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Bringing Venues to the People

A How-To Guide for Audience Engagement During Shutdown

By Jennifer Jordan, Partnership Lead, The ExperienceBuilt Group

From zoos and aquariums to houses of worship to dance studios and theaters, many owners of venues are having to pivot business operations in this time of government restrictions on the size of social gatherings and self-quarantine. If you can’t bring the people to your venue, how can you bring your venue to the people?

This is particularly critical for not-for-profit organizations that operate on tight budgets and depend on admissions, ticket sales, donations and sponsorships. Some entities already had a strong digital presence and were already leveraging social media and their own websites to augment their in-person connections with their target audiences. For example:

  • The Cincinnati Zoo and its nearly three years of stories celebrating Fiona, the hippo.

  • The many famous international museums that already provide online virtual tours accessible by anyone with an internet connection.

  • Churches have been live-streaming Sunday services for years to congregants and others who can’t attend in person.

Courtesy of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Non-profits with an established digital presence have experience creating and curating content, and providing virtual access to their venues, as a way to extend audience engagement. They have the structures already in place to have an easier transition into an all-virtual business operation.

But what if your organization isn’t currently engaging your audience virtually, or if you want to do more? We’ve put together this guide to help you get started with a digital presence or grow your existing audience engagement. Here are some strategy and execution ideas as well as examples we celebrate.

It’s ok to start small, just start

If you don’t have a digital structure in place, it’s ok to start with one single initiative. There is an overwhelming amount of choice in the types of content and access you can provide — just pick one as your starting point. As we like to say at The ExperienceBuilt Group, “declare and go!”

Here are some tips to help your team get started:

  1. Revive plans you already made that always seem “OBE” (overtaken by events). It’s likely that your team has more bandwidth available now, so look to leverage any thinking or planning that was already completed.

  2. Pick something you are passionate about. It’s always easier to focus on a project you believe in.

  3. You don’t have to be funny or create the next viral sensation. Relevance and value are more critical than laughs.

  4. Pick a channel and/or medium you are comfortable with. Are you an avid poster on your social media channels, or do you run the email distribution list? Is video your thing, or maybe writing? This isn’t the time to ramp up a brand-new skill, but if you feel it’s needed look for someone who might volunteer to help.

  5. On that same note, there are lots of students with extra time. Perhaps someone who is already comfortable with digital media is also passionate about your organization.

  6. Write down your plan. It might seem basic but writing out what you are trying to achieve will help you in the long run. You’ll uncover details that need to be figured out, and it will allow you to share your vision with others internally.

A human communication strategy starts with research

What does all this have to do with research? Maybe more than you think.

This ultra-challenging time of self-isolation means the majority of your target audiences are home, and likely on their devices, accessing the internet. Research at its core is about asking questions, and right now organizations can benefit from the information they may get if they simply take the time to ask.

Consider this a unique opportunity to connect with your audience and ask THEM what they want to see or learn. Creating or curating content that answers a desire helps assure that audiences will stay engaged during this time of unbelievable disruption. Here are some ideas.

  • Zoos, Aquariums, Museums: Create a quick survey to query which animals or exhibits people want to learn more about or see videos of. Whether sloths, sea lions or sculpture displays, you can create meaningful content for your visitors.

  • Member-based Organizations: Create an online chat session (your own focus group) to ask for virtual programming ideas from super-fans or long-time members. Let your most engaged members tell you what they want and need now. This is a moment when you should explore adding access to new or different benefits for your supporters.

  • Educational Institutions: Do parents need more educational videos to keep kids involved while not at school? Do they need something as easy as coloring pages that can be made available via links on social media or on websites? Send out an email or post on your social media pages and ask. You might be surprised by what you will learn.

Asking for input or feedback has the added, often subtle benefit of strengthening your community through networking. In addition, when you take action based on the feedback you receive, you reinforce with your audiences how valuable their engagement is.

Fundraising can continue in new, creative ways

Some of these communication and engagement strategies can also translate into new ways to reach possible donors and otherwise in-person paying customers. For example, many dance studios are offering instructional videos to teach new steps or combinations. Now might be the perfect time to explore a “pay for what you like” model for your posted content. Or consider letting your students determine what they are willing to pay for.

Another clever example comes from the directors of a local theatre company who recently offered a virtual cabaret, with multiple actor/singers sharing live performances interspersed with recorded numbers from previous shows. The organizers asked performers to encourage viewers to support the organization, and they periodically ran a ticker with info on how to donate. While this was very effective as well as entertaining, this type of engagement could easily be extended:

  • Ask potential viewers ahead of time to request songs from their favorite performers, or send in questions that will be answered during the broadcast.

  • Connect with existing sponsors and bring them into the mix to converse with the audience and deliver value for all while providing on-going audience engagement and possible new donations.

Find fun where you can

Practicing social interaction while we are all practicing social distancing isn’t just the rule of the day. Not-for-profit organizations that are paying attention to their audiences and providing ways to connect in the short term may also gain longer-term insights for future-state planning. We are social creatures and having ways to connect is good for our psyches. Organizations offering these opportunities for interaction and engagement will weather the storm by staying connected to their audiences in relevant and thoughtful ways.


Two bonus links, just in case the you haven’t seen the latest video of the penguins walking around in Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, now that it’s closed to the public, or Tim at the National Cowboy Museum taking over the social media feed.

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