The lockdowns in reaction to the recent pandemic pushed our audiences even further towards online commerce. Expectations around how they interact online with organisations have gone up, and it’s vital that heritage organisations keep pace.
When it comes to online transactions, what products should be available through your online shop? How can you reach your customers online? Do online shops even make sense in a heritage context? Let’s find out.
It’s important to bear in mind how your digital audiences differ from your in-person audiences. This will affect which of your products make sense online, how you reach potential customers, and how you might benefit from working in partnership with others.
Venue shops vs online shops
A shop on your website does not automatically fulfil the same goals as a physical shop inside your venue. Customers encounter them in dramatically different ways and are likely to be shopping for different products.
The traditional shop experience
A venue’s shop is often the last port of call before a visitor departs. Customers are highly engaged after an enjoyable visit and will be receptive to purchasing mementos of their experience.
A venue-based shop supports a very wide range of products, from small items (pencils, bookmarks) to larger offerings (hampers, coffee table books, local artisanal produce). These can be specific to exhibitions, related geographically or thematically relevant.
The online shop experience
An online shop performs a slightly different function as a consequence of it being untethered from the physical venue. The flow of customers through an online shop is significantly altered, which must be considered when developing your offering.
A website visitor is likely to be at an earlier point in their interactions with you, possibly seeking information about a potential future visit. If someone has found their way to your website having used a search engine to find a specific product, they might not be interested in the wider context of your organisation. This might be their very first visit. Or they could already be subscribed to your newsletter or social media.
What to sell
Offering easy online booking for visits is essential and provides numerous benefits:
- Fully automated, reducing staff workload
- Customers don’t have to wait in telephone queues
- Always available, even outside of your normal opening hours
- Customers are given more agency to manage their bookings
- Easily track conversions from your promotional campaigns
- Lots of upsell opportunities
There are too many ticket platforms to name. If you’re looking for one, we strongly suggest contacting other organisations with similar needs to your own and seeing what they recommend.
Consider what makes sense in the context of your online shop. Although you can stock your entire catalogue, remember that your online shoppers are jumping on at very different points in the user journey compared to venue attendees.
Optimising what you’re offering – which may mean choosing to not sell certain things – will make it easier to set and meet realistic targets.
Little mementos that work well in the venue shop – branded pencils and sweets with your organisation’s name on them – are far less likely to connect with online shoppers.
The same goes for other generic products that can be bought anywhere, such as cuddly toys. Without the strong experiential connection of having physically walked through your venue, a customer is unlikely to choose your online shop when they need new stationery.
Combining smaller items into larger collections can work, though. An individual jar of local honey is an awkward online purchase; a hamper bursting with exciting local produce is compelling. Being precise and strategic with your catalogue also lightens the fulfilment load on your staff.
Ultimately, not all products make sense online.
What does work:
- Higher value items (potentially including bundles of existing smaller items)
- Products with potential for repeat custom, leading to higher lifetime value
- Seasonal promotional tie-ins: Christmas, Valentine’s, Easter, anniversaries, etc
- Products which are simple and cost-effective to fulfil (packaging, shipping etc)
Donations and memberships
Donations and memberships thrive online. Parents with young children may not have the time or patience to sign up to a membership scheme during a busy day out, so why not provide them with the ability to do so once back home?
Your supporters are already used to subscribing to entertainment services such as Netflix and Spotify; committing to supporting a worthy heritage site should be an easy decision. Even better, a customer who has donated or committed to a membership is more likely to return to purchase future products and tickets.
Recurring donations and membership subscriptions provide regular revenue streams, boosting your organisation’s financial resilience in a more stable way than smaller purchases.
An appealing product combined with a positive message (“x% of proceeds go toward funding our education programme” and so on) is compelling.
Collaboration and partners
In some cases the cost of operating an online shop, especially factoring in packaging and shipping, makes for a difficult ROI argument.
Partnering with other businesses with established routes to market could offer a solution, especially if your products complement each other. There may be opportunities for you to sell some of their products, cross-pollinating your customer lists to mutual benefit.
If you work with artists there are likely to be opportunities for collaboration. Artists are likely to have highly engaged fanbases primed to purchase related products, but they are unlikely to naturally find their way to your heritage website. Tap into your collaborators’ networks and you can exponentially expand your reach.
