For museums interested in luring Chinese travelers, a WeChat presence isnt optional anymore.

A white paper from China Luxury Advisors, published this October, indicates that 86 percent of Chinese museum visitors are likely on the WeChat platform while inside exhibits, shops, and other museum spaces. The 24/7 social media tool used by over a billion people is now the primary window for many Chinese travelers who want to access exhibition information and as well as browse souvenirs in the museum shop.

China Luxury studied 24 overseas museums that are well-known to Chinese tourists and have utilized WeChat — a group that includes the Art Institute of Chicago in the U.S., the Auckland Museum in New Zealand, the Louvre in France, and others. But among them, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco stands out due to the variety of services it offers on WeChat — a strategy that has given the scrappy museum an edge on Chinese travelers’ wish lists.

San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum has an edge on Chinese travel wish lists thanks in part to the museum’s activity on WeChat

An early adopter of WeChat, the Asian Art Museum established their account back in 2016. As a platform for convenient communication with Chinese-speaking tourists, WeChat allows visitors to learn about the museum’s latest news and to book tickets directly from their smartphones. But the highlight of their WeChat account is the audio tours in Chinese that let visitors enjoy the museum exhibitions without spending extra money on translation apps or equipment.

mini-program audio guide

Screenshot of the Asian Art Museum’s WeChat mini-program audio guide

Among the 24 museums, the Asian Art Museum is the only one that offered exhibition audio guides in Mandarin (complete with images), Chinese captions, and a Mandarin audio guide for seven of its top masterpieces. In comparison, the Art Institute of Chicago currently lists an index of six audio guides and allows users to type keywords into WeChat to retrieve them.

Offering audio tools is not only an extra service to accommodate Chinese travelers, but it also helps the museum find interested travelers in China as they’re planning their trips.

“Word of mouth” is a powerful tool on WeChat, and sharing recommendations among friends is still the primary way people read content on the platform. The museum can join in these conversations by creating interest groups, such as like-minded art enthusiasts, for instance, and the Asian Art Museum has begun experimenting with different groups on WeChat. Even though the goal is to promote the museum’s own exhibitions and content, meaningful engagement comes from creating a hub for all types of art lovers where they can meet, converse, ask questions, discuss ideas, and find or share resources.

“Chinese audiences are maturing as culture consumers on so many levels,” said the museum’s director Jay Xu, as quoted in the white paper. “This means we have to meet them where they are: online and on digital devices. They actually have much longer attention spans than they are given credit for. If we produce the right content for them, like videos and live streams, and put the effort into sharing the art we have, they will engage with us.”

The Asian Art Museum uses various WeChat groups to engage with potential visitors

This emphasis on Chinese visitors and WeChat is relevant to Xu’s background. A native Shanghainese, Xu started his career in the 1980s at the Shanghai Museum. After receiving his art history degree from Princeton, he joined the Metropolitan Museum of Art and then the Seattle Art Museum, and in 2008, he accepted the head curator position at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, where he became the first Asian curator of a large museum in American history. Xu has witnessed Chinese visitors’ desire to engage with the museum in a more interactive way, and that inspired him to lead the museum’s digital innovation on WeChat.

The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco may come across as a unique case, though, as many museums are still lagging behind on Chinese platforms like WeChat due to limited funding. But when opening a WeChat account, it’s important for museums to understand the long-term return on their investment when thinking about how they could monetize this presence.

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Museums & Exhibitions