Mobile Business Models in a 2.0 Economy [1]

Nancy Proctor

Mobile is changing the way museums do business—whether they are aware of it or not. As “the people formerly known as the audience” [2] increasingly expect information and experiences on demand, wherever and whenever they are, the market is growing for mobile products and services for and about museums. At the same time, museums are beginning to think of audiences in a more granular way, recognizing more variation in needs and interests among their visitors, partners and collaborators, both online and on-site. As a result, museums aspire to create mobile products and service that better suit specific audience groups and contexts. In response, a wide range of new players has entered the mobile scene, loosening the grip of the handful of audio tour companies who dominated the field for over 50 years. Start-up app companies and smartphone manufacturers, mobile network providers and social media gurus, students, freelance content developers, open data protagonists, “citizen curators,” new alliances among cultural organizations to co-create content—it seems that nearly every day new forces are emerging to radically reconfigure both the museum mobile landscape and its business models. [3]

A review of the business strategies developed over the 60-year history of the audio tour [4] shows that some persist in this Mobile 2.0 economy; others are the result of new functions possible on handheld computing platforms and the new business interests that are bringing them to market. What hasn’t changed is that whether “free” or “paid for” by the end-user, there is always a cost to the museum to develop a mobile program. Following is a brief discussion of some of the main models museums are adopting to pay for their new mobile products and services, while also achieving their educational, outreach, and interpretive goals.

Omnibus: One way museums have struck a balance between their missions and the need for revenue has been to tie less popular mobile programs—usually the permanent collection audio tours—to the more profitable blockbuster exhibition audio or multimedia tours in “omnibus” contracts with (generally larger) tour companies. In this kind of deal, mobile interpretation of the permanent collection is effectively subsidized by the higher revenues from temporary exhibition tours, which “sell” better. The blockbuster tours are rented to visitors at a relatively high take-up rate (usually over 15% of visitors take the tour, up to 85% or more in the most successful tours), and some percentage of the profit from the temporary exhibition tour sales is plowed back in to creating permanent exhibition tours: in effect, the audio tour vendor is incentivized to produce the less profitable permanent collection audio tour in exchange for the opportunity to manage the more lucrative and PR-worthy blockbuster exhibition contracts. Some economies of scale can be achieved by using the same hardware and distribution infrastructure for both, but profit margins are reduced by piggybacking the permanent collection program on the more mass-market blockbuster tours. For the app incarnation of this business model, see “Freemium.”

Freemium: The new “freemium” model of the Web 2.0 economy has been greeted with enthusiasm by many cultural professionals (see, for example, DaPonte 2010), but so far there are very few examples in the museum market. The National Constitution Center’s app has basic visiting information, the Constitution, and links to current political news; it is free to download, but then charges $0.99 for each themed tour within the app, offering free sample stops for each one. MoMA has just introduced its “MoMA Books” app for the iPad, which is free to download but then requires an in-app purchase to download a complete book from the MoMA library. A variant on the omnibus model, freemium combines the concepts of the “free” and “premium” content in one digital product: educational, outreach and revenue imperatives are balanced by providing the app with some amount of free “loss-leader” content (e.g., from the permanent collection, or, as in the case of the MoMA Books app, sample chapter content), with the possibility to make an “in-app purchase” to add more content at a fee (e.g., for the special exhibition; the full book).

Subscription: In February 2011, iTunes introduced a subscription model for its app-based content. Launched with The Daily news iPad app from News Corporation, this model enables publishers to sell an app that will be updated periodically with new content at a recurring fee to the end-user. This suggests interesting new possibilities for museums to offer not just digital magazines through iTunes, but also subscriptions to apps and digital catalogues or other “ePubs” that are regularly updated. There are two catches: Apple takes 30% of subscription revenue (the same amount they garner from every app sale through iTunes), and perhaps more significantly for museums, these new products may require a new workflow to support the process of updating content. In the typical print production model, once a product has been published, only new editions and print runs permit content changes. Will museum book and catalogue teams be willing and able to adopt a magazine-style process in order to attract additional revenues beyond the initial product sale? Only time will tell, but it is certain that periodical publishers everywhere will be looking for alternatives to iTunes for distributing their digital products so they can cash in on the recurring revenues of the subscription model without having to pay such a hefty commission to Apple. As a result, museums can expect the number of online distribution channels for their downloadable digital products to increase in future.

