People Don’t Want Virtual Museum Tours; Do This Instead

Ideas
Director of Marketing
Ideas April 30, 2020 People Don’t Want Virtual Museum Tours; Do This Instead

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”:

virtual museum tours data 2020

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:

virtual museum tours data 16+ years

And here is the last 90 days, which more clearly shows the decline after the March peak:

virtual museum tours data 90 days

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

  1. virtual field trips for kids
  2. quarantine date ideas
  3. 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:

virtual field trips data

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:

quarantine date ideas data

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:

things to read data

And somewhat related, an interesting chart for “podcasts”:

podcasts data

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:

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.”

Final Thoughts

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.

written with 💖 by Michael Alexis

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Comments & Reactions

  1. Elizabeth Greeno
    Elizabeth Greeno
    April 30, 2020 at 10:12 am

    I loved this interesting and informative article about virtual museum tours and museum stability. I hope that the general public while dealing with a devastating crisis is able to find some solace in art, in history and in our collective community. My real hope is that when we are able to be together and go to museums in person once again, that museums take the time to really reach out to marginalized audiences. That were are not so stuffy and elitist that we sometimes are. That we look at non-traditional art, cutting edge exhibits and different ideas in a new and open minded way. This crisis has really put things into perspective. Our collective humanity can be shown in our amazing uses of imagination, math, social history, the principles and elements of design and that all people can have a chance to express that in a museum setting. Our humanity makes for a rich, happy and interesting life.

    Reply
    • Michael Alexis
      Michael Alexis • Post Author •
      April 30, 2020 at 10:33 am

      Hi Elizabeth! Thanks for the kind words and for sharing your thoughts. I love the comment about our collective humanity ❤️

      Reply
    • Hasini
      Hasini
      May 7, 2020 at 1:34 am

      Lovely comment, Elizabeth

      Reply
  2. Kathy Hewitt
    Kathy Hewitt
    April 30, 2020 at 11:32 am

    Art makes my eyes happy and makes me smile. I am so ‘art naïve’ I could never be an art snob but what I truly enjoy about art is the history behind it. What I wouldn’t give to be the blank canvas in Monet’s studio, to see how he transforms me into a treasure, to see how he lived, to deduce his thoughts. Neither a lone virtual tour nor a physical visit can accomplish this, which is why I have thoroughly enjoyed my Museum Hack Tours. I often find the descriptions accompanying pieces of art to be sterile. Do I need to know it’s oil on canvas, painted in 1875, owned and on loan from the collection Mr. and Mrs. Gotrocks? Could this info be in small print below a professionally written, enticing/intriguing description of the art and a little history behind it? I think so. Would it be more enjoyable for both the lone virtual and actual museum visitor? I know so. Art is beautiful, but it’s story is as beautiful as it’s visual enjoyment.

    Reply
  3. Myron Baer
    Myron Baer
    April 30, 2020 at 12:11 pm

    Thank you for this Michael. At Orpheo, we have been creating content and hardware for museum tours via audio guides and apps for many years. We got into a paralyzed mode when we saw the explosion of virtual tours come about at Mach 5 speed. We were wondering if it made sense to jump into the foray. In the end we decided to hold off sensing this might be just a band aid and your analytics bolstered our decision. There will be a norm again and the routine of museum visitation will return at some point.

    Reply
    • Michael Alexis
      Michael Alexis • Post Author •
      April 30, 2020 at 12:19 pm

      Hi Myron. Thanks for the thoughtful and vulnerable comment. If you are open to sharing, I’d love to hear if you’ve found another area of focus instead.

      Reply
    • Michelle
      Michelle
      April 30, 2020 at 1:05 pm

      One of the beneficial things you can work on with your digital content is making it available on personal devices instead of handing out audio tour devices and iPads. This will be the biggest change out of this virus crisis. No one will want to take a device and hold it after hundreds of others have no matter how much you clean it between users. I see this as a huge benefit for museums to boost their WiFi coverage throughout the museum and have targeted tours that engage with most mobile platforms depending on where the visitor is within the museum. As well, your digital in-house content is also available once the visitor leaves the museum.
      And a reminder – if you require my email address to sign into your WiFi’s, follow up with a meaningful email post-visit. It’s a great opportunity to ask about their visit and provide more content.

      Reply
      • Myron Baer
        Myron Baer
        April 30, 2020 at 1:23 pm

        I’m an ardent believer in apps as well as audio guides. Apps have various guest experience limitations which I will not go into detail here. Suffice to say that spending non available money to boost museum wifi, for many, may not be a good strategic move at this time. Rushing to develop an app and all its technical and wifi components gets expensive and will probably take longer than this pandemic to subside. The virus will blow out in a few months and normal visitation will return. We are creatures of habit.

