Let’s Go! Highlights from the Marketing Symposium to Try Out in 2018

By Charity M. Counts

It’s a cold winter morning in January, and you (and the kids) have cabin fever. You decide to get out of the house in the afternoon, and want to do something fun – but nothing that requires a ton of energy. (Let’s face it, you’re exhausted from shoveling the driveway!)

The idea strikes – Let’s catch a flick! Hmmm…Jumanji 2 is playing. Maybe Coco is still in theaters?

[You quickly type “movies near me” into Google and…]

 Voilà! Here we go… [Cue screeching breaks]…Hey, what’s this? Incredible Predators 3D? Ooh, and it’s at the State Museum. Haven’t been there in a while. Gosh, I totally forgot that they had a giant screen theater.

You quickly start thumbing through webpages, and a few clicks later, have tickets to the museum and the theater.


GSCA organized the 2017 Marketing Symposium to bring challenges of the industry to the surface, and provide expert insights and professional training to address those challenges. From the onset, the intent for the symposium was to share innovative techniques or new ways of thinking about marketing, to help theaters, science centers, museums, producers and distributors identify opportunities to branch out their efforts.

However, after conducting surveys and interviewing staff, an even greater need was discovered. Professionals responsible for marketing and sales for the theaters needed practical solutions that they could apply in the limited budgets they have, which meant looking at ways to modify and experiment with the methods they were already employing.

How might GSCA members maximize their budgets and staff resources to more effectively engage current audiences and increase word-of-mouth to gain new audiences?

We interviewed 68 visitors at five case study museum theaters, and we learned that more than half of them knew that they would see a film regardless of when they decided to visit. As we dug deeper, we discovered that these visitors were prompted to purchase tickets after exploring a museum’s website or receiving recommendations from friends and family. In other words, they had to know how to find the museums first, then the theaters, or had to know someone else who did. It was an indirect path.

We asked those same visitors how they would normally learn about movies, of any kind. Their answers were almost always “Google searches” or “search movies near me.”

Take for instance the scenario above. If the giant screen film hadn’t appeared in your search, you likely wouldn’t have purchased tickets. As industry insiders, it is easy for us to take for granted how often (or how little) our museums, science centers and theaters actually come to mind when a visitor or member is planning his or her day.

Now, it’s not bad that some people seek out the museum first and even show up without a giant screen film in their plan. Rather, it’s important to recognize that these same visitors may not remember or realize all that you have to offer – even members! During our interviews, the visitors who hadn’t decided to see a film in advance (the clear minority) said their decision was influenced by onsite posters and staff.

It was apparent from our research that social media, email, web presence, search engine optimization and frontline sales needed to be focal points for the Marketing Symposium.

Taking into consideration feedback from symposium attendees, here are a few highlights and insights from the symposium related to those key focal points.

  • SEO is essential. By experimenting with search term frequencies and Google Adwords, giant screen theaters and film producers can elevate the position of their venues and films in simple searches. In a sense, it’s about meeting people where they are, which is pretty much just somewhere (anywhere) wondering “what’s playing near me?”
  • Identify your brand evangelists and invite them to get involved TODAY. Jackie Huba, author of Monster Loyalty (How Lady Gaga Turns Followers Into Fanatics), shared a story about the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, TX, a movie theater famous for having strict rules and high customer satisfaction. The Alamo Drafthouse focuses their efforts on providing the best possible customer experience combined with shareable moments (photo-ops!) in order to create fans or “evangelists.” Jackie encouraged giant screen theaters to start engaging individuals who frequently take the time to send in comments – even criticism. If they cared enough to write in, they are likely evangelists!
  • Don’t generalize your content. One of the things we heard over and over again during visitor interviews was that they would describe giant screen films as educational, even more so than “family-friendly.” Maybe other potential visitors would too! For example, by offering specific educational tidbits on social media platforms, such as focusing on a particular fact about a species featured in a film, you appeal to an audience’s desire to learn. If you know which audiences you want to reach, you can focus that content even more!
  • Everyone working in your museum or theater is in marketing and sales. Kelsey Van Voorst and Mookie Harris, our guest improv actors and professional trainers, demonstrated so well the potential sales opportunities and stumbling blocks that could develop in a single customer experience. Empowering staff with personal experiences in the theater and a list of FAQs is a great place to start.
  • The ability to reach new audiences is dependent on institutional culture. Last, but not least, Doug Harris from Kaleidoscope Group offered insights on connecting to more diverse audiences. When seeking new customer relationships, it’s important to consider how diverse and welcoming your own institutions are. He suggested hiring a more diverse staff, setting cultural competence standards, sharing relevant content, conducting focus groups, and aligning with sponsors who know the audience.

Charity M. Counts is an independent museum consultant with experience in exhibit project management, tour management, event planning, and audience research. Charity and her colleagues at Museum Playbook collaborated with GSCA on the development of the 2017 Marketing Symposium