Open Data: In response to an earlier essay on which this one is based and which was published as part of the proceedings for Museums and the Web 2011, Glen Barnes from app company MyTours suggested an additional new business model: making the museum’s data and content available to third parties to develop mobile apps and other products “for” the museum and its audiences. [5] While museums might justifiably keep their physical collections under lock and key for their own and the longer-term public good, they are being asked with increasing frequency to open their data and digital collections for use by others. The White House’s Open.Gov initiative calls for greater openness and transparency by the Federal Government in the United States, and includes a directive to federal agencies, which includes federally-funded museums, to publish data online, [6] as well as a strategy for making data more accessible, and more data available. [7]

Barnes argues that the benefits outweigh the loss of control for museums, and offers these examples of possible outcomes of museums opening their data:

  • A company with an existing tour app could aggregate tours from various museums into one app that allows users to find all of the nearby museum tours. This could open the possibility of your content being found by people who might not otherwise know about your museum.
  • Nokia fans/hackers are annoyed that none of the apps for museums are coming out for the Symbian platform… They develop an app that makes the content available on their device.
  • Of course it can’t all be roses… A content farm scrapes the content, republishes it and wraps a bunch of [ads] around the content.

In his essay in this volume, Koven Smith argues that museums have more control than they may think in the “Open Data” model: by controlling what data they release and in what format—and through a judicious use of creative commons copyrights—museums can influence to a large extent the kind of mobile products that are created with their content. [8] The Brooklyn Museum conducted an early experiment with this model, enabling Iconoclash Media to develop an app for the collection with the Museum’s Open Collection API. [9] By inspiring new kinds of partnership and revenue streams, this model offers perhaps the most potential for business innovation in the mobile sector.

Sponsorship: Another traditional model is sponsorship, which covers part or all of the cost of the mobile program’s creation and distribution, allowing the museum to offer the product or service to visitors without charge or at a reduced fee. This model may also free up the mobile content for broader distribution without being in conflict with a revenue source for the museum. In the case of museum tours, the usage rate for the sponsored tour is significantly higher than those without subsidy. For example, when MoMA’s audio program was offered for free after the museum reopened in 2004, courtesy of a grant from Bloomberg, the tour usage rate went from 5–8% of visitors to 31%, and now reaches more than 45% with the broader distribution through MoMA Wi Fi and other channels. Similarly, for several years, AT&T sponsored SFMOMA Artcasts, the museum’s podcast series (though that sponsorship was eventually transferred to a higher ticket funding opportunity). (Burnette, 2011)

Advertising-Supported: Until now, sponsorship has been the limit of the introduction of commercial brands into museum settings, unlike symphonies, theater, and ballet, which distribute programs where advertising is plentiful. One example of an early experiment with in-app advertising is the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s 100 Acres tour. The museum agreed to a “media-swap” with the local Sunday paper: in exchange for publicity for the mobile website in the newspaper, a “disappearing” banner ad is seen briefly at the bottom of the map each time the map is accessed in the app.

Outside the museum world, some app and mobile website publishing platforms that are free to the publishers and/or users include the platform owner’s logo, advertising, or the possibility of selling advertising as an indirect way of paying the platform authors/owners for the use of their service (e.g., WireNode, Mobify; many Twitter apps are free to end-users but include advertising banners). But so far this funding source has not been fully explored by the museum community.

Membership Benefit: Some museums use audio tours, provided at a fee to most visitors, as a membership benefit. The Royal Academy in London, for example, provides free audio tours along with free entry to their exhibitions for members, enabling them to skip the line to get into blockbuster shows, as well. This is a good example of leveraging a mobile product for its “network effects”: in addition to its direct revenue potential, the audio tour adds an incentive to join the museum and thereby drives an additional revenue stream above and beyond tour rental fees.

