The field of visual arts has an engagement problem, embodied in the phrase ‘I don’t get art’. There is a common belief that an inability to enjoy each and every artwork encountered is a failure to appreciate art, which is a standard not held to other mediums. Not enjoying every song you hear is not a source of shame or motivation to dismiss the musical medium at large. Quite the opposite, the nuances of your personal music taste are pillars of your personal brand and what you project back out to the world.

This sense of alienation from the visual arts is partially due to the opaque and extremely wealthy commercial art-market. In the past year alone, nine different works have sold more for than 100 million dollars and one work by an anonymous Brit was publicly shredded, only to be revalued at a higher price point. Understandably, these privileged antics can have an alienating effect on 99% of the population. It could also be attributed to some of the more esoteric or ineffable conceptual artworks that prompt the catch cries of ‘My Kid Could do that’.

These factors combined, have created the ‘art-fluent’ outsider complex, rendering any audience member not in the economic 1% or the rigorously scholarly feeling somewhat excluded from what should really be an emotive and subjective viewing experience. Museums as public institutions charged with preservation and education, need to bridge the pretension/comprehension gap in order to attract any foot traffic, implementing audience-first strategies to create engagement with every tier of customer.

In many ways, museums act as the physical embodiment of content marketing, and their strategies can teach us a lot about the field. Running with the metaphor – the museum is the brand, established according to a specific mission with aligned values. The building it’s housed in, the content hub. The curator is the content marketer, charged with selecting and looking after significant items that reflect their mission. An exhibition is therefore a content pillar, designed by the curator, containing a collection of these items – unique stories told by esteemed visual authors – which expresses an overarching narrative.

So what can we take away from them?

Think in feelings and textures

Nothing in the design of an exhibition or a museum can be targeted towards a particular audience group. Ticket sales for museum entry can’t be used as predictive models for future attendees and their behaviours, nor is there demographic information that will inform whether or not a person deeply cares about Mesopotamian artefacts, or a survey of Warhol’s most compelling celebrity portraits. Then once installed, an exhibition structure is largely static – there aren’t many opportunities for data-driven personalisation.

Given this, museums must take the time to understand their audience based on behavioural drivers and motivations and use this to inform their decision-making. While a museum is nominally a site of cultural preservation and education, in reality, its function has expanded to meet a more demanding contemporary audience. Culture Track, a bi-annual survey of the ‘cultural consumer’, identified the four key drivers behind cultural participation in 2017 as ‘having fun’, ‘interested in the content’, ‘experiencing new things’, and ‘feeling less stressed’, with ‘learning something new’ only coming in at 5th place.

To create a compelling experience for every audience member on site and in real time, many museums will think of their audiences in three behavioural groups based on emotions, engagement levels, motivations – the sprinter, the stroller, and the studier. The sprinter is your least engaged and fastest moving, more likely to pass through an exhibition quickly and focus on a few landmark items without delving into the supplementary materials. The stroller will dabble, spending more time on components that grab their curiosity or offer an interactive component, while the studier will take the time to critically analyse the exhibition against their own level of understanding – your Ross Gellers of the world.

The same thinking applies beyond the confines of the museum. There is no single narrative or structure that can attract all audiences, and understanding this reinforces the need to take a layered approach to your content. By taking a nuanced perspective on who your audience groups are, and understanding that their reason for engagement may be outside the scope of your brand’s mandate, museums have been able to create a tiered approach to how they articulate their stories.

Curate, creatively

Great curation is telling one story, many ways, with the same props. For museums, the aim is to have the sprinter, the stroller, and the studier to all walk away with the same understanding what the Museum is about and what the big idea of the exhibition is.

The starting point is to know what story you’re trying to tell, and understanding how individual content points work to elucidate this. A museum like the Metropolitan Museum of Art has more than 2 million objects spanning human history, so there is no shortage of tales to be told or perspectives to be brought. To continually present exhibitions curated by time period or geography, just like relying on demographics to drive insights or understanding, can be repetitive or shallow. Instead, curators rely on a deep understanding of their content matter to produce multi-layered expression of a theme. This is achieved through exhibition design, overlaying the content – the artworks or objects displayed – with the creation of a cohesive narrative path that pull a viewer through the exhibition through UX – the layout, signage, or didactic materials.

Understanding that the largest proportion of most museum audiences sit somewhere between the ‘Sprinter’ and the ‘Stroller’, the challenge is to create fun, democratic touch points that still hold some educational quality.  Looking to the key drivers behind cultural participation, audience members are no longer motivated to attend a museum based on what the museum is showing, but also what visiting a museum can offer to them. This is particularly true of those struggling with the ‘artfluence’ complex.

Increasingly, this comes in the form of interactive or digital touch points. MONA, for instance, has done away with exhibition signposting and instead offers an app titled The O. Audiences are able to rate each artwork as ‘love’ or ‘hate’ and leave their own reviews and thoughts about works, which forges a critical and analytical relationship between the viewer and art while still creating a fun and interactive opportunity for all audience types to enjoy. Additionally, rather than presenting a single wall panel of text, there is a dynamic range of touch points audiences can engage with that appeal to different learning styles – poetry inspired by the artwork, songs that inspired the artist, ramblings from the museum founder, two line ‘no art-wank’ explanations. Akin to a choose your own adventure, this app sets the benchmark for multifaceted audience engagement hinging on creative and dynamic expression to which all content marketers can strive.