For a few days in March, 2020, the world focused its attention on virtual museum tours.
This attention was driven by museum closures, major media coverage, and a mighty social media effort by museums to offer an online experience to audiences.
And then, just as quickly, the attention disappeared and museums were left in what might be the greatest struggle for short-term relevancy they have ever faced.
The data shows that we are past peak interest in virtual museum tours. The mainstream market isn’t interested in seeing these world class institutions in virtual 3D spaces or photo galleries. As the Director of the Rubin Museum of Art, Jorrit Britschgi, said, “there is nothing that can replace in-person encounters with art.”
However, just as interest peaked for virtual museum tours, it is now starting to peak in other areas that museums can serve. In this article, I’ll share the data I mentioned and also the areas of opportunity.
Let’s get to it.
Virtual Museum Tours Were Popular for 4 Days
Google is one of the most data rich organizations ever to exist, and makes a portion of this data available to the public. Anyone can go to Google Trends, type in a query, and see search interest on Google’s platform for the last 16 years.
This data has several limitations, for example:
- The data is limited to Google’s platform, which is popular but not quite ubiquitous. China, for example, has over 1.3 billion people that can’t access Google without a VPN.
- The site does not provide number of searches and instead graphs on normalized and relative data. This structure allows for relative comparisons, without knowing whether you are analyzing in the thousands or millions.
- Google provides related trends, but to a degree you still need to pinpoint an accurate search. It is possible, for example, that “online museum tours” could be a more relevant search than “virtual museum tours.” It’s not 🙂
Still, the data is accurate enough that we use it to make decisions on product development, marketing, staffing and other important aspects of our business.
And to write blog posts…
Here is the last 12 months of Google’s search data for “virtual museum tours”:
The data shows that interest in virtual museum tours started to surge on March 14, peaked on March 17 and has been on decline ever since. The 16 years of data before March 14 shows comparatively little to no interest in virtual museum tours.
Here is the 16 year view:
And here is the last 90 days, which more clearly shows the decline after the March peak:
Related searches, such as “free virtual museum tours”, “virtual museum tours for kids”, and “online museum tours”, show a similar trend. One notable exception is “best virtual museum tours” which continues to fluctuate. Data from other sources shows that the search volume with the “best” modifier is much lower than the other keywords.
Some important notes:
First, I’m not attempting to describe the future, only forecast it 🙂 With the wild fluctuations in the market, it is possible that we will see another surge in interest for virtual museum tours soon. My best guess is that for as long as the pandemic lasts, some interest in virtual museum tours will remain, but that we are still past peak.
Second, this analysis is about the market size of virtual museum tours, and not otherwise a judgement of their quality or importance. For example, virtual museum tours are one way to make a museum and its collection more accessible.
With short term interest in virtual museum tours on the decline, I found three other online areas where museums can support their communities instead.
3 Museum-Relevant Searches that are Surging Now
There are two ways I navigate Google Trends:
- Type in a relevant keyword like “museum tours”, and then scroll down for related topics and queries that may show which keywords have a recent increase in search volume.
- Keyword searches based on intuition and other sources.
This approach is hardly comprehensive, but is valuable for quickly finding actionable insights. In March, we redirected our entire operational capacity with only hours of forward looking data to work with.
Exploring the available data shows that at least three potential audiences for museums are surging right now. Supporting data shows these searches have meaningful search volume and market interest as well.
The three areas are:
- virtual field trips for kids
- quarantine date ideas
- things to read
I’ll share a little more about each one.
#1 Virtual Field Trips for Kids
With many schools around the world closed through the end of the year, teachers and schools are working to build a digital curriculum for students. This curriculum includes virtual field trip experiences. Museums, already known as important field trip destinations, are well positioned to serve this market.
Here is the data to support this trend:
Our own data confirms this source. In the last month, we’ve had hundreds of educators reach out about running virtual experiences for their students and communities. We’ve learned that educators are looking for live or facilitated online experiences, which may inform the programming you can provide to them.
#2 Quarantine Date Ideas
A few weeks ago, a relationship tweet went viral on Twitter, “My wife and I play this fun game during quarantine, it’s called ‘Why Are You Doing It That Way?’ and there are no winners.”
Pessimists have dire predictions for relationships coming out of COVID. The data shows searches for “divorce lawyer” are slightly down over the last month. I’m optimistic 🙂
The data on Google Trends shows that people are looking for quarantine date ideas to support their relationships:
Similar to field trips, museums already exist as a place that people go on dates. You can reach this interest online by offering digital experiences that match the market’s interests. Data shows that people are looking for fun, cheap and romantic dates; in that order. Fun leads the other two by a factor of 2x, so I would recommend focusing on that.
Some quick ideas:
- Trivia Night: themed to your collection.
- Wine & Stories: BYOB storytelling sessions with your docents and curators.
- Art Classes: either to learn to draw or study art.
Last year, I met a museum professional and engineer that is building shock-absorbing systems for transporting delicate objects. That engineer could offer a 15 minute slideshow presentation on his craft, paired with trivia and icebreakers.
For developing your own date night programming, a useful rule of thumb is “go one niche deeper.”
#3 Things to Read
This category is the broadest, and will likely show the most stability in the long term.
Here is search data for “things to read” over 16 years:
And somewhat related, an interesting chart for “podcasts”:
Even though I expect podcasts are here to stay, I believe written content holds its value longer and will have a greater return for you. Every month, hundreds of thousands of people find Museum Hack via our written content. These examples are some of our most popular articles:
- Where to Eat Near the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC
- Did Pope Gregory IX Order A Medieval Purge of Black Cats That Caused the Black Death?
- 5 Must See Things at the American Museum of Natural History
- The Real Story of Hercules
I recommend crafting content both on the stories in your collection, and also on topics related to audiences that may visit your museum. For example, “date ideas in Brisbane”, “things to do with kids in Toronto”, and “rainy day activities in Seattle.”
A shorter version of this article would say, “wow, virtual museum tours peaked in March and now other areas are surging too.” A longer version would explore more data, and go deeper into product development and finding market fit.
For now, this is a Goldie Locks article; something in between that shares a story and provides room for discussion. I’d love to know your thoughts.
P.S: Here is the video link for Jorrit Britschgi’s quote in the intro: Rubin Museum of Art on Instagram.