I’m just back from a brilliantly stimulating few days at Museum Next in Edinburgh and feel I have to capture my thoughts and responses to the two days while they’re all still fresh in my head. This years conference was broadly focusing on how to build engaged communities through new technology & web, in this case for the museum and gallery sector, but really the lessons learned are applicable to anyone who wants to build a community around their work; charities, musicians, artists, organisations, films, politicians, causes etc. In the questions below you could simply swap the word “museums” for the word “music” for example, another area that really interests me.
So just to set the scene the main questions the conference hoped to pose were:
- How can we build active communities around our museums?
- How can we empower our audiences to become advocates for our venues?
- How can museums use the internet effectively to raise money
You can check out their website to see the full programme of speakers, and while all were excellent I don’t purport to review/summarise them all here. I’m just wanting to document key take-aways that are particularly applicable to me in my work and that might be helpful for people working in audience development in Ireland.
Clever Jim opened the conference with a straight-up legend in the area of audience building through technology; Shelly Bernstein -Chief of Technology at the Brooklyn Museum. It’s fair to say I probably booked the conference on the strength of her name on the bill and it ensured most everyone was present from the get go. For anyone interested in this area the projects that Shelly and her team at Brooklyn Museum have launched have been nothing short of pioneering. They’ve been fascinating to read about and follow online so it was great to have an opportunity to hear about them first hand. Shelly focused on two specific projects; 2008’s Click; a crowd curated exhibition, and 2011’s Split Second- Indian Paintings which both deserve a proper click through to read about, but some key general take-aways for me from her presentation were as follows.
(1)The power of good leadership and collaborative working
Shelly spoke about the effect a visionary Director (Arnold Lehman in this case) has had on the organization, and how his ability to listen to and understand their local audience (read the census!) and foster that visitor voice has led to their org obtaining such a diverse, young and engaged audience. Despite many criticisms he has led in that manner, including a radical change to the physical facade of the building to make it more welcoming and social, and it really illustrates how a clear mission, an engaged leader and his/her deep understanding of the orgs brand on all levels makes all the difference for an organisation.
Equally striking for me was how the most successful projects have come about through inter-department collaboration and team work. Audience engagement in the arts is all to often left to the education or marketing teams, but real engagement comes from a mix of programming, curation, education and marketing and it was great to see this bear out in so many more of the presentations as the conference went on.
- publishing a weekly digest of visitor comments internally – to all departments – not just marketing!
- allowing online users to create tags for items in the museums collection using their own words, and not curatorial/museum specific words thus making content easier to find
- Making all web content commentable and sharable
(3) Subsume your ego- or “If you love something set it free
“Take the info you have and put it on the largest possible platform to benefit the largest group of people, and ultimately you’ll benefit too. Brooklyn Museum did this with the release of their Collections Database API to see what hackers and developers might create out of it (something a bunch of people would love to see in Ireland fyi), but Shelly also spoke about a smaller more manageable project Wikipop. When curating a Women in Pop Art show; Seductive Subversion, they realised that many of the artists didn’t have a profile on Wikipedia, or if they did it was incomplete. So they set about working with an intern (read her blog about it here) to use the info they were gathering for the show in any case, and repurposed it for Wikipedia. This allowed them to share their knowledge with the world at large, but also to then redisplay the wiki’s on iPads’s in the gallery context.
I’d wager a much higher percentage of people read the artist wiki’s in-gallery than would have read the same text on a didactic panel, but I’m sure that’s hard to quantify without specifically setting out to measure it. They did find, however, that the info was heavily utilized, and it gave them some great extra visitor knowledge about what sort of “extra information” people would like to engage with during a show. You can read about the wikipop metrics on Shelly’s blog here>
The specifics of the Click and Split Second projects can be read about in great detail the BM site and Shelly’s blog (all linked above) so I won’t replicate them here, but what was generally interesting about these projects, not least of all that they were cross departmental audience engagement projects, was how structured and scientific BM’s approach to them was. These may seem obvious, but in my experience time starved arts organisations often don’t have the bandwidth to implement the basics:
- There were set concepts they wanted to interrogate (The Wisdom of Crowds for Click, and Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking for Split Second)
- They designed a process specific to each project that sought to minimise interference/undue influence
- They measured the response
- The learned from the results
- And not only that- but they are letting us learn from the results by publishing so much info about the projects on their site.
