The dilemmas that museum directors face when making decisions of how best to invest their limited resources in digital strategy, remind me of the early days of web strategy. Back in the mid-nineties, when businesses were rapidly launching their first websites, they knew that they had to be on the web, but were never quite sure why. Of course the web has matured a lot since then. Today the basic benefits of web presence, internet marketing, search engine optimization, and basic eCommerce are more fully understood. On the other hand, the pace of digital change, and the availability of an ever expanding set of possibilities, continues to make digital strategy complex. And applying digital strategy, in the context of a museum website, is one of the more difficult puzzles to solve! Museums know they need to invest in digital strategy, but why exactly, and to what end? Lack of clarity in connecting purpose with strategy is evocative of the nineties.
Possibilities Meet Realities
I think that the disconnect between museums and their digital strategies is due, in part, to how exciting it is to work on a museum project. The possibilities for museum websites are amazingly expansive. Museum collections are extensive, and every piece is inherently interesting. The wealth of knowledge resident in museum institutions runs deep. Curating these collections (in real life) requires specialized skill and knowledge—and curating for the web opens up even more opportunities.
But museum websites are also among the most frustrating sites to build. That’s because their profound potential is always tethered to real-world limitations (of both time and money). And so the delta between the potential and the possibilities, of museum websites in particular, is wider than most. The gap between what can be imagined and what can realistically be developed, produces a tension of wistfulness. We’re always aware of what could be, and maybe someday will be, but alas, probably not today.
In addition to the gap between potential and limitation, there also exists a gap between possibilities and purpose. Thought experiment—let’s assume for a moment that every museum already had their entire collection digitized and accessible. And suppose anyone, anywhere in the world, could enjoy every work, in gigapixel depth, plumbing the depth of scholarly research on every piece. That would surely advance one of the core missions of a museum—to extend the reach of their collections. But such a depth of access to an online collection could put downward pressure on actual real life visits. Inherent tensions like this, between perfectly valid purposes, can have unintended consequences.
A Call For Disciplined Museum Digital Strategy
So there are significant tensions built into every museum’s web and digital strategy. This calls for a thoughtful, disciplined, and careful alignment of a museum’s big-picture core goals, with a realistic and beneficial digital strategy that supports them.
What are some of the ways that a museum can cover the basics of web strategy, and then realistically use digital strategy to advance their core mission? What opportunities exist for museum digital strategy to contribute to real-world, bottom-line benefits from these investments?
Once the basics are covered in a museum website: beautiful graphic design that honors the value of the collection, easily accessible visitor information, relevant examples from the permanent collection and recent exhibitions, event listings, educational resources, and staff backgrounds—what’s next?
It’s in this next step that I see so much lost potential for museum websites. The obvious impulses and inclinations, once the basics are covered, are to begin to dream big—about all those lofty possibilities. But the high cost of some of those next steps (compounded by the possibility that such steps might even undermine the core interests of the institution) tend to place a lot of drag on further digital initiatives.
Asking Different Questions
But what if we asked different questions and considered other opportunities? What if, instead of overly ambitious goals for stage two, what if first we exercised some fiscal discipline and pursued initiatives that would add to the bottom line of the museum?
As digital strategists, once we’ve covered the basics for a museum website, it’s time to start thinking about how the website can realize measurable returns on investment. In my opinion, if museum websites don’t go there next, the likelihood of ever achieving some of the ideal possibilities will always remain just out of reach. But if the site can become a source of revenue, or a contributor to real-world actions that support the museum’s financial resources, then we’d have a platform that might actually warrant deeper development.
And so advanced museum digital strategies should probably include aspects that would serve the museum’s development office. Museum digital strategies should include more intentional, yet appropriate efforts asking for contributions from site visitors, not just real-world attenders. Site visitors need to be reminded that museums require upwards of 60% of their support from outside sources, among which are valued individual contributions. Museums should be taking advantage of their rich content, marshalling those resources into a content strategy that can be expressed in automated email marketing campaigns that convert visitors to donors and members. There are a thousand ways, and hundreds of cool technologies, that have the potential to deepen online engagement—but museums should be connecting those flashy interactions with the goal of soliciting online visitor support and contributions as well.
Here’s One Free Tip
For example, here’s a simple digital strategy tip that most museums can easily implement and see an uptick in visits and spending at their museums. You could use something as simple as a Groupon to increase visits to your cafe. I know, I know. You’re a museum, not a restaurant. But have you ever read through your museum’s reviews on TripAdvisor? Do a quick research project and count how many times your reviews mention your cafe. I wish museum visitors remembered more about the art and history they experienced during their visit than their meal, but there it is. A cheap date night, using a discount at the cafe, will draw people into the museum where they not only encounter the collection and enjoy the space—you also get another email address to engage them with additional invitations, announcements, and fund raising. Low hanging fruit.
There are many ways museums can take a bottom-line approach to making their websites and digital strategies align with their core mission and goals. Cuberis exists not only to provide beautiful first-step museum websites, but also to guide our clients toward appropriate strategies that support their institutions. And with those strategies in place, we can begin to move forward to make all the wonderful possibilities we dream of come true.