At lunch hour on a warm summery day, Andrew Morgan, a 22-year-old with a Ramones button pinned to his messenger bag, stands at Downtown Crossing with a stack of postcards he and a colleague are paid to hand out.
They're plugging an upcoming two-for-one special. As people pass, Morgan lets them know who he's working for.
"Gardner Museum," he says.
That makes Dave Bragg, a worker out on his lunch break, stop and take a card. He thanks Morgan and walks away slowly, reading.
"There are so many people out there giving out things every day," explained Bragg. "But when I heard it was a museum, I thought I'd check it out. I've been to the Museum of Fine Arts but not the Gardner. I think I'll give it a try."
It's no wonder Bragg was caught off guard. Street teams, as they're called in the marketing world, are typically meant to spread word of clothing sales or nightclub specials. They haven't been used much by museums -- at least until now. The Gardner, eager to draw a new and younger audience, has taken it to the streets for its latest marketing effort.
Over the last year, a group of 20-somethings has handed out more than 5,000 cards across the Boston area, plus many kitschy, temporary tattoos decorated with the museum's logo. So far museum officials aren't sure of what it's accomplished; they're planning to track the impact of the teams next year.
But there are some clear signs that the effort has made an impact. The key event the street teamers promote, "After Hours," a monthly gathering designed to draw young professionals into the Gardner, has been packed, the palace reaching its 500-person capacity. Also, in exit surveys, more than 56 percent of "After Hours" guests said they had heard of the new program through word of mouth. Museum officials believe the street-team work contributes to that.
Museum marketing experts praised the Gardner's strategy.
"What's cool . . . is it sounds like kind of a hybrid of viral marketing and old-school 'get out the vote' stuff," said Arthur Cohen, whose New York-based cultural marketing firm has done work for, among others, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. "Once people know they're not being sold something commercial, they're much more open to an offer like that. It's less shilling and more spreading a good word."
Founded in 1903, the Gardner Museum is famous for its cozy, Venetian palace stuffed with priceless art. In her will, Isabella Stewart Gardner, who died in 1924, restricted the museum from making major changes within the palace. But she never said anything about how the museum could build audience and buzz.
Attendance at the Gardner has remained respectable, if flat, in recent years, hovering between 170,000 and 180,000 visitors a year. The staff has been trying to do something about those numbers. Two years ago, the Gardner launched a podcast featuring a program of classical music taken from the museum's tapestry room. It has been a huge success, drawing more than 40,000 downloads over its first month. The Gardner also hosts a blog and Flickr site, on which it posts photos of young professionals at museum events.
The street teams rely on personal contact. The idea emerged during discussions with the Gardner's "After Hours" media sponsor, the Boston Phoenix, which uses them to promote a range of events aimed at the all-important 18-34 target market. (The Phoenix provides the street teams for free to the museum as part of its sponsorship.) Though the Gardner has used the teams since last fall to spread word of special offers, it has focused largely on the monthly "After Hours" night.
"Why not try it?" said Julie Crites, the museum's program planning director. "It completely fits with this idea of making the Gardner more approachable and fun to younger people."
Since September, the museum has stayed open late the third Thursday of every month, allowing visitors to enjoy live music, a courtyard bar, and the galleries.
Over the last year, the Gardner has had 15 street teams working about 10 locations, including Newbury Street, Harvard Square, and Downtown Crossing. The museum plans to continue with the program next year.
The price of this kind of marketing is certainly right. Each member of a street-team pair makes $8 to $10 an hour. The Phoenix is picking up that tab, but even if it fell to the museum, that would be a lot less than a newspaper, radio, or magazine ad, says Adam Brasel, an assistant professor of marketing at Boston College. "You're saving a lot of money because you're not taking out bid media buys and you're sort of replacing a cash cost with a manpower cost." Brasel said.
Brasel also said he wouldn't be surprised to find other museums adopting street teams.
"A lot of the problem with the arts right now is their customer base is graying very quickly," he said. "If you want to reconnect with a younger audience, you can use the Internet, that's fine. But it can't hurt to kind of go beat the pavement."
Street teams are nothing new. Adam Hollander, president of the New York-based Brand Marketers, said that the approach dates back decades in the indie rock and rap industries. In those days, record labels would pay teenagers with music, T-shirts, and posters.
Now, he says, the industry has progressed to the point that street teamers are trained and paid. He has also changed the title he uses for the workers. He calls them "brand ambassadors."
"If you go out to a busy metropolis, you're going to see a ton of advertising," he said. "You're almost going to be overloaded. The brand ambassador cuts through that and can actually engage people and get the message out."
On his day working Downtown Crossing, Morgan finds a largely receptive audience.
"The Gardner is a treasure in this city," Mary Karen Rogers, surprised to encounter the street team, tells him after taking a card.
But Rodeline Cadichon, a 20-year-old U-Mass Boston student, said she was disappointed after accepting a Gardner card.
"I thought it was a coupon for a store," she said. "I'd prefer that. Something I could use."
Geoff Edgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.