Last summer I visited the New York Botanical Garden and had a very different experience than any of my previous visits to cultural institutions. After downloading the Botanical Garden’s free mobile app, my friends and I were able to scan barcodes throughout the exhibitions and get instant access to a wealth of information on all the plants and flowers we were viewing. This information was extremely valuable to us as visitors, but it was perhaps even more valuable to the museum. The New York Botanical Garden is one of many cultural institutions around the world that are increasing their use of technology to collect customer data and deliver a better experience for visitors. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, MoMA, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston are among the many cultural institutions that have launched mobile apps for visitors to get access to more information about current and upcoming exhibits. The Dallas Museum of Art created a loyalty program based on the American Airlines frequent flier program that uses points to encourage visitors to return to their museum regularly. While many of these museums have introduced creative strategies to capture data on customer behaviors and tastes, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York has emerged as a leader in this area through its use of beacon technology.
Moving one step beyond launching a snazzy mobile app, the Guggenheim has set up a series of beacons in the museum’s main rotunda to track the movements of its visitors. (The Guggenheim app is actually really snazzy, download it for free here). Beacon technology has been used in the retail space, where insights on customer movements can help store owners send timely and targeted push notifications about coupons, new products, or other promotional features. Similarly, the Guggenheim is able to use insights gained from these beacons to discover how quickly visitors move through an exhibit and what works they spend the most time looking at. Using this data, the Guggenheim Museum can create value by:
- Making smarter curatorial decisions based on patterns of visitor movements
- Sending push notifications to visitors based on their location, helping increase engagement with art or the museum in general
- Enabling more informed decisions related to marketing for existing and new exhibits
- Creating more personalized museum-going experiences
Not only is this robust use of data a significant shift in strategy for the Guggenheim Museum, but it also translates to financial gain. More rigorous tracking of visitor behavior helps the Guggenheim Museum capture value by:
- Attracting more visitors due to an enhanced museum-going experience
- Driving higher rates of membership (and thus membership fees)
- Enhancing membership stickiness by keeping people connected to the museum through more advanced alerts and messaging
- Increasing gift shop sales
- Providing more leverage for fundraising and sponsorships
There are, however, several challenges with the Guggenheim’s use of beacon technology. The biggest concern is around customer privacy. Many visitors have already expressed distaste with the idea that the museum is tracking their every move and employing similar strategies as Wal-Mart to drive sales. When given the chance, visitors might disable notifications from the museum, or worse, avoid visiting the museum altogether. Another serious concern is the question of whether users really know what they want and like when it comes to art. Will over-engineering art exhibits may in itself detract from the value of having an expert curator decide how to organize the works? Lastly, does the Guggenheim have the expertise to make productive use out of this data and draw from it insights that will make a real difference in terms of visitor engagement and revenue? Only time will tell. But if anyone is able to get really creative with data, it is likely to be an art museum.