Episode 5: Tricia Robson and Emily Jennings of FAMSF

Tricia Robson is the Director of Digital Strategy and Emily Jennings is the Associate Director of Education, School, and Family Programs at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. In this episode of What’s On, we’re talking about the FAMSF’s Digital Stories platform.

Tricia Robson – Director of Digital Strategy
Emily Jennings – Associate Director of Education, School, and Family Programs

If you work in the museum industry, there’s a good chance you’ve seen one of their digital stories. Maybe it was de Young’s Teotihuacan story or the Legion of Honor’s Degas story. These long-form narrative pieces, supplemented with rich media elements, tell the stories of these exhibitions in immersive and captivating ways. And like many people who have interacted with these stories, you may have wondered, how could my institution do something like this?

I spoke with two of the people behind the digital stories to learn more about the collaboration, planning, and production that goes into making this platform a success. We start by discussing the backstory of the project, and how it sprang from a surprising inspiration: sports fandom.


NICK: Hi, and welcome to What’s On: The Cuberis Podcast. I’m Nick Faber. My guests today are Tricia Robson and Emily Jennings of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco: FAMSF. And we’re going to be talking about their Digital Stories platform.

But first, I’d like to tell you a story of my own.

When I was a kid, I was really into sports. And like anyone with a passion, I wanted to soak up as much information about the teams and players as I could — stats, bios, logos, and uniforms. I collected the trading cards and figurines, I played video games, wore t-shirts, and I watched whatever games were aired in my local market.

But the funny thing is, even though I grew up near Washington, DC, my favorite baseball and football teams were both in Minnesota. I loved the Twins because, even though I had never seen him swing a bat, I thought Kirby Puckett was cool. I got into the Vikings because I liked their uniforms. And because I had the cards and the games, I could learn the names of everyone on their roster, their strengths and weaknesses, their backstories.

So when the Vikings came to Washington during the 1989 preseason, I wanted desperately to go, and my dad took me. Even though it was an exhibition game, just being at the same stadium with this team that I adored, made it an unforgettable experience. And because I already knew who all the players were, their skills and specialties, I didn’t have to be distracted by leafing through the program or squinting to read the players’ names on their jerseys. I could just be present, and root, root, root for the visiting team.

As you’ll hear in my conversation today, a cross-departmental team at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco have set out to create a similar experience for visitors to their exhibitions.

If you work in the museum industry, there’s a good chance you’ve seen one of their digital stories. Maybe it was de Young’s Teotihuacan story or the Legion of Honor’s Degas story. These long-form narrative pieces, supplemented with rich media elements, tell the stories of these exhibitions in immersive and captivating ways. And like many people who have interacted with these stories, you may have wondered, how could my institution do something like this?

I spoke with two of the people behind the digital stories to learn more about the collaboration, planning, and production that goes into making this platform a success.

Tricia Robson is the Director of Digital Strategy and Emily Jennings is the Associate Director of Education, School, and Family Programs. They joined me over Skype.

I wanted to know the backstory of the FAMSF’s digital stories, so that’s where we’ll start the conversation. You’ll hear from Emily first.

EMILY: The idea for Digital Stories came from a really clear articulation from our Director and CEO, Max Hollein, and one of his pillars, which is to extend the museum beyond its walls, both in terms of the way we represent ourselves for conservation, preservation of our objects, but more importantly about education.

So at his prior institution, he had very great success at engaging a large population into the core content of their exhibitions and collections. And in one of his first presentations to us, he’s like, “Think about the sports world. Sports enthusiasts can recount all sort of facts and stats about their favorite players. We want to cultivate that same level of enthusiasm with art lovers as well. How do we need to do that?”

So in answer to that call to be able to give our audiences actual information, really drove the content strategy behind digital stories, as well as the user interface to make sure that it was constantly an engaging process for our users.

And our first one that we ever did was in February 2016 for our Monet: The Early Years exhibition, and I believe we started working on the platform, like the actual development of it, in November. So you can see how quick of a turnaround that was developing that.

NICK: And Emily sort of answered this already, but how would you say your Digital Stories fit into your global content strategy? Because obviously there are different types of content on your website. So are these part of a whole content strategy or do you look at the Digital Stories kind of like their own thing?

EMILY: I would say that Digital Stories is defining the future of our content strategy. We’re really looking at how to populate across our website really rich content in multiple areas. And so, as we’re working with Digital Stories and honing the length and tone of it, we’re providing our audience with what we feel are the most actionable elements of the exhibition and solidifying that with really juicy content.

But through that process, obviously, there’s a lot of information that we also have to cut out to keep it bite-sized, if you will. Or at least a half an hour sized read. So that’s really surfacing a lot of exciting opportunities for us to think about how those other stories that we’re leaving sort of on the cutting room floor can serve as additional juicy content. And so that’s kind of our next evolution, is how this really becomes a content hub of how we channel things across our different outlets through the website.

