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Digital Tools for Pandemic Times

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
Every visitor to the Witte will receive a disposable stylus that allows guests to interact with touch panels throughout the museum. Credit: Courtesy / Witte Museum
Every visitor to the Witte will receive a disposable stylus that allows guests to interact with touch panels throughout the museum. Credit: Courtesy / Witte Museum

Almost all US museums closed during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. While a few reopened by summer, many decided to remain shuttered for the entire year, and often for these museums the only way to engage with the public has been via digital platforms. While we wait for the pandemic to end, museums must adapt to operating in a time of heightened concern regarding health and sanitation. Digital technologies can help museums enhance safety for staff and visitors, reassure the public, and reach audiences not ready to visit in person. However, digital solutions require time, training, and integration in addition to hard costs. What digital tools can help support museums during hard times to come, and how can museums assess whether and when to adopt these solutions?

This post is designed to help museum staff think through the pros and cons of potential digital strategies that may help museums face three challenges in the peri- and post-pandemic era:

For each challenge, I provide an overview, review some potential digital solutions, and offer a set of considerations for evaluating the ROI of implementing these solutions. I hope you use this as a resource to fuel your conversations and inform decisions about the strategic use of digital in the coming year.

Staying Engaged with the Public

In June 2020, during the first wave of closures, most museums reported using some form of digital engagement to serve the public. (According the AAM’s June COVID Snapshot, three-quarters provided educational resources for children, parents, and teachers; more than half provided resources for college students and adults; sixty percent offered livestream or prerecorded lectures, and sixty-four percent offered other types of digital entertainment or activities.) Some of these efforts received considerable press, and a few museums increased their followers on social media by orders of magnitude when their content went viral. But it is difficult to measure the overall success of these efforts because, in many cases, museums leapt into digital content production without clear expectations for the outcome. To set useful goals around public engagement, museums need to identify what the public wants in terms of digital content, what they actually use, and what the museum gets in return.

Some Digital Solutions

  • Sharing content or activities via social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter
  • Offering online activities (games, escape rooms, downloadable projects)
  • Creating digital content (videos, portals to collections or exhibits)
  • Organizing virtual events (galas, happy hours)

Considerations for evaluating ROI

Who is the museum trying to reach? For example,

  • Members
  • Visitors
  • Specific target audiences such as parents, school children, older individuals experiencing social isolation
  • General public

To what end? For example:

  • Prime people to visit when the museum reopens.
  • Help groups face specific challenges (e.g., parents in need of tools to entertain children, students in need of learning resources, isolated individuals in need of social connection).
  • Cultivate gratitude/appreciation for the museum’s work (which may translate, long-term, into support).
  • Grow new audiences (that may remain digital).
  • Develop services the museum may want to continue post-pandemic (e.g., online courses, virtual recreations of exhibits, an online store).

How does a given solution connect to the museum’s business plan? For example, will it:

  • Demonstrate the museum’s value to potential funders (government entities; philanthropic foundations).
  • Inspire members to maintain their membership.
  • Create connections that can be mined during fundraising (e.g., #GivingTuesday on Twitter; crowdfunding projects; participation in virtual fundraising events).
  • Build income streams through advertising, fees, or opportunities to donate.

This last point is particularly critical. With revenue from attendance, events, and onsite sales on pause, many are asking whether museums can monetize digital income to fill the gap. The short answer is yes, but it isn’t easy. While there is robust demand for digital content, there is also ample competition, and users expect high-quality, engaging products to make it worth the cost. Advertising revenue is tied to reach, which takes time and strategy to build.

Lastly, what are the solution’s vulnerabilities?

  • Does it depend on a free commercial platform outside your control? (Communications strategies and ad income build around Facebook, YouTube, etc., for example, are at the mercy of policy changes or continued functionality of the platform.)
  • Will the museum be able to afford to pay for fixes, improvements, upgrades, especially if the solution was initially affordable due to grant funding, or donated expertise?

Managing Attendance

States and cities typically established regulations for staged reopening that included attendance limitations for indoor venues. For museums, attendance in initially stages has typically been capped at twenty-five to fifty percent capacity. Even in states and cities with no regulatory limits, many museums choose to enforce voluntary limitations, particularly if their indoor spaces are small, or configured in such a way that is was not possible to impose one-way flow of visitors through the galleries. Colleen Dilenschneider, of IMPACTS Research, found that by July of 2020, twenty-six percent of the public identified limited attendance as a factor that would make them feel safe and comfortable visiting museums again, while “avoiding long lines” clocked in at twenty-four percent.

Some Digital Solutions

Several kinds of online booking systems enable the museum to offer reservations, free passes or ticketing, tied to timed entry. These include:

  • Third party booking platforms. These companies typically charge a fee for each sale, but some, such as Eventbrite, do not charge users for free “events.”
  • Modules offered as part of existing Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and Point of Sale (POS) systems. This can be an affordable option for museums already using CRM or POS systems, with the additional benefit that information gathered during the ticketing process can be added directly to the museum’s database on performance and customer history.
  • Systems designed to support dynamic pricing. A growing number of museums (notably zoos) have adopted so-called “buy-ahead” pricing which sets advance ticket prices using data on attendance, weather, travel bookings, school schedules and other relevant sources to project demand. This allows the museum to steer visitors towards underused times, maximize the profit from premium times, and ensure that affordable options are available as well.