Donations: Mobile giving got its biggest boost in public awareness from the Red Cross’s text donations to Haiti campaign: in less than 10 days, over $30 million had been donated in $10 increments from 3 million unique donors, with additional donor development benefits for the non-profit: 95% of the text-message donors were “first-time donors to the American Red Cross,” and “20,000 opted in to receive ongoing email communications from the nonprofit organization.” (Mobilemarketer, 2010) These spectacular results attracted many museums to try mobile giving, but, as Megan Weintraub, new media manager for Oxfam, said to the NonProfit Times, “Not everybody is the Red Cross. You don’t have Michelle Obama telling you to text with other organizations.” The decidedly more modest results from mobile giving at cultural organizations have yielded the most with event-driven campaigns that make extensive use of traditional marketing and advertising outlets to publicize the cause and its donation short code. The Philips Collection solicited text message donations of $5 and $10 to help restore the museum after the September 2010 fire. (ArtInfo, 2010) Anyone contemplating mobile giving campaigns must also take into account the marketing overheads required to make them successful: signage, traditional media publicity for the campaign, and staff time are all costs to be weighed against new donation revenues. Nonetheless, mobile giving offers benefits beyond just money: increases in new donors, members and opt-ins to the museum’s mailing list should also be factored in as potential additional “network effects” that can result from a well-designed campaign.

The Value Is in the Network

In the summer of 2010, Fast Company blogger Aaron Shapiro wrote:

Apple CEO Steve Jobs has said, the App Store has generated more than $1 billion in revenue for developers. That sounds like a big number. But… [o]ne billion dollars in revenue for the approximately 225,000 apps is $4,444 per app—significantly less than an app costs to develop… A typical iPhone app costs $35,000 to develop. The median paid app earns $682 per year after Apple takes its cut. With these calculations for the typical paid app, it takes 51 years to break even. It’s not any better for free apps. A free app also costs about $35,000 to develop. But there are so many free iPhone apps that at a rate of 2 seconds per app, it would take approximately 34 hours for someone to check out each one. That’s not great odds for a revenue model based on advertising. (Fast Company, 2010)

It is becoming clear that museums are as unlikely as any other developer to “get rich quick” on mobile apps. But scant financial returns on mobile products are really nothing new to the museum field: with a few exceptions among the most visited cultural attractions, revenues have not been the most significant benefits to the museum from its audio tours and their progeny. Nonetheless, museums have been early adopters and innovators on the mobile space for some 60 years. The investment required for mobile programs has commonly been justified because of mobile’s unique ability to meet other needs of the museum’s mission: offering greater possibilities for extending outreach, improving the quality and accessibility of interpretation and education, and supporting other revenue initiatives and connecting platforms to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

The metrics of success for mobile, like its goals, are therefore not just the number of downloads and dollars received, but also the extent to which the mobile program is able to engage audiences and support other museum programs, activities and revenue streams. These outcomes are clearly much more difficult to quantify, but devising metrics, measuring tools, and a management culture that evaluates and values them should be a focus of effort by the museum community as we experiment with new mobile business models. As Max Anderson has indicated, the “network effects” possible when mission-driven initiatives are connected in a healthy eco-system show that there is more than just “red ink” to the business of mobiles in museums. (Anderson, 2007)


