Sustaining the heartbeat of your museum’s content strategy
Eric Holter, Cuberis, USA
AbstractAccess to quick publishing tools like blogs and social media should make populating your website with great content a breeze. Add to that the digitization of your museum's collections, and the options are virtually limitless. But that's also the problem. With so many content opportunities, it's easy to suffer from choice paralysis. One of the keys to knowing what content to produce at any given time is to develop a habitual and sustainable content strategy. A benefit of cultivating a viable content strategy flows from a surprising observation made by Wired's Chris Anderson in 2004, when digital retailers began to outsell offline competitors. Without the limitations of a physical store, online retailers could stock plenty of obscure releases along with "the hits". And it turned out that there was a profitable market for these niche titles. When you tallied the sales from the multitude of niche titles, the total dwarfed the sales from the hits. Anderson dubbed this occurrence the "Long Tail" effect. Museums, like brick and mortar retailers, can only put the "hits" on display. The long tail of objects in the vaults remain out of reach to your visitors. But, thanks to digital collections, the most obscure and specific items can reach their audiences, too. In this workshop you will learn how enrich your museum’s "Long Tail" with content that fulfills your museum's mission while contributing to its margin. We will discuss the following: * Building a content strategy that exploits the Long Tail effect for museums * Establishing proper expectations for how Long Tail content will perform and build value * Examples from museums of leveraging Long Tail content * How Long Tail content strategies can enrich a museum’s featured content (content related to events, exhibitions, and scholarship)
Keywords: content strategy, long tail, collections, blogs
The High Museum of Art’s website features a novel tool for highlighting specific works from its collection (https://high.org/). “How Artsy Are You?” is a personality test, based on pop-culture oriented quizzes made popular on sites like Buzzfeed (Figure 1). After clicking your way through nine offbeat questions about art, the quiz gives you a custom profile, and presents links to objects that fit your particular taste. It’s fun, it’s easy, and it’s a great way to introduce new audiences to some of the more obscure objects in the High’s collection. The person who just took the quiz has a personal connection with “their” work, and, in true online personality quiz fashion, your results are shareable on Facebook and Twitter. So not only has the High made a meaningful connection with this one person, it has enabled them to become unofficial ambassadors for the museum. And the quiz isn’t the only type of content through which the High connects with its audience on a personal level.
Figure 1: “How Artsy Are You?” (High Museum of Art)
If you click around the rest of the High’s website, you will find that this quiz is thematically consistent with much of the messaging throughout. On the homepage, the words “Art + You” are superimposed on a photo of a museum visitor. In the navigation menu, the first two options are “Art” and “You.” The “My High” page suggests events relevant to your own interests and allows you to create a custom map to your favorite works of art. For the online visitor, this website isn’t just about a museum and its collection: it’s about you, too.
“Art + You” is more than a tagline. It’s a guidepost for all current and future Web content. In other words, “Art + You” is the High Museum’s content strategy. And it flows out of the director’s vision of wanting to make a deeper connection with the local community, says Ivey Rucket, the High’s Manager of Digital Strategy.
When you invest the time and effort to articulate such a precise strategy for your content, not only will a plethora of content ideas suddenly reveal themselves to you, but the content itself will have a greater impact.
Simply put, “the goal of content strategy is to create meaningful, cohesive, engaging, and sustainable content” (https://www.usability.gov/). Unfortunately, creating a content strategy isn’t always a simple undertaking for museums. Your collections consist of thousands of fascinating objects, artworks, artists, and histories. Museums have loads of content opportunities, but articulating clear strategies for content development is complicated.
Strategies exist to advance mission. Strategies can only exist in the context of a clearly defined mission, but museum mission statements are necessarily broad. Without a clearly articulated mission, finding effective strategies will always be elusive. There is a necessary and contingent relationship between mission and goals, between goals and strategies, and between strategies and tactics. As each stage flows into the next, options and opportunities increase. A clear mission should dictate a limited set of goals. Each goal should be aligned with just a few strategies, but then any number of tactics can be employed to accomplish each strategy. So if you start out with a broad and expansive mission, the range of goals will increase, and the corresponding strategies will multiply—and the tactics will be endless.
