Category Archives: Marketing

Marketing The Freedom Tour: A Mobile App Case Study

By Dina Bailey, Richard Cooper and Jamie Glavic 

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, hereafter referred to as the Freedom Center, is a museum of conscience. It is an institution that challenges visitors to embrace their common humanity and realize the power an individual can have in advancing the cause of freedom for all people. The Freedom Center pursues this ambitious goal through stories. Storytelling, in fact, is an integral part of the Freedom Center’s mission:

We reveal stories about freedom’s heroes, from the era of the Underground Railroad to contemporary times, challenging and inspiring everyone to take courageous steps for freedom today.

The Freedom Center believes that stories have the power not only to educate, but to inspire. Stories humanize the historical perspective and bring history to life in ways facts alone cannot. The Freedom Center reveals these stories through exhibitions, programming, distance learning and tours. While storytelling has always been at the heart of the Freedom Center’s mission, for too long there was an important area in which storytelling was not reaching its full potential – the self-guided experience.

Much of the interactive, immersive storytelling that takes places within the Freedom Center happens on a guided tour with a trained docent or with historical first-person interpreters; however, the majority of these guided tours are usually reserved and scheduled by schools or pre-booked groups. (Table 1) Due to the limited number of trained docents available for guided tours beyond pre-booked groups, the majority of general visitor experiences at the Center are self-guided.

Table 1 Breakdown of Freedom Center Attendance Figures 2008 2010. 

















In 2006, recognizing the storytelling gap in the self-guided tour, leadership at the Freedom Center developed a strategic initiative focused on providing a basic audio tour to enhance the organization’s ability to provide an inspiring interpretive experience. The Freedom Center staff worked to make this happen and quickly identified an outside vendor with which to work. The resulting audio tour device, launched less than a year later, consisted of a simple, hand-held numeric keypad featuring an adult tour and a children’s tour. The device had a small speaker and a plug-in for headphones. Visitors were provided with reusable, coded floor plan maps and numeric markers were placed throughout the exhibitions to reflect tour stop stations and direct this self-guided experience throughout the permanent galleries.

While Freedom Center visitors enjoyed the audio tour experience, several factors led the institution to re-examine its commitment to the initiative. In survey after survey, visitors expressed a desire for more content: tour maps disappeared or deteriorated much too quickly and were expensive to replace at such high quality; updates to the tour were labor intensive and costly; and, most significantly, the Freedom Center wanted to have more control over its content than was possible in the contract with the original audio tour provider.

At the beginning of 2009, Freedom Center staff became increasingly more focused on exploring alternative tour engagement methods and began a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis to determine what would be needed to create a more effective self-guided experience. (Table 2) While the cost to produce the original audio tour was manageable, the perceived benefits were lacking; the Freedom Center was given limited ability to repurpose tour content (in accordance with specifications in the contract) and it also proved cost – restrictive to create new content for the experience. The tour was only available through the provided keypad device and could not be accessed on other devices such as smartphones or via the web, meaning access to content was limited to on-site visitors. Finally, the keypad device did not have video capability, which Freedom Center leadership adamantly believed was a necessary element for the experience moving forward.

Table 2






Audio Tour

Storytelling Experience

Cost vs. Benefit

On-site access only

Dated Numeric Keypad

Updating content difficult

Enhance tour experience

Who really owns the content?

Mobile App Tour

Storytelling Experience

Available on multiple devices & online

Available offsite

Staff not familiar with app technology

Enhance tour experience

First museum in the city to have app specific tour

Visitation? If tour is available online will people still visit?

In January 2009, after reviewing the SWOT analysis, the Freedom Center leadership put together a Visitor Experience team with staff from Interpretative Services, Exhibitions, Finance, Education and Marketing. Budget planning and usability projections (i.e. would the visitor use their own cell phones; would the Freedom Center only provide devices that operated the new tour on internal devices) led the team to decide that the next logical step forward in the self-guided tour experience would be the development of a mobile app.

Why create a mobile app? For several reasons, really – A mobile app would allow for visitors to experience the tour throughout the museum and beyond, for the integration of video features, for content updates to be made by staff (as needed), and for surveys to be conducted quickly and effectively. Making a mobile tour app available for self-guided visitors would create a storytelling experience with enhanced content that would be far more immersive and complex than the previous keypad tour.

