Tag Archives: Chris Anderson

Museums In the Digital Domain, Part Three – Producing for Niches

This post is Part Three of a series of posts. Part One, with a brief introduction, is here. Part Two is here.

By choosing to assume that the audience for online engagement is the same as that for traditional in-gallery engagement, museums are failing to nurture and develop new audiences. Instead, museums continue to produce new content based on (potentially) flawed assumptions of what their audiences might want. These flawed assumptions cause museums to spend a significant amount of time worrying about issues regarding content ownership and authority that are–at best–less important, or–at worst–completely irrelevant for online visitors, and ignoring issues of findability that are critical.

This is nowhere more apparent than on the typical museum Web site. The average museum site assumes a protracted engagement with the visitor in which the a deliberate choice has been made by the visitor to visit the site and look for information. This type of engagement is clearly modeled on a physical visit, in which the visitor enters through the front door of the building and is “captive” for a certain length of time. In this scenario, the visitor has already sought the specific museum Web site out, likely based on the museum’s reputation, and is willing to accept even unattributed content as all coming backed by the “full faith and credit” of that institution.

Some visitors may indeed seek this form of engagement from museum Web sites. The problem is that the average museum Web site gears most of its content entirely in the pursuit of this one type of engagement. With more effort devoted to research (“plans to learn”) than to production (“plans to execute”), museums may find that there are other niche types of engagements that individually represent smaller numbers of visitors, but collectively represent a significantly larger number. This is what author Chris Anderson refers to as “the Long Tail.” In the old days, the cost of producing print or in-gallery materials that would appeal to these niche audiences was simply too high to warrant even considering it. Digital production, however, enables museums to publish materials for as easily for these audiences as it does for traditional audiences. Adding up all of these possible niche markets makes for a larger number of total interactions than do the hits.

There is also the possibility that what was always assumed by the museum to be a niche audience in fact turns out to be an entirely new, previously untapped market. In fact, most disruptive technologies begin as niche markets and then evolve into something much larger. This is to museums’ advantage now that producing content is now a low- or no-cost proposition. Rather than spending years and thousands of dollars producing “perfect” publications that may never find an audience, museums can instead begin to put out smaller bits of content first to see what “sticks.” If that content finds an audience (that is, if the material begins to be linked to, referenced, and read), then the museum could decide to produce more content on that topic. The key here is that decisions around content production should be based on actual returned data (website hits, incoming links, etc.) rather than assumptions about what the largest audience wants. In this way, emerging and as-yet-unknown audiences can be turned into assets before they have a chance to look somewhere else.

Producing materials for niche audiences and adopting a research-driven content strategy means contravening many long-held production practices in museums. Most critically museums should forgo the concept of waiting for perfection before publication. Perfection is a standard far more suited for the print medium than today’s digital domain. By the time a museum has thoroughly perfected a resource, that potential audience may have already moved on and found the information elsewhere. Maxwell Anderson, director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, recently made a similar case for immediacy over perfection:

“I arrived [at the IMA] and heard, as is so often the case, the mantra that we’re only going to put stuff online when we’ve done data clean up…Actually, what we’re going to do is we’re going to put everything online now and see how much we have to clean up. And that seems to be working better…than holding back.”

In trying to avoid “holding back” while simultaneously attempting to find and exploit new audiences, museums will have to re-configure their content-production strategies to be significantly more flexible and responsive. In the main, this will involve the removal of the traditional editorial process in favor of more direct and ongoing communication. In this model, the publication of a given resource is the beginning of a process, rather than its endpoint. Some approaches that many museums are already using successfully include:

  • Allow staff to speak to visitors directly. As many museums with blogs are finding, allowing staff to speak out directly about what interests them is a relatively painless way of quickly creating volumes of interesting, colorful content. These staff postings are inherently niche-based, tending to focus on tiny area of museum practice, but often build dedicated, loyal audiences. Nina K. Simon asserts that being more overt about content authorship can also have the side benefit of increasing trust, by in essence demonstrating an author’s willingness to engage in a conversation about content he or she created with his or her community.
  • Use content that already exists. Not all content has to be built from scratch. Plenty of information is already available in digital format in museums, but many museums still withhold this information until it is deemed suitable for public consumption. What Wikipedia and similar resources have taught us is that the public is remarkably tolerant of mistakes when the information is copious and findable. Put information out as soon as it is created.
  • Worry less about completely owning all of your content. Museums should not be afraid to reference materials not produced by them. Museums can still provide valuable context, and acquire value over time as good pointers to interesting information. A museum that is willing to own up to incomplete knowledge, and ask its own communities to fill in those gaps, is a museum that (paradoxically, when viewed in the context of earlier paradigms) is increasing trust with its community and ensuring that it will be a “first source” of information for that community.
  • Digitize your archives. This is probably the least attractive option for most museums, as the process of converting archival assets from analogue to digital carries with a relatively high price tag. But because much of this information already exists, digitization can enable the creation of large amounts of “new” content without (again) having to create content from scratch. And, like all digital production, the cost of digitization is only decreasing.

Objection to pursuing any of these strategies in museums typically takes one of two forms. The first is the concern that this kind of content represents a significant decrease in quality, and the second is that creating a too-engaging online experience will cause a drop in visitorship to the physical site. Both of these arguments represent an incomplete understanding of what disruptive technologies mean in terms of creating new audiences.