TRICIA: And just to kind of add on to that point, because Emily makes a great point of this being sort of a start or a major impetus for us refactoring how we’re thinking about content at the museums. On the physical side, you know, we’re always pushing the museums to consider not just digital strategy a separate spoke itself, but really part of the larger strategy for the museum. We can’t really talk about digital-first until that sort of thinking is truly integrated into our larger content routine.

NICK: So I’m curious as to how you decide which exhibitions will get a digital story, and what content you’re going to use for these big undertakings. And how do you decide between using things from your permanent collection and your temporary exhibitions?

EMILY: So the scope of the project originally was to be a value-add for our temporary exhibitions. And within the last eight months or so, we’ve begun planning for how we can pivot that to serve our permanent collection as well.

And in terms of how we choose and what we’re doing, it’s the curators that give us the best gifts. It’s really based on what we anticipate to be the visitation for those exhibitions. So we look at the projection and think about what has the greatest audience potential. We have pretty aggressive user percentages that we’re going after. These platforms offer us a way to increase our institutional profile for both our members and our non-members. So they get to know what are the opportunities here at the museum.

TRICIA: And I would add the boring logistical point that of course we’re looking at the projection for our special exhibitions and incorporating collections, but the decision is also largely based on production. How much can our teams actually get done in a given period of time?

NICK: So I wanted to ask you a little bit about the collaboration that it takes to put these stories together. Emily, you’re an educator, right? And Tricia, you’re the head of web. So working in two different departments to put a project together like this, plus you mentioned curatorial input — they’re the ones that give you the gifts of which stories to tell. How do you manage getting all this buy-in and participation from different departments?

EMILY: That’s a great question. It’s been an evolution, really. And I think Tricia and I are really proud of the way that we work together, and it’s really sustaining I have to say. But when this project was originally launched, it was set within Education as the champion for the project. But it quickly became evident that we couldn’t do it without the support of Web, even though Web was there advising along the build. But as we’ve done the reiterations of each platform, it’s really become a place where we’ve been able to think about how much time do we have, what are the appropriate workflows, how do we respectfully ask for input? And for me, it’s been a huge learning opportunity about how you create content for your intended media if you will.

So the reason I was put on this project is my area of expertise is actually in school, and teacher, and family programs, so I’m really attuned at distilling information for usually the written or guided experience. And for me, it was really about learning what plays well on the web. And I just appreciate it so much that Tricia’s team was able to bring a sense of nuance into understanding what actually plays well.

So it was the ability of us to be able to step back and realize that even though we had these hopes and aspirations, to really execute that it meant that we had to set our goals first, and not have a solution. And Tricia’s team is so great at listening to those goals and coming with multiple solutions for us to then collectively decide on.

So it is definitely a project that is co-held by Web and Education. We have had great strides in incorporating marketing in this process as well, and I would say that that was our really big learning curve. But in the beginning, our marketing department was always so empathetic. Because they have literally 50 things a week that they’re supposed to be promoting. Like programs across two buildings, and with our robust temporary exhibitions, and our special projects, and all sort of institutional priorities. But these are becoming more and more a foundation of go-to content area for the institution, and therefore everyone’s more invested in us meeting our goals so that the platforms are continued.

TRICIA: And just to add on there, I echo Emily’s enthusiasm and appreciation for how well our teams work together and how we’ve built this trust and system over time. But just reiterating that it requires a lot of resources and a lot of buy-in from the institution. So not only do we have the support from our Director and CEO, but we also built a system. And it took us many months to hone. And we’re constantly refactoring it, but we’ve got clearly defined roles across departments. Education in fact hired a digital manager to lead the project. We had countless meetings going over workflows and exactly at what point each team would step in. So we’re in such a great place, and we’ve always enjoyed working together, but it’s gotten more and more smooth over time as we’ve committed to a group to working that out together.

NICK: So could you talk a little bit more, on a practical level, on what goes into producing these stories? Starting with choosing which one you’re going to make the content for, and what do you need to do to get ready to put something online?

EMILY: These wouldn’t happen without three essential people. One of which is our project manager in Education, Emily Stoller-Patterson, and then on Tricia’s side we have Kelly Mincey, who really coordinates and manages the execution of the projects. And then Andrew Fox, who’s our webmaster. Getting all of us queued up and on the right timeline is just a huge undertaking.

So in terms of the timeline, we generally know what we’re going to be writing for usually a year out. So we’re making those decisions every fiscal year based on those projections. And then the process really starts intensely about six months out. So that’s when I start going through all of the information that Emily Stoller-Patterson has gathered for me. And then we have meetings with curators to start distilling what are the essential stories that we want to be telling about the exhibition. We’ll cross-reference possibly if there are things that have been left out of the catalog that are going to be particularly relevant to the current moment, and/or alternate interpretations that are going to be really meaningful to our audiences.

