What I learned from signing up for the newsletter of every museum in Florida

(Reading time: 6 minutes, 34 seconds — You can do this.)

I like to imagine the interactions organizations have with their audiences online as if they happened in real life between real people.

Try this scenario:

Someone invites you to a dinner party. When you arrive, they open the door and say, “Welcome! Stay tuned for more conversation when dinner is served.”

And then they walk away.

Not cool.

But organizations do this all the time with their newsletter welcome emails.

When someone joins a museum’s mailing list, for example, they’ve granted the museum permission to access them in a place usually reserved for friends, family, and colleagues.

What do museums do with that privilege?

Many don’t do anything. There’s not a welcome email to be found. Those that do send some kind of autoresponder just send a basic confirmation or welcome/thanks-for-subscribing email.

It reminds me of an escalator I used to ride every day when I would commute to my old studio in Brooklyn. It was a very long escalator ride from the elevated platform down to the street, and the whole time you were on it there was a recording of a woman’s voice saying, “Have a nice day.”

It drove me nuts — Why bother?

Why do so many museums play these recordings for newsletter subscribers instead of seizing the opportunity to learn from these people who are potentially their biggest fans?

To find out, the first thing I needed to do was see how museums were handling their initial interactions with new subscribers. I needed to test my hunch that most weren’t taking advantage of the opportunity.

Let’s run an experiment on Florida museums

I started out thinking I’d just look at a few museums in a random US city.

I went to randomlists.com and had it select a city at random. It returned Tampa.

Then, I went to visittampabay.com, which lists 18 museums in Tampa.

Next, I visited a random number generator site and had it pick five numbers between 1 and 18. I matched these up with the list of museums. The winners were:

  1. American Victory Ship Mariners Museum
  2. Florida Museum of Photographic Arts
  3. Glazer Children’s Museum
  4. Great Explorations Children’s Museum
  5. The Ringling

Next, I went to each of those museum’s websites and subscribed to their newsletters.

sign-up-to-stay-in-touch.jpg

The American Victory Ship Mariners Museum had a curious option during signup.

It seems I can opt-in to a list that will let me stay in touch with myself. I stuck with the ‘general interest’ option because — well, we just met and buy me a drink first, ok?

(All joking aside, I know what happened here, and it’s a mistake I’ve made before. But it’s still funny how technology systems can land us in these awkward communication corners.)

What did I receive in exchange for handing over my personal email address?

Only three museums sent a confirmation or welcome email. (Yes, I checked spam.)

Of those three, here’s what I received:

Ringling’s was just a confirmation email:

 
Confirmation email from Ringling newsletter
 

Someone just gave you the keys to their inbox — a place where no social media algorithm can prevent you from getting your message in front of them. And the moments just after they subscribe is when they are perhaps most interested in what you have to offer — and this is what you're going to say to them?

Now, you may be thinking: “What else would you say? What can you really do with a welcome email anyway? No one even reads them.”

We’ll come back to that.

I wanted to address the objection that this is a small sample. We’re looking at just five museums.

But if there are 35,000 museums in the US, you’d need a sample of 1,036 museums to reach a 95% confidence level with a 3% margin of error.

There was no way I was going to sign up for over a thousand museum newsletters.

But, once I get curious about something, I have trouble stopping, so I decided to sign up for the newsletter of every museum in the state of Florida.

Working from a perfect or perfectly-up-to-date list isn’t that important to me right now, so I scraped the list of over 400 Florida museums on Wikipedia.

I fed the list into Airtable and went to work.

How I signed up for every newsletter

The Wikipedia list included some galleries, historic sites, state parks … I began removing some of these as I worked, using my judgment. For example, some colleges really seemed like galleries, but a few seemed to have more established collections. I deleted some nature centers but kept some that seemed to offer programming similar to what a science center might offer.

I could have approached the process with more specific criteria, and maybe I’ll revisit the list to be more precise and consistent in the future, but perfect is the enemy of curious, so this is what I have for now.

I visited over 400 cultural organizations’ websites.

I scanned the homepage for a subscribe option — footer, pop-ups, social icons, navigation, etc. Then, I’d search for “newsletter” on the page or using the site’s search function. Sometimes, if the org felt established enough that it seemed weird that I couldn’t find a newsletter, I’d poke around on the “news” or “updates” page. (You get a sense after a while of who has a newsletter and who most likely won’t.)

Not a perfect approach — there may be a few I missed. On the other hand, if your newsletter is that hard to find, that’s a problem in itself.

What is a newsletter — is it for everyone?

I should also define what I mean by “newsletter” — it’s a mailing list that you opt-in to that is supported by an email service provider. Sometimes I’d find a blog that had the option to sign up to receive the RSS feed by email. That’s not a newsletter.

I don’t think every organization has to have a newsletter.

I was about to use The Randall Knife Museum in Orlando as an example of a museum that may not need a newsletter, but then I realized that with the right person behind the keyboard, that could be a pretty interesting mailing list.

Anyway, not every organization can afford to invest in a newsletter. I think it’s a shame that only about 31% of the museums in Florida even offer a newsletter, but I don’t think it should or could be 100%.

Sign me up

At first, I thought I’d use a mailinator address because I didn’t really want to receive the World Golf Hall of Fame’s newsletter at my personal email address. But then I realized some email service providers would block Mailinator. Plus, it somehow didn’t feel fair to not use my real address.

So, I started visiting every website and signing up using my personal email address.

I signed up for the Erotic Art Museum’s newsletter and the Spanish Military Hospital Museum’s newsletter.

I signed up for the Florida Sports Hall of Fame’s newsletter.

(Sports aren't really my thing.)

It actually only wound up being 124 newsletters that I subscribed to. It was the process of visiting and looking through each site that took the most time.

Here’s what I found

You can view the Airtable base here.

  • 31% of the museums had a newsletter
  • Of those that did offer a newsletter:
    • 4% had a sign up form that was broken in some way
    • 36% sent no confirmation or welcome email
    • 26% sent something more substantial than a basic “thank you”

That last bit was what I was most curious about.

In other words, 1.52% of all the Florida museums I visited sent an autoresponder to new subscribers that said something — anything — beyond “Thanks, have a nice day” to new subscribers.

This really speaks to how museums (and, to be fair, this probably goes for so many organizations) undervalue their newsletter as a tool for learning from their audience or communicating unique value.

I did not find a single cultural organization that tried to initiate a second interaction with the subscriber like encouraging a reply or asking a survey question.

The idea of using an initial email to stoke curiosity, start a conversation, or begin collecting data doesn't even seem to be on the radar of most museums.

Is it a deliberate choice?

Maybe I've got it wrong.

Maybe museums have thoroughly tested the potential benefits of optimizing their email content. Maybe I’m receiving these generic emails (or no email at all) because museums know from careful study that email newsletters cannot be a way to learn from or cultivate an audience or generate new data insights.

Maybe after extensive research and testing cultural organizations have found that there’s much more to be gained by investing in Facebook and Instagram, for instance.

But I doubt it.

I think what I’m seeing is a consequence of these organizations never having studied the value of their newsletter compared to other channels, as well as a lack of awareness of what can be done with a newsletter.

“Kyle, it’s a friggin’ welcome email! What could you possibly do with it anyway?”

Let’s talk about that next week.

For now, I’d love to hear your thoughts on all this. How is your organization handling these initial interactions with a new mailing list member? Have you tried different approaches? Hit reply and let me know.

Have a good weekend,

Kyle

Kyle Bowen