By Samuel Greengard
At first glance, an art museum would seem to lie outside the domain of the digital world. The ability to view paintings, sculptures and other artifacts is deeply rooted in the senses. However, at the Dallas Museum of Art, digital technology—specifically social media features and analytics—is redefining the business of operating a museum.
In January 2013, the museum, which accommodates 500,000-plus visitors annually, dropped its admission fee from $10 to free, and it revamped its membership program to “focus heavily on participation,” says Robert Stein, deputy director of the Dallas Museum of Art. The new program, dubbed DMA Friends, is a digital platform that allows visitors to obtain a free membership.
The 110-year-old museum has positioned a dozen iPad-based kiosks scattered throughout the main concourse and within various galleries. The wireless devices integrate with the Web and an internal MySQL database, while offering basic social media features and SMS tools.
Visitors check in and engage in activities—and earn points along the way. The museum uses Chartio charting and graphing software to view patterns. The application produces different dashboards for different staff members, depending on their job position.
“Most of the staff is not highly proficient in technology, and the ability to use a dashboard to instantly view graphs and charts allows us to make decisions and adjustments on a far more dynamic basis,” Stein says. For example, “By understanding how people are behaving inside the museum, we can determine which activities and programs are more popular.”
However, the tool also helps staff members determine a number of other things, including who has signed up for the program but hasn’t returned and who visits regularly.
Ultimately, the data helps the staff map out various activities and programs designed to maximize repeat visits. “We can than target micro-communities with the right message,” Stein notes. In addition, the staff can determine where to position greeters in order to maximize sign-ups.
In addition, the check-in data allows visitors to accumulate points that can be redeemed for free parking, free tickets for special exhibitions, catalogs in the museum shop and memberships. “We also hold special events,” Stein adds. “We have had a couple of people earn enough points to receive a night at the museum or a movie with their friends in our theater.”
Visitors also can text from their own phones to check in, and they’re able to use card printers scattered throughout the museum to obtain membership cards on demand. The Dallas Museum of Art is currently developing smartphones apps for iOS and Android devices and will likely roll them out within the next year or so.
“We wanted to start with a low barrier to entry and get people involved,” Stein says. “We will build on these capabilities as the museum moves forward.”
The program has so far attracted more than 12,000 new “friends”—about half of the paid memberships it had previously tallied. About 90 percent of these “DMA Friends” are new to the museum.
“The technology is helping us become a better museum—one more in touch with the community,” Stein concludes.