  1. This chapter is an updated and expanded version of a portion of the essay, “Getting On (not under) the Mobile 2.0 Bus: Emerging issues in the mobile business model” co-written with Allegra Burnette, Peter Samis and Rich Cherry and published in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2011: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, March 31, 2011. The author would like to thank her collaborators for their contribution to this current version.
  2. Comment by Bill Thompson of the BBC during his interview by David Rowan of Wired Magazine as part of the conference, “Mobile for the Cultural Sector,” London, 8 March 2011, consulted 28 March, 2011.
  3. In this volume, Peter Samis (“Models and Misnomers for Mobile Production”) discusses how these new entrants to the field have exploded the traditional mobile content production model for museums.
  4. Loic Tallon found what may be the earliest audio tour in a museum, the 1952 multilingual audio tour of an exhibition “Vermeer: Real or Fake” at the Stedelijke Museum in Amsterdam: Gescheidenis (History), “Draadloze rondleiding in het Amsterdamse Stedelijke Museum,” film clip from Polygoon Hollands Nieuws, July 28, 1952. Details at Consulted January 30, 2011. Tallon blogged about this discovery at (Tallon 2009).
  5. Glen Barnes, comment on the online paper, “Getting On (not Under) the Mobile 2.0 Bus: Emerging Issues in the Mobile Business Model |”,
  6. White House, “Open Government Policy”, Open Government Initiative, consulted 28 March 2011.
  7. Office of E-Government and IT, Office of Management and Budget, “Data.Gov Concept of Operations”, consulted 28 March 2011.
  8. Koven Smith, “Mobile Experience Design: What’s Your Roll-Out Strategy?” in this volume.
  9. The trajectory of this partnership, including the branding issues that arose when the museum released its own app and the subsequent decision to temporarily remove the Iconoclash app (pending re-release under a different developer name and branding) has been charted through the Brooklyn Museum’s blog; see especially: “Brooklyn Museum API: the iPhone app” 17 April 2009 and “App Store Confusion Necessitates API Changes” 1 December 2010 Consulted 28 March 2011.


  • Anderson, Maxwell L. “Prescriptions for Art Museums in the Decade Ahead,” CURATOR: The Museum Journal, Volume 50, Number 1, January 2007.
  • Samis, Peter, “Models and Misnomers for Mobile Production” in Proctor, Nancy, ed., Mobile Apps for Museums: The AAM Guide to Planning and Strategy, Washington, DC: 2011, The AAM Press, American Association of Museums.
  • Smith, Koven, “Mobile Experience Design: What’s Your Roll-Out Strategy?” in Proctor, Nancy, ed., Mobile Apps for Museums: The AAM Guide to Planning and Strategy, Washington, DC: 2011, The AAM Press, American Association of Museums.

Introduction: What is Mobile?

By Nancy Proctor

Today apps and smartphones probably come to mind first as the iconic, ground-breaking mobile platforms poised to transform the museum experience for all of us. But in fact mobile technologies have been part of the museum landscape since at least 1952 when what may have been the first audio tour was introduced at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam using radio broadcast technology.[1]

Audio tours are still the most common form of “self-guided” mobile experience at cultural sites. Arguably, they are also the oldest source of “augmented reality”(AR), enabling us to “overlay” the observed environment with interpretation and other content we hear. In this light there is a pleasurable echo to finding the Stedelijk once again leading the field in AR apps, discussed here in a chapter by Margriet Schavemaker, the museum’s head of collections and research. The Stedelijk example and museums’ long history of working with mobile technologies suggests that the foundational experiences and expertise required to deploy even the most cutting-edge of 21st-century mobile technologies effectively lie at museums’ fingertips and well within their traditional purview. This introductory volume aims to help museums grasp some of the mobile skills and opportunities most immediately available to them.

Since the invention of the audio tour, the number and kind of mobile devices used by museums have proliferated. Other than audio tours loaned out on made-for-museum devices, podcasts are probably the most common mobile media being published by museums, alongside other kinds of downloadable content ranging from PDFs to eBooks and videos. In terms of personal mobile devices, the majority of the museum’s actual and potential audiences still use “dumbphones” that are limited to voice and text messaging. Hundreds if not thousands of museums have created audio tours for this low-cost platform in the past six years or so. What these forms of mobile media — the traditional audio tour, the cellphone tour, the podcast and similar downloadable content — have in common is that they are typically deployed in a broadcast delivery mode: primarily for one-way delivery of content from museum to consumer.

But with today’s new networked mobile devices — smartphones, tablet computers and Wi-Fi-enabled media players — two-way communication models are now easier and on the rise. Not just “narrowcast” audio tours but interactive mobile multimedia, including games, crowdsourcing activities, and social media, can be delivered via apps to the visitor’s own Internet-enabled phones and media players, instead of or to supplement devices provided on-site by the museum. The term “mobile” has come to encompass an ever-expanding field of platforms, players, and modes of audience engagement. Mobile today means both:

  • Pocketable (phones, personal media players, gaming devices) and portable devices (tablets and eReaders);
  • Smartphones that run apps and access the Internet, and older cellular phones that do nothing more than make voice calls and send text messages;
  • Podcasts of audio and video content, and other downloadable content, including PDFs and eBooks;
  • Mobile websites, optimized for the small screen and audiences on the go, and “desktop” websites, designed for large, fixed screens but which are increasingly visited by mobile devices; [2]
  • BYOD (bring your own device) mobile experiences, designed for visitors’ personal devices, and traditional on-site device distribution for visitors who do not have or do not care to use their own phone or media player.

