Why is it that, when it comes to actively using a blog, most museums seem to have concluded that “The juice just isn’t worth the squeeze?” With a few notable and rare exceptions, most museums either lack a blog altogether, relegate it to an old fashioned news and press release repository, or, if they have one, post to it infrequently and arbitrarily.
This is a real shame since museums face an embarrassment of riches for potential rich content ideas. Your collections are full of beautiful objects and illuminating histories with so many stories to tell!
This problem needs to be solved, and your blog is by far the smoothest and easiest solution. Your blog can bring collection stories to the audiences for whom you are diligently preserving and promoting all those treasures.
Sadly, it’s often for lack of just a bit of planning, a bit of organizing, and a strategic focus that the amazing potential of a museum’s blog is lost to the world. Before I share some strategic concepts that can help bring your museum’s blog to life, let’s talk a bit more about that “juice” that seems so difficult to squeeze from blogging efforts.
The Long Tail of Museum Content
Could it be that museums deaccession their blogs because they feel that posts have such brief life spans, get little attention, and quietly move into the archives–several layers deep into the paginated past? It’s true that most blog posts will fail to gain as much traction as new exhibition pages, or news about major upcoming events. However, what is overlooked from that point of view are the unseen, long-term benefits of an ongoing blog content strategy.
You see, websites benefit from the “Long Tail” effect of digital content. What’s the Long Tail effect? The name comes from Chris Anderson’s 2004 article, and later book, called “The Long Tail” that described the disruptive effects of digitally delivered content. New digital companies (back then) like iTunes and Netflix disrupted brick and mortar stores whose limited shelf space restricted them to stocking only best sellers. But for every in-stock top ten hit there existed hundreds, even thousands, of other less-popular choices–completely unavailable at the brick and mortar stores. But in the digital world “stocking” one million songs takes up no more physical space than just a few. And so iTunes and Netflix, with their limitless digital shelf space, were able to list millions of titles, whereas Coconuts Music or Walden’s Books could only stock hundreds.
What these new digital retailers discovered was that while the “hits” predictably sold just as well on their platforms as in the stores, there was a big surprise in how the newly accessible, rare, and niche titles sold. As you might think, they only sold just a few. However, when they tallied up the combined sales of all those plenteous niche titles, that total dwarfed the total sales from the hits.
The Long Tail effect can also be observed in how search engine traffic works. If you look at the search terms that lead people to your museum’s website, predictably you’ll see terms like [your museum’s name], and “hours for [your museum’s name],” and “tickets at [your museum’s name].” But keep scrolling through that list. Once you get past these predictable search terms you’ll start to see unusual and longer search queries. And while these unexpected search terms are often individually unique, there are so many of these unanticipated search terms, that when you add them up, they may contribute more overall traffic to your website than those predictable searches at the top of the list. Graphing these sets of search terms results in a chart with a tall but narrow head of traffic (the popular terms) with a very long tail of visits from all manner of unique search terms–thus “The Long Tail.”
There’s a lot more to say about the Long Tail effect, in fact we’ll be running a workshop on this topic at this year’s Museums and the Web in Vancouver. But suffice it to say, there’s a lot of juice to squeeze out of this Long Tail.
Compounding Benefits of Museum Blogs
Rather than thinking about blog posts as ephemeral, low-impact afterthoughts, consider each post as a digital deposit into a growing online collection that will bit-by-bit contribute to a mounting source of traffic to your site. (For more on how you can then convert some of that traffic into meaningful engagement, come to our seminar at Museums & the Web!) But in addition to increasing search engine traffic, there are other benefits that can come from an active blog.
Social Media. When you combine your posts with the sharing platforms on social media you can elevate their impact. It’s extremely easy to link posts to Facebook, Twitter, et al. Again, these won’t likely go viral, but each share gives a little boost to engagement.
Related Content. When you curate blog content according to a focused strategy, you can extend the use of posts by augmenting other keystone content. Implementing “related content” through a Content Management System like WordPress, you can augment your exhibition pages, as well as collection detail pages with curated blog posts. Connecting your content this way enriches all of the information and stories on your site.
Exploration. When Chris Anderson first wrote about the Long Tail, he observed that the more people explore connections between popular content to less-well-known related content, the more deeply they get drawn into the riches and hidden gems of digital collections. And your archives are full of many lesser known, yet equally fascinating objects.
