5 rules for attracting millennials - learnings from the Smithsonian Museums

So, despite being told to put it on the internet, that actually didn’t work for us, to get people to the museum. So, we made the choice not to record the programmes, and not to webcast them. Someone in a panel yesterday was talking about how museums put all this time and effort into creating great YouTube videos, putting them online, and then nobody watches them. That’s what we were doing, so we just decided to stop doing that, and instead, we focus our digital efforts on ways that people will actually make the decision to come to the event. So, we’ve updated our website, and really focus on very easy to read materials – this is what to come, this is what to do, very action oriented, and we’ve built up an email newsletter list.


At some point, your organisation is going to have the conversation about millennials. Sometimes called the “younger audience” even though some of them are almost 40. Millennials in the UK and US are those people born roughly between 1980 and 2000. 25% of Americans are millennials. That’s over 83 million millennials living in the US. That’s a bigger group, according to this article, than the current total of baby boomers (those people born just after World War II).

In her talk at MuseumNext in Dublin, Susan Evans McClure, a director at the Smithsonian Food History Programs, tells us how millennials are more diverse than every generation before them – 44% identify as being part of a minority ethnic group.

Oh, and if you’re interested, according to Forbes Magazine, by 2017 they’ll be spending approximately US$200 billion, annually.

So here’s the problem – many institutions know this group is important but struggle to reach or engage with them. Your institution may be one of them. However, are you doing the necessary research and thinking to properly understand them, or are you making assumptions? What Evans McClure’s MuseumNext presentation does very well, is show how flawed many of those assumptions are. And she does that by referencing her hands-on experience at the National Museum of American History, with some starkly revealing insights:

1. Focus on experience and authenticity: not booze and parties

Museums do authenticity and experiences really, really well, and what millennials want is what museums actually do. But where museums fall down is where they focus on the carrot: “Millennials like booze and parties – let’s throw a party with free drink” sounds like an incentive but it’s the wrong move: its too obvious, and isn’t authentic, leaving a typical millennial left asking, “where’s the real value?” or “what do I get out of it that’s of real value?” (other than a hangover).

2. Millennials like ‘social learning experiences’

NMAH ran American History After Hours – a bi-monthly evening event that brings audiences into the museum for nights of social learning on a huge range of content, from chickens to chocolate, to cocktails. They discovered that millennials really like the learning part, as long as it’s interactive. They loved panel discussions and wanted them to be longer. And of course, they enjoyed the alcohol.

3. If you don’t ask them to pay, they won’t come

This is a suprising one. The Smithsonian Museums are free, and open to the public – that’s one of their core values, and something Evans McClure believes very strongly in. However, free tickets didn’t work. Even thought the tickets only began to sell well a couple of days before the event, it goes to show that putting a price on something places a value on it that is in line with the modern trends: high priced interactive and immersive experiences as events.

4. “Put it on the internet” is not a strategy for attracting millennials

According to Evans McClure, NMAH tried this – and failed to get people to the museum. She references a panel where a different institution said a lot of money was going into YouTube videos but nobody was watching them. The key learning was that digital efforts need to be focused on the specific ways people actually make the decision to come to an event or exhibition. NMAH changed their website, updated it to be very ‘action-oriented’ and extremely easy to read: e.g. this is what to come to, this is what to do. Simple. Practical.

5. What’s good for millennials is good for everyone

OK so this point isn’t quite about attracting millennials – but if you have to choose which group to focus on, it’s worth noting that NMAH found that the topics and events they thought were going to attract millennials actually attracted older audiences, too. The older audience seemed to share the same desire to have a social learning experience, to come together with people, and to do hands-on activities

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