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Is there an appetite for paid digital content from museums and cultural organisation?

It’s not news that many organisations in the Art and Culture sector explored new ways of reaching audiences digitally during the past year. Whilst physical interactions were restricted by the coronavirus pandemic across the world, visitor numbers at museums, theatres, libraries and other cultural events dwindled, leaving many organisations in search of creative alternatives that allowed them to continue to communicate and enable experiences for their patrons and visitors.

We enjoyed webinars from museum professionals, virtual tours of galleries showcasing an array of art forms, podcasts discussing art movements and moments within history; not to mention an abundance of e-newsletters referring us to even more digital offerings in the culture sector. But, it is likely that many of these digital initiatives will decrease in output over the coming months, as much of the sector will strive to reopen physical institutions, and re-engage with their audiences in-person.

The Rise of Subscription Based Content

This is not the case, however, for The Birmingham Museum, where digital innovation has been ambitious. In February 2021, they launched Birmingham Museum On Demand, a digital content subscription that allows audiences, near and far, to learn about and discover the collections of its museums and galleries. Each month, for £20, subscribers get access to a new package of two talks and two lectures which are available to watch for 30 days. With all proceeds going to supporting Birmingham Museums and helping to conserve its historic sights and world class collections, it is a paywall fee that many have chosen to get behind.

Birmingham Museum On Demand is a bold step into paid digital content – an endeavour that many museums have shied away from, opting for free or optional donations instead.

This example of subscription based content in the cultural industry is far from isolated. Theatres have been using this model for a while, take National Theatre At Home, for example, or Marquee TV. But, there has certainly been hesitation from museums and galleries to offer this type of service.

Incorporating paid virtual events, or a subscription service for digital content, could be a smart move. According to Cultural Restart’s 2021 Report, and particularly their latest findings in a February 2021 webinar, which focused on taking a deeper look into what the audience appetite for digital culture, 60% of visitors whom had partook in a digital experience, expressed interest in buying tickets for online events from organisations in the future, and 15% would be likely to buy a monthly subscription.

The report also showed that many respondents would still engage in online events in the future, when in-person events are possible, especially if they weren’t able to see the event live. These findings are encouraging, and perhaps denote a shift in the public’s appetite for digital culture due to the initiatives deployed by many organisations last year.

Whilst Birmingham Museum’s On Demand model may not be suitable for you and your institution, there are other ways of integrating paid-for digital content and events.

Exclusive Digital Content for Members and Patrons

One alternative, that allows you to continue your digital offering, is to integrate it into your membership or patron plans. The Design Museum has done just this, by including free access to selected digital events, and exclusive content libraries with newsletters, Q&As and more, as perks to their membership plans.

With the accessibility that digital content brought, to audiences across the UK and the world, it is likely that some institutions have reached new supporters from outside the pockets of their physical operations. Where that’s the case, it may be imperative to continue this offering in the future.

Cultural Restart’s report also found that for those who had attended online experiences, 34% would be more likely to visit the organisation afterwards. Meaning digital output can actually encourage in-person interaction in some cases.

Digital Content that Corresponds to Live Events

Similarly, as these online experiences may have become more expected, creating digital content to coincide with your live events in the future could be a good idea. Allowing those, that cannot visit or attend the IRL exhibition or show, to experience part of it, from home.

It’s important to know, then, that according to the aforementioned report, nearly half of respondents suggested they expect to pay less for digital experiences than the price of in-real-life event tickets. With a third suggesting they’d expect to pay 50% less.

With this in mind, a few ways museums and cultural institutions could integrate this type of paid content in accordance with their live events, is to create exclusive digital talks from curators or  museum professionals. Or offer virtual tours of an exhibition / event space that includes a guided experience of the event from the comfort of ones home. As we’ve seen this year, those particularly savvy could even incorporate exclusive podcasts, audio experiences or AR features.

Conduct Your Own Survey

To discover whether visitors of your institution or organisation have an appetite for paid digital content, it might be best to simply ask them, by conducting your own survey with those that did participate in your digital offerings over the past year.

Key questions you’ll want them to consider are:

Whether they enjoyed the digital event or content they experienced from you?

If they would be likely to go to a similar event from your organisation in the future?

Whether they will be consuming less digital content from museums and organisations such as your own, when in-person cultural events resume?

If they would be willing to pay for exclusive digital content, to help support the continuation of online programming?

In the meantime you can read the full report findings from the Cultural Resart webinar, which surveyed 21,873 respondents of 50 participating organisations, on their website by downloading the slides.

About the author – Hollie Hilton

Hollie Hilton is a Freelance Social Media Strategist and Digital Content Producer who works exclusively with Artists and Art-led businesses such as galleries, grassroots organisations, tech start-ups and charities, to help create compelling digital content that reaches new audiences. She also writes and hosts workshops to help Artists navigate online spaces and expand their digital presence.

Her degree in History of Art and experience working in-house for a gallery’s marketing and communications team, encouraged Hollie to use her skills and contextual knowledge to make Art and Culture more accessible to audiences that are often excluded or intimidated by it, and equip Artists with skills that help them achieve greater independence in the marketing and storytelling of their work.

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