For these new audiences, there is no quantifiable drop in quality with these new production methods. With more rapid and personal content deployment, museums are actually providing more value for an audience that responds to availability and findability more than perfection. For a visitor hungry for information that can be found nowhere else, any information, even incomplete information, is better than none at all. The ability to engage directly with a curator, conservator, or educator might be far more important to this audience than comprehensiveness. Museums have to ask themselves whether by fretting over being completely authoritative if they are stymieing their content-production efforts merely to satisfy the needs of a small group of scholars. As Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood said about high-quality audio formats like FLAC: “…if you even know what one of those is, and have strong opinions on them, you’re already lost to the world of high fidelity and have probably spent far too much money on your speaker stands.”

And it is highly unlikely that producing more engaging online experiences will “cannibalize” existing visitors. It is far more likely that more interesting online presences will in fact help museums to find entirely new audiences that had heretofore not had an interest in visiting at all. Sebastian Chan, Head of Digital, Social & Emerging Technologies at the Powerhouse Museum found this to be true when the Powerhouse posted images of its Tyrell photographs collection to the Flickr Commons. Powerhouse found that the images posted to Flickr received more page views in the first four weeks of availability than they had for the entire previous year on the Museum’s own Web site, and that the museum was receiving licensing requests from entirely new entities that had never contacted them before.

This is an instructive case because the Powerhouse could have just as easily not have made these images so easily available, and instead put a few highlights on their Web site, strongly urging visitors to come to the Museum to see the collection personally. Had the Powerhouse done this, these new audiences would have been far less likely to have found this collection at all. The “cannibalization” would have been reversed–an over-emphasis on the museum’s physical presence would have prevented interesting and engaging content from being made available for new audiences to discover.

Part Four should be up later this week.

Museums In the Digital Domain, Part One – The Costs of Production

First, an introduction. I recently was asked to present some (half-baked) ideas at a symposium on museums and digital culture in Taipei under the somewhat meaningless title “Museums In the Digital Domain,” and I thought I’d serialize some of what I wrote for that symposium here. Some of these ideas are better fleshed-out than others, and much of this writing I still consider to be a work-in-progress; constructive commentary will be warmly welcomed.

A special shout-out to Matt Morgan, John Gordy, Nancy Proctor, and Richard McCoy, all of whom gave valuable feedback while I was writing this.

So here’s the first part of the paper:

“The curious thing about the various plans hatched in the ’90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan: “Here’s how we’re going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies!” The details differed, but the core assumption behind all imagined outcomes…was that the organizational form of the newspaper, as a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion, was basically sound, and only needed a digital facelift. As a result, the conversation has degenerated into the enthusiastic grasping at straws, pursued by skeptical responses.”

–Clay Shirky, “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable

Although Clay Shirky is talking about newspapers here, this quote could just as easily apply to the various strategies museums are currently employing in an attempt to remain relevant. As museums attempt to make the transition from being places where a majority of interaction with visitors takes place within their walls to a different kind of organization in which interactions could potentially occur anywhere, it is vital that the origins of many of the practices surrounding the production and distribution of content are completely understood. Although museums have been “on the Web” for 15 or more years, their collective digital presences (with a few notable exceptions) still bear the marks of practices created and nurtured during the analogue era, with online presences amounting to little more than a “digital facelift.”

The traditional notions of what constitute value for museums are changing. If we accept that, over time, the number of visitors to to a museum’s building will be dwarfed by the number of visitors who experience that same museum via any number of possible (primarily) online avenues, we must then recognize that that physical visit is now but one of a significantly larger number of possible engagement scenarios. Museums have been slow to recognize this subtle but far-reaching shift in their own value, and continue to assume that the dynamics of the physical visit continue to hold true for all other types of engagements.

What this has led to, unfortunately, is a situation in which museums are losing the competition for attention with other types of information providers and portals that do not have the same depth of content, but are capable of reaching audiences with the content they do have. What can museums learn from these providers, and how can these lessons help museums to truly become digital organizations?

A given museum’s perception of its own value is still generally tied up in its contributions to the general knowledge via scholarly publications as much as it is in the value of its physical collection. These publications, whether they be journal articles, exhibition catalogues, or gallery label text, are laboriously produced, thoroughly vetted, and meticulously edited. Because these publications are printed on physical media, the production of every single word of text, every single image, and every single second of film costs money. That cost always has to be weighed against the hoped-for return on investment (whether that be book purchases, ticket sales, or professional standing) on any given publication, meaning that content that is unlikely to find enough of an audience to justify cost is equally unlikely to see the light of day via publication. Three primary effects have resulted from this situation:

  1. Museums tailor their content for audiences already known to exist: scholars, general visitors, researchers, etc.;
  2. Activities within the museum that are unlikely to speak to one of these known audiences are regarded as too specialized for mass consumption, and therefore kept “behind the curtain”;
  3. Museums (and other similar cultural heritage organizations) occupy this information space virtually alone–the economic barriers to participation via print are simply too high for most potential competitors.

The dearth of content available because of this lack of competition meant that, in the past, an audience looking for that type of material was relatively likely to find materials created by museums. There was simply little competing content out there. In the electronic domain, however, this is no longer the case. The cost of displaying and distributing content electronically has fallen so low that it is now effectively zero. The inputs to the production process are now almost entirely intellectual rather than material, leading to a situation in which, as Chris Anderson states, “ideas can propagate virtually without limit and without cost.” As a result, any scarcity of museum data, information, or media, is a mostly an artificial one. The only meaningful factor restricting the publishing of museum content in the electronic domain (beyond any lingering rights issues) is a conscious decision on the part of the museum not to publish. Unfortunately, many museums are making exactly that decision, which has created a vacuum that is being filled by all sorts of other actors, from Wikipedia to the Discovery Channel. What these other organizations have come to understand is that content, being free, has less value than the attention it generates.

Continue on to Part Two