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Archives & Museum Informatics

Online Primetime- Promoting via Portals and other traffic building tricks

Darren Kornblut, Image Exchange, USA


You have built your museumís website and included its web address on every publication, print advertisement and ticket issued by the museum. Without an online advertising budget is this the extent of your ability to promote your website? Not at all! It is possible to get hundreds of thousands of promotional impressions for free. Sites like America Online, Ticketmaster/Citysearch, CultureFinder, and others are looking for your content. This paper examines why you should share your content to other sites, whom to share it with, and considerations before and after you begin the process.


From the average personís viewpoint I have long considered a visit to a museumís website just as important as a visit to the actual museum. For people restricted by distance, age or budget, a visit to a museumís website is the next best thing to being there. In promoting a museumís website, consideration should be taken to attract to both the potential museum visitor and the website visitor. Getting people to your website and then having that traffic actually is the first step in converting web traffic into an actual museum visitor or member.

The marketing departments at most museums have done excellent jobs in getting the word out about their own museumís website. From mentioning the websiteís address in print advertisements, merchandise, and publications, all "traditional" forms of promotion are covered. However their efforts primarily target the geographic regions surrounding the museum as a means to bring visitors to the actual or physical museum, which is in reality only a small portion of the potential website audience. For example, according to Nielsen Media Research the New York City market only represents 6.8% of the United States population. The population outside of museumsí primary geographic region is a very large potential audience for their websites. As a result, there exists a large problem: Without a national advertising campaign, how do you attract this audience? One answer is to promote your website via the major portals by sharing content.

Why Portals

In May 1999 Nielsen Media Research conducted a survey of television viewing in Internet households. A key finding was that despite the thousands of sites on the web, 90% of all surfers visited one of the top 10 sites in any given month. The chart below shows the monthly visitors, according to Media Metrix, of several Portal sites that cover museum and arts related events:



Unique Visitors




AOL News Channel


AOL Entertainment Channel


AOL Travel Channel







Source: Media Metrix, December, 1999 *Nov í99

As the portal sites have a large traffic base it is a logical assumption that the visitors to the portal sites are mutually exclusive. This means that by providing content to a portal site you will not be cannibalizing traffic to your site. At the same time there is the potential to convert the portal traffic into visitors to your museumís website.

To keep their visitors returning portals are constantly looking for new content. This is based on the belief that people watch showsÖnot networks. While the portals charge advertisers for placement on their sites, they have a different arrangement with companies that provide them with content. In the past it was standard for portal sites to pay for content. However, a more common structure is a cash neutral deal where the promotion for the content provider is offset by the value of the real estate that the portal is providing.

Before Your Begin

Warning: there are several steps that you should take action on before you begin offering content to portal sites. The most important issue to make sure that you have permission to share your content off the museumís website. While each exhibitionís press kit contains images which are cleared for use by the media, many estates are not yet recognizing promotional use of their materials on the Internet. A lending museum or estate might also put a usage restriction providing web use exclusively for the museumís own site. Your web team should work together with the curatorial and legal departments to make sure that promotional use of materials extends to the Internet.

Your web team should also work with the public relations department to narrow down the list of sites you intend to approach or with whom you intend to work. It is important to create such an approach to best coordinate your efforts with theirs.

Most major portal sites are growing fast and subsequently are overworked and short-staffed. The most important element in working together is making it easy. The easier you make your initial approach and the more clearly defined, the more beneficial and timely your response from the portal will become. It is important to "package" your content. Packaging involves providing your materials in a digitized format, visuals, text and audio. Ask if the sites would like the materials provided via e-mail or downloaded from the museumís website. Tell the portal how many potential images you have to provide, when the exhibition opens & closes, and if any other venues are hosting the exhibition. Keep in mind, the site editors are also on a constant hunt for content. Let them know that the museum is always hosting exhibitions and if this "trial" use of content works, then there is more to be provided in the future.

Where to Promote

There is no shortage of sites that will want access to your content. If you are doing the legwork to provide content to the major portals you might also want to consider giving your local media outlets use of the same materials. Below is a rundown of what I consider to be the top places in having your exhibitions seen on the web:

America Online- Networks / Digital City

With its 21 million members, and pending purchase of Time/Warner, America Online is the big kid on the block. The service shuttered its Influence cultural channel late last year. According to Jesse Kornbluth, AOL Editorial Director, museum related content is currently being managed through the companyís Digital Cities division.

  • Digital City provides local content for over 50 cities.
  • Digital City has distribution on AOL, Compuserve,, & the Netscape Netcenter.
  • AOLís Research & Learn Channel or AOL@School areas are ideal for museum related content.
  • Contact: or your local Digital City office.


The combination of local event directory Citysearch and the online arm of Ticketing powerhouse Ticketmaster makes Ticketmaster/Citysearch the #1 local portal. Pushing into museum ticketing with the acquisition of museum and cultural ticketer 2b Technology.

  • Citysearch provides local content for 77 U.S. and 8 International cities.
  • 6,000+ local arts and events listings.
  • provides 70% of all web ticket sales for over 150,000 events.
  • Citysearch has 38 million page views and Ticketmaster has 61 million page views a month
  • Contact: Local Citysearch office.