So we’re constantly looking at things from a social equity issue, a feminist perspective, and thinking about how could we round out those interpretations during that period. And then, I would say about four months out we get the text all locked down. We’ve done our storyboarding, we’ve done our SEO research, we’ve looked at our anticipated profiles so that we can really synchronize how the content is meeting those objectives. And then we start to hand over the content to the Web and Digital team to start loading it into the platform, which they do in about a two-month period where we’re going back and forth about userability.

In terms of the sustainability of the project, that’s definitely something we’re trying to hone in on so we’re not spending so much time in the back and forth on the design. Because it really is a tax on Tricia’s team to have to be making changes in the build when we’ve given them all the content.

TRICIA: And I should say to add on to that, that goes through our standard content development and production framework. This is really possible because we’re using a CMS. We’re using a system that’s pretty turn-key and our team is equipped to manage content in that way. And it alleviates our developer from having to make too many in-the-weeds updates. But, like Emily said, there have been design needs and tweaks from feature to feature, and that’s something we’re really trying to streamline and, in many ways, eliminate moving forward.

So for the first set of these features, having a functional backend system and internal working system was a primary importance just to get the ball rolling. And to ensure that we were able to keep it rolling, we’re also, on our side, working with Education and an outside agency to streamline the design of these features. We’re in the process of reskinning them so that moving forward, some of the production timeline is cut down a bit.

NICK: The last thing I wanted to ask about is, if there’s someone who’s listening that works at another museum and is trying to emulate what you guys have done but might not have the same budget or resources that you have, is there anything that you’ve learned over the course of making these digital stories that you could impart to somebody who is aspiring to do their own digital story-type content?

EMILY: Yeah, we’ve already had people reach out to us and inquire about what we’re doing. And we’ve been pretty straightforward about making sure that you have support across divisions, seeing as that was one of the really big first big lessons that we had. And it was definitely helpful that support was coming directly from the executive office for this project. But that’s not the reason it’s persisted. It’s persisted because Education, Digital and Web, and Marketing are supporting it. So that’s the first thing.

I would think about who you already have on staff whose writing in a way that can be accessible. I was really fortunate in that I was able to get support for the type of writing I was already doing for students and teachers, and it’s been really galvanizing for those audiences as well to have the content that they need, provided in such a robust and well-designed platform. So thinking about where you already have resources that you can just leverage to greater visibility for your institution, are the two main things that come to my mind. But I know that Tricia has a lot of logistical recommendations, too.

TRICIA: I absolutely agree with that, and we’ve learned so much through the process and are constantly learning and tweaking what we’re doing.

I think first and foremost, set a clear project team. Have role definitions. And invest in that unit. So together, though we have had a budget to work on the development for this, and now the design, though limited as is the case for many non-profit organizations. There are many ways to support or champion the resource of this project and team that don’t require a budget. So we have really invested in creating systems, style guides, resources, standard timelines, to make sure that the system works well and really talk through all of the nuances of that to make sure we’re on the same page.

We’ve also invested in making sure that we’re training ourselves to think in terms of SEO and other digital best practices. So a lot of that resource or stewardship can happen internally. It doesn’t always require a budget.

But I think first and foremost, having a set project team and committing to that team is my primary piece of advice.

EMILY: Listening to Tricia also reminded me, we have been really intentional, which is not necessarily always the case for a fast-paced, museum of reflecting on what’s working and what’s not working. And I think every time we launch a Digital Story, we have a review with our director and during that process, we talk about the marketing plan, and recently we began to talk about what’s working from the marketing that we have been doing.

And we also talk after each build, internally, about what went well with that build. So just to build off Tricia’s articulation of the value that comes from — you don’t have to pay, necessarily for that, but making sure that your teams are able to work more closely if they’re having more transparent communication. It means you’re just going to be that much more of a team moving forward into the next build.

I think that that’s pretty much it. I guess the last thing that I would add is, we’re really aware of the reality of this, that this type of interface is going to have a lifespan of two to three years, and so as institutions begin to think about these types of entities, to be realistic about what that investment is. And if we’re not willing to continue to update it, we’re going to become pretty dated quickly. So that’s something to have as just another lessons learned. And think about how you budget and prepare for those updates.

TRICIA: But I would say, adding to that, if you have a really healthy working process and content development system, whether or not the platform itself is relevant in two to three years, the work we’re doing together could be pivoted differently. So really investing in that process and that content strategy will be key no matter how you move forward.

NICK: That was Tricia Robson and Emily Jennings from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. You can find the full listing of their museums’ digital stories at famsf.org/digital-stories. Or you can look for them on your favorite search engine.

I want to thank Tricia and Emily for talking with me, and I want to thank you for listening. If you want to hear more interviews like this one, head over to Cuberis.com and click “What’s On”, where you’ll also find our ebook, “The Art of Storytelling.”

If you have a story that you’d like to share with other museum professionals, I’d love to have you on as a future guest. You can reach me at nick@cuberis.com.

Until next time, I’m Nick Faber. What’s your story? And how will you tell it?