As a result of this sort of choice paralysis, you may find that your website is falling short of its potential impact. Your updates may become less frequent and consistent, and the content you do publish may not have a common thread from one section to the next. Taking the time to think of how your mission can be broken down into departmental goals will help you create strategies that take the guesswork out of choosing which stories to tell and how to tell them.
Another consequence of failing to implement a clear content strategy can be found in your website analytics. A healthy content strategy will help your traffic grow over time, attracting new visitors and delighting and engaging them when they find you. Most of this traffic comes from two sources, both of which are related. High-value content is shared more on social media and in articles, which brings in high quality traffic. The other source, which may account for the majority of your traffic, comes from search engines, such as Google. The less frequently you update your website, the more slowly Google will crawl and index your new content (Rose, 2016).
Even though we know that the majority of search engine visitors head straight to the contact page for hours of operation, the visitors who come through other channels and content will take the time to explore the collection and learn as much as you can make available. The less content you have on your site, your potential visitors have fewer chances to share or discover your museum’s stories. Ultimately, sites that lack meaningful content will lose out on what is known as the “Long Tail” effect.
In his groundbreaking article “The Long Tail” (2004), Chris Anderson pinpointed the real reason digital retailers were outselling offline competitors. Without the limitations of a physical space, online stores could stock plenty of obscure releases along with “the hits.” Whether these niche titles were stored in huge warehouses or completely digitized, an expanded market could suddenly buy the items they couldn’t find in their local shops. When you tallied the sales from the multitude of niche titles, the total dwarfed the sales from the hits. Anderson dubbed this occurrence the “Long Tail” effect.
Museums, like brick and mortar retailers, can only put the “hits” on display. “But most of us want more than just hits,” says Anderson. “Everyone’s taste departs from the mainstream somewhere, and the more we explore alternatives, the more we’re drawn to them.” Your museum’s long tail of objects in the vaults remain out of reach to your visitors. Thanks to the digitization of collections, even the most non-mainstream items can find their audiences, too.
If your website traffic is flat, or trending downward, the best way to reverse the trend is with regular, impactful content, flowing from a clear, sustainable content strategy. Your content strategy will enable you to build a traffic-boosting “Long Tail,” and fulfill your museum’s mission. In addition to providing guidance for content substance, your strategy will also guide the structure of your content (Brain Traffic, 2017). For example, you may uncover opportunities to optimize existing content with links and calls to action (CTA) that increase attendance and give people a chance to donate.
If you visited the the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ website (https://www.vmfa.museum) this winter, you were given at least four opportunities to give the museum money before you ever scrolled down (Figure 2). You could become a member. You could donate. You could shop. Or you could buy tickets to the Terracotta Army exhibition. And that was just on the home page. Not bad for a free museum! In all likelihood, the CTA was a prominent structural component to the VMFA content strategy.
Figure 2: CTA-Rich Home Page (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)
Creating and implementing a clear content strategy will have a compounding effect. It is a framework for healthy publishing habits, which will empower you to create “meaningful, cohesive, engaging, and sustainable content”(https://www.usability.gov/) that will bring more visitors to your website. And more traffic means more potential visitors, members and donors. So where do you begin?
Our methodology: Four content types
Your collections consist of thousands of fascinating objects, artworks, artists, and histories, all of which have their own stories to tell, and many of which are already digitized. So you have plenty of opportunities to create content to delight and inspire anyone who experiences those collections. But, you also have an array of departmental goals and perspectives. By looking for opportunities to unite the skills of each of the museum’s main departments, while coordinating with the development office, your digital content will become a platform for truly extending the reach and impact of your collection.
At Cuberis, we kick off our museum content strategy sessions by bringing together our client’s stakeholders (marketing, curatorial, development, education, directors) to discuss and align goals. Then, we simplify basic content options into four main types:
- Foundational Content (Home, About, Hours, etc.)
- Essential Work (Scholarly Essays, Exhibition Information, Lesson Plans, etc.)
- Projects and Productions (Digital Stories, Online Exhibitions, Special Projects, etc.)
