Last week I was in Guimarães, where I participated in a one-day conference on the importance of marketing in the promotion of museums, organized by the Palace of the Dukes. Registrations surpassed the expectations of the organizers – as well as room capacity -, and that, in my opinion, is a proof of the interest museum professionals have in the subject, as well as the need to get to know it in depth, given that, one way or the other, all museums today develop marketing actions, but few have adequately qualified professionals who would be able to integrate them in a specific marketing strategy.
My presentation was about “The need to define communications and marketing strategies for museums” and one of the questions I was asked in the end was if the creation of brands for small and large museums could in any way be an obstacle in the establishment of partnerships between them, since the brand suggests competition.
Each museum has a unique offer, starting, obviously, from its collection. Museum may compete at other levels – in terms of services, for instance -, but at the same time they can establish partnerships, join forces and the ‘small ones’ may take advantage of the visibility and popularity of the ‘big ones’. While I was answering the question, the image I had in my mind was that of the Amazon site, where, once we purchase a book, we are informed that: “People who bought this book, have also bought…”. Which could be translated into: “If you enjoyed visiting this museum, you might also like to visit…”.
The issue of the small and the big ones, the more or less popular ones, the more or less known, made me read again the book The Long Tail by Chris Anderson, which has the subtitle “Why the future of business is selling less of more”. In this really inspiring book, Anderson analyzes the transformation of the mass market into a mass of niches. Thanks to new technologies, and especially the Internet, the market today does not only consume the big hits, but also countless niche products, of which the total amount of sales turns them into the big (enormous) new market. This mainly happens because, as we can see in the case of Amazon, the lack of a need to store products and exhibit them on shelves has radically reduced the costs of putting them on the market. And once on the market, they start selling. At the same time, consumers, who have always liked having a choice, are today the new cosmopolitans who appreciate and consume both mainstream and underground products. The result is not only quantitative (larger offer, larger choice), but also qualitative, since it has made obvious the demand for non-commercial contents.
Anderson says that the long tail has three main forces: the democratization of the tools of production, that opened the way for new producers and defined a new “Pro-Am era” (Professionals – Amateurs), making the tail longer; the democratization of distribution, that motivated the creation of aggregating promoters (Amazon, eBay, iTunes, Google, Wikipedia), which make the tail fatter; and the connection between supply and demand, through those people who determine the tastes and options of others, that is… all of us and our circles of friends and acquaintances, who, through blogs, reviews, comments and recommendations shared online move the demand from head to tail.
All these developments directly affect the cultural sector, in terms of production, distribution and consumption. In what concerns Communications, those who work in this field know that word-of-mouth has always been the best promotion, the one consumers trust the most. “The Web is the greatest word-of-mouth amplifier”, says Anderson, and the implications, or the opportunities, it presents affect and influence the way we develop our work. Many cultural institutions create nowdays their own contents for the Internet and the social media, trying not to be dependent only on the media when promoting their offer. This is, actually, a fundamental part of the work we have to develop. But it is equally important to ‘listen’ what is being said about us on cyberspace. Who are the people who influence others? We have to identify them and we have to know what they say about us. How, where? Using tools such as Google Alerts, Google Trends, identifying references to our brand on Facebook, etc. It is essential to pay attention and to get to know how to use these new channels and communication tools. And when managing this work, just as all the others, efficiency can only be guaranteed with the development of concrete plans, the elaboration of evaluation tools and their integration in a larger communications strategy.
So, coming back to the question I was asked in Guimarães, which ended up taking me so far, there are small museums that can surprise and delight us… if we only knew they existed. All together they constitute a kind of a long tail, not exactly threatening for the head – the big, popular, visible museums. Partnership with them seems natural, it is something one should wish for, it is not competition the way it would be in any other business. Nevertheless, it will not bring results if the ‘small ones’ don´t invest in the quality of their offer. For the majority of the people, visiting a museum is an option for occupying their leisure time. Museums which are not able to guarantee a quality experience will easily be deleted from the options list. And actually, that goes for the big ones too.