Mobile’s disruptive power comes from its unique ability to offer the individual intimate, immediate and ubiquitous access combined with an unprecedented power to connect people with communities and conversations in global, social networks: mobile is both private and public, personal and political. Understanding that the new mobile devices today are also geo-spatially aware computers capable of supporting research, communication and collaboration challenges us to “think beyond the audio tour” and our silo-like approaches to digital initiatives. It also inspires us to reinvent the museum’s relationship with its many publics by conceiving content and experiences that operate across platforms and disciplines, both inside the museum and beyond.

At the same time that the rise of mobile reshapes the museum’s thinking about its digital interfaces, it broadens access to the museum exponentially. Not only are more people able to connect with the museum through their mobile devices, but there is also the potential for them to personalize their museum experience whenever and wherever they like, integrating collections, exhibitions and other offerings into a much broader range of use-case scenarios than we have ever imagined. The museum can not only enter people’s homes and classrooms, but can also be part of their daily commutes, their international travel, their work and leisure activities as never before. How will museums understand and cater to this huge range of contexts and demands for cultural content?

Mobile is Social Media

As Koven Smith has argued[3], delivering what is fundamentally the same, narrow-cast audio tour experience to shiny new gadgets is unlikely to improve the take-up or penetration rates of mobile technology used by museum visitors: in other words, to better help the museum deliver on its educational and interpretive mission. Although in conflict with visitors’ self-reported usage of mobile interpretation in museums[4], the traditional audio tour reaches a sobering minority of the museum’s on-site audiences, whether the tour is provided on made-for-museum audio devices on-site, or accessed through visitors’ personal phones or media players. In the pages that follow, Kate Haley-Goldman helps us understand this phenomenon in the context of recent major studies of mobile adoption by museums and their visitors, and frames important new questions for future research to guide ongoing developments in the field.

Thinking beyond the audio tour model, Ed Rodley provides tips on how to integrate mobile into the overall museum experience design to create more authentic, compelling and higher quality mobile programs. Jane Burton tackles the new field of “serious mobile gaming” for museums, and Margriet Schavemaker demonstrates how augmented reality can explode the museum experience into new dimensions and territories for artists, curators and exhibition designers, as well as for museum audiences. No less revolutionary is the impact of new platforms on the centuries-old docent or museum guide format: Scott Sayre, Kris Wetterlund, Sheila McGuire and Ann Isaacson describe how iPads and similar tablet computers can transform the live-guided group tour into a multi-platform, multimedia experience.

Museums are also asking how well content designed with the on-site visit in mind can fulfill the needs of those audiences who will never be able to come to the museum in person. Allegra Burnette provides an introduction to cross-platform thinking that optimizes museums’ mobile apps for both the on-site visit and beyond. Similarly, Koven Smith’s essay on the “roll-out” of mobile programs shows how new marketing approaches can be integrated into mobile project design to reach target audiences more effectively — even if the app is not built or even commissioned by the museum.

Concerns about the impact of mobile programs have always been intertwined with financial and budgetary considerations for museums. Speaking from more than a decade of experience working both in-house and with mobile vendors, Peter Samis lays out all the elements of mobile content production and their business model considerations to help museums make the best choices in the expanding field of mobile products and services. Ted Forbes guides museums through the decision-process of “native vs. web app,” and Rob Stein offers a solution for “future-proofing” mobile tours to make them more compatible across the proliferating platforms and devices now available. My own essay on mobile business models examines the new revenue streams that have entered the museum field with new mobile platforms and players in the market, and suggests metrics appropriate to measuring the success of museums’ mobile businesses.