In March 2009, the Freedom Center selected TourSphere to develop its new mobile app. This company provides a wide range of mobile app development services to museums, tourist destinations, parks, hotels, universities, and publishers and had recently won script writing and mobile app awards from the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), a consideration that was highly influential in the vendor selection process. Though the Freedom Center has amazing stories, if there is not a powerful script to narrate the stories, the enhancement of the visitor experience through storytelling would simply not be a successful endeavor. In addition to the importance placed on content, the Freedom Center wanted to ensure control over its content, including access to update the app at any time and portability of the media. Additionally, the future possibility of a monthly price option of $399/month fit the projected budget. Perhaps most importantly, however, TourSphere encouraged creative collaboration with the Freedom Center. Staff could opt to create the tour content alone, or TourSphere could be contracted to produce the script, video and audio pieces needed. Since the Freedom Center staff had never handled an app development project before, the team elected for creative collaboration: the staff provided the historical content and TourSphere created a script and video elements with the understanding that the Freedom Center would have final approval at the end of each developmental phase.

Marketing the Mobile App

While the simple act of creating the app was a major step forward, strategically marketing it was equally as important. With the app development underway, The Freedom Tour project team focused on a marketing plan. The objective: make the Freedom Center’s mobile tour app the premier self-guided tour in the region. In order to do this, the project team outlined the following elements as they developed their marketing plan:

  1. Overall project goals
  2. Research
  3. Audience
  4. Marketing Message
  5. Marketing Goals
  6. Marketing Methods/Strategy
  7. Measurement/Success
Photo of the ticket window at NURF, showing prices for admission and membership.

The Freedom Center included clear signage throughout the building to encourage visitors to use the mobile tour. This picture is from the ticket counter of the museum. This approach went against the normal “less” signage is better theory to help promote the mobile tour, but also to ensure the visitor was aware of the Freedom Center app.

Overall Project Goals

Why was it important to have a mobile app tour? What is in it for the visitor? What is in it for the Freedom Center? The overall project goals for The Freedom Tour were seemingly simple: enhance the visitor experience; make the visitor experience available to those who are unable to visit in-person; and use the app as a tool to spread the word about the Freedom Center and its mission. Additionally, as stated above, the app was expected to allow for the Freedom Center to update current content, create new content, and access visitor feedback through a user-friendly content management system. Most importantly, the Freedom Center would own the content on the app and would have the ability to repurpose as needed for workshops, lesson plans and other educational or promotional materials.


The use of smart phones has grown exponentially since 2009, when the app was first conceived. [1]

Guided by mobile technology trends, studies and projections of the time, a mobile app seemed the next logical step in moving the tour experience forward. But, there were still questions to be answered. What would a mobile app “do” for the Freedom Center? How would those without smart phones be able to engage in the interactive tour experience? As part of the strategic process to market the app, the project team conducted interviews with several other institutions who had previously worked with (or were currently working with) TourSphere; of significance was the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in Detroit, Michigan. The research phase also included conversations with TourSphere and other institutions regarding the operational cost and download charge for access to the app. Ultimately, the Freedom Center decided to make the App available for free. Although strongly debated on both sides, the staff came to the conclusion (based on interviews and research) that the app would not make a significant profit compared to the benefits of making the app free. This was with the understanding that in the future, the project team would most likely be asked to create another version that would be subscription/ fee based.

The project team analyzed museums across the nation to study what they offered in terms of smart phone tours, rental of devices, and cost to download the app itself. In addition to the visitor-centered analysis, the project team also looked at the cost to the organization: specifically, the maintenance of the physical devices and the software as well as the technology support that would be required, long-term. Based on this research, the Freedom Center decided to purchase 300 iPods that would be available for the general public to check out on a daily basis.  This was a significant cost even with the support from the companies involved. [2]


One major concern that the project team had was visitation; how would a mobile app, portable anywhere and full of content, affect individuals actually stepping into the museum? The initial goal of the mobile app tour was to enhance the visitor experience, not replace it. Would offering the mobile tour on multiple platforms [3] (and online) drastically affect the Freedom Center’s on-site attendance? Another concern focused on the relevance of the app to multiple target audiences. Freedom Center audience demographics are wide-ranging and diverse. With over 40,000 school children served each year, in addition to the Baby Boomers, Millennials, families, educators, academics, tourists and sports fans (the institution is located between Great American Ball Park and Paul Brown Stadium), how could the organization possibly create an app that would appeal to all of these unique audiences, market it effectively, and, at the same time, not detract from the established on-site attendance?

