What Can Experiential Marketing Learn from Museum Exhibits?

Bringing together experiential marketing and museums

At first thought, you might not consider experiential marketing and museum exhibition as being part of the same conversation. While they might appear to live in separate, very different worlds, they share a unified goal: to inform and inspire live audiences. In truth, museums have been honing this craft long before trade shows, as we know them, existed, and many today are on the cutting edge of human connection, pushing experiences to new heights. A curious marketer might wonder, what can experiential marketing learn from museums?

Group Delphi’s decades of experience partnering with museums have taught us many lessons about exhibiting, and not just in museums.

“Our museum knowledge helps Group Delphi be much better advocates for our corporate clients,” observes CEO Justin Hersh. “Doing museum work gives us the kind of insight from a hands-on perspective that a lot of other companies really don’t have.”

Here are some of the best lessons we’ve learned that can cross the divide from museum exhibit to trade show booth.

Start the Experience Early

The second you get out of your car in the parking garage and note that you’re parked in — no, not Level 2, but the “Purple Octopus” level, the museum experience has already started. You haven’t even paid for admission yet, but you already know exactly where you are and what type of experience you can expect inside. Plus, you’re not going to forget that octopus.

Museums, galleries, and aquariums know how to engage their visitors early, often leveraging digital experiences that visitors will engage with when planning their visit. From the perspective of an exhibitor at a trade show, think about how you can reach your audience as early as possible, long before they lay eyes on your exhibit. If you’re competing for attention amongst hundreds of other booths, how can you make yours the one that attendees know they want to see even before they hit the floor?

Point the Way

That purple octopus from the parking garage, it’s also pointing a helpful tentacle in the direction of the elevators, showing another strength of museums: wayfinding.

Once inside the museum, you’ve got choices to make. Do you want to see the new exhibition on Georgia O’Keeffe’s flower paintings? Try the Earthquake Shake Experience? Or see the Penguin Habitat? Yes to all three? There are festive signs on the walls pointing the way. You look at your feet, noting the brightly painted paths on the floor to guide you, no matter your height. After years of answering the same questions for lost penguin-seeking visitors, museums have mastered the use signage, maps, and architecture to lead you through both to and through an experience. The signage itself is often playful and beautiful — integrated into the overall design of the museum space.

If you’ve designed a brand experience, you also want people to know exactly how to find it and take it all in. Trade show expo halls can be overwhelming and disorienting, but with carefully planned signage, and a booth design that guides attendees and anticipates their questions, you can provide a museum-quality experience that visitors will remember.

Tell a Story in Sound

As you look up at the rocket suspended over your head, you take in the incredible visual details: the careful lighting, the ceiling providing a sense of stars. There’s also a noise: a crackle of an old radio, a low rumble of engines, a voice counting down in seconds. Museums embrace multisensory experiences, using sound in particular to immerse visitors in a place and time.

Recently, the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, created an interactive AV exhibit with a virtual version of the master himself, who, in true Dalí form, ask visitors to consider topics like death, immortality, and art. Anyone visiting a Dalí exhibit is likely familiar with his work and distinctively peculiar perspectives on world. The Dalí Museum knew exactly how to deliver on it — by bringing the artist back to speak to visitors directly from beyond the grave.

Sound can be employed in trade show experiences in similar ways, from music and soundscapes to set the mood for a space, to audio tours that can inform and entertain attendees.

Build to Last

Museums, particularly ones that encourage interaction with the exhibits, have to provide the same flawless experience to visitor number 10 and 10,000, so durability of exhibits is essential. If you build it well once, you save costs and time in the future repairing the exhibit — and no visitor is happy with an exhibit that’s broken and out of commission. With trade shows, you may not be seeing the same level of visitors as a major museum, but durability is also key. Remember that your booth is an exhibit on the move. Once it’s built, you’ll quickly be disassembling it, crating it, and shipping it to a new city where it will be unloaded and installed in a new venue where attendees expect that same flawless experience. Each interaction creates wear and tear, so quality of construction is paramount if you want to save budget and headaches in the long run.

Measure, Learn, Evolve

Compared to trade shows, museums have a key advantage: they’re exhibiting every day. This gives them much more insight into their audiences and what they want, as well as the time to rethink and retool. Is everyone gravitating to the digital interactive on black holes, but ignoring the diorama on neutrinos? This isn’t failure, it’s data.

The same is true with trade show booths. Each one is an experiment in live marketing. The booth design is a hypothesis that gets tested in the real world. Inevitably, you will learn that there are ways to improve. Your goal may be to inform your attendees, but they’re giving you information as well on how your booth is working – be sure to listen.

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