Erin Armstrong, Vice President Marketing, Communication and Digital Media, The Franklin Institute

With decades of experience, Erin Armstrong is an established marketing professional. However, working in the non-profit sector is a relatively new chapter in her career. After studying Marketing and Advertising in college, she worked for agencies in New York and Philadelphia for over 20 years before shifting towards museums. “I never really thought I could merge my professional expertise and my personal passion.” In 2014, she worked for the Kimmel Center. Then, in 2018, the Franklin Institute (FI) hired Erin as Vice President of Marketing, Communications and Digital Media.

Erin joined the team while the Franklin Institute restructured their Digital department, joining the Marketing and Communications team. All of the education-focused staff moved with it. As a result, their social media presence evolved. “We started to use [social media] as more of a marketing tool than it had been used before.” This strategy draws audiences to their mission-based content, from exhibitions to online activities.

Why did this departmental shift happen? CEO Larry Dubinski also comes from the for-profit sector. Erin has found this perspective valuable. “[He] understood that for the long-term viability, [FI] needs to be run like a business. He saw value in bringing people from outside the sector to help shape that.” Museums are mission-focused institutions, but they need sufficient funds to survive. It’s evident that the CEO acknowledges the value social media has in attracting audiences to the museum. Two years later, this strategy has proven more helpful now more than ever.

The COVID pandemic has proven extremely difficult for museums to stay afloat. Many furloughed most of their staff, forcing them to decide which are vital to function. For the Franklin Institute, digital was one of them. Through our conversation, Erin revealed internal and external impacts of the pandemic on their digital presence, and what that means for the future.

In-House Decisions

Erin knows how important social media is on society. When FI closed, she knew that “we need to talk to people where they are, and that is primarily through digital.” As a result, they focused on social media, consistently posting content and programs.

When deciding which content to post, they drew from their most popular programs and collaborated with staff. “Derrick [Pitts, chief astronomer] would do his Night Skies show each week on Thursday night. He’s kind of our celebrity.” Other staff members made content as well. The resident bioscientist and environmental scientist hosted livestreams. Erin said, “we were willing to try more…If somebody watches, great. If somebody doesn’t watch, that’s ok.” These programs show: 1) FI knows how important digital is to reach audiences and 2) the digital team experiments with online programming.

Audience Motivations

People stayed at home for most of 2020. During this time, many turned to cultural institutions to escape. According to LaPlaca Cohen (2020), most respondents interacted with organizations to stay connected and even escape from reality. However, many people are not ready to visit museums. In a survey, Erin found that “close to 50% [of respondents]…weren’t comfortable until there was a vaccine.”

Knowing this, Erin had to balance exhibition marketing and educational programming on social media. Creating education content is important to stay in touch with audiences. However, this takes a lot of time and does not generate revenue. As a result, they dialed back live programs. “Night Skies” occurs monthly instead of weekly. Meanwhile, Erin creates campaigns to draw viewers to the new Crayola IDEAworks exhibition.

When marketing for an exhibition, Erin tests creative ideas (i.e. videos and image slideshows) with target audiences. For Game Masters, an exhibition on the history of games, they tested ads against three audiences: gamers, families, and millennials. Surprisingly, gamers were uninterested while families wanted to go. Erin was able to focus resources on one group instead of a broad audience.

Looking Forward

Now that vaccines are available, we are one step closer to getting back to normal. What lasting effects will the pandemic have on museums? Erin shared that the Franklin Institute is focusing on their business and digital strategies. In 2022, they are completely rebranding the museum. With the success of social media programs, Erin’s team is working on how to monetize and diversify digital projects. She found that “some [people] are high consumers of the museum, others are very interested in science content but don’t have a way to come into the building. How can we serve our mission to all of them?”

With the rise of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, one consideration is a paid, subscription-based platform. This platform would offer science-based podcasts, live events, and games. While the livestreams were successful, they make zero revenue. If people are to pay for digital, they will expect high-quality content, which is expensive to produce. While this platform may be too costly now, it is a step in the right direction.