Personalizing Your Brand. Your blog is a direct and authentic way to personalize your museum and engage your community. Unfortunately, when the primary experience people usually have with your museum comes from their onsite visits, the feeling they usually get is one of distance. They enter a stunning facility, they get close (but not too close) to priceless artifacts and masterpieces. Security guards make sure everything stays under control. Wires, barriers, and display cases keep objects at a safe distance. Museum experiences are awe inspiring, but they don’t usually give us the warm and fuzzies. There are plenty of nice people working behind the scenes, but overall the museum vibe is not very personal. Your blog can help personalize your institution and connect visitors more closely both with the collection, and the people behind the scenes. What a tremendous opportunity to begin to overcome that formal presence with personal engagement.
Barriers to Building a Blog Strategy
We’ve been talking about how to get more juice out of your blog. But you still need to do some squeezing. And that does require work. A focused content strategy can help to minimize that effort, and get the most out of whatever time you may be able to devote to blog content.
Consider the contrast between writing content with and without a strategy. If I were to give you a generic assignment to go away for ten minutes and write a blog post about anything, you may find it difficult to come up with something in particular to write about. We all can get paralyzed by blank canvas syndrome. But when you craft a strategy and establish meaningful content categories, you’ll find that ideas start to present themselves, and sometimes at such velocity that the harder part of the process is picking and choosing. At a recent content strategy session with a new museum client, we walked through this exercise. At the start there was some skepticism about the importance and priority of sustaining a blog strategy, but after brainstorming content categories, and attaching them to specific upcoming exhibitions and events, the ideas were hard to stop. The conversation shifted from the burden of creating content, to the recommended limit for how frequency they might produce content!
One key element of such a strategy, which I wrote about a couple months ago when focusing on content projects (in contrast to lighter-weight blog posts in this article), is connecting content plans to upcoming exhibitions that focus on your permanent collection. When you work through that process, it’s easy to extend that planning to a corresponding blog post editorial calendar.
Another way to reduce the squeeze needed to develop blog content is by creating featured channels such as “Curator’s Corner,” “Collection Highlights,” or “Artist Profiles.” Focused channels like this make it much easier for staff to cultivate a regular cadence for publishing. And featured content like this is much more engaging than vanilla news posts or press releases. A great example of this is “The Iris”, a branded featured blog column about behind-the-scenes activity at the Getty (I particularly enjoyed the Obelisks on the Move post). The Getty is a large museum with a lot of resources, but content like this can be generated by smaller museums, if you only establish a focus, and have a plan.
Should You Brand Your Blog?
“Bläɡ.” What a dull sounding word. Sounds too much like of “blah.” That why some museums like the Getty have give their blogs brands like “The Iris.” I think it’s generally a good idea to brand your museum’s blog rather than just calling it “blog.” On the other hand, like it or not, “blog” is the clearest, most immediately recognizable label, so it’s usually best to stick with “blog” for the main navigation titles. However, once people arrive at that section, you can create a more appealing branded name for your blog and its featured categories.
A Few Great Museum Blogs for Inspiration
Here are a few other museum blogs to take a look at that are doing a good job with blog content.
Through its simple blog strategy, Cooper Hewitt has created a way to consistently tell its stories. By narrowing its focus to just two categories, “Object of the Day” and “Meet the Hewitts,” blog authors are never left to wonder, “What should I write today?” From an audience perspective, these blog categories create meaningful connections to obscure works of art, as well as the Hewitt sisters and their family.
Every museum is filled with too many stories to tell between its walls alone. That’s where Peabody Essex Museum’s blog, “Connected,” comes in. Its authors, who work in all parts of the museum, use “Connected” to tell the stories that most visitors won’t find during regular hours. Recent posts recontextualize familiar works, explore themes of an upcoming exhibition, and connects the museum’s new wing to Salem’s architectural history.
One tried-and-true technique for always knowing what to write in your blog is to develop content themes that represent your museum’s brand pillars. If you’re having trouble narrowing down your museum’s themes to just a few, take a look at the Met’s approach to blogging. At any given time, you will find four distinct blogs with their own specific focuses. If you click through to the blog archive, you will see that these topic-specific blogs rotate in and out, much like offline exhibitions. As with the Cooper Hewitt’s two-theme approach, deciding “Why” your blog exists will help you figure out “What” to write in it.
All things considered, any particular blog post is not going to make or break a museum website’s effectiveness. But the long-term contributions of a thoughtful and strategic blog can become a powerful asset to the museum. And perhaps more importantly, the good content habits that can be practiced by maintaining a blog will serve the entire institution in powerful and growing ways. It’s time to dust off that blog, and re-engage with an intentional strategy and mission driven purpose.