Smithsonian planning `digital convergence’

Believing it’s a sleeping giant in terms of its online revenue-producing potential, the 154-year-old Smithsonian Institution is taking steps to develop e-business initiatives to reach a broader audience.

Part of the institution’s strategy to reach new buyers and make more money is “to extend the integrated museum experience online,” says Jeanny Kim, senior manager of corporate relations and development for Smithsonian Business Ventures (SBV). Smithsonian created SBV nearly two years ago as a centralized entity to oversee all its revenue-generating businesses: publications, museum stores, restaurants, concessions, the gift catalog, e-commerce, consumer product development and licensing, and other ventures that, in total, generate about $150 million annually. SBV is headed by CEO Gary Beer, the founding CEO of the Sundance Group.

Using the Internet, Kim says, “we want to bring the museum experience to a larger group of people.” The Smithsonian’s 16 museums (mostly lining the National Mall in Washington, DC, but also in New York) plus the National Zoo attract nearly 30 million visitors annually. Its 22 museum stores generate annual sales of $40 million. Smithsonian magazine has a circulation of 2 million and a readership of 8 million. The Smithsonian Catalogue, which began in 1974 as a four-page insert in the magazine, now mails quarterly, reaching about 20 million people a year and generating $40 million in annual sales. The Web catalog, which launched last October, brought in $400,000 in its first six months.

To reach its goals, SBV is planning an “overall digital convergence strategy,” Kim says, which involves improving the technology, merchandising and creative of the catalog’s Website. One idea being considered, for example, is branching out to special-interest online catalog versions that reflect and are linked to museum collections. Another is to develop merchandising and licensing partnerships or joint ventures. “The Smithsonian does not endorse products, but we can help partners create products,” Kim says.

Primarily, though, the convergence strategy is to integrate areas of the Website so that viewers can find additional information from the museum collections, or perhaps learn more about something mentioned in an article in the magazine – and maybe buy a related product. “It’s our goal to bring that kind of synergy to the [Website] areas,” says Kim.

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