Marc Merpillat (pictured below), business development lead for museums at SecuTix, explores whether the growth of virtual culture is an opportunity or a threat to cultural institutions.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, visits to our great arts and cultural buildings have given way to TVs, laptops and staying at home on the couch.

The economic and health crisis that we are experiencing and yet to emerge from, with the signs of a second wave in some countries, has caused a serious crisis in the world of culture.

To give some figures, ICOM (International Council of Museums) have estimated that the pandemic has impacted 95% of the world’s museums. Big museums have lost 75-80% of revenues and it’s predicted that 30% of US museums won’t reopen if they don’t receive financial assistance.

As the doors of museums, theatres and opera houses closed, a new world emerged in the form of virtual culture.

But with cultural buildings beginning to reopen in some countries, what does this mean for the future of both the physical and virtual cultural worlds? Can the two live side by side or is virtual culture a threat to ‘real life’ cultural experiences?

REACTION TO GIVEAWAY CONTENT

The immediate reaction to the crisis was to give away content for free. Some cultural institutions, such as the Louvre Museum in Paris, opened their doors in a virtual way.

The response was overwhelmingly positive with daily website visitors going from 40,000 before the pandemic to 400,000 during the quarantine period. To give this some perspective, in one month during the crisis, the Louvre website received as many visitors as the museum did physical ones in the whole of 2019.

Paris Musées, a network of 14 museums in the city, organised digital visits for kids; ran online workshops for families; and repurposed their 3,000 pieces of artwork digital archive during the lockdown.

Meanwhile, The Centre Pompidou ran an online web series for kids; guided visits of their exhibition; and streamed masterclasses with artists. The public response showed an appetite to consume culture through a screen.

Of course, the major venues were able to deliver digital content much easier than small museums and venues.

But I believe virtual culture is also an opportunity for small museums to seize and promote themselves to a wider audience, including public that otherwise – be it due to illness, physical disabilities, etc. – are usually unable to enjoy a museum visit, opera evening.

Virtual culture breaks down geographical barriers and allows your offering to ‘travel’ to a global audience.

A NEW REVENUE STREAM

What we’re experiencing is the dawn of something new and different. Admittedly, virtual culture is not yet mature, but I’m confident it will develop. This is an opportunity to discover new ways to experience and present culture.

The challenge now is how to monetise this new virtual culture and how it can compensate, to a degree, some of the losses currently facing the sector. Those in the live entertainment industry – operas, theatres – may only be able to open with a chessboard seating layout, with many empty seats. But what if we can fill those empty seats with digital viewers either by live streaming or replaying previously filmed content? Of course they cannot sell a digital show at the same price as a physical one. But they are no longer limited in capacity. In theory, we can sell an unlimited number of virtual seats to a global audience.

TICKETING: THE BRIDGE BETWEEN WEBSITE & CONTENT HOSTING PLATFORM

Ticketing platforms like SecuTix can be a bridge between a venue’s website and a video platform such as YouTube. Our role is to allow paying visitors to access cultural content and we have already developed features on our platform that can realise the visions of cultural content producers.

The options are endless and it’s possible, through just a simple barcode, to offer different levels of experiences at varying price points. Take for an example a museum. At the lowest entry level price, visitors could access a pre-recorded tour. For those that pay more, it could be an interactive visit with a guide you can ask questions to. The barcode will allow the virtual visitor to only access the content they’ve paid for.

CRM IS VITAL

My obsession is CRM and it’s the key to unlocking any future income from virtual culture. In order to allow somebody to see virtual content, we need to take the opportunity to build loyalty and capture visitor details for the CRM. We can then offer a person relevant information on content that he or she will potentially be interested in consuming.

By integrating a CRM with the ticketing system, we can retarget virtual visitors with other proposals: a loyalty card to access digital content; access to the venue itself; discount on the next exhibition; a glass of champagne at the end of their next physical visit.

In this sense, CRM systems have enormous potential to personalise the information we offer based on the visitor’s profile.

THE CHALLENGES OF VIRTUAL CULTURE

With every opportunity, there is also a threat. We don’t yet know if visitors will return in person to cultural venues in the numbers they previously did, preferring instead to opt for a virtual experience from the comfort of their own home.

Digital culture also excludes some people due to their lack of access to technology. Asking payment for virtual culture is not an easy route to take when the manifesto for many cultural institutions around the world is to make the arts accessible to as many people as possible. In some markets, it may very well not be acceptable to start charging for a public museum.

Delivering virtual, digital content also puts cultural institutions in direct competition with other entertainment platforms: Netflix, Google Arts & Culture, YouTube to name a few. There’s no getting away from the fact that cultural institutions will need to compete their openness to the world.

To truly benefit from the opportunities presented by virtual content, cultural venues should focus on building bespoke strategies tailored to them. This could be switching from free to paying; or continue to offer a level of free access whilst adding some other paid proposal; or request donations.

There may well be different strategies for their local audience from that needed to target foreign audiences. Language and cultural preferences need to be taken into consideration.

If I could wave a magic wand and tomorrow life went back to normal, I still think charging for digital content should become part of your long-term commercial strategy. I’m optimistic about the future and see a world where both physical and virtual cultural content sit alongside each other, not in competition.

The last few months has seen the birth of a new way of exploring arts and to be a participant in the cultural world. Virtual culture has been embraced by the public and is here to stay. Our challenge is to harness this interest to generate vital and much needed income for our cherished cultural institutions.

Marc Merpillat is the Business Development Lead for Museums at SecuTix. He has a deep knowledge of the museum sector having spent five years at the Musée du Louvre as its Deputy Director for Marketing and Cultural Sponsoring.

In his role, he overlooked the museum’s promotional activities, audience development, loyalty programs, sales strategy and CRM usage. Subsequently, Marc set up his own consulting agency specialising in the culture sector. Clients included Pinacothèque de Paris, Artie’s Chamber Orchestra, CNFPT (Training Institute) and the Luzège Theatre Festival.