Museum visitors and revenues are growing again. But on digital, we're still behind

The year 2021 saw major growth in visitors and revenue for museums and theaters. But on digital, our cultural institutions still trudge on, despite the fact that visitors consider it engaging and educational.

A 2021 with a plus sign for Italian museums and theaters: this was highlighted by theDigital Innovation in Cultural Heritage and Activities Observatory of the School of Management of the Politecnico di Milano, which presented its survey on the results of culture during the past year at the conference Culture reopens the curtains, digital goes on stage? It emerged that 2021 was an important year for Italy’s cultural institutions, which, particularly since the summer period, were able to resume full steam to offer a cultural experience to visitors in attendance. Numbers reported by Italy’s museums, monuments, and archaeological areas testify to a marked recovery in ticketing revenue (+36 percent), although a 35 percent recovery from 2019 is still to come. For theaters, the numbers also point to a restart (+23%), albeit less decisively, partly due to less opportunity to take advantage of the summer season’s traction.

In addition, the pandemic has accelerated the process of digital transformation of Culture, which has been partly held back by the resumption of activity in attendance in 2021, but the numbers outline clear future prospects of a sector that will have to be increasingly supported by technology.

“The culture sector,” explains Michela Arnaboldi, Scientific Director of the Osservatorio Innovazione Digitale nei Beni e Attività Culturali (Digital Innovation in Cultural Heritage and Activities Observatory), “is today in a phase of profound change, visible both at the level of the country system (with the initiatives and related calls for proposals linked to the funds made available by the PNRR and the activities aimed at enhancing, protecting and relaunching thecultural attractiveness of Italy) as well as within cultural organizations that are seeking, and in some cases experimenting with, new business models capable of fostering a return to presence without losing the positive results that were hardly achieved with the transition to digital of many activities during the past two pandemic years. Finally, at the individual level, the change concerns the habits of consumers, who are looking for new stimuli: trends show that Internet use is growing steadily, even among more senior segments of the population.”

Digital innovation in museums and theaters

Regardingdigital innovation to support processes in museums and theaters, numbers have remained stable over the past year. “Digital tools,” the Observatory explains, “are now an important support to management processes in the culture sector. Here, theaters show slightly higher levels on average than museums; online purchasing, for example, is available in 78 percent of theaters with a ticketing system and affects total revenue more significantly than in museums. Indeed, from the theater’s direct website transits, on average, 11% of revenues and from other online intermediaries 12% (in museums the respective shares are 7% and 4%). Looking at digital marketing activities, 59% of theaters do online or social advertising, 23% Search Engine Optimization, 10% remarketing. 58% collect data digitally, and 14% have invested in cybersecurity and data protection systems.”

In each case, these are areas in which museums, monuments and archaeological sites work much less than theaters. There are, however, indicators on which, on the other hand, museums and theaters are aligned: the focus on strategic planning and the presence of staff dedicated to digital innovation. In both departments, only 1 in 5 cultural institutions has a strategic plan dedicated to digital, and 1 in 2 has no dedicated digital resources at all.

Looking at future investments, working on collection preservation and digitization is confirmed as a priority for museums, which will commit 28 percent of resources. Also regaining centrality, thanks to the return of in-person visitor flows, is the digitization of on-site visit support services, for which an estimated 19 percent of total investments will be allocated. For theaters, on the other hand, investment in digital will focus over the next two years on marketing, communication and customer care (40 percent) and ticketing, reservation management and access control (18 percent).

The stages of cultural consumption

“Cultural participation of Italians has dropped a lot in the pandemic years, mainly due to the fear of contagion and economic difficulties,” points out Eleonora Lorenzini, director of the Osservatorio Innovazione Digitale nei Beni e Attività Culturali. “However, in the last year there has been a definite recovery in consumption, and digital tools and content have established themselves as important allies in all stages of the user journey, both before, during and after the visit.”

The Observatory conducted an analysis of visitors to museums, monuments and archaeological areas, in collaboration with BVA Doxa. The results showed that for the inspiration and research phase, the most used tool are official channels, such as the website, social accounts and the museum newsletter (49 percent), followed by search engines (40 percent), word of mouth (23 percent) and comments and reviews (22 percent). In theaters, the most used channel in the early stages of the so-called journey is the search engine (28%), followed by word of mouth (26%).

Turning instead to the purchase stage, consumer survey data confirm the prevalence of physical ticketing purchases for museums (45 percent). However, the use of online ticketing on the institution’s website (30%) or from an authorized retailer (14%) is also now widespread among the Internet population. For purchasing tickets for theater performances, on the other hand, online is the predominant channel, probably also due to the effects of the pandemic: 34% purchased on the theater’s site and 17% on that of a retailer. The post-visit phase constitutes a moment of great importance in fostering visitors’ loyalty and their attachment to the institution, but only a few cultural institutions still carry out incisive actions in this regard. In fact, only 10 percent of visitors to both museums and theaters remember being contacted again after the visit and for what reason. Yet, the propensity to follow up on the experience is already high; for example, 25 percent of visitors to museums have posted content on social media, and 9 percent of viewers have purchased another ticket or subscription after the show.

The prospects for development

The digitally supported visitor and spectator experience is generally rated as engaging and informative. One point of attention concerns the possibility of engaging more with the users with whom one comes in contact in the post-experience stages, inviting them more to share on social media and offering additional services and content, including online. To make this happen, it is necessary for institutions to equip themselves not only with the right tools (which are still not widespread), but also with staff dedicated to community management, with a focus on both maintaining the relationship and listening to the different needs of users. From insiders, for example, there is a strong public need to link heritage issues to topical values and a need to transform cultural organizations into places for discussion.

“The sector has experienced a restart from the demand point of view, while the supply system is partly consolidating the innovative drive brought by the pandemic, although there remains a need for strengthening in the skills and strategic vision of cultural institutions,” concludes Deborah Agostino, director of the Digital Innovation in Cultural Heritage Observatory. “In the museum sphere, we see a prioritization by institutions of the digitization of works, aimed at proposing experiences (both online and onsite) capable of enriching and extending over time the cultural proposal offered to audiences. Experiences of consolidation of platforms for the provision of digital content are also found in the field of live performance. Interesting fronts are also opening on this related to new engagement tools such as Non Fungible Tokens (NFT), where some experiments have been started and whose potential is also beginning to be explored in Italy.”

The 2021 edition of the Osservatorio Innovazione Digitale nei Beni e Attività Culturali (Digital Innovation in Cultural Heritage and Activities Observatory) was produced in collaboration with artem, Associazione Abbonamento Musei, BVA Doxa, dotdotdot, Fondazione Cariplo, Fondazione Compagnia di San Paolo, Milestone Systems, D’Uva, ETT, Gruppo SCAI, Microsoft, smARTravel, Viseeto. Under the patronage of Gianluca Spina Association, Museimpresa.

Museum visitors and revenues are growing again. But on digital, we're still behind
Museum visitors and revenues are growing again. But on digital, we're still behind

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