        Reply
  4. Kay Cynova
    Kay Cynova
    April 30, 2020 at 12:20 pm

    Do you have any data that might reflect differences in museum types? Art Museum/History Museum/Living History Museum?

    Reply
  5. Michelle
    Michelle
    April 30, 2020 at 1:00 pm

    This article also speaks true to the changing definition of a museum for visitors. Museums are now more about community and gathering as much as they are about seeing, learning, and engaging with artifacts and art. Without other people in the museum (or on the virtual tour) it leaves the experience feeling like it’s not as enriching as it is in person. Let’s be honest, most virtual tours are vacant of any humans because the 360 filming is done when the museum is usually closed. Gallery spaces look cold and uninviting in virtual tours and you’re left to sometimes wander aimlessly without any guidance and sometimes not in chronological or meaningful manners. Wall labels are also something that are tricky in virtual tours. I don’t know how many I tested out in the last couple of months that have zero wall text or labels to clearly read about what I’m looking at in the museum.

    Reply
  6. Jill
    Jill
    April 30, 2020 at 1:09 pm

    In terms virtual tours, while they are wonderful viewers are generally only going to view them once and maybe not fully. I think you need to think in terms of bits. Short videos of specific collections or pieces rather than the whole place. Have the tours be given by security or volunteers. Make them relatable and change or rotate them often. I might also be interesting to learn about the architecture of the space or how it came into existence. Even more interesting might be a night at the museum an after hours behind the scenes tour. Show the archives, storage how pieces come in and out of facility. Talk about the environment in the facility and how the facility is controlled. Interview security, volunteers, department heads and get their perspective. Go outside the four walls and see the neighborhood how does the museum influence their neighbors how has it grown and developed etc.

    There is so much to consider and to keep interest. Just keep it short.

    Reply
  7. Michelle
    Michelle
    April 30, 2020 at 1:10 pm

    Thank you for sharing this trend on topics. It is very insightful to see how people’s interests vary during self-isolation and which ones continue to rise above the others 🙂

    Reply
  8. Larissa
    Larissa
    April 30, 2020 at 1:55 pm

    Smart article and really interesting findings. So glad you shared this with us. I am an art historian and former MoMA educator myself, and will always believe that being in front of the object is best (nothing replaces this or the sense of community, learning, sharing, engaging that can happen with a group). But for a long time, we’ve known that it’s not always possible for everyone to visit various institutions (due to physical, economic, geographic barriers, etc. and now add to this COVID challenges). I currently work for Boulevard Arts, an immersive arts and culture company. I am interested in landing on the kinds of immersive tech tools and experiences that will engage audiences (I heard a writer above -short, short, short!) and agree (with the general public) that most virtual museum tours are lacking. Obviously your essay points to curriculum-related arts experiences as a productive mode. We are mostly creating for students and general audiences in augmented reality – and learning as we go. Anyway, I look forward to further posts from the Museum Hack community and to your continued analysis of the museum field. Good luck to you and your Museum Hack colleagues during these tough times!

    Reply
  9. Marcus Monenerkit4
    Marcus Monenerkit4
    April 30, 2020 at 1:58 pm

    Thank you for the article. I have a few thoughts. Although many will resume somewhat normal schedules in near future, there are segments of the population that will have changing needs moving forward. A crisis is a terrible time to brainstorm for new content and engagement ideas, but the difference also brings with it opportunities. I think museums tried to pivot quickly to remain connected, and the data shows some of the content isn’t being picked up. I think that could easily be expected. Museums might have been showing some promise in the gate with a slight uptick in visitation/memberships, but the overall population has little interest in art for art’s sake or art on a pedestal. There is a tremendous lack of concern for art in today’s world. Perhaps because it too often lays bare our contemporary existential crisis. That’s scary information for the ordinary citizen. What I have found is the bulk of our non-visitor and likely visitors are looking for something instrumental, useful, and relevant to their own experience. The engaged member is looking for a deeper/richer engagement. Stay safe.

    Reply
  10. Simon
    Simon
    April 30, 2020 at 4:18 pm

    Interesting. It’s worth noting that although interest in museum digital tours is down, it is starting to move towards an inflection point that may be 20x-25x higher than prior to COVID-19 (maybe more or maybe less; it’s hard to get a sense of how high the graph is prior to March 14). Even though interest is down from the peak on March 17, it’s wildly increased from before “stay at home” measures were instituted.

    What do you think? Is it worth investing in digital experiences now, or will the demand have truly returned to near pre-COVID-19 levels by the time a digital product is produced?