- Blogs and Social Media
Each of these content types have their own strengths and weaknesses, but all of them can be shaped by a strategy. By breaking down your site in this way, you might even find obvious goals that each type of content is suited for.
All websites need certain elements just to meet the baseline expectations of visitors. For museums, this usually means information about the museum, such as hours, history, and how to join or support. This content is often taken for granted, but, for the strategic thinker, it offers clues to some of the goals that your website can help you reach. If you have a membership page, then one of your goals must be to drive membership. Beyond the page itself, think of other areas where you can connect people to a membership application, or where you can talk about the benefits of being a member, or how members help the museum thrive.
The examples we found on the VMFA’s website would fall into the Foundational Content category. Homepage carousels are fairly common on museum websites, but there are a lot of variables that can effect the user experience. You can choose how many images scroll by, and if the entire image is clickable, or just a button. What makes the VFMA’s carousel so smart and strategic is that they allow multiple buttons on any image, allowing for both a “learn more” button and a “buy tickets” button. This allows the content producers of the website to have options when they ask themselves, “what do we want people to do when they see this?” Because these seemingly basic pages carry so much of your traffic, it is important to ask yourself what you want a visitor to do when they are visiting website.
In the case of Newfields in Indianapolis (https://discovernewfields.org), the navigation menu reframes this question by thinking of what the visitor might want to do. When the Indianapolis Museum of Art rebranded its 152-acre campus as Newfields, it also restated its mission as “impacting lives through exceptional experiences with art and nature” (Graphic Design USA, 2017). This focus on “experiences” helps provide both substance and structure to the website’s content strategy. In practical terms, this means that site sections are grouped by what a visitor would want to do, and every clickable part of the homepage is labeled with a verb, such “do & see,” “learn more,” and “explore” (Figure 3). The experience motif also appears in more substantive ways. The Visit page’s beautiful, animated map changes seasonally; in the winter months, it includes tiny people making snow angels in front of the Lilly House, with flocks of birds that respond to your mouse cursor.
Figure 3: Anticipating the Audience’s Desires (Newfields)
Newfields’ Deputy Director for Marketing and External Affairs, Gary Stoppelman, says these tactics are completely intentional. This new mission statement is “about people, not objects,” he says (Stoppleman, personal communication, January 8, 2018). Mr. Stoppelman encourages other museums to listen to the audience. “Tactics like these come out of carefully studying the community writ large. This means a shift the website from speaking ‘at you’ to meeting the needs of the audience.” Exceptional experiences indeed.
What do you want visitors to do on your website? What do they expect to be able to do? If you can answer these questions from the perspective of your museum’s mission and departmental goals, you’ll have the first piece in place for your content strategy.
Imagine the world before the Internet. For museums, there was still plenty of work to do that didn’t need a home online. Scholarly research was conducted, lectures were written and delivered, events were hosted, and exhibitions were curated. All of that essential museum work still happens every day, and thanks to the digital nature of most work, you have plenty of material for building out your long tail with meaningful content. And not only that, you will also be able to bring to light the abundant stories that may not be visible to visitors of your physical space.
It’s time for museums to start thinking hard about how they will take advantage of the rich media and layered storytelling possibilities that current technological breakthroughs are creating. These breakthroughs are bringing what used to be very expensive and complicated techniques and systems into reach of the budgets of even small to mid-sized museums. Recent changes in low-cost Web platforms like WordPress, significant upgrades in collection management systems like Gallery System’s TMS and eMuseum, and new imaging formats like IIIF are dulling the bleeding edge of digital presentation technologies so that standard museum operating budgets can begin to implement them.
Soon, expensive grant-funded website projects, like the Met’s amazing Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (https://www.metmuseum.org/), will be able to be emulated by all museums. However, overcoming the technical barriers, and making advanced tool sets available, is actually the easier part. Using them well will become the next challenge.