So, a hugely inspirational start to Museum next 2011 but with only one hour down and many more to go you can see how information overload was a distinct fear!
Jasper Visser was up next to talk about his work with The Museum of National History (innl) in the Netherlands. In his own words, the museum seeks to spark everybody’s historical imagination, so it has to be more than a building, and more than objects. In fact the museum doesn’t yet have an exhibition building so it was an interesting example of how a challenge – not having a single physical site, which traditionally is a given with museums- can be turned into an opportunity for discovering new ways of engagement. It reminded me in a small way to a time when I worked with The Model in Sligo and our physical building was closed for redevelopment, forcing us to discover new ways of engaging with our public, the experience of which then went on to inform our overall methodology when we returned to a single physical site.
So how do the innl do it? How do they engage with a public, and more importantly how do they make that public enthusiasts/advocates for the museum? According to Jasper they go to where the audience are – physically and digitally. I love the simplicity of this concept, and it echoes a thought from Dr. Ross Parry that I often quote when speaking to organisations about their digital marketing “go where your audience expects to find you”. It infers that you must first know who your audience are, and then discover where they hang out digitally or physically, and then ensure you are where they are. Again; simple concepts, but simplicity is often the best route to success.
Jasper also talked about how they make everything they do open, attributing a creative commons license to their content, and this theme of making this sharable was naturally a pervasive theme all conference.
innl also specifically target potential audiences in a segmented manner, which is something I’m hot on, and was thrilled to see segmentation rear it’s head in a positive light frequently during the few days.
He talked about designing holistic projects, multi departmental and multi platform, and cited their “X was Here” project as an example. It uses 40/50 physical locations where (Dutch) history has happened, and invites people to experience that history, physically and digitally.
He also encouraged us to “think beyond text” which wasn’t hard to do for the museum next contingent, but is an important point to share. If you add videos and images to your exhibition content you can see the lifespan of your event lengthen beyond the physical event itself. YouTube/Vimeo/Flickr etc can allow your event to live on, and to have relevance, far beyond its actual dates. This is something we all accept post event, but how about pre-event? Can we similarly lengthen the impact of a show by adding pre-event content to our invitations and announcements?
One of the most powerful tools in Jasper’s arsenal are the quarterly metric reports he creates on all digital activity, which have become a cornerstone of the organisations decision making process. Again, with time starved organisations this can seem hard to implement, and the sheer volume of free analytic can be overwhelming I know, but if you are serious about your online identity/engagement/audience it’s an invaluable spend of your time.
The next presentation around online engagement was from Hugh Wallace of National Museums Scotland, but in the interim we had excellent presentations from Fiona Romeo of National Maritime Museum and Amy Wiesser of the 9/11 memorial museum, which sounds like it’s going to be a hugely powerful experience for anyone that visits; moving, respectful, appropriate, and challenging. Have a look at Make History to get a powerful sense of the overall project, I’m just not detailing them or I’ll be here all day! so I’m sticking to online engagement themes.
Hugh spoke a lot about snackable content, so perhaps not surprisingly his presentation was in itself snackable and sharable content! Full of lots of easy to digest bullet points that are definitely worth sharing. The digital journey of National Museums Scotland is particularly heartening for irish organisations who might feel that they have somehow missed the boat, or might never catch up. By they’re own admission they’ve moved from a low level of digital understanding in 2008, to a 2011 exhibition complete with QR codes and now have a digital team & digital strategy in place.