Whether audio tour, “un-tour,” [5] “de-tour,” or “para-tour,” the approaches to museum apps described in this volume aim to go beyond the “narrow-cast” visitor services model. These essays position mobile as an integral part of a web of platforms that connect communities of interest and facilitate conversations among our audiences as well as with the museum itself: mobile is social media. As an indispensible part of the 2.0 museum, mobile supports the key indices of the museum’s success vis-à-vis its core mission and responsibility to the public good:

  1. Relevance: the museum’s responsibility to make its collections, content and activities meaningful and accessible to the broadest possible audiences;
  1. Quality: the museum’s mission to collect, preserve and interpret the invaluable artifacts and key stories, ideas and concepts that represent human culture and creativity;
  1. Sustainability: the museum’s enduring obligation to deliver both quality and relevance to its audiences — forever.

The quality and relevance of the museum’s discourse are the preconditions for its sustainability, and enable “network effects” that grow audiences and foster self-perpetuating conversations about the museum’s collections, activities and messages. Mobile products and services do not yield these benefits on their own, but rather as an integral part of the eco-system of platforms that now make up the museum as “distributed network.” [6]

We hope these essays help strengthen the museum network and cultivate stronger connections among our colleagues as we collectively map the important new terrain of mobile in museums. Recognizing that the only constant in the mobile field is change, this publication is designed with expandability and updates in mind: the digital versions include interactive elements that the entire museum community can contribute to, including product design principles and FAQs. New essays will be added to reflect the changing body of knowledge in the mobile field, beginning with chapters on best practice in content development and collaborative production strategies from Sandy Goldberg and Alyson Webb, among others still being planned. Our strategy is to cast the net widely, tapping both veterans and new thinkers in the field, and to mine the museum community’s collective experience deeply, in order to yield the guidelines and examples that will enable us all to integrate mobile products and services most effectively and efficiently into the museum of the 21st century.


  1. Loïc Tallon
  2. A recent Pew Internet survey indicates that 40% of American adults already had access to the Internet from a mobile phone in 2010 (Smith, 2010). Gartner predicts that by 2013 mobile phones will overtake desktop computers as the most common method for accessing the Internet worldwide. (Gartner, 2010). A 2011 infographic from IBM suggests that the majority of Internet use will be from mobile devices by 2014. Sarah Kessler, IBM Infographic “Mobile by the Numbers” 23 March 2011 Accessed 3 April 2011.
  3. Smith, K., “The Future of Mobile Interpretation.” In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2009: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2009. Consulted October 25, 2010.
  4. Petrie, M. and L. Tallon, “The Iphone Effect? Comparing Visitors’ and Museum Professionals’ Evolving Expectations of Mobile Interpretation Tools.” In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2010: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2010. Consulted October 25, 2010.
  5. Notes from the “Un-tour Unconference” session, Museums and the Web 2010. Consulted 15 October 2010.
  6. Proctor, N. “Mobile Social Media in the Museum as Distributed Network,” forthcoming in Interactive Museums, ed. MuseumID, London, 2011.


Gartner. (2010) “Gartner Highlights Key Predictions for IT Organizations and Users in 2010 and Beyond.” January 13, 2010. Consulted January 27, 2011.

Petrie, M. and L. Tallon, “The Iphone Effect? Comparing Visitors’ and Museum Professionals’ Evolving Expectations of Mobile Interpretation Tools.” In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2010: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2010. Consulted October 25, 2010.

Proctor, N. “Mobile Social Media in the Museum as Distributed Network,” forthcoming in Interactive Museums, ed. MuseumID, London, 2011.

Proctor, N. et al. Notes from the “Un-tour Unconference” session, Museums and the Web 2010. Consulted 15 October 2010.

Smith, A. (2010) “Pew Internet & American Life: Mobile Access 2010.” July 7, 2010. Consulted January 27, 2011.

Smith, K., “The Future of Mobile Interpretation.” In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2009: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2009. Consulted October 25, 2010.

Tallon, L. “Aboutthat 1952 SedelijkMuseumaudioguide, andacertainWillemSandburg,” Musematic, May 19, 2009. Consulted January 30, 2011.