Final Thoughts

From our conversation, Erin’s digital marketing experience in the for-profit sector has proven valuable during and after the COVID pandemic. Like many museums, the pandemic forced FI to take advantage of a major opportunity: social media. Working with her mission-focused team members, they were able to experiment with educational content to successfully attract and engage with diverse audiences.

One final point: if more museums are to take a business-minded approach to digital, it is important to not lose track of the mission. As Erin told me, “That doesn’t mean moving away from the mission, it’s just to be able to continue long-term.”

Reference:

LaPlaca Cohen (2020) Culture + community in a time of crisis: Key findings from wave 1. Culture Track. https://s28475.pcdn.co/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/CCTC-Key-Findings-from-Wave-1_final.pdf

10 Comments Add yours

  1. Deena Deutsch says:

    It was interesting to hear a discsussion surrounding museums from the financial side — particularly concering strategies for leveraging the digial platform amidst pandemic-induced closures. I was struck by her discussion surrounding the diffficult choices necessitated when forced to monetize programs that under ‘normal circumstances’ woudl be offered the public free of charge, and problems that arise when soft funds run out for those that already had staff in place. It is unusual to hear discussion surrounding science education through a marketing lens, and how social media engagement has bearing on that conversation.

    I enjoyed her acknowledgement about the capacity of the digital platform to stimulate content, and the ways through which it can expand audiences who are willing to pay for its offerings. While subscriptions for educational content might have appeal – I do wonder about those who cannot afford to pay for programs that would serve them so well.

    I appreciated her response to your question regarding advice for an aspiring museum professional working in digital media to keep pace with the ways the digital platform is changing, and look to the ways sectors outside the musuem field are maximizing these trends.

    And, finally, her concluding comments surrounding the ways the digital platform might help museums offer “revenue diversification’ amidst the financial challenges of the past year were sobering.

    (Great questions, Sarah!)

  2. Kenny Clink says:

    Hi Sarah,

    Just as people are beginning to experience digital fatigue because of the constant use of services like zoom and Microsoft teams and constantly having to stay “tethered” to a computer it is also important to acknowledge to over-abundance of subscription based services. Social media has begun to suggest that there are too many subscription services that are spreading people’s financial resources a bit too thin because they need Netflix, Hulu, Paramount+, Disney+, Discovery+, HBO Max, and half a dozen or more others just to watch some of the shows that a cable subscription used to provide. While for some a subscription based service for museums may work, I think it would add too much to the already strained wallets of common Americans. I would like the idea a bit more if it would be rolled into a membership model that the digital service would be provided as a certain level of membership, or offered standalone as an educational service. Livestreams have the possibility to make revenue through the proper methods. Using services like Twitch, Discord, Mixr, and a few others you can not only monetize the streams but have different features available based on onetime donations or subscriber status.

    This is certainly an unexplored part of the field but something that does have potential as being the next step for museums to create, market, and profit from (profit sounds weird but I don’t know how else to say it).

    1. Carissa Johnson says:

      Kenny, I am so glad you said this about the over saturation of paid subscription services. I am guilty of it and I pay way too much for streaming services these days. I am not sure if I would be willing to pay for my museum experience on top of that.

  3. Stephanie Ho says:

    Hi Sarah,

    I have taken notes on all of the interviews, but this is the first time my notes extended to four pages — which is double the normal length! This talk was fascinating, and Erin Armstrong’s constant comment is something I’ve been talking about too — how do you monetize what you are offering?! I think this is an interesting question, and especially relevant in the age of Covid, where, as she pointed out, 30% of museums are not going to survive the pandemic. She had some valid critical comments about how there’s a preponderance for sessions on education, and not on fiscal responsibility, at the annual convention for science institutions. And it’s a fair comment that a science-educator is not necessarily the right person to lead a museum. This is similar to the news business, where they make good journalists the heads of newsrooms — which sometimes works, but sometimes does not work because good journalists are not always good managers.

    Some of her comments that stood out to me the most were: “museums need to be run like a business, rather than just a non-profit,” and “you can’t do the mission without the (profit) margin.”