It’s important to reduce friction for your customers. Every additional click they have to make, every extra line of text they need to read, is an opportunity for them to change their mind.
In 2020 The Tank Museum detailed the importance of delivering a modern, well-designed online shop experience. They offer a great example of how a focused offering, delivered with personality and an eye on good customer experience, can pay dividends.
If you want to dig deeper, Steve Krug’s 2015 book Don’t Make Me Think remains essential reading on the subject.
Choosing a platform
The platforms we’ve highlighted below are a tiny sample of what’s available. These should not be thought of as recommendations but as starting points for your own research.
A comprehensive list of features puts Shopify on the shortlist for most heritage organisations. It is a flexible system designed for selling products quickly and simply.
That feature set and its reasonably low price point has made it very popular.
Adobe Commerce (previously known as Magento) is suitable for larger online shops with more complex needs. It offers flexibility and extensibility for developers, with Adobe claiming to deliver AI-driven analytics.
If your website is already built on WordPress, then Woocommerce is a natural solution. Developer-friendly with an extensive open source community, it can be used to sell tickets and merchandise.
Described as providing “everything to sell anything”, Squarespace is a comprehensive website builder with easy-to-use templates that make it easy even for non-techies.
If you have a very simple website and a relatively small number of goods or services to sell, this might be a good entry point.
An alternative to Squarespace, Wix competes with a similar set of features, including easy website construction and templates for building an online shop.
Podia and Gumroad
Podia and Gumroad specialise in selling digital content. The emphasis is very much on webinars, course materials, ebooks and so on.
Amazon and eBay
An alternative to running your own shop is to put listings on the established shopfronts of Amazon and eBay. Tapping into existing marketplaces means less control over your product and branding but you gain access to their huge customer base.
A poor standard of user experience will hurt your sales. With customers in your venue, you have a reasonably captive audience. But online, potential buyers are only ever a click away from finding another retailer.
Here are some of the factors you should bear in mind to maximise your conversions.
Clear and obvious calls to action
Don’t hide your shop! Make sure it is easy to find in the website’s primary navigation and don’t forget to include relevant links whenever an opportunity presents itself.
- Always link through to the shop or specific products from events pages
- Make sure your regular newsletters always include shop links
- Look out for opportunities to link to the shop and specific products within articles and blog posts
- Make sure that ‘Buy’ and ‘Add to basket’ buttons are prominently displayed and easy to spot
Ensure that your website is secure, from a visitor’s arrival through to purchase confirmation. If the padlock symbol is visible in the address bar of your browser then your customers can buy with confidence:
If a website is insecure it will look more like this:
Aim for your shopfront to be integrated as seamlessly as possible – ideally, the customer should not be aware of moving between website platforms. You can smooth over the joins by maintaining continuity across the primary navigation matching the visual design.
Instil further consumer confidence by offering robust and fair refund policies, trial periods where relevant and easily accessible support procedures. Knowing that someone is on the end of an email or telephone can make all the difference.
Testimonials and reviews from previous customers go a long way to assuring new customers that you are a trustworthy organisation. Don’t miss opportunities to display these prominently.
Streamlined checkout process
The best case scenario is that a customer should be able to buy tickets for an event at the same time as merchandise without having to contend with multiple logins or separate websites. This can be a challenge if you’re on a tight budget and lack in-house development resources.
The goal of a frictionless experience also means reducing the number of steps required to go from choosing a product to having purchased it. This can conflict with the data needs of your organisation and funders and will be an on-going conversation between departments and stakeholders. For example, customers like being able to quickly checkout as guests but this will reduce how much data you collect.
Compare the checkout processes of the online shops you enjoy using – including from outside the sector. Count how many individual pages you have to go through to complete a transaction and compare it to your site. Is there anything you can do to streamline the process?
Does your website work for people using screen readers? Do the visuals scale elegantly across a range of monitor resolutions, sizes and setups? Do your brand colours cause difficulties for colour blind users? Can the pages be navigated without the need for a mouse? Do your images have appropriate alternative descriptions?
