Research and Collections

Research and Collections

Commercial Considerations in Putting Museums Online – Page 7

– Page 7 –

Commercial enterprise

Of course there’s a cost to all this, and the only way to handle it will be for museums to adopt a more commercial perspective on the services and products they offer. Entrepreneurship is not something that comes easily to institutions that consider themselves non-profit, motivated by a desire for the public good. Although a growing number of institutions have reluctantly imposed admission fees in recent years, those fees tend to cover only a small percentage of an institution’s operating costs. Nor do conventional publishing programmes often operate at a profit.

But if they hope to maintain their level of service, and even their high principles of public access to heritage information, in this time of reductions in government funding levels, museums have to learn to go with the flow.

So how can museums make money to cover the costs of electronic outreach? No-one yet has any sure-fire answers, but museums have to be prepared to experiment, to test the waters, to find out what markets are out there and what they want. I’ve already spoken a little about our CD products. At this point I want to refocus on ways in which a Web site can be used to generate revenue.

For museums, one of the uses of a Web site is to promote the institution to potential visitors — both creating awareness and providing information that helps in planning visits. For a national museum, which targets not only national but international audiences, the Web provides a more cost-effective promotional tool than placing ads in newspapers or magazines around the world. So of course there’s revenue to be made indirectly, by reaching new audiences some of whom will decide, on the basis of what they see on the Web site, to visit the real thing. We have received public comments, through a feedback mechanism on our Web site, that confirms the site has stimulated interest in visiting. And we currently have underway a collaborative research project with the Glenbow Museum in Calgary and the Museum of New Mexico to examine the effects of the use of the Web in stimulating physical visits to museum sites.

A second commercial use for museum Web sites is to market museum products. At the lowest level this means advertising publications and souvenirs, and most museum Web sites are involved in this. But what people want from Web sites is service, and it is important to move beyond advertising to online ordering. My museum made this transition at the end of last year, and has seen business pick up as a result. I won’t say we’re getting a lot of orders, but we have had orders for multimedia products and for aboriginal art from the United States and Europe. And statistics show that the Cyberboutique section of our Web site is one of the more popular parts to visit. I’m convinced that it will, over the long term, provide us with a steady flow of revenue. Most probably the items that will retail best will be our CD products and unique cultural items — such as aboriginal art — that are difficult to obtain elsewhere. I anticipate making partnership arrangements with artists or artists’ collaboratives to market their work through our Cyberboutique, with of course a slice off the top for the Museum.

Connected to this use is the value of the Web as a tool to distribute electronic publications. Many museum publications are of interest to fairly small, and widely distributed audiences. It is difficult to publish economically based on small print runs, and then there is a cost incurred in warehousing multiple copies during the years it generally takes to sell out a print run. Publishing-on-demand is therefore a strategy from which museums can profit.

A third way of earning revenues from the Web will be to make the site, or parts of the site, accessible on a paid basis. This could be through a membership fee or on a pay-per-use basis. So long as the material offered on this basis has real entertainment or educational value (as opposed to purely promoting the museum), and is founded on knowledge resources unique to the institution, I believe that the public will be prepared to pay for access. At present, surveys of the Internet population indicate that about a third of users are opposed to paying for access to individual sites, whereas others will make that decision based on the perceived value of what is offered. I anticipate that we will see increasing migration to a paradigm in which certain information on the Web is free and certain will be accessible only through some kind of financial arrangement between user and provider.

Recently my museum used its Web site to experiment with an innovative project: an online auction. What made this innovative is that we weren’t selling items, but instead the rights to sponsor special artifacts which were highlighted in the auction. Although this pilot project was too far ahead of its time, and was not successful from the financial perspective (less than 2,000 visits during the 14 weeks of its operation), it was a very useful learning experience. We now believe that, within a year or two, once a wider audience is on the Web, it will be possible to use the Web for such auctions, perhaps mixing in sales of artworks or other up-scale products with sponsorship items. We also learned something about “price points” — finding we were too high. Our next foray will probably be a real auction online for donated Native art, to support the development of our First Peoples Gallery.

The online auction project, which went under the title “Sponsor a Treasure”, served a dual function. For those who didn’t want to participate in the auction per se, it still gave the opportunity to browse through a selection of just over a hundred artifacts from our collections. This is an example of integration of purposes which is, I believe, an area in which the Web can excel. Much of the educational content we have on our Web site – in terms of tours of exhibits — also serves a promotional function; it “sells” the notion of visiting the site itself.

The huge digital image-base we are creating using Photo CD provides an archive that not only serves in-house multimedia production. We are prepared to sell the one-time use of individual images to other producers or book publishers. We have already had a modest income from selling copies of photographs to publishers, but the difficulty has always been marketing our photo archive. The Web now presents us with a tool to do that more cost-effectively.

I envisage a cross-over relationship between networked and stand-alone information products. On one hand some of the educational units produced for the Web can eventually be packaged together for distribution on CD-ROM, which will prove cheaper than creating a sophisticated CD-ROM from scratch. On the other hand, we can create a “take-home” museum, in the form of a set of CD-ROMs with hundreds of images of objects from our collection, organized by theme; in fact, thousands, if the images are thumbnails. Selections from this material can be used to present units for Web presentation, which will add more value to the Web site, while at the same time serving to promote the CD products.

Another approach will be to include, on CD-ROMs that are basically image archives, software that allows for a direct link with the publisher’s Web site. Each image could be linked to supplementary information, such as text from the museum catalogue or A/V material that shows an artifact in the context of its use. Since the images of the artifacts are themselves a stable form of data, putting them onto CD-ROM makes sense. But the interpretive information may change, through revision or expansion, and is best provided through a medium susceptible to easy updating. There might even be different versions of the supplementary information, aimed at different publics. The interpretive information itself could be accessible only via payment. We see schools as a major market for collection packages on disk as well as online multimedia databases with educational site licences. This strategy is something which I would be delighted to discuss with anyone else in the audience who has an interest in it.

This kind of interlinking of products is liable to multiply the revenues that a museum can earn. Although individual products could be bought separately, once a purchaser has committed to one, he or she will likely decide to further the investment by purchasing the related products. That is, someone who decides to buy a disc of photos can be expected to be interested in purchasing access to the Web-based information that makes those photos more valuable, in information terms. And someone who has a membership to the Web site and can already access the text catalogue will want to buy the discs that give access to the image catalogue.


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