3 Guerrilla Marketing Tips for Small Museums

If you’ve been poking around the internet trying to find ways to promote your small museum on a small budget, you’ve probably heard of “guerrilla marketing.” This concept has been a fixture of the marketing world since it was first developed by Jay Conrad Levinson in his 1984 book “Guerrilla Marketing.”

In the words of Levinson, guerrilla marketing is “achieving conventional goals, such as profits and joy, with unconventional methods, such as investing energy instead of money.”

We could dive endlessly into his main principles and the dozens of medium- and field-specific spin-offs in the franchise, but if you don’t have time to go get your MBA before you start promoting your museum, the definition can be enough to get started. Guerrilla marketing is a great way to reach your target audiences and get them to your museum on a small marketing budget. The key to this method is time. I cannot emphasize enough that there is no magic marketing strategy that gives you results if you haven’t invested money, time, or both money and time. The less money you have to spend, the more time you need to invest.

And invest is the right word here. Without visitors, you don’t have a museum. Marketing may not seem like a serious priority when you are already working long hours pursuing the museum’s mission. But let’s be honest, if you don’t have visitors, you might as well be maintaining a private collection. Marketing your institution is crucial to your success. And if your mission has anything to do with audience or visitors, marketing is crucial to your mission.

FY58O0P400How can you use energy and time to market successfully without a big budget? Here are three ideas to jump start the creativity and scrappy determination you’ll need to communicate the value of your museum to your audience without spending big money on advertising:

1. Don’t just make your museum social media friendly…make it a social media destination.

At this point, you probably know you are supposed to have a Facebook, Twitter, and maybe an Instagram account. But odds are you are probably just treating these mediums as either a) an obligatory listing in the digital equivalent of a phone book or b) a direct advertising platform where you occasionally post about what is going on at the museum or remind your followers to visit.

These methods may get you a few followers (and visits) here and there, but more likely than not, these people are following because they already support your museum. In other words, you are preaching to the choir and wasting your precious time trying to market to your regulars.

Instead of treating your social media accounts like one-way microphones to the world (or a very small piece of it), why not think of them as points in space and time where you can engage with your audiences in a two-way, mutually-beneficially conversation.

I won’t go into overall social media strategy here; there’s just not enough room to say it all. What I will do is encourage you to make sure your physical space is connected to your digital spaces.

The modern museum visitor arrives with their phone in hand. They used it to get directions, maybe used it to buy their tickets online, and will use it to take pictures in your museum. MAKE THE MOST OF THIS. Don’t just allow photos, encourage them and make sure there are signs everywhere asking users to share using a specific hashtag and tag the museum. Share the best photos with your users on your website and the platforms where they are posted, making sure visitors know their photos could be featured.

This is free marketing.

When your visitors post pictures of your exhibits or themselves having fun at your exhibits, they are showing their friends and followers that a trip to your museum is fun AND makes them look good online. A great example of this is the recent exhibit “Wonder” at the Renwick Gallery in DC. Thanks in very large part to the incredible photos visitors took in the immersive exhibit, the gallery had as many visitors in six weeks as they usually see in one year.


Other ways to make you site a social media integrated destination?

  • Offer a discounted ticket or other promotion to any visitors who can show you on their phone that they’ve like your page, followed you, etc on the social media site of your choice.
  • Create fun selfie-friendly spots where visitors can create great pictures to share online (here’s a great example…and don’t miss Museum Selfie Day).
  • Offer free wifi for visitors, and connect Facebook to the process. This is done perfectly by the Icelandic travel company Reykjavik Excursions, who asks you to “check-in” on Facebook when as you access the unlimited free wifi on their bus. (Talk to your tech guy about this one.)


2. Engage the online creative community in your area.

This is the guerrilla marketing version of native advertising. Many consumers and travelers now look to Instagram and blogger “celebrities” to decide where to visit and what to buy.

For example: I live in Nashville, and I follow a lot of “lifestyle” Instagrammers here. One popular account is Nashville Explorers Club, which has over 45,000 followers. This account will subtly endorse products that their audience might like, such as travel gear or iPhone accessories. Recently, I noticed that in one of the pictures, the person was wearing beautiful boots. In the photo description, I saw that they had used the tag  #inmynisolos. I followed to see more pictures of travelers and popular accounts showing off Nisolo brand shoes. Though I knew these were sponsored endorsements, I trusted that they were still worth a look (because I feel a personal/artistic connection to the endorser) and ended up buying a pair. It was like getting a referral from a friend.


Part of making the most of social media means understanding it. Try searching the hashtag for your city. For example, I searched #Nashville when I moved here to find cool accounts to follow for tips about where to shop, eat, and explore in my new home city. See what types of things are being posted, what hashtags are being used, and who is clearly a popular source for recommendations in your area. There will be different accounts that better reflect the kind of audience you want.

Invite popular local bloggers (or travel bloggers who are planning to be in your area) and Instagrammers to visit your museum for a special after-hours or behind the scenes tour-for free of course. Offer to introduce them to the curator and talk about a new upcoming exhibit. Basically, offer them exclusive access to take pictures and develop content for their audiences based on their experience at your site.

Many cities have active Instagram communities that gather for “instameets.” These are informal, scheduled gatherings where groups of Instagram users gather to explore a place or event and take pictures together. They are organized on Instagram and anyone who joins the instameet posts their pictures on an agreed upon hashtag so that everyone can see the pictures.

At Christmastime, the instameet community in Nashville was invited to visit the Christmas lights display at Cheekwood Botanical Gardens & Museum of Art. The ticket was pricey, so I would never have otherwise gone, but the instameet made it worth a visit. We were a group of 15 that then shared artistic photos of the event on our accounts to all our followers.


If you spend the time figuring out who is organizing these, you can invite them to schedule an instameet at your museum. Again, offer the group some sort of exclusive access, whether it be after hours so they can have the place to themselves or a behind the scenes tour or perhaps a discounted ticket if they mentioned the instameet.

3. Engage the physical creative community in your area.

This is definitely connected to the other two points, but with more of an emphasis on the “real world.” How you develop this idea will be very dependent on your unique community. Does your community have art crawls? If they don’t, why not start one? Are you a history museum or other non-art focused museum? Why not organize museum crawl with nearby cultural institutions?

Does your community have any local festivals? Set up a pop-up museum or pop-up museum gift shop (I stole the latter idea from the Detroit Historical Society, which is organizing a Detroit museums pop-up shop at the AASLH Annual Meeting in September). The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History has a really cool Pop-Up Museum initiative and template that lets their audience develop their own pop-up. For more ideas on the pop-up museum, check out this post from the awesome Museum 2.0 blog. This tactic can attract attention precisely because of its temporary nature. Your audience will (when done right) be motivated to visit within a specific time frame rather than saying “I’d like to go sometime.” If they enjoy it, you have a better chance of getting them to visit your museum or to re-visit.


Ready to get started developing guerrilla marketing strategies for your museum? Remember that the success of this tactic relies on time and energy. Schedule some time each week to come up with new ideas and mini-plans for how you will test these ideas. Not everything you try will work, but if you start small and keep plugging away, you will start to get a feel for what your audience and visitors like to see and what catches their attention. The more you test and adjust, the more effective your marketing will be.



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  6. Thanks for sharing the info, Museums are places which preserve historical materials and showcase it to visitors for the purpose of recreating vital moments from the eras gone by. Material connected to the human race and its activities are quite important in helping us understand where we stand today with respect where we were a few hundred years ago. Museums are testimony to the fact that humans have an innate desire to collect and maintain historical artifacts for building a discourse for the next generation.

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