Web-based arts directory with distribution on America Online, Ovation, Salon, Infospace, Mediaone, Ticketmaster Online-CitySearch, and Planet Out, among others.

  • 1.5 million page views/month.
  • Needs basic press kit, all relevant special exhibition , plus pictures.
  • Provides weekly in-depth features of highlighted events.
  • Contact: Emily Meyer, Director of Calendar (

Museums Magazine

With a circulation of 150,000 Museums Magazine currently publishes on a quarterly basis in New York, Boston, Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago, South Florida. Editions are on the way in Philadelphia, San Francisco, Dallas, Detroit and Houston.

  • Museums Traveler section lists exhibitions outside of the each issueís market.
  • Virtual museumgoer section features the happenings on museumís websites.
  • Partnership with a major airline and website are in development for 2000.
  • Contact:

Online arm of the Newspaper powerhouse. Tracks visitors by zip code, age, gender, household income. Don N. Caswell, Staff Editor, Culture ( commented. Our chief art critic, Michael Kimmelman, and the other art critics decide which exhibitions they will cover in consultation with the culture editor.

  • Unique Registered Users: 10 million+
  • Male: 60%
  • Average Household Income: $80,700
  • Live in USA: 87%
  • Live outside NY DMA: 83%
  • 2.9 million monthly visitors (November '99)

Source: Online Media Kit @

Other Considerations

There are several other issues to consider when providing content. Probably the most important is if you will be placing advertising restrictions on the content. All portal sites generate revenue from banner advertising. One way or another your content will have an advertisement on it. However, some sites will sell sponsorships to sections of their websites. The page might come up as "Arts & StyleÖpresent by X Company". If a major corporation sponsors an exhibition, and the content on the portal site comes up as sponsored by the portalís sponsor there is the potential for confusion.

Another issue is how long will you allow the portal to use your content. Most portal sites view themselves as new versions of Hollywood studios. Most studios structure deals so they have ownership of any and all content that appears on their service. It is important to spell out a term period for use of the museumís materials. One suggestion is give use of the content for the duration of the exhibition, plus a few months. The additional time allows people looking for the exhibition after it closes to know that is indeed closed.

Giving use of content is a great form of promotion, but you should also encourage the promotion to convert over to traffic to the museumís website. Be sure to make sure that the Portal links to your site. Both and link to external sites at the end of their articles. Links to recommended sites open into a new browser window. A new twist on linking are sites that add "contextual links" in their articles. This means that if every time the exhibition name is mentioned there is a link directly to the recommended site in the context of the article.

A final consideration is data. Portal sites gather itÖyou want it. online readership is registered by zip code, sex and income. America Online cross-references its membersí credit card billing information against census information. Portal sites have a very detailed picture of who is looking at the specific pieces of content on their sites. It is doubtful that they will be open at first about sharing this information. The best way to gain access to such critical information is to foster a long-term relationship and then request access to the same information that they share with their advertisers and primary content partners.

Tricks To Keep Visitors Coming Back

With your content running on the portals and residual traffic visiting your site it is time to shift gears from promotion to audience retention. The most effective tools I have seen used are Mailing Lists, and Event Reminders.

Mailing Lists come in two varieties: Generic and Customized. Generic mailing lists are the "Add Your Name Here" type where once on the list you receive weekly or monthly e-mail with information on all aspects of the museum. Some site also provide separate Generic lists for events, exhibitions or shopping. Provided your website has a large development budget an investment in a Customized mailing list might also want to be made. With a Customized list a visitor fills out a profile on their interests (e.g.: van Gogh or events for young museum members) and receives e-mail only when an event matches their profile.

A recent addition to several museum websites is the Event Reminder. The Metropolitan Museum of Artís new site ( is a great execution of this tool. After reading about an upcoming exhibition or event visitors can enter their e-mail address to be reminded of the event, via e-mail, one day and/or one week before the event begins.

Two indirect tools for bringing visitors back are Surveys and "Online Only" events. If the web team or museum staff has questions on what kind of experience visitors to your website are looking for, the best course of action is to post a survey to the site. Some sites present and invite to take surveys via a pop-up window. I find this intrusive and believe that the request should be build into the home page of the site.

Online only events include chats, and special shopping opportunities. Invite a curator to a chat room to answer visitor questions. If they are not willing to sit down and do this in real time, let visitors ask questions over a period of time via e-mail, present the questions to the curator and then post the answers to the site. Shopping opportunities include discounts or pre-ordering of exhibition related merchandise or online book signings. When photographer William Wegman has a new book in print he goes on a book signing tour. However, fans of his work that are not able to attend signings in person can visit his website at where he hosts online signings.


With geographic audience restrictions not a primary factor for a visitation to a museumsí website it is logical for those programming the sites to seek visitors regardless of where those visitors are located. The major portal sitesí need for a constant stream of fresh high-profile content puts museums in an excellent position to garner exposure and traffic in exchange for sharing content. Planning ahead to clear potential copyright problems and properly prepare content for easy of use by the portals will benefit both the museum web team and the portalís programming staff. Developing methods of retaining traffic from the portals is the final step in building a websiteís traffic and creating new sources of revenue for the museum.