So, how did we do it? By explicitly demonstrating the app’s relevance to our audiences so that they understood how to get the most out of the product: for example, by making the tour experience available online, educators would be able to explore the Freedom Center before their on-site visit. The Marketing, Interpretive Services and Education departments worked together to reach out to educators to introduce them to the app. Presentations were created to show educators how the app could be used for pre- and/ or post-lessons, students could download the app for research/ class projects, and both teachers and students could be encouraged to bring their families back to use the iPods on a more in-depth, self-guided tour. The project team worked cross-departmentally to created and facilitate similar outreach models with local social media advocates, news media and other professional contacts in order to generate a general community awareness and word-of-mouth campaign.

Training Guest Services staff on app tour usability was also critical. They were the front line and initial point-of-contact for many visitors who were seeing the app tour for the very first time. Key talking points were provided, as well as step-by-step instructions, and frequently asked questions. The Guest Services staff was also coached on how to remind and encourage visitors to complete the survey that was included in the app at the end of the tour. The questions on the survey helped to better the visitor experience as well as ensure that the Freedom Center’s mission was being successfully interpreted through the use of the app.

Marketing Message

The Freedom Center utilized spaces within the building to promote the mobile app while visitors toured.  This document is similar to ones that we placed on information desks, the ticket desk, in the evaluator, and exhibits throughout the museum.

The Freedom Center utilizes spaces within the building to promote the mobile app while visitors tour. This document is similar to ones that we placed on information desks, the ticket desk, in the evaluator, and exhibits throughout the museum.

Messaging would ultimately be at the heart of The Freedom Tour launch. The message needed to be strong enough to create buzz before the launch and yet last for a long time thereafter. The Freedom Tour was a financial investment and commitment, and was expected to be a part of the Freedom Center’s interpretive plan for years to come. In preparing for the mobile app, the Freedom Tour project team began drafting messaging that would tie the importance of the content housed within the walls of the museum to the fact that the Freedom Center was truly being innovative in the city of Cincinnati. The messaging was intended to reach beyond the “We’re the first to do this” message; instead, the Freedom Center wanted to say, “We’re the best at doing this.” After much deliberation, the team agreed on the following message track:

The struggle for freedom has changed the lives of millions, and it has generated courage and sacrifice in people who have become heroes simply because of their desire to make a difference in the world, both past and present. The new iPod app tour will enhance the visitor experience at the Freedom Center, and it very well could inspire a whole new generation of “Freedom Conductors” who can make a difference for the cause of freedom.

Marketing Goals

In order to measure the app’s success, it was critical to establish goals for its use.  We decided that our primary criteria were press coverage and use of the tour both on-site and as measured by downloads of the app. In addition to benchmarks in these areas from the Freedom Center’s past audio tour system, [4] we consulted TourSphere about their staff’s experience of metrics at other institutions.  We decided to set the marketing goals for The Freedom Tour as regional and national recognition for the development of the mobile app tour as measured by press and PR activity, 60% participation by walk-up visitor traffic in the museum, and at least 5,000 downloads the first year.

Marketing Messaging/Strategy

Photo of an exhibit in the museum with an audio tour stop label.

The Freedom Center included tour signs at each location of the mobile tour. The signs helped visitors to easily locate each stop.

Once the project team felt confident in the “who, what, where, when and how,” the time for implementing the marketing strategy began. The Freedom Center needed the buy-in and support of the local community in the initial launch of the tour. This would prove challenging initially because the majority of the Freedom Center’s visitor traffic comes from outside the local Interstate-275 loop.

At this point, a bit of serendipity occurred. The launch of The Freedom Tour, originally scheduled for the beginning of January 2011, was slightly delayed, due to last minute edits and content updates. This scheduling change turned out to be a great asset to the Freedom Center. The launch ended up happening in February 2011, which coincided with Black History Month – a great win for the museum because the institution generally receives its highest level of news coverage for the entire year between Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the end of Black History Month. The Marketing Department capitalized on this opportunity and used it to their utmost advantage. At the end of January 2011, TourSphere created a promotional video specifically for the Freedom Center to distribute as a teaser to local news outlets, to be placed on the organization’s website and to be promoted to various community stakeholders. The Freedom Center also scheduled a promotional site visit with a local, beloved news anchor the week the app tour launched. Shortly thereafter, local television station Fox 19’s Frank Marzullo helped the local publicity get off to a great start with three feature stories on February 9, 2011, regarding Black History Month programming (sponsored by PNC) and the launch of the Freedom Center’s new mobile app tour. As a result of all of this free publicity, The Freedom Center received a total of 9 minutes and 42 seconds of invaluable local on-air time.

