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Curating Digital Experiences: Using Behavioral Science to Inform Strategies for Engaging Museum Visitors Online

From art and history aficionados to casual browsers, people have long utilized museums to travel through time and space, to admire and learn. So when museums began to close their doors at the onset of COVID-19, many were left wondering  how to fill the void. While creative museum leaders quickly pivoted to innovative online programming, it was clear that persuading the public to replace in-person visits with online engagement would be a challenge.

As we enter the beginning of a phased re-opening of the public sector, many museums find themselves thinking strategically about how to continue to drive interest in online engagement as a complement to in-person visits.  Facing capacity constraints and increased safety protocols, digital engagement can still serve as a valuable tool as we move into the “new normal,” highlighting a hybrid model of patron engagement. 

Research in behavioral science offers some explanations and insights into ways to persuade hesitant museum goers toward more online visits. First, we know that resistance to change can be influenced by ingrained beliefs that serve as barriers to adopting a new behavior (e.g., the exhibits do not look the same online, digital interactions lack atmosphere of shared excitement). Regardless of how rational or true they may be, beliefs such as these can serve as powerful deterrents to behavior change. Second, we know that patron goals (e.g., hunger for knowledge) can motivate the decision of whether to visit a museum online. For museums to persuade new online visitors, they must work to understand the patrons’ beliefs and goals that drive decisions and adopt strategies to overcome barrier beliefs and appeal to the goals that motivate their patrons.

In a recent YCCI Discovery Project, a group of Yale School of Management students set out to help a storied design museum in New York City drive engagement with new and existing digital offerings. After a review of social media and in-depth interviews with consumers who recently visited digital museums online, we have outlined some of the key learnings and recommendations that can be used to help museums drive to digital.

(1) Don’t just replicate the in-person experience online; reinvent it by harnessing the power of today’s digital tools.

The Discovery Project team found that while patrons appreciated accessing museum exhibits internationally that they might never be able to see in person, there was an overarching belief that the exhibits were not the same online. Many patrons echoed a sentiment that 2D art viewing was anticlimactic and lacked the atmosphere of shared awe found during in-person visits.

An example of a museum that has successfully tackled this belief is the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Recently the Met partnered with Verizon to launch an AR experience, The Met Unframed, a “virtual, mobile-only experience featuring 12 digitally-rendered versions of the galleries and nearly 50 works of art,” complete with interactive games.  The Met leaned into the belief that the exhibits do not look the same online by bringing the art to life virtually. Interactive games allowed consumers to get a glimpse of underdrawings and other hidden details in paintings that patrons may not be able to experience in person.

While harnessing these tools is vital to drive meaningful differentiation, museums should note that how these differentiators get communicated to the patron is equally important .

Because patrons have the belief that the online experience somehow falls short of the in-person experience, highlighting key differentiators in the headlines of your digital events is key to helping to overcome this belief.

This brings us to the second key recommendation:

(2) Overcome negative beliefs about the online experience by highlighting in communications what differentiates the online experience from an in-person one.

Knowing that consumers hold beliefs that the online experience was not the same as the in-person experience, and that this served as a barrier to sign up for digital events, the Discovery Project team designed and tested various ways of overcoming this belief through messaging and communications.  In an A/B study using a broad base of US patrons, the team found that messaging that highlighted using a 3D tool to view a museum artifact increased engagement intent by 12% over those that did not highlight differences in the virtual experiences.

This simple messaging test shows that by highlighting the ways in which the online experience can be as good as –  or even better than – the in-person experience can have a big impact.

 (3) The goal of connecting with family and friends is not just a motivator in-person; it also drives online engagement. Ensure that digital experiences still allow patrons to have a shared experience with family and friends.

In addition to beliefs serving as barriers to change, we know that consumer decisions are often motivated by their goals. For example, the Discovery Project team’s social media and interview research suggested that museums serve as a place where many people go to connect with family and friends. Many in-person museum patrons indicated a concern around recreating the in-person experience and awe of visiting iconic museums, and particularly around sharing these experiences with loved ones.

To test this learning, the team designed messaging that specifically prompted individuals to share the experience by including friends in virtual tours and visits. This messaging increased likelihood to engage with the museum content by 8% when measured against generic control messaging without the sharing prompt. These findings suggest that museums should message to the goal of sharing when designing online content. For example, the Guggenheim offers personalized guided virtual tours for groups including a Work from Home theme, focusing on works of art on domestic settings, apropos for the times.

(4) Connecting with patrons’ intrinsic motivation to learn drives engagement.

Another one of the insights suggested that screen fatigue might serve as a barrier to visiting museums online and, for some, the goal of escaping the “mindless” social media cycle by learning something new online would be welcomed. This ties to the goal of an in-person patron, that of advancing learning on a topic specific to the exhibitions and collections of the museum. Testing revealed that when the team directly messaged to the intrinsic motivation of using screen time productively to learn, intended engagement in digital museum content increased by 24%. 

The team’s review also revealed that some museums are already taking steps to address this consumer goal. Diversifying content with the disruption of mindless social media scrolling in mind, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH) partnered with TikTok to create informal touch-points with younger audiences. Anchored largely by museum curator Tim Pearce’s #molluskmonday jokes, by May 2020, CMNH had amassed over eight million video views and two million likes. The Akron Art Museum deployed a gamification strategy that encouraged cross-museum collaboration in the form of a weekly crossword. Drawing on clues from museum collections across the nation, the AAM created multiple points of engagement by posting hints linking to the different collections and sharing on social platforms from each participating institution. 


While we all hope that the full in-person experience will return to museums soon, the lessons from this research have long-standing implications. By uncovering and addressing the consumer’s beliefs and goals and messaging proactively to these, museums can help to drive more consumers to their digital offerings.