    Reply
    • Simon
      Simon
      May 1, 2020 at 10:30 am

      The results vary significantly depending on search terms. I popped into Google Trends (admittedly, I’m new to this tool so I may be missing something) and searched for “virtual tour” and “virtual field trip.” Both search terms are experiencing similar declines off their peaks in mid-March; “virtual tour” is at 71 and “virtual field trip” is at 73 (as of the April 19-25 data point). Both search terms are currently similarly popular relative to their peaks. There are similar curves for “take-home” activities.

      I think your analysis of “quarantine date ideas” reveals something: we may be moving out of the “holy smokes, what do I do during quarantine” time, and moving into a time where the more important questions is, “how do I continue living my life under quarantine.” I looked for a few search terms that might provide some evidence:

      “zoom activites” is currently at 100
      “zoom games” is at 85
      Interestingly, “zoom happy hour” is at 74 and declining
      “gardening” is at an all time high of 100, even when taking into consideration the seasonal swings. What other activities are folks doing at home at museums/cultural institutions are in a position to support? For example, “how to write a song” is at a 5-year high; music museums I’m looking at you.

      Just my meandering thoughts.

      Reply
  11. Antonio M. Cuaresma
    Antonio M. Cuaresma
    May 1, 2020 at 6:23 am

    Muchas gracias por el artículo, está genial, llevo tiempo con el tema de las visitas virtuales en museos o museos virtuales, buscando podcast que hablen sobre cómo será el museo del futuro.

    Reply
  12. Ed Malouf
    Ed Malouf
    May 1, 2020 at 9:19 am

    Excellent! I have not seen data and institutional viability discussed like this. There is a project here for a Code for America Brigade.

    Reply
    • Elizabeth L. Reede
      Elizabeth L. Reede
      May 1, 2020 at 2:11 pm

      Agree–but also a point of debate within museums who are woefully behind in accepting and exploring how to use new technology to improve their outreach and engagement (which will ultimately positively impact their bottom line and not necessarily through ticket sales.)

      Reply
  13. Maggie Newell
    Maggie Newell
    May 1, 2020 at 9:49 am

    Very interesting. The empty art museum tours make me long for the art programs that used to air on PBS with eccentric personalities – who remembers Sister Wendy? While I love to quietly contemplate art – the human element creates the important dialogue that makes gallery visiting a social activity.

    I work at a living history museum. I think we have a lot of potential to create “how to” videos for virtual field trips. For now we can only dream about being given access to our sites.

    Reply
  14. Mia Vanacker
    Mia Vanacker
    May 2, 2020 at 3:44 am

    Likely someone already suggested including scavenger hunts or drinking games.

    Reply
  15. Ruthanne Baxter
    Ruthanne Baxter
    May 2, 2020 at 12:56 pm

    Extremely useful and inspiring article! Many thanks Michael. The lockdown experience has certainly brought much to test us, but equally, is not without it’s opportunities and need to reflect, review and respond. I am loving the date night idea and will certainly look to develop something fun, free and different from our music museum shortly. My immediate work focus has turned to converting ‘Prescribe Culture’, my non-clinical heritage based support programme for students with mental health and wellbeing difficulties, to a virtual offer. While completely aware this will never make the depth of impact the on-site / live programme can achieve, it is certainly still being welcomed by those students who have signed up for it. All of the comments and feedback above are also really interesting and useful and I would add that, we – as a sector – may have noticed an incline in connecting and working more globally, together, in this situation. Love the work you guys do!!

    Reply
  16. Guido Simonetti
    Guido Simonetti
    May 3, 2020 at 3:40 am

    Thanks a lot for this inspiring post.
    We are working every day with Museum Directors in Italy and two trends are clearly emerging:
    – return to normality will be a (very) long process due to reduced flows of international tourism and Museums will have to look for new ways to engage the visitors which will stay even after the Covid emergency;
    – Museums are striving to find new business models which may sustain them in the short and medium-term
    The second point is particularly relevant.
    So far, virtual tours have not provided sustainable business models that could replace the ‘real tours’.
    We are experimenting with some promising ideas which mainly revolve around:
    – involve schools and universities with some edutainment schemes which work well in the ‘virtual world’.
    – create some great user experience based not only on 360 views/VR but mainly on storytelling and on those contents which work best when accessed from personal devices
    Keep up your great blogging contribution!

    Reply
    • Michael Alexis
      Michael Alexis • Post Author •
      May 3, 2020 at 11:36 am

      Thanks Guido! Quick note that Google Trends has a useful feature where you can filter by region. For this article I thought it made more sense to look at the trends “worldwide”, and it sounds like looking at Italy specific data would be most helpful for you. As a quick experiment I also tried using the phrase “visite ai musei virtuali” via Google Translate, and it looks like the data is similar but not the same; so I think worth testing both in English and Italian. Wish you the best as you continue work on your new systems!