Luckily, Cincinnati is one of the most socially connected cities in the country, [5] named Most Social City by Mashable in 2011, and the Freedom Center’s marketing department was well connected to the city’s social media community. In addition to excellent TV coverage, the Freedom Center reached out to local community bloggers and social networking advocates, inviting them to try The Freedom Tour app on the now institution-owned iPods, which were available at the front desk. After taking an app-led tour of the museum for an hour, the group participated in video recorded reaction sessions – all of which were overwhelming positive. The videos were uploaded to the Freedom Center’s YouTube channel and were used in the app’s social media campaign. Additionally, Apple selected the Freedom Center app as the official iTunes “App of the Week.” All of this was just during the “launch” month of February.

Phase I of the app tour marketing launch also included updates to the Freedom Center website and related collateral materials. The Marketing Department made The Freedom Tour a highly visible part of the website itself. The information about the tour was, and continues to be, a rotating banner image on the website homepage and is featured prominently on the Visit the Center page. Visuals of the iPods are part of the visitor guide, rack card and other collateral elements as Guest Services staff welcome visitors even before they tour the museum.

In the months following the launch, Phase II marketing was essential. The Marketing Department didn’t want the app to peak during Black History Month and have awareness slowly fade away. In the first phase of the launch, the tour was only available on Apple products; but, long-range plans had been established to increase platform availability in future phases. In March 2011, local newspaper staff of Cincinnati CityBeat named The Freedom Tour the “Best Museum Tour App” in its Best of Cincinnati 2011 issue. They said:

… the app for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center might just be the best-built overall app available to city dwellers and visitors. The app provides a full-service tour of the museum dedicated to the dismal days of slavery and the uplifting rise out of them, but it isn’t just for casual perusing on your couch. The intuitive, user-friendly app is designed to be taken with you while you tour the museum, offering audio clips about all of the displays on exhibit.

The Freedom Center received several questions regarding availability of the app on Android and other devices. The project team was able to have conversations with many of those interested in having the app on other devices and could officially guarantee that an Android version was on the way.

In addition to visitors wanting the app on various devices, the very geographic location of the Freedom Center created buzz for the tour and allowed for ample marketing opportunity. As noted, The Freedom Center is located between Great American Ball Park (home of Cincinnati Reds baseball) and Paul Brown Stadium (home of Cincinnati Bengals football). The Freedom Center purchased advertising in the home game programs for both teams with an advertisement highlighting the new tour and offering $1.00 off of general admission for adults for those who had downloaded the tour. The advertising for the Cincinnati Reds (Spring – Fall), stated that the tour would soon be available on Android and other devices. The ad for the Cincinnati Bengals (Fall – Winter), would fall into Phase III of the mobile app launch.

In September 2011, the Marketing Department implemented Phase III, and The Freedom Tour became available on Android and Blackberry devices, as well as on the web. A press release was issued and soon staff began talking directly to other institutions about the Freedom Center’s experience with creating such a unique mobile app for the institution and its successful use both inside and outside of the museum. Freedom Center staff spoke with both large and small institutions across the nation and internationally, all of whom had varying budgets, and in the Spring of 2012, project staff presented at the online Museums & Mobile conference.

Throughout 2011, the Freedom Center included the mobile app imagery and information in nearly all of its advertising, from hotel guide books to exhibition brochures, and even included a QR code at the front desk of the museum for visitors to scan and download the app directly to their phones. The accessibility of the Freedom Center tour became a part of the brand of the institution: “Fan the Flame, download the app, be inspired, make change.” The app became a part of the visitor experience organically through a strategic marketing plan focused on community involvement that used local events and Freedom Center exhibitions to highlight the app’s ingenuity and accessibility.

What We Learned

Not surprisingly, the Freedom Center mobile app project team learned quite a lot from this multi-year process. First, the importance of the client/ vendor relationship cannot be understated. The greatest product in the world can be irreparably damaged if a solid partnership is not established and maintained throughout the length of a partnership. Furthermore, without a well thought out, strategically agreed upon contract that is forward thinking and appropriately malleable, the organization can hinder its own growth and its ability to meet its stated goals over the long term.

