk about people’s lives and how your institution can fit into their lives—to make their lives better, easier, more affordable and more fun.

It’s true that people are busy and the competition is fierce for their time and dollars. But with a disciplined strategy, born out of research and deployed across the institution, it is possible to break through the noise and become a go-to solution for people seeking to spend their precious free time on options that help them make progress in their lives.

Image above courtesy of Newfields.