We can look to the Heilbrunn Timeline for a one way to strategically use your museum’s essential work to create deeper online experiences. In the same way that the Heilbrunn Timeline connects works of art with scholarly essays, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles has produced highly curated expanded digital archives to contextualize its collections. “Loss and Restitution: The Story of the Grunwald Family Collection,” for instance,“presents the results of an extensive research project to document the evolution of Fred Grunwald’s collection,” including more than 1,500 works donated by Fred Grunwald (https://hammer.ucla.edu/). Beyond the artwork, and essential to the site’s content strategy, is the plethora of historical documents, essays, and resources that allow site visitors to take a deep dive into the stories that enhance and augment the collection (Figure 4).
Figure 4: contextualizing the collection (Hammer Museum)
Another approach for thinking of how to use your museum’s work online is to create a strategy around enhancing events and exhibitions with rich media. The Whitney Museum of American Art recently exhibited a mid-career survey of the artist Laura Owens (http://whitney.org). Creating Web pages to promote art exhibitions is nothing new, but the Whitney’s “Laura Owens” page is no mere landing page. The first thing you might notice is that your mouse cursor has suddenly become a lamb, which then becomes a lion as you mouse over links. Yes, there is a prominent CTA to buy tickets at the top of the page, but just below that is a link to a video section, featuring original videos made by the artist. In addition to the standard “about” and gallery sections, you can also find information about related events, an interactive catalog, and a visual audio guide featuring interviews with artists, curators, and friends of the artist.
Figure 5: using rich media to augment collection (Whitney Museum of Art)
Projects and productions
One of the most effective products of a content strategy is the creation of enriched digital stories that illuminate objects or exhibits from your collections. By enriched digital stories, we’re talking about curated, annotated, rich media presentations, digital resources that further the museum’s mission to extend the reach and impact of its collection.
The Wellcome Collection in London produced two such projects in 2014, both of which use technology to create immersive, captivating online experiences. Mindcraft, a digital story about “madness, murder and mental healing” (Wellcome Collection, 2014), “transports the user across cultures and continents, tracing an alternative history of mind control from mesmerism in Paris to hypnotism on Freud’s couch” (Wellcome Trust, 2014). The scrolling interface uses a variety of media, including text, video, animation, and interactives. Much of the material in the site comes from Wellcome Library’s own digital archives, allowing users from around the world to engage with the collection in new, fascinating ways.
Danny Birchall, Digital Manager of the Wellcome Collection, says that the entire point of this project is to spread the museum’s mission to a global audience in the same way that its exhibitions engage with the public. As engaging as the original digital stories were, however, he discovered that they were lacking a mechanism for bringing people back after they’ve experienced it once. Mr. Birchall and his colleagues used that lesson to create a new storytelling project, which now lives on the Wellcome Collection’s “Explore” section.
“We set out to make the museum a publishing platform,” says Mr. Birchall (Birchall, personal communication, January 11, 2018). “We removed some of the interactivity of the original digital stories and added seriality,” he says of the new stories. “They’ve become something more episodic.” And visitors are motivated to return to the site again and again.
Your collections and exhibits are worthy of such augmentation and illumination. But looking at Wellcome’s digital stories, there are two obvious barriers to producing similar stories from your collections. First is simply knowing where to begin, given how many stories there are to tell. Second is the cost and the allocation of resources needed to produce these kinds of enhanced stories. With the following framework, you can start down the road of creating your own high production, high value digital projects and productions.
Step one: Identify future exhibitions
In order to maximize your production efforts, we suggest looking at your upcoming exhibition calendar (at least a year out) and identifying exhibitions that will focus on objects from your own collection. Targeting stories that align with upcoming exhibitions will not only limit the field of candidates, but the final product will become a powerful marketing asset for promoting those exhibitions.
Step two: Select an object(s) to focus on
By starting with a future exhibition it will be much easier to narrow the candidates down to a just a few options.
Step three: Mine scholarly content for story ideas and potential details.
The museum’s curators will likely have already produced scholarly content, and will have invited other scholars to contribute to the exhibition.
Step four: Collect related content
Having sketched out a theme and an outline for your story, you’ll need to start collecting digital resources that can be used to enrich storytelling. Perhaps you can schedule a few audio or video interviews with some of the scholars who contributed to the research, and with your museum’s curators. Clips from these interviews can be integrated into your digital story.