Considerations for evaluating ROI

  • How will online ticketing affect the process of welcoming people into the museum? Digital tickets can increase safety by helping maintain physical distancing. Moving sales and ticketing online may also reduce the number of staff needed to manage admissions at the door.
  • What data will the system collect? Contact and demographic information can be used for marketing as well as for tracking attendance trends. This information can be critical to improving targeted communications and business decisions about staffing and marketing. During the pandemic, it can also facilitate contact tracing.
  • How will this data interface with other museum data? Tracking the behavior of individual visitors/members (with due attention to privacy) can support sophisticated personalization of services and communication.
  • In the case of both points above, how will the data actually be used? Data is only valuable when it is used to inform decisions. To realize this value, the museum has to ensure staff are working across departments to use data from ticketing to shape marketing and communications plans, set prices, and make decisions about staffing, hours, etc. The software systems mentioned above (CRM, POS, dynamic pricing) can automate data analysis, but still require decision makers to make use of the results.
  • What is the projected effect of the ticketing system on revenue? Online ticketing can make it easier for the museum to experiment with extended hours, or special (fee-based) exclusive access for families or small groups. Time-based pricing can increase per capita profits from ticketing.
  • What is the potential impact on accessibility and equity? Requiring online reservations or ticketing is one more barrier to people without reliable access to digital connectivity. The museum many need to find ways to accommodate walk-in visitors without making them feel excluded or out-of-the-loop.

Touchless tech

Early in the pandemic, much of the messaging around disease prevention focused on disinfecting surfaces, hand washing, and use of hand sanitizer. Despite growing consensus that fomites (objects carrying the virus) are relatively minor risk for COVID transmission, public expectations regarding surface cleaning remain high. A large majority of museums have increased or plan to increase the frequency of cleaning upon reopening, and many have shifted cleaning to visible, daytime hours. But even such performative cleaning may not overcome peoples’ aversion to being in a high-touch environment while the pandemic persists.

During the pandemic, museums may respond to this aversion by shutting down interactive elements that require touch. However, it’s unlikely that the current situation will reverse the decades-long trend of increasing emphasis on interactive experiences in all sorts of museums. Going forward, it may be practical to combine increased cleaning with the implementation of a variety of touchless interactive technologies, ranging from the well-established to the emergent.

Some Digital Solutions

Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)

One solution to is to co-opt the technology most visitors already bring into the museum—smart phones—which they are confident carry only their own germs. Many museums are removing printed handouts and gallery guides during the pandemic: the text can be made available on the museum’s website or as downloadable PDFs. Museums can also install applications designed allow personal devices to interface with existing touchscreens, kiosks, ATMs and other interactive displays. [Nick—I’m familiar with FreeTouch. Do you know if it has competitors, or is it in anyway unique?] Many museums already use apps, IM interfaces and chatbots to interact with the public via smart phones—the pandemic may accelerate the adoption of these communications channels as well.

Hover Technology

Another touch-free adaptation is to install screens that respond to proximity rather than contact. Such screens have been available since 2012, but the most common systems require a user to position their hand quite close to the screen, and users may mistake these for touch screens, or touch inadvertently when they attempt to trigger the controls. “Deep Hover” technology, currently in development, will let users to control an interface from anywhere from a few inches to a foot or more above the display. (An additional cool feature: by delivering information about the user’s hand position at high speed as “pre-interaction information,” associated software can speed response time by using machine learning and AI to make decisions about a user’s intent before they have completed an action.)

Gesture-based Interactives

Many museums already make effective use of gesture-control interfaces developed for gaming (Wii for Nintendo, Kinect for Xbox). Responsive to whole body motion, these systems can be intuitive, accessible, and require no special device on the part of visitors. They support the creation of social, playful multi-user experiences that allow visitors to interact with digital adaptations of collections items, or with born-digital creations.

Considerations for Evaluating ROI

  • For whom is the solution designed, and what are the benefits?
  • Are there partners who can help the museum design and maintain appropriate solutions? This might include students or staff at local colleges or universities, maker groups or collaboratives, individual artists or technologists.
  • What is the cost to build, install, and maintain the system?
  • Is the system bespoke, or off the shelf? Bespoke systems are vulnerable to obsolescence if the original designer, or museum staff, can’t update to keep pace with changes in hardware and software. On the other hand, interactives built around commonly available commercial systems may be left stranded if those systems are discontinued.
  • What kind of maintenance will the system require, and how long is it projected to last? Nothing makes for a more frustrating visitor experience than interactive displays that are malfunctioning or out of service. Especially during a time of staff constraints, can the museum ensure that digital interactives are quickly replaced or repaired? What will the museum need to budget, and on what time frame, for the replacement and upgrades?
  • Is it intuitive and easy for visitors to find and use? For many years bespoke museum apps were seen as the solution to delivering information and experiences in the gallery, but many potentially great apps foundered on the fact that very few visitors actually download them. (Barriers include: making visitors aware the app exists; providing strong, reliable Wi-Fi to support rapid downloads onsite; making the application easy to learn and use.) Some museums solve this problem by coopting systems that visitors already spend time on (Facebook messenger, text messaging). One of the beauties of gestural control systems (like Kinect) is that they are super intuitive—visitors learn to use them through experimentation, rather than by reading instructions.
  • Is it a solution that will be appropriate and desirable, even if/when concerns about surface sanitation ease?
  • Does the solution create new challenges to equity and inclusion? BYOD depends on a significant percentage of visitors having the relevant technology. In some cases it may be preferable to offer content, such as audio tracks, that are triggered via proximity rather than pushing to a digital device. Some gesture-based interfaces are not designed to recognize the actions of people using wheelchairs.

I hope these questions help you frame discussions with your colleagues, board, and staff about what technologies might be worth adopting in the next year. Please, share your experiences with evaluating and adopting digital solutions to pandemic challenges with your colleagues via social media, on the AAM discussion board Museum Junction, and in comments on this post. We are all learning together.

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