Checking in at the Museum with Foursquare

At first glance, Foursquare and museums may seem like a natural fit. Checking in at a museum taps into its location-based nature - a visit could unlock badges related to an exhibit or specific works in the collection. Foursquare badges and offers can also encourage people to regularly visit the museum. However, Foursquare remains a niche service that lacks widespread adoption: The number of museum visitors who check in is a tiny fraction of total museum visits. This raises a question for museums: How much should they invest in using Foursquare?

By Kara Reinsel, Senior Strategist, Digital Integration & Innovation


Logo - rtcrm Key Information
At a top level, the audience of Foursquare users and museum visitors do not naturally overlap. Foursquare is a location-based service (LBS). According to Forrester Research, 80% of LBS users are male and 70% of them are between the ages of 19 and 35. 1 In contrast, the median age of a museum visitor is 43 years old 2 and men and women visit museums on an equal basis. 3

For example, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) had 3.1 million visitors in 2010 4 with only 52,914 Foursquare check-ins (1.7% of visitors). Other museums' total visitor vs. Foursquare check-in statistics follow a similar pattern. With these demographics in mind, why would any museum professional spend money on Foursquare?

Icon - Foursquare Most museums appear to be using Foursquare as a way to experiment with an emerging technology and engage with new audiences, not as a means to generate revenue. For example, MoMA had a "secret" Foursquare badge for the Marina Abramovic performance art piece "The Artist Is Present" that could only be unlocked if you sat down opposite the artist and cried. It's unclear if word of the badge's existence increased attendance at MoMA, but it did generate buzz.

It's also important for museums to consider the audience they want to engage-is it repeat visitors, locals, out-of-towners, once-in-a-lifetime visitors? Each of these groups has distinct needs, and what motivates them to use Foursquare will vary. If the majority of a museum's visitors are one-time-only, then reward first-time visitors. A museum could also experiment using the new Foursquare Lists functionality by creating lists that encourage visitors to explore. For example, the Smithsonian is a perfect match for Foursquare Lists because it could create a list that incorporates visits to its numerous museums such as the Museum of Natural History, the Museum of American History, the Portrait Gallery, and the Air and Space Museum, just to name a few.

Implications and Action Items
For museums, or any industry that is considering using an emerging technology such as Foursquare, it is helpful to keep the following in mind.
  • Align resources with audience size. The amount of financial and human capital used to support a presence on Foursquare should reflect the number of visitors who are actually engaging with the technology. Just because Foursquare is the hottest, latest app, doesn't mean a museum should invest significant resources upfront-consider doing a beta test first to determine visitor interest and engagement.
  • Have clear goals. Knowing why you want to use Foursquare is critical. Valid goals can include: PR opportunity, attracting new visitors, interacting with visitors in an innovative way, or a chance to try something new and gather key learnings.

1 Advertising Age, "Forrester: Why Most Marketers Should Forgo Foursquare." July 26, 2010.
2 The Art Newspaper, "Will US museums succeed in reinventing themselves?" January 2010. http://bit.ly/872bNs
3 Institute of Museum and Library Services, InterConnections: The IMLS National Study on the Use of Libraries, Museums and the Internet. 2008.
4 Museum Musings, "Visitor numbers as a chart of success." April 4, 2011. http://tinyurl.com/5vdbg5m

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Perspectives, October2011 (pdf, 743 Kb)

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