David Resnicow is the president and cofounder of the communications agency Resnicow and Associates.
During the past month, museums across the globe have been faced with suddenly transforming themselves from physical spaces designed to immerse visitors in installations and on-site programs into producers and distributors of online multimedia content. Without any preparation or playbook. Rather than deliver visitors to the museum, museums must now deliver themselves to the visitor.
The medium is the museum.
My firm has spent 28 years working with major museums’ communications offices in crafting the ways they present themselves to the outside world. In this new world, the communications office finds itself playing a leading role, not a supporting one. It constructs the virtual front door to an amorphous venue that simultaneously welcomes visitors and presents programming. Of course, museums have long produced digital content to support their real-world initiatives, but with the digital realm now the lone space available for engaging the community, they are navigating uncharted territory, with vastly differing visitor patterns and audience reach.
As their first response to this new construct, museums have sought to keep in touch by posting the varied digital content they had already created pre-WFH, whether virtual recreations of their galleries, recorded talks and classes, or links to their digitized collections and archives. A cursory look at the offerings now on tap 24/7 show some 2,500 virtual museum “tours,” not to overlook the exponentially greater number of lectures, podcasts, and scanned works of art.
Individually and collectively this “content” adds up to a wonderful treasure trove that would take any visitor years to unpack. However, despite the rich experience these online initiatives provide, the vast majority of them have not been designed to overcome the challenges—nor take advantage of the new opportunities—that the museum’s overnight metamorphosis into a virtual institution has forced upon them.
It’s clear that the processes that informed the programming of physical spaces and the visitor experience cannot simply be approached as a process of transposition to the online environment. While it’s great to offer access to virtual galleries, visitors want guided tours that are calibrated to online attention spans and, if possible, include interactive engagement. The same holds true for talks and discussions, as TED has taught us. In effect, programming needs to be staged for the realities of the virtual world, and not as a digital rendering of the real one.
To effectively communicate with a quarantined populace, museums should approach their presentation spaces, programs, marketing and, when possible, revenue (or, rather, monetization), as a single, amalgamated activity, not as separate departmental domains and sequential steps. In thinking about the audiences they serve, museums should continue to focus first and foremost on their local constituencies. At the same time, the internet doesn’t really care about geography and the online museum can expand its purview and instantly deliver programming to audiences just about anywhere.
With buildings closed, the communications department must now create an external wayfinding system that seeks out visitors, stands at their door, and encourages them to welcome the museum into their home—all at once. Social media and podcasts, which are naturally more nimble, has been better able to respond to the rapidly shifting terrain and has an even greater role to play by providing a back door into the virtual museum.
In producing new content that effectively performs in this transposed universe, we can draw lessons from other content producers. First, audiences like regularly scheduled programming. So museums can build audiences by inducing the habit of tuning in versus putting it out there all at once. As with any series, consistent framing enables each new episode to stand on its own and create a kind of “last week on…” lead-in will motivate visitors to see what they missed.
New programming should take advantage of the capabilities and characteristics of the virtual world, while being sensitive to its limitations. While museums are known for their exacting production values, the online environment provides an immediacy and intimacy that makes new digitally native programming all the more powerful and compelling, not to overlook the challenges that WFH imposes upon production. In creating new digital content, institutions would do well to pay close attention to the behavior of URL audiences rather than IRL ones, as their patterns vary greatly, not just by generation but by many other socio-economic factors.
The museum’s archived resources would also benefit from being made available as “on demand” programming, shifting perception from dusty record-keeping to a consumer-driven entertainment resource. The existing inventory of on-demand programs can be creatively packaged into readily consumable offerings that appeal to the users, instead of reflecting internal organizational structures. New programming can also provide visitors with a corridor that leads them directly to related on-demand offerings.
This is also a moment for institutions to reinvent their relationships with the media. While museums have long entertained traditional media partnerships and sponsored content, there have never been greater opportunities for mutually beneficial co-production, co-branding, and co-distribution collaborations.
Museums are still dealing with the enormous trauma caused by the unprecedented layoffs and loss of income, and no one can predict how long this new programming, operational, business, and revenue model will need to be in place. Still, the mission of the museum has not changed and the kinds of experiences that museums provide have never been more important. Although funds are precious, museums must find ways to leverage the online environment to serve their audiences in meaningful ways, and in ways that benefit them on an ongoing basis once we return to a new and, undoubtedly, more complex normal.
The overarching strategy is to stage museums’ programming to live within the realities of the digital world and not as a digital rendering of the real one. This includes:
1. Mapping out the visitor patterns of URL audiences vs IRL ones, paying special attention to behaviors shaped by socio-economic and generational differences.
2. Focusing on your local constituencies, but also taking advantage of your anytime, anywhere global reach.
3. Being attentive to online attention spans and providing guided experiences to your visitors and, taking a cue from online games, even “rewards” for those aimed at younger audiences.
4. Recognizing that marketing is now your wayfinding system that delivers your programming to visitors in their homes in a single, amalgamated package.
5. Providing regularly scheduled programs so visitors know when to tune in and framing each episode so it can stand on its while also connecting to previous and future installments.
6. Capitalize on the opportunities the online environment provides, such as immediacy and intimacy—and linked content—and avoid trying to recreate the real world, especially during WFH.
7. Repositioning your archival holdings into on-demand programming that is packaged in ways that appeal to your audience interests.
8. Forming partnerships with media outlets—local, regional, arts-oriented, and/or general interest—which are looking for meaningful content for engaging their audiences and drawing new ones.
9. Developing strategies for monetizing your online offerings that extend beyond traditional online appeals.
10. Producing programming models and practices that will continue to advance your mission and engage your audiences in expanded ways even after you have reopened your doors.