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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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