There are free online tools which provide accessibility analysis and guidance, but the best insight will always come from consulting with people who have lived experience.
A checkout process that works perfectly on a desktop or laptop computer will not automatically translate to a small handheld device. A significant percentage of your visitors are likely to be on mobile – don’t lock them out.
While a venue will often sell tickets at a physically separate location to the gift shop, a website is able to be more flexible. This produces convenient opportunities for upselling customers.
When booking tickets for an exhibition or event, it makes sense to offer the accompanying brochure or guide book as an optional add-on, as you would at the venue, but you can also offer shop items that couldn’t easily be displayed physically at the front desk.
A customer can add these additional items to their basket with a single click, before or during the checkout process.
How much scope you have for upsells will depend on the architecture around your technology. If your merchandise shop is entirely separate to your ticketing system you’ll have less flexibility, but you can always feature additional products on your order confirmation page or in follow-up emails.
You’ve got everything set up: now it’s time to make some sales.
Targeting new vs returning customers
Getting previous customers to come back is always easier (and cheaper) than attracting new visitors. It is returning customers who will leave testimonials, tell their friends and happily talk about their experience or show off their brand new mug or t-shirt on Facebook. Be sure to balance your efforts across new and returning customers.
Consider the different user journeys of people interacting with your organisation. What are the different jumping-on points? For example:
Visiting your venue in person
Recommendation from a friend
Picking up a brochure or leaflet
Seeing an advert in print or online
Reading one of your blog posts or listening to a podcast episode
Encountering your content on social media platforms
Reminders in print
Our focus is on digital, but don’t overlook the power of print. Make sure that brochures, leaflets, programme guides, mailings and so on all reference the online shop. This will push undecided tourists towards your website, and visitors who may not have had time to visit the shop in person can follow-up at home.
Although we’ve looked at the differences between online and venue-based shops, in your messaging you should think of them as intrinsically connected.
Sometimes the old methods are still the best. As an opt-in communications tool, email newsletters are full of people who already like your organisation. Far more than a casual Twitter follow, a newsletter reader has already demonstrated commitment.
Make sure that new visitors can easily join your mailing list. The algorithms of social media will always be changing and unpredictable; display and search advertising has inherent associated costs and barriers; but a mailing list is yours and is a direct route to your customers’ inboxes.
Converting social media followers into customers is notoriously difficult. What social does provide is a good way to stay on people’s radars. It can be strong social proof and show that an organisation is active.
Search engine optimisation
It’s critical that people can find you online. A core part of this is ensuring that you appear in relevant search results near the top of the page. By optimising your website you will help search engines such as Google and Bing to better understand what you are offering.
Heritage organisations will want to ensure that they are geographically located correctly: does your home page make it clear where you are? Have you claimed your organisation’s My Business page on Google and updated all the appropriate contact details? Do positive articles and reviews link through to your website? Do you link internally so that people (and search engines) can navigate easily?
Google Ad Grants
If you’re a qualifying non-profit organisation you will have access to Google’s Ad Grants program, which provides $10,000 of free ad spend each month.
This grant can’t be used on display or shopping ads (the more visual form of Google advertising encountered on other websites) but it is very useful for raising your profile on Google.
Paid online advertising
You can also commit to paid advertising online, most commonly via Google Ads or Facebook Ads. The geographic targeting available can be especially effective for venue-based heritage organisations, enabling you to reach anyone who lives in your region or even people with an interest in your region (such as tourists planning an upcoming holiday).
This can be tricky, so it’s important to be confident that the amount you spend to attract customers will still result in profitable sales.
Google Analytics should be set up to track visits to your website. This will tell you which pages people are visiting and how people are finding your website.
E-commerce tracking is an optional feature which needs to be manually activated. It will send information about purchases to Google Analytics, allowing you to see the amount of revenue generated by your marketing activity.
Your ticketing and shop platforms should give you additional useful data such as:
- Average basket value (use upsells to increase the amount sold in each transaction)
- Customer lifetime value (bring existing customers back to your store to increase this)
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Please attribute as: "How can heritage organisations achieve online sales and visitor targets? (2022) by Chris Unitt supported by The Heritage Fund, licensed under CC BY 4.0