Another source of related content can be collected by your education and community engagement staff. They can record some “quick takes” with kids, visitors, or “on the street” interviews with members of the community. Asking questions like “If your life were a painting, which art movement would it belong to and why?”, or “What would you say if I asked you take a pair of scissors and cut up one of our photographs?” can generate some great candid material that can augment your digital story.
Step five: Production resources and schedule.
With a story outline and lots of assets, some decisions about the best format for presenting the story will need to be considered. Would this be best produced as a video? Or maybe a book-style annotated image? Of course, all this advanced planning, preparation, and production will take resources to pull together. That leads us to the second barrier to producing digital stories: finding the funds to produce enhanced stories. That’s where aligning and coordinating your strategy with the development office comes in.
You see, this sizable digital production effort should be considered a museum project. And museum projects represent an opportunity for fundraising. Let’s imagine that the costs for producing this enhanced digital story, including time, materials, and production, is $15,000. The development office can now package this initiative up as another opportunity to raise funds for the museum (hopefully more than the base costs—so that the museum ends up with a net gain).
The beauty of packaging digital initiatives into supportable or “sponsorable” projects is that it broadens the audience of possible supporters beyond those who typically support large-scale museum initiatives. There may be a host of individuals or companies who would love to sponsor the museum’s efforts but don’t have the means to support larger capital campaigns. Offering “this project brought to you by” opportunities can turn this larger base of small to midsize companies into potential museum patrons. And these smaller digital projects will appeal not only to a much broader base, but to a younger base as well. And museum development officers are eager to find ways to engage a new generation of younger supporters! Speaking of younger audiences, there is a huge opportunity to engage younger museum enthusiasts, not only in contributing to the support of these projects, but also in the fundraising effort itself. Often a museum will have a junior board, or teen volunteers, and these groups can be recruited to help with the organization of supporters, and to raise funds for the digital project.
And since these initiatives create evergreen content (content that will remain a digital asset well after an exhibition has come and gone), digital stories can provide an ongoing financial benefit for the museum. By adding the important layer of asking for donations while visitors are deeply engaged in enhanced content, these digital projects become long-term assets. Check out the Field Museum’s “The Brain Scoop” videos to see this strategy in action. As you build a library of digital stories, this small stream of revenue can widen out into a more significant contributor to revenue.
Blogs and social media
With a few notable and rare exceptions, most museums suffer from blog inconsistency, relegating it to an old-fashioned news and press release repository, or posting infrequently and arbitrarily. This is a real shame since museums face an embarrassment of riches for potential blog posts. While every other part of your website should work in service of your mission, your blog is by far the smoothest and easiest solution for telling the many stories of your collections’ beautiful objects and illuminating histories. But you need to have a clear plan to make it work.
In our experience, creativity needs some kind of spark to really flourish. Sadly, it’s often for lack of just a bit of planning, a bit of organizing, and a strategic focus that the amazing potential of a museum’s blog is lost to the world.
Anyone who has set up a blog for their website has inevitably had to ask themselves, what should our blog’s categories be? This question is especially confounding when you consider that many popular blog platforms, such as WordPress, also have another post-level taxonomy called “tags.” Understanding the general difference between the two—categories are broad and tags are specific—may give you some ideas of how to organize your content; but over time, you might realize that you have created too many categories, or not enough. Or, you might find that most of your posts are falling into just one category, and that you don’t have enough ideas to fill the others you’ve created.
While the blog category question may initially feel technical, strategic use of this feature can have a direct impact on the creativity and longevity of your blog. One shortcut for choosing the right categories is to think about the themes that represent your museum. Perhaps your museum has the largest collection of impressionistic work from the Pacific Northwest; you could have a “PNW Impressions” category. Maybe your museum is focused on community events; you could have an entire category dedicated to the stories of how your museum brings the community together. Something wonderful and freeing can happen when you think of blog categories strategically: You always know what to write next.
