Your most valuable audience: The constituency of kids


Kids are all for museums, but are museums for kids?

Most organizations try looking for untapped value, some little gem that can be re-developed to help them grow.  Nurturing the constituency of young museum-goers is one of those gems; nothing short of how a museum can build a sustainable brand. Kids show up with at least one adult, and many times in groups; they often shop and eat; they come back. They are a big reason why you sell memberships.

Kids see the museum as a real-time experience – “I’m here now, show me something” – but not as part of the learning journey. This is the proverbial gap that needs filling. You want to connect them to your programs at an early age – and that is what many museums do. But do you maintain that link as they get older?  Effectively nurture the interests of this underserved constituency and you could potentially hang on to them for years. But how?

The simple solution is to start telling them good stories. They’re curious (have you ever known a kid who doesn’t like to ask questions??). Branded content from museums is magnetic – it not only builds the desire for them to keep visiting, it keeps them connected (and asking questions) between visits.

Years ago, the National Museum of the American Indian’s publishing director, Terence Winch, told me “Publishing exposes the museum’s intellectual blueprint.”  Stories tell people what you are all about. They help you appear vital and responsive to peoples’ essential curiosity.  And people want to associate with (and support) organizations that engage their interests and offer them new ideas. In other words, storytelling feeds your brand.

With access to iPads and iPhones, many of these kids are already connected so they are ready and waiting to be engaged.  Parents often are reticent (for good reason) about giving their kids unchecked access to digital devices, but that reticence dissipates if parents know their kids are interacting with good content.  Museum content that is perceived to have educational merit should be at the top of their list because it is trusted: not just attractive products, said Winch, but “actually something parents want.”  They themselves confer the “good housekeeping seal of approval” on museum products – it removes the angst of knowing what to buy their children.

But to retain readers’ interest the stories have to be good.  If they aren’t well-conceived and engaging even the name ‘Smithsonian’ won’t help,” said Bill Burnham, the publisher of Soundprints, a firm that collaborated with the Smithsonian. Kids are turned off by the heavy-handed tone of many stories produced for them. They just want a good story. Being able to give young readers what they want requires a blend of fact, fun, and fiction – and an avoidance of the urge to cover everything at once.  Fictionalizing history isn’t a crime: kids need to blend the truth with their own unique sense of fascination. If you entertain them and they kids pick up some knowledge along the way that’s something parents will appreciate.

Sophisticated history and science isn’t “above” kids, we just have to tell stories better, in a way they want to hear it. Unlike the critics who savaged the CBC’s The Story of Us docudrama for not being exhaustive, Naomi Buck believes the series was an achievement.   While it may not have got everything right, people watched, and that resulted in the impossible: people talking about Canadian history. In particular, she writes, it appealed to “impressionable” children who expected their parents to tell them more: they had questions and wanted answers.

Museums could be provoking the same reaction among children if they started transforming their content into compelling stories with interesting characters. They offer so many potential storylines, but neglect to reach out to kids after they’ve left the museums. Says Buck, “to date, I have had no luck getting my kids excited about [museum] objects on display, no matter how authentic, whereas nothing could drag them away from the drama of a well-staged bison hunt by horse-riding Nakota, or Viola Desmond refusing to relinquish her seat in a movie theatre or Waneek Horn-Miller reflecting on what it meant to be stabbed in the chest by a soldier’s bayonet in the Oka standoff.”

Are you wondering why kids looking for Canadian history and science stories haven’t really been well-served by museums? The problem is that while many curators – the gatekeepers of content – intuitively know there are great stories to tell, and may understand children’s publishing has dramatic marketing power, some continue to feel it simply does not fit with what they do; that marketing to children may undermine their organization’s scholarly objectives.  If the fight for content continues to lurch between brain food and education to entertainment and charges of “Disneyfication,” telling stories will continue to get pushed to the side.

Will the technology-based “search-based learning” ever match the physical experiences museums have traditionally provided? Museums have been trying to increase participation inside and outside the museum. They are leaning on technology to get people interested but technology alone can’t tell a good story. There has been no real breakthrough in connecting classroom and museum content: in between visits, kids don’t really turn to museums as a source for information.  Without stories that have a solid and engaging plot line, kids can’t binge on your content, and by not staying in touch you lose a large and valuable audience.

Reverse that course by considering everything you do as fodder for storytelling: cultivate a broad view of the opportunities that can promote your expertise, along with the ability to continuously sense and act on those opportunities.  Few organizations – whether non-profit museum or Fortune 500 corporation – adequately realize the commercial potential for their hidden intellectual capital assets.  One problem is not knowing what’s there: even the former CEO of Hewlett Packard, Lew Platt, once remarked “I wish HP knew what HP knew.”  The same is true of museums. Finding the organization’s knowledge requires a map. Developing a strategy for taking advantage of the museum’s intellectual assets requires someone to sort out what’s there and what’s worth marketing.  And, once they find it, to give children what they want, museums have to stop pretending staff can write for kids.

How we tell the story needs to adapt – if it does, museums will be for kids.  And then kids and museums alike will reap the benefits.

This is part of an ongoing series of articles Bv02 is producing about the reshaping of “the story” online: how content has gone wrong, and how to change it. Rob Ferguson is Bv02’s branding and content specialist who focuses on helping clients understand “who are we?” and the impact their unique ideas and content have on developing identity and extending brand awareness.

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