- Try New Things
- Be Responsive
- Know Why you’re doing it
- Have snackable content that is readily available
- Online world blends seamlessly with the physical
- People share their experiences
- Dialogue is the expectation
- Information is accessible
With regard to social media remember that quantity is not the end goal, but obtaining a critical mass is relevant. With Twitter you can think of it as an engine room, monitor your super users, get to know them (something Jasper and Jim Richardson both talk about) and be responsive. Remember that being responsive is about awareness of what resonates with your audiences, not just reflecting them, and don’t forget to explore and exploit your niche interests, in facet, make a virtue of your smaller niches – a topic that was returned to by speakers on day 2 who encouraged us to “be who we are- who we are is ok”. In other words know your org and it’s brand, celebrate that and stay authentic.
- Ask Questions first
- Don’t ignore what’s gone before
- Don’t get distracted by shiny things
- Make time for, and pay attention to, analysing your stats
- Employ a great team
Next up was the conference founder Jim Richardson from Sumo. Not surprisingly, given his huge experience in this area, his presentation was clear and effective. I was delighted to hear him make a clarion call for a huge bugbear of mine- Don’t Broadcast! Organisations all to often fall into an old fashioned broadcast model when communicating online. You are supposed to be talkingwith your audience, not at them.
- Make Friends of your superfans. (FYI this does not mean relying on Klout!) Can you group them by their jobs or interests? Bloggers/photographers/press/music fans etc
- Make your content easy to share - put share buttons on every page. Facebook “like” buttons can increase traffic by 1000%, and are easy peasy to add to pages, and shouldn’t be costly even if your designer does it for you
- Encourage reviews (add facebook review to your page or put your twitter handle on didactics in-gallery and ask for feedback)
- Allow Photography. Again, a number one bugbear of mine. Why more galleries and museums can’t facilitate visitor photography is beyond me- and I don’t buy the copyright excuse. He pointed to the recent #museumpics project which generated 7,000 photographs and 4,000 tweets in 48 hours.
- Take a lodger. Get someone in to guest tweet (Tate do this very well as it happens) or live blog from an event, or get someone to be the resident blogger/tweeter for a period. This can mean they physically move in, or not!
- Run a Competition – online or off. A great example of this is Yorkshire Favourite Paintings
- Treat Bloggers like Rockstars!! A great example here was the V&A Cold War Exhibition blog recruitment- cold war style
Next up was Lynda Kelly from the Australian Museum. An audience researcher and a self confessed lover of metrics, it’s worth noting that the museum happily shares it’s audience profiles and attendee numbers through it’s website.
Some key take-aways from her session for me were:
- Museums operate on 3 spheres; Physical, Online and Mobile. The best projects bring all three spheres together.
- The Australian Museum (AM) website uses a distributed cms model, so all staff can edit any aspect of the site, and the content is managed by the content owners
- they hold a morning web clinic once a week where staff can drop by with any questions they have about how to do things, in this way Lynda and her team are enablers, not do-ers
- When researching audiences there are several models you can employ (together or individually) , the traditional Social Science Model (surveys, focus groups, observation), the Consultation Model (i.e. consulting with a particular community), the User Generated Model or the Building Community Model (App builders etc)
The final speaker on day one was Steve Bridger who talked to us about community building and opened with a super quote from Laurie Anderson - “Technology is the campfire around which we tell our stories”
He feels that Marketeers roles will evolve from broadcasters to aggregators, and some tips for good social engagement by an organisation were:
- make the whole organisation social: socialise staff without generating chaos
- encourage staff to speak for your org in public
- trust the hiring decision
- the digital capability that comes from online needs to be rolled into the brand
- think of your “end users” as people, not end users!
He had a great comment to make about storytelling, a theme which we were to return to in day 2. As organisations we often keep our best stories back for future use, when really we should be sharing them in the moment. We’re wired for sharing in the moennt and the best stories are often the most visceral ones. His great quote from Maya Angelou summed it up best:
And so day one drew to a close with plenty of new thoughts on audience engagement and little gems of wisdom from out in the field.Read Day 2 here>