    I agree that the commercial side of the venture is important, but I feel that there is a danger in emphasizing the profit side of things as the top priority. It seems that while museums do indeed need to be able to diversify their income streams, in order to survive and be sustainable, they need to find the balance between making money and making meaning. Surely, the priority of a museum is not only to make money. For this reason, I am a little concerned by the idea that there is so much attention focused on an “expensive-to-get-off the ground,” subscription service of multimedia content. Without knowing all the details, it seems that this is an example of getting carried away with what another interviewee called “the bells and whistles” of technology.

    Anyway, though, it was refreshing to hear this view point, and I especially appreciated her advice about how important it is to stay plugged in, because the world is rapidly changing. I also very much appreciated her comment that museums have been insular for too long, and can stand to learn things from different fields!

  4. Mary Trosin says:

    This is a really interesting interview and I think that it has a lot of good points to consider. I was particularly intrigued by the theme of running things like a business. Working in the nonprofit sector can be frustrating sometimes with a lot of habits and practices in place that can be dysfunctional or not the most efficient. I do still struggle with the concept of charging for digital programs that would normally be free and I’m not sure if it is the direction I would go but then again, I don’t exactly have a better idea at the moment and we are in very different circumstances. The quote “you can’t do the mission without the margin” from the interview does help to make charging for services a little less painful as it will help you to better serve your mission in the long run. Bringing in people from outside the sector can obviously add valuable perspective no matter how you feel about charging for online content and the advice on watching other sectors was not something I would have normally thought to do but it is another way to gain that different point of view.

  5. Jenna Kimberlin says:

    I appreciated Erin’s candid description of a marketing strategy that didn’t work out. Audiences that they targeted for online advertising for their Game Masters exhibit were gamers, families and millennials. The gamers expected a different experience (for example expecting to park themselves in front of Galaga, which was funny because I would definitely have done that) and were very vocal about not liking the experience on social media. The comments were harsh which is a shame, but it is the unfortunate reality of engaging with the public on social media. I was surprised with the results and would not have seen that coming either. Families were the demographic that responded best and Erin’s team was flexible enough to make a shift during the exhibit and focus on families instead of the gaming audience. We recently had a discussion about learning from failures and this is a real life example of a lesson learned. Thanks for the interview, Sarah!

  6. Sarah,

    This interview allowed me to learn so much practical information! I think that Armstrong’s professional history was unique because of her background coming from a marketing background. I also felt that it was fascinating that she joined the digital department at the Franklin Institute while during a shift in their operations. She was obviously heavily involved in making the institute’s social media more of a marketing strategy. One thing that I thought was really interesting about Armstrong’s perspective was her interpretation of her audience’s data. I found it beneficial to see how she interpreted her audience’s opinion in order to influence her decisions. For example, the fact that about half of the audience felt uncomfortable returning to visit the museum in person until there was a vaccine. I found myself connecting things that I have learned throughout this semester with the things Armstrong was describing. Overall, I found the interview very informative, and it definitely made me think about certain aspects of digital engagement in the museum field.

  7. Madison Ney says:

    Hi Sarah, I like the idea of a subscription-based program for streams, activities, etc. Many museums have newsletters or memberships for benefits, but a subscription like this may be cool to explore. I’m excited to see how the museum changes in 2022! I have been going there since a kid and would love to see what they can come up with to improve their already amazing museum.

  8. Carissa Johnson says:

    This was a very great interview that showed that the power of Marketing and Communications and the very basic, down to brass tacks techniques, when applied correctly can work in any industry. What a great way of merging two very intriguing career paths. I really appreciated the debate about monetizing services and thinking about a museum as a business. I think many not-for-profit museums find it hard to all of the sudden start charging for things that were traditionally free. Additionally, I appreciate a good learning from failures story, and Ms. Armstrong provided a very candid story about the gaming that we could all learn from.

  9. Kristina Zapfe says:

    Erin’s comments on social media feedback from the gaming community illuminates the access that digital media professionals have when it comes to testing markets. Her perspective on the financial side of museums was interesting to hear as well since I feel like that side of digital media projects aren’t in the open as much. Great interview!

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