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October 06, 2007

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Joy Houle, Brookside Museum

James, that's a powerful story. At Brookside Museum (Saratoga County Historical Society, Ballston Spa, NY), I feel that we do a pretty good job of connecting with kids through our school programs. Most kids are so impressed with what we offer them; they leave the program not only with greater knowledge, but they are also motivated and excited about their experience with us. Frequently, I talk to these kids' parents, who attended similar programs at Brookside when THEY were kids. These adults STILL remember their experiences at our museum. That's a pretty strong impact, in my opinion.

However, what we do NOT do well is use this connection to help sustain the museum. After the program is complete and these kids exit the facility, we are "done" with them. I'd like to find a way hold onto the connection longer -- somehow drawing these kids into a long-term relationship with the museum. While we've tossed around a few ideas, I'd love to know how other low-budget, history museums "market" their organization to kids (i.e. kids' parents). How do you get them to come back and invest?

James Chung, Reach Advisors

Joy,
Yes, if the parents remember their experiences 25 or 30 years prior, there's certainly some enduring impact happening there.

You raise a great question about how to build a connection that lasts after the visitor walks out of the door. Let me toss in two different perspectives to continue this dialog:

It's a question we happen to see a lot among our tourism industry clients. What they've come to realize is that the 'bookend' experiences at the start and end of the visit tend to have disproportional impact on a guest's lasting impressions. Do the guests feel greeted, welcomed, and hence, transported into a special frame of mind? That's something that shapes an impression deeper than just mere satisfaction, but instead, a lingering attachment. And do the visitors feel like they leave as a valued guest? This last point is even more of a struggle for a lot of those tourism industry clients. The successful ones have figured out things they can provide for the guest as they depart, to monkey with their emotions and leave them with memories that create a desire to return and stay connected. And those are the organizations that almost always win the guest service awards that I judge in the tourism industry.

But those tourism industry clients have one advantage over museums -- larger budgets for visitor engagement. So let me try to raise another example of a company in another industry that is brilliant at creating ongoing engagement created that's perhaps even more relevant to history museums. It's the story of American Girl Place. That company is a machine when it comes to creating engagement, as well as an emotional and financial investment that lasts well beyond the visit.

During last May's AAM conference, we hosted a backstage tour of some of America's leading brands on Chicago's Magnificent Mile to see how they 'curate' their brand experience. At American Girl Place, we noticed that they really understand how to make sure that the memories and engagement linger well after they walk out the doors. Susie wrote some of these findings up in a Museum News article that will run in November, so look for that issue. And one of our Museum Conversations conference calls at the end of October will focus on the takeaways that a few museums had from that tour, so feel free to email us if you haven't already RSVPd for that call to hear what other museums saw at American Girl Place.

American Girl Place goes to that effort, not just to create the warm fuzzy feeling of making sure their visitors felt good about the visit. They do it because they find it a powerful way to keep those girls (and parents) coming back to the brand and re-upping their emotional and financial investment in the brand. Now the challenge is to figure out how museums can get their satisfied visitors to come back to their brand and invest.

But at this point, I'd love to hear from any smaller history museums out there that have any thoughts or observations on this topic?

Susie Wilkening, Reach Advisors

Hi Joy -

As your predecessor at Brookside, I know exactly what you are talking about. And it is something that, even though I left several years ago, I still think about.

On the plus side, your programs make incredible emotional impacts on children. I remember as well the parents commenting on seeing sheep being sheared at Brookside 25 years earlier. And I am sure that high school students today also have strong memories about the "cool" wigwam and the Native New York program.

The challenge is how to translate that emotional impact into further engagement and, ideally, strong membership commitments.

That emotional connection, I believe, is your launching point to engaging these families. The question then becomes, launching them to what? What are their current needs as parents and families (or as adults that may not have children)? How is Brookside uniquely positioned to respond to those needs?

And how do you reach those adults today? Where do they look for information? How can you place information in those locations?

Finally, are there other organizations or businesses that might be ideal partners to either help you fulfill those needs or spread the word?

A final thought. Those adults and teens that remember Sheep to Shawl and other programs so fondly may be willing to share those memories. Is there a way Brookside can gather those thoughts, and perhaps some photos, and create a sort of memory book? If so, it is up to you to determine the best way of doing this, whether it is an online social activity, an exhibit that travels around the area, or a small exhibit at Brookside itself. My hunch is that creating a repository for those stories may then create further engagement with the many other stories preserved at Brookside.

And to echo James, I too would love to hear from other museums that have thoughts or experiences turning a childhood experience into continued engagement as adults.

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