Virtual Programming

In recent years, galleries, libraries, museums, and national parks have launched a plethora of virtual programs and events. The pandemic has dramatically accelerated this trend. As the only means to stay ‘open’ during the pandemic meant turning towards the digital, the GLAM sector has made strides to adapt exhibits and events. Arts and cultural institutions are embracing virtual experiences as a way to stay connected to their audiences – and reach new ones through live workshops, webinars, and tours as well as uploading pre-recorded sessions and distance learning resources for audiences of all ages. The addition of virtual programming will not only help your institution increase audience numbers but increase awareness of your mission, improve engagement, and potentially boost revenue. This Shared Studios article explores how virtual programming can benefit your institution, from expanding your audience across the globe to developing unique content with expert partner organizations.

Where to begin?

There are a number of virtual experiences you can create that serve different purposes for different audiences. The following information will provide a helpful starting point in choosing the relevant platforms and experiences. Taken from the 2021 guide Best Practice in Virtual Programming, Tours, and Exhibits, Alberta Museum Association’s Building Blocks of Virtual Programming is a useful resource for the early stages of planning. Their five elements, as shown below, outline the key questions you should consider when creating a new virtual experience. These elements are essentially the same ones used to develop in-person programming, which you can explore on our Programs and Outreach page. However, the central difference is deciding on the virtual platform you wish to use – a process outlined below.

For a helpful discussion of the differences and similarities between in-person, virtual, and hybrid programming see The National Press Club’s ‘Which approach is best?’ guide.

The Elements of Virtual Programming is a table made up of five rows and two columns. The first row is dark green with white writing and includes the five headings: audience, content, virtual platform, type of experience, and learning objectives. The first column is light green with black writing and includes one to two key questions that should be asked in relation to the five headings. The second column in grey provides potential answers to those questions. Under the first heading of audience, the questions are "who is this program for?" and "how does it address audience needs and interests?" with the brainstorming column below including "families", "youth", "adults", and "community groups". For the content heading, the questions are "what is the program about?" and "what museum themes / topics will you explore?" with the answers of "wildlife", "antique farming tools", and "women's rights in World War 2". Under virtual platform is the question "on which virtual platform will this program be delivered?" with the answers in the second column including "Facebook", "Instagram", "Zoom", and "your website". Under type of experience are the questions "what is the experience?" and "what is the program type?" with the answers "meme", "GIF", "webinar", "instructional video", and "printable resource". The learning objectives heading asks the questions "what do participants get to do?" and "what type of learning will take place?" with the answers "knowledge and understanding", "attitude and values" and "skills".
Alberta Museum Association’s ‘Elements of Virtual Programming’ outlines 5 areas of consideration: Audience, Content, Virtual Platform, Type of Experience, and Learning Objectives. The original diagram and its corresponding explanation can be found in the Alberta Museum Association’s guide linked above.


You can target a range of age groups using virtual programming, from young children to university students to older adults. Focusing on which groups any given program aims to reach will build audience numbers by appealing to target audiences rather than generically trying to draw in all of them. Programs for children and teenagers are worth thinking about, as they can be designed for school groups, homeschool students, and after-school settings. Understanding who your audience is will also help you shape your content and deliver it using the most appropriate platform. The marketing agency Aventi Group describes which audience information to prioritize, such as technological literacy and awareness of content, as well as the usefulness of surveying past attendees to guide future programming.

Formats and platforms

Virtual programs come in many formats and make use of a range of platforms. Webinars, panels, and virtual tours are popular options for a variety of audiences whilst virtual field trips and storytelling experiences can attract younger viewers. Live events make use of conferencing programs such as Zoom and Webex, or social media and video hosting platforms with live-streaming features such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Vimeo. The latter options can also be used to upload pre-recorded “on demand” videos or a recording of a live event that has already taken place. Owl Labs, a creator of video conferencing devices, provides some additional options for hosting live experiences such as Skype for Business, Whereby, and BlueJeans. The article compares and ranks the top ten programs and provides a guide for how to use them.

Interactive engagement is an important aspect of virtual programming and there are numerous ways you can increase participation outside of the traditional Q&A and chat features. Markletic, a blog dedicated to business marketing strategies, has outlined the ten best methods for increasing audience engagement during virtual programming such as live polls and games, themed events, and social media contests. One of the most useful and easy-to-use tools to increase engagement is Poll Everywhere, where you can create live quizzes, polls, and surveys. Viewers can participate anywhere in the world using any device with an internet connection, all they need is your custom link.

Poll Everywhere’s video, “Engage your remote audience with Poll Everywhere” outlines how the website can be used for virtual programs to increase attendee engagement. The speaker provides examples of surveys and questionnaires and how to share the results with guests in real time to initiate discussion.

Virtual experiences provide endless opportunities to be creative! For instance, The Frick Museum’s Cocktails with a Curator series, which invites guests to enjoy a theme-appropriate cocktail, has almost 2 million views and was awarded with a Webby from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences for Best Virtual and Remote Experiences.

Distance learning resources

In addition to live and “on-demand” videos, you can also create a number of asynchronous e-learning resources for your website and social media pages. Printable activities such as coloring pages, craft materials and activity sheets such as those from Heinz History Center and Fort Pitt Museum are ideal for families and teachers to utilize at any time and help reach those who can’t attend events or don’t have stable high-speed connections to engage with online video. Interactive online games and activities such as Winterthur Museum’s jigsaw puzzles and National Museums Scotland’s history and science-themed games also provide asynchronous learning opportunities for audiences and encourage repeat visits to your website.

CultureConnect is an easy-to-use platform for creating distance learning experiences such as games, interactive web pages, scavenger hunts and tours. Coloring pages, quizzes and bingo boards can be easily created using Microsoft Word, Adobe Spark, Canva, and PicMonkey.

Financial considerations

Engaging with participants in virtual environments will require some investment. Virtual programs should not be considered a cost-saving alternative to in-person programming. Rather, they are one of a range of programming approaches, each of which promotes engagement with audiences slightly differently.

Many of the same costs and considerations apply to both on-site and virtual programming, including supplies, staffing and space. In addition, there are, of course, considerations unique to virtual programming such as:

  • Tools and technology, 
  • Training to ensure staff can use new tools and technology, 
  • Subscription fees for virtual platforms and software (Zoom, Vimeo, closed captioning software, etc.)
  • Social media analytics platforms (Hootsuite’s article outlines free and paid options).

Monetizing your program

One question you may be considering is, “should we charge for our virtual program?” Monetizing virtual events is one of the most straightforward ways of generating revenue for your institution. However, there are pros and cons of charging attendees. The Virtual Events Institute discusses the pros of monetizing virtual programs such as minimizing no-shows as well as cons such as constructing entry barriers for those who cannot afford the fee.

There are various ways you can commercialize your events. As discussed in this American Alliance of Museums article, you can charge for virtual courses and summer camps and even introduce a virtual membership pass (giving visitors access to multiple programs). Offering unique experiences such as a special interaction with a guest speaker or an early reveal of an exhibit, will also attract paying customers.

You could even introduce a “pay-what-you-want” model instead of charging a fixed fee. Eventbrite is a useful tool for this – as an event management and ticketing website, it allows you to post an event listing with the option of charging a fixed price, a donation of the attendees’ choosing, or a free event. You can also connect Zoom, Vimeo Live or Google Meet to the listing so attendees receive a direct link to the event. Note that if you are charging a price for the event, you will be required to pay a fee in exchange for Eventbrite’s ticketing service. There is no fee if you are listing free events on their website.