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

October 26, 2009

Old-ish Content Warning!

You are viewing a post that’s more than three years old. There’s a good chance that a lot of the following is seriously out-of-date (or at least not reflective of my current thinking on this topic). Proceed with caution.

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.