We also learned that developing a mobile app takes time with multiple players and multiple voices. While this may seem like an obvious conclusion, it is a benchmark we often had to remind ourselves of throughout the process and are grateful that we did. With this project, the Freedom Center utilized cross-departmental collaboration that had rarely been done before (and certainly not at that depth). There were numerous logistical requirements various departments that must be addressed in synchronization so that the organization may be prepared to handle challenges as they arise. For example, at the beginning of the app launch, the tour was so popular that it crashed several of the Wi-Fi servers in the museum. During the first few weekends of the launch, there were a variety of other technical glitches that had to not only be fixed temporarily, but righted permanently. Through many conversations, the Freedom Center’s IT Department determined that the museum’s Wi-Fi network simply could not handle the demands of 300 iPods pulling data simultaneously from the network, as the initial iteration of the app required. As a result, staff installed a native version of the software with full content installed directly onto the iPods. This native app would not require the high demands of the Wi-Fi network because it would not be pulling the main content over the network. Because of the Freedom Center’s successful relationship with TourSphere, a problem was turned into an opportunity rather than one version of the app, the Center had two from which to choose: the native version, with all content included, and a “lite” version, which was smaller, but required Wi-Fi to access most media content. These two options would subsequently allow the Freedom Center’s internal devices the flexibility to run the app if there were any weaknesses in Wi-Fi within the building.

Of course, every big project comes with challenges that are harder to solve. Setting preparation and technology issues aside, the Guest Services staff was not prepared for the high volume of daily use the iPod devices received in the first year alone, 90% of walk-up visitors opted for the mobile app tour compared to 58-60% for the earlier audio tour. Expectations – even goals – had been much lower in terms of individuals who would want to check out the iPods. This is a good problem to have, but one that the Freedom Center is still managing to this day.

Staff members were also not prepared for the level to which several visitors were determined to hack into the museum-supplied iPods to browse other content, both appropriate and inappropriate. While this only happened a handful of times, the Guest Services staff now regularly checks the devices to ensure that they haven’t been hacked or password protected by rogue visitors. In the most recent Apple iOS Update (iOS6), Apple has added a feature called “Guided Access mode” which lock devices into a single app. This should significantly cut down on the individuals who are able to enter other programs while on Freedom Center iPods and staff are eager to test the effectiveness of this feature.


Mobile apps are the wave of the future. Mobile apps are informative. Mobile apps are social. Mobile apps provide access on-the-go. Mobile apps are everywhere. According to Pew Internet, a project of the Pew Research Center, 83% of Americans own a cell phone and 45% of Americans have a smart phone. [6] The Freedom Center app far exceeded the institution’s visitor usage and download goals. The Freedom Tour has been downloaded over 40,000 times, [7] in 40 different countries, on 6 different continents. And, on average, 95% of Freedom Center on-site visitors select to take the provided iPod devices. The leadership views the use of mobile technology and apps as a crucial part of the institution’s interpretive plan, but still realizes that good interpretation will always be key: technology and apps should only be used as a vehicle to bring great stories to life.

While downloads have inevitably slowed down slightly since the launch of the app, the Freedom Center continues to brainstorm new ways to promote The Freedom Tour in conjunction with exhibitions, programming and educational marketing. The app has been updated several times to include interpretation for changing exhibitions and to reflect the standard updates made to the Freedom Center’s permanent galleries. It is the hope that future updates will continue to make the app more interactive by including activities for visitors to participate in, possibly adding a mobile game, crowd-sourcing opportunities or a visitor wiki. As the Freedom Center continues to lead mobile app innovation in the future, we hope that we challenge and inspire other institutions (both large and small) to take courageous steps and tell their stories in a new way!

End Notes

  1. Quick, C. (2009, September 15). With Smartphone Adoption on the Rise, Opportunity for Marketers is Calling. Nielsen. Retrieved from
  2. For the number of daily visitors that the Freedom Center has, 300 iPods were deemed to be in the “safe” range for providing a quality visitor experience (i.e. having enough iPods available) while balancing insurance and maintenance costs.
  3. As a mobile web app, the tour is supported by a wide range of platforms: Android, Blackberry, iPhones, tablets, and the mobile web.
  4. The participation rate for the past audio tour system ranged between 58 to 60% for walk-up visitors.
  5. Stark, C. (2011, June 28). Cincinnati Takes Most Social City Title for Mashable’s Social Media Day. Mashable. Retrieved from
  6. Brenner, J. (2012, September 14). Commentary: Mobile. Pew Internet. Retrieved from
  7. 40,303 Apple downloads and 461 Android downloads.