Covid was a wakeup call for some museums and cultural institutions while being a fever dream for others, and we mean more than just the closing of doors and the shortage of foot traffic. What became plain was that many beloved houses of art, history, and learning had little to no digital strategy in a time where this meant, to almost all of their audience, they went silent. All while we were stuck at home, running out of shows to watch on Netflix, and searching for educational content for our kids. As creative companions to many cultural institutions, this was distressing to us. We’ve spent over a decade learning and growing with our museum partners and we feel as though we’re in this struggle together. So, we set about poking and prodding—asking questions, offering solutions, and helping to figure out how a few simple things can help anyone in the cultural space establish or enhance their digital strategy. Here’s what we learned.
The first thing we saw was that many institutions truly weren’t mentally prepared for digital. Up until this point, their approach to social or their online presence largely consisted of barking advertisements for their new exhibits. But this isn’t strong enough, the challenge is more than merely having a presence online but also understanding that what you share needs to provide added value for your audience. Visitors can be, and want to be, more than eyeballs, ticket sales, and gift shop zombies. If you can connect with your market and provide meaning for them, your audience can become an invested community and translate directly to visitor, donor, and artist retention. Then, once your online content begins (and continues) to cultivate significance with your guests, you’ll need a follow-through plan to convert visitors into loyal friends and fans.
We didn’t come to these conclusions overnight, though. For the past months, since the start of the pandemic, we’ve been offering free strategic consultation and brainstorming to our partners in museum and adjacent spaces. This let us go hands-on with their obstacles and learn about their struggles directly from the people facing these challenges every day. One quote from John Graydon Smith, the Director and CEO of the Reading Public Museum, rings most true: “our competitors are not local museums or even the Smithsonian – they are movies, television, videogames, and iPads. We need to connect with our audience as entertainment and make them realize what they are missing.” This was our biggest initial breakthrough. It may seem obvious, but even though an institution may focus on learning or culture, the impediments they face are the same as any destination. People want to not only get a glimpse of what’s coming and get excited about visiting, they want to learn from your brain trust, see the world from your POV, and be enveloped by the personality of your establishment – and don't be afraid to own it. This is what we mean by added value, everything you post online should have a takeaway for viewers that goes beyond “come see the old stuff that we have at our location.”
That became the second major piece of our thought process: how can institutions enhance and tease their content without replicating it online? Technology is extremely powerful, and the instinct can sometimes be to recreate portions or entire exhibits online, but often this disrupts the original intent of an exhibit. Exhibitions evoke feelings, as well as tell a story while they educate and entertain. We always try to consider the platform on which something will be viewed and tailor the execution to ensure it resonates. We think of our online pieces as reciprocal digital experiences because they enhance the in-person exhibit, but also extend the installation to the public who cannot visit in person.
Think of it how a travel guidebook might work with your wanderlust toward a new city. You could read the book without ever visiting and learn a bit about the city. Or, you could just visit the city without the guide. But together, they create a symbiotic relationship. The book isn’t a requirement, nor does it replace the in-person visit, instead it first brews anticipation and then enriches the experience while you are there. If you can create engagement with your audience, get them emotionally subscribed to your message and your mission statement, then you can support each other and grow together.
So what does this look like in practice? Well, executions can vary wildly, as each solution should be tailored to your specific struggles, but here are a few examples.
The National Liberty Museum, in Philadelphia, had planned an exhibition this year called Philly’s Freedom: Artists Speak Out. The exhibit was a call to arms for under-represented artists in the community. They resolved to persevere with the exhibition even while accounting for the challenges of Covid. To ensure their message of liberty reached its intended audience and beyond, we crafted a reciprocal interactive experience that wove the real audio messages and artist statements from a few selected artists with samples of their work in a bold site online. This created added value, as hearing the artists’ voices wasn’t possible in the brick-and-mortar installation, and boosted the reach of this exhibit beyond the boundaries of the city. For visitors at the Museum, the gallery experience is enhanced with QR codes which adjourn from the artwork to dive directly to the artist’s statement on the site. This investment in their local artists also helped to reinforce their ties to the community and elevate unheard voices within their territory.
We all saw how the Getty rallied their online community to create clever recreations of works in their collection, which became a fun way to combat boredom during lockdown. This helped strengthen the ties between them and their audience, providing a fun, shareable activity which in turn became great content for their social presence.
The National Geographic Museum, which had spent months meticulously curating an AAM Top Award winning exhibit detailing the life, mission, and accomplishments of Jane Goodall, DBE, needed to quickly expand their thinking to captivate an audience that could no longer attend the exhibition in person. Because we had collaborated to craft interactive components and hologram installations for the exhibit, we saw first-hand how they adapted to the pandemic by converting much of the on-site experience into a virtual tour complete with enhanced content, 360 photo bubbles, and video components tailor-made to suit an online experience. This didn’t replace the in-person visit, but helped entice visitors while they waited for the opportunity to attend.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but hopefully you can see that it’s the thought process that matters. Approaching digital strategy as more than just an ad platform opens up an entire new way to interact with your community. Take a hard look at your mission statement, and ask “does it end with ‘inside our building’?” How can you combine the assets you already have with clever thinking to ensure your charge carries beyond your walls? Here are some thought starters to get you thinking:
- Can you bring your art, artifacts, and ideas to other spaces? Or bring pieces you’d never place out on the floor to YouTube or Facebook through video? It gives your audience a peek at what’s normally hidden away in secure storage.
- Do you have staff who are subject matter experts, and is their knowledge being shared with your audience? Consider blogs like Medium, Quora, or your social media channels. Take advantage of your team to share your message.
- 3D Tours are cumbersome, but how can you do them in a way that transports the viewer to your subject matter, not merely recreating a literal interpretation of your real-world space.
- If your audience is aging out, you need to ask yourself “what am I doing on Twitch or even TikTok?” Don’t lament that your audience and school tours aren’t coming to you: go to them. If you can’t afford to produce quality video tours, explore Instagram Reels.
- Create longer form editorial content, such as video spotlights. Show a piece and dive into detail, your audience is curious and wants to learn more.
- Augmented Reality is incredible, but it doesn’t just need to replicate a real-life artwork in your space or play out an animated version of the same exact painting hanging in your gallery. In fact, in some ways, it may compromise the artist’s original intent. Maybe, instead, show how the painting was created, peel back the layers, or have a curator (or even the artist themselves!) tell you about the inspiration.
- Introduce people to less-familiar works. One conceptual application of this is an “Art Tinder,” where people swipe left and right on photos of art to get recommendations of what they might be unfamiliar with. Add in some simple analytics and now you can learn more about what your community likes. Use this as a bonus to help with future acquisitions.
Digital strategy can be your most powerful new tool, but the time to take it seriously is now. If you can provide added value, foster a community, and enhance without replacing your on-site content your online presence will become one more pillar in your plan to fulfil your institution’s mission statement. Take it seriously and establish a strategy, that way the next time unforeseen circumstances threaten your normal operations your audience can rally to continue the conversation online. And if you’d like any help solving a specific creative challenge don’t hesitate to let us know.