      Reply
  17. Sandra Norval
    Sandra Norval
    May 3, 2020 at 5:34 am

    Great article, thank you!

    I was wondering, does the data look purely at searches or does it include when people use a direct link?

    I recall seeing a huge number of articles like ‘top ten virtual museum tours’, or ‘things to do when home schooling’ etc. Some listed hundreds and had docs that people could add links to. I know I have shared direct links to all sorts of interesting things too. Could it be that the spike is more of a reflection of blogging trends and the rise of homeschooling and actual visits are not revealed?

    I know that I would love to see virtual tours as a standard feature on museum and gallery websites to help me plan visits, find out if they have the exhibits I hope to see and access them when I can’t physically travel to them.

    In fact I would think there’s a market for a subscription based app to access lots of different museums this way so researchers can find the artefacts they would be interested in, or educators could create programmes around a selection of connected items wherever they are in the world – what is it, how did it get there, whose story connects them.

    Imagine a virtual Google Earth tour tracking Genghis Khan’s advance for example. This could be linked with TV programming too. Say, a David Attenborough narrated Google Earth trail tracking the Monarch butterfly migration with visits to nature reserves and natural history museum and houses of important scientists along the way put out on TV with a virtual tour available through every place featured and enabling donations to relevant charities. The possibilities are endless if we don’t just decide not to bother.

    Sometimes people don’t know what to search for and the search is naturally a retrospective thing ie the majority will be for things that people know are there to find so deciding future activity based only on current or past activity will be a diminishing return ultimately.

    These are just my musings arising from this article, now you’ve got me thinking… 🤔

    Reply
    • Michael Alexis
      Michael Alexis • Post Author •
      May 3, 2020 at 11:32 am

      Hi Sandra! Thank you for the thoughtful comment and questions. Google Trends only shows search volume; they definitely have significant data on viewed web pages too via their Google Analytics platform. However. our only access to that data is for our own web properties. For example: we can see how many people visit each page on Museum Hack, and can further filter that data by time span, regions, demographics and other aspects.

      I LOVE your ideas around combining technology with education and programming.

      Reply
      • Sandra Norval
        Sandra Norval
        May 5, 2020 at 2:04 pm

        Thanks Michael, I have so many ideas from this train if thought, definitely going to explore them, thanks for the inspiration!

        Reply
  18. A. Davide Madonna
    A. Davide Madonna
    May 3, 2020 at 7:30 am

    Really good job! It’s the first time in my life that i found an article on cultural marketing that speaks of… cultural marketing with a in deep analysis and good ideas.
    Well done!

    Reply
    • Michael Alexis
      Michael Alexis • Post Author •
      May 3, 2020 at 11:37 am

      Really kind, thank you ❤️

      Reply
  19. A parent
    A parent
    May 3, 2020 at 10:47 pm

    Thoughts from a parent: The tsunami of links for the kids came from every possible corner… their teachers, my mom, my cousin, my dentist (!)… So, I finally gave in and tried a virtual museum tour.
    What. A. Disaster.
    My middle-schoolers just flat out refused in the first place. I finally convinced my 6-year-old to take a tour of an art museum I’d visited once a long time ago. It took 20 minutes to get it set up, then I had to stand over her shoulder to make sure things on the tour were appropriate. This was all for 5 minutes of her gleefully “walking through walls,” then shrugging her shoulders and walking away.
    It pains me to say it took more effort than it was worth, but: it took more effort than it was worth. I can’t bring myself to try it again.

    Reply
  20. Mlungisi
    Mlungisi
    May 4, 2020 at 2:10 am

    Great article Michael Thanks, I suppose every platform has its own (personal) audience. It would be ideal comprehend why there is a lost of interest other than wanting to encounter the real space and to get to the bottom of it. If I can say in general that in South Africa Virtual museums are for the emerging generation (informal data that I collected through comments), in museums we strive to cater for all and i suppose Virtual museums will find its place, even if it’s a little corner and settle.

    Reply
  21. Giuliano Gaia
    Giuliano Gaia
    May 4, 2020 at 2:58 am

    Hi, Giuliano Gaia from Milan. I love your approach of analyzing google trends, it focuses on the audience rather than on the offer and that’s very good. Regarding virtual tours, we have been organizing them since the beginning of March, we were among the first in Italy, and what makes the difference in my opinion is the human guide. Virtual environments are empty and boring – put in it a live human guide and everything changes. Our virtual guides to the Poldi Pezzoli museum
    always have a waiting list. We wrote something about it here: http://www.invisiblestudio.it/new/blog/coronavirus-tips-to-organize-a-virtual-visit-to-a-museum-using-google-streetview/.

    Keep up the good work,

    Giuliano

    Reply
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