Through its simple blog strategy, Cooper Hewitt has created a simple and sustainable framework for telling mission-fulfilling, collection-enriching digital stories (https://www.cooperhewitt.org). By focusing their attention on just two categories, “Object of the Day” and “Meet the Hewitts,” blog authors are never left to wonder, “What should I write today?” (Figure 6). Every object has a story, and a blog allows you to expand on stories with rich content in a way that you couldn’t do within the walls of your museum. With over 200,000 digitized objects, Cooper Hewitt’s “Object of the Day” category could sustain their blog with fresh content for 547 years. From a blogger’s perspective, this strategy is a gift. This strategy also helps the museum fulfill its mission, which is to educate, inspire, empower people through design, and Cooper Hewitt’s Web analytics say as much. According to Pamela Horn, Acting Director of Digital and Emerging Media and Director of Cross-Platform Publishing and Strategic Partnerships, these blog posts, which are featured on the home page, have an open rate of 40%. The “Object of the Day” creates meaningful connections to obscure works of art for an engaged audience.
Figure 6: strategically using blog bategories (Cooper Hewitt)
Rather than thinking about blog posts as ephemeral, low-impact afterthoughts, consider each post as a digital deposit into a growing online collection that will bit-by-bit contribute to a mounting source of traffic to your site. There are also other benefits that can come from an active blog.
When you combine your posts with the sharing platforms on social media, you can elevate their impact. It’s extremely easy to link posts to Facebook, Twitter, etc. These posts probably won’t go viral, but each share gives a little boost to engagement.
When you curate blog content according to a focused strategy, you can extend the use of posts by augmenting other keystone content. Implementing “related content” through a content management system like WordPress, you can augment your exhibition pages, as well as collection detail pages with curated blog posts. Connecting your content this way enriches all of the information and stories on your site.
When Chris Anderson first wrote about the “Long Tail,” he observed that the more people explore connections between popular content to lesser-known related content, the more deeply they get drawn into the riches and hidden gems of digital collections. And your archives are full of many lesser known, yet equally fascinating objects.
Personalizing your brand
Your blog is a direct and potentially authentic way to personalize your museum and engage your community. In our opinion, when the primary experience people usually have with your museum comes from their on-site visits, the feeling they usually get is one of distance. They enter a stunning facility, they get close (but not too close) to priceless artifacts and artworks. Security guards make sure everything stays under control. Wires, barriers, and display cases keep objects at a safe distance. Museum experiences are awe inspiring, but in our experience, they don’t usually give us the warm and fuzzies. There are plenty of nice people working behind the scenes, but the vibe of many museums is not very personal. We propose that your blog can help personalize your institution and connect visitors more closely both with the collection, and the people behind the scenes. What a tremendous opportunity to begin to link that common formal presence with personal engagement.
A team of one
Aligning with your museum’s departments is a critical aspect of building out your content strategy. But this cross-discipline alignment and participation shouldn’t end after launch. Unfortunately, facing a lack of resources, time, or interest, can make it challenging for a content producer to get all of the input they need to execute their plan. Blogs are flexible and new content is easy to publish. Even if only one person has the time to write blog posts, the right strategy will empower them to create meaningful content.
Even if your site doesn’t have its own built-in blog, your website can still benefit from a third-party blog such as Medium or WordPress.com. Anything you publish off-site can link back to your museum site and be shared on social media, and habitual blogging can lead to strategic approaches other parts of the site.
A framework for healthy habits
Your museum’s website, digitized collections, and online content are all part of a living body—and your content strategy is your wellness plan. Like the different aspects of your own health, each type of content can benefit from healthy habits.
Foundational content is like basic hygiene. It’s something that is expected from you, and inattention to it may cause others to avoid you. Essential Work is like a great job. It gives you a sense of purpose, and the more you put into it, the more you get out of it. Projects and Productions are like a gym routine. It takes more effort and resources, but the impact is substantial and easily measurable. Finally, a blog is like a balanced diet. It is nourishing and sustaining. And, every once in a while, it’s OK to have a little dessert.
Just like your own healthy habits, if you create a clear, meaningful plan, your content habits will eventually become automatic. Your audience will be more engaged with you, you will further advance your museum’s mission, and you’ll be proud of who you see in the mirror.
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