Making a Business Case for Mobile Apps in Museums

Much has been written recently (herehere and here) about museums having a difficult time adopting mobile technology. The consensus seems to be that although everyone agrees mobile guides are awesome and make a lot of sense for museums, the actual adoption of mobile apps in museums has been a bit slow.

Perhaps it is time to make a business case for mobile apps in museums. While it is true that museums do not (and should not) operate as businesses much of the time, there are certain circumstances that might benefit museums to think through problems with the same criteria that businesses do: THE BOTTOM LINE.

Let’s face it, if you can show that a mobile app is either going to make $$ or save $$ then the chances of getting the project funded, approved and launched quickly is exponentially higher.

So here are 7 business considerations for determining if  a mobile app makes sense for your museum (for the purposes of this post I am going to refer to visitors as “customers”):

  1. Replace an expensive audio guide contract: Does your museum have a contract in place that is currently costing thousands of dollars per year in licensing, equipment maintenance, or staff time? If so, switching an old audio guide into a mobile app may save LOTS of money in the long run.
  2. Lower demands on staff: If your app can answer questions (i.e. “Where are the restrooms?”), cut down on the staffing needs (consider cutting back on the number of live tours given daily) or ease the burden on your staff, then guess what? You are saving your organization $$.
  3. Increase the time customers spend at your museum: The longer each customer spends in your “store” (museum) the more revenue you are likely to generate – via eating onsite at museum cafes, shopping in the museum store, etc.
  4. Generate buzz among customers: If customers have an exceptionally good experience, they tell their friends about it, the tweet it, post and ultimately they act as evangelists for your museum.
  5. Mobile Apps engage those elusive 25-35 year-olds: How many meetings have you sat through where the topic of an aging donor base has come up?  If you can engage them now, they will grow up to be your future donors and patrons.
  6. Increase Memberships and/or Donations: By providing a link to your membership or donation page within your mobile app you are providing users with a way to directly support your organization monetarily. Including it in your app allows customers to make a donation even after they leave your site.
  7. In-App Surveys allow for direct visitor feedback: It’s expensive (and invasive) to have people milling about your museum with clipboards in hands asking visitors questions.  If your app can do this on-going you will have a better data set and won’t have to pay extra for it.
Have you tried to make a business case for mobile in your museum? Was it successful? Chime in with your thoughts and opinions.
Photo (C) 2009 Andreas C Randow

2 thoughts on “Making a Business Case for Mobile Apps in Museums

  1. #2-6 are enticing possibilities but is there any data showing that apps actually achieve these results? If so, which ones – all, or just apps that meet certain criteria or standards? Can apps yield these benefits on their own, or must they be supported by and supporting of other elements in the museum mix, from exhibition experience design to marketing? And how do we measure “network effects” like “buzz” and increased revenues from increased dwell time anyway?
    I guess I’m just concerned about trying to base financial decisions around mobile on arguments like these without solid market research that confirms they’ll hold true for any given museum or app project. Nothing will undermine the credibility of a mobile program faster than making promises to museum leadership that then aren’t fulfilled.

    1. Hi Nancy,

      Thanks for your comments – and for pointing out the importance of having reliable data. We’re creating in-depth case studies (to be published next month) on two apps that have yielded some exciting results: the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center app and the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House app. The Freedom Center has done a fantastic job promoting their app, and they were able to significantly lower their annual expenses from an old audio tour contract they had previously. The Ford House started out by renting out their iPod Touches to visitors for $5 each, but based on the positive feedback from tour-goers, they decided to offer the iPods to all visitors for free – and increase the general admission fee.

      Another interesting point brought to my attention by several museums recently is that, for museums that print brochures and self-guided paper tours, having an app can (potentially) decrease printing costs significantly. I spoke with one mid-size art museum who said they reprint all of their brochures every time they get a new work, which is about once a month. Eek! That adds up.

      We’re doing our best to track Items 2 – 6 in the post above, because I agree with you – data is key!


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