Wednesday, August 22, 2007

City Museum Video Contest: Cool Idea. What Happened?

A couple months ago, I read with great excitement about the St. Louis City Museum's amateur video contest. Unfortunately, you can't read the press release I saw; it isn't on their website anymore. And therein lies an essential problem with this and other similar museum forays into Web 2.0: follow-through.

It sounded like a great project from an innovative, creative place. For those who haven't visited, the City Museum is part obstacle course, part art city, part shoelace factory. They have a two-headed snake and a bar , Beatnik Bob's, where you can drink a beer in the museum. They have some strange quirks (no wayfinding signage, for example), but lots of energy around letting their visitors define who they are.

And they've been making some movement into Web 2.0. They have a MySpace page, complete with music from the Talking Heads, and a blog (though it's not RSS-friendly). And in June, they launched a creative user-generated content contest. They invited videographers under 18 to create a 70.1 second video shot entirely within the City Museum. The videos would be submitted into a contest, and the winning submission would be posted on their MySpace page and featured in a film festival. They wrote about it (and teased it... scroll down to the June/July entries). Other St. Louis film blogs and websites picked up the story. I was waiting for this week to write about it, as they had broadcast that entries would be voted on, and the winning entries would be shown this Friday, Aug 24. And then... nothing.

Now, if you go on their MySpace page, you can see the winning video. As of today, its had 18 views (and I'm three of them). It was added a week ago, but there was no announcement on the museum's website, blog, etc. There's no mention in this week's calendar of events at the museum. And frankly, though I don't want to slam the kids who made it, the video is not quite woo-worthy. In the original announcement, the museum had solicited works of fiction, non-fiction, comedy, drama, etc., but the winner's is a very simple documentary of a toy exploring the museum. It's a promotional video as shot by visitor/fans. And while that's okay, it's not exactly about to go viral and establish the City Museum as a place for hip, edgy, irreverent, user-generated fun.

What happened? Why wasn't this a huge success like the Oreo Jingle contest? People love the City Museum for being weird and funky. Why didn't their ardor translate into a big win?

Lurking and Creating are two different animals. Seb Chan of the Powerhouse Museum has written convincingly about the overwhelming dominance of "lurkers" in the Web 2.0 space--people who read blogs, look at YouTube, but don't actually create anything themselves. Consider yourselves. About 1000 people will read this post this week, but maybe one of you will comment... if I'm lucky. The amount of output one can reasonably expect from a group of interested visitors is fairly low. I spoke with some museum folks recently who are tentatively launching a blog as a user-gen part of a new exhibit. They're concerned about inappropriate talk--I'm concerned about whether they'll get any comments at all. And commenting on a blog is a relatively easy action to take. The City Museum contest required a lot of their participants--not just interest and will, but a video camera and some editing equipment. Which leads to...

To inspire participation, you have to provide the tools. How many visitors were psyched about the contest but didn't have the resources to compete? Lots of people bring cameras into museums, but few bring video cameras. And even the basic setup of the City Museum, which involves slides, pokey things, and aquariums, might not really motivate parents to hand over pricey equipment to their kids. What if instead the museum had rented out cameras, or had set up a video kiosk where you could record your video and submit it? Sure, it wouldn't enable creative roaming around the museum, but it would get more people involved with the contest generally. Which relates to...

Provide different ways to participate and spread the content. I was excited to vote on the submissions. Either I read the original announcement incorrectly, or the museum decided not to allow the masses to view the submissions or the finalists. I'm not in St. Louis. I can't be there this Friday for the screening which may or may not be happening. But this is on the web. Why can't I participate? This isn't just about including more visitors in the experience; it's also about tapping them as marketers. I'd like to see a video contest in which each submission (unless truly offensive) is posted on the website and is emailable to friends. That way, if I made a video, I can post it on my MySpace page, tell my friends to vote for me, and generally spread the word. And if I'm just a long-distance vicarious viewer, I can share the event with other remote people as well. Letting people self-promote in contests generates buzz and interest. Which brings me to...

Keep up the buzz, and provide great rewards.I think the biggest mistake the City Museum made was not continuing to promote the contest once the submission deadline had passed. They did a great job encouraging people to submit, but didn't follow through with ways for people to get excited about the final decision and the big winner. Winning a spot on the City Museum MySpace page is cool, but it would be a lot more cool if either a. the museum promoted the MySpace page or b. the video was also shown in places that matter to the contestants, most significantly the museum. Is the winner being shown right now on a screen in the museum lobby? I don't know. I sure hope so.

9 comments, add yours!:

Seb Chan said...

Hi Nina

I'm always interested when I speak to some friends whose work involves online marketing campaigns for major corporations. One recent campaign in the UK that went out on more than 100,000 confectionary packets generated only about 1,000 responses . . . and this was for a competition with a very sizeable prize (and sub-prizes). It also had a very low barrier to entry - simple registration that could be done by mobile phone even.

When you hear these figures on campaigns tha have a budget akin to that of a small to medium museum (!!), then the reality of 'audience engagement' is revealed.

The solution isn't just - give me incentives - it is provide scaffolding, and constant encouragement. It also helps if the barriers to participation are very low too.

The real danger for museums with Web2.0 etc is that technology is seen as a panacea to solve audience engagement problems. It is far from such a solution . . . indeed, as you've seen in the St Louis example, the solution can itself become a problem - a very visible problem . . .


N said...

Hi Nina,

...Did you ask the St. Louis City Museum people what happened?

Also: is there anything to say here about the formal nature of competition? If I were to enter a contest to create a video, I'd try to win. I'd pull out all the stops, spend some money, rent good equipment, and start months in advance. Given that I'm your typical lazy, overextended, unfit, exhausted, weekend-warring clockpuncher, do you see any of the above happening by the contest deadline?

But if I were throwing something up on YouTube that I just thought was cool, maybe I'd do it in my spare time, and relax on the quality throttle a bit. Maybe it's the difference between this guy and this guy. (Don't know if the latter was for a competition or commercial purposes, but I love me that "Balancing Point.")

Yours in commentary,

Nina Simon said...


Still waiting on the call back from them... and I wanted to post this in case someone wants to go to the (possibly not happening) film screening on Friday.

Sure, it has some to do with competition, but the examples you give speak more, I think, to Seb's point. You don't enter the contest--but do you make vids in your spare time? I doubt it. The guy who makes a video wants to do it. He isn't solicited to do it by anyone. He may be 1 out of 100 or more likely 1 out of 1000. I don't think the contest fundamentally changes things, especially if a low, open bar is set. It just makes you realize how few people spend their free time creating. Most of us are very well-nurtured consumers. This may be changing now, as 2.0 and virtual worlds and other services support creating content, but culturally it's going to take some time before most people are making films in their spare time.

That said, perhaps this would have been a much more successful contest if they had asked for photos, which more people produce, than videos. But not as cool. Sigh. Tradeoffs.

Schuyler said...

So, here is the relevant data I was able to find:

The posts on their blog about it:

CM Film Contest

It’s official. The first-ever City Museum Film Contest has been announced. If you will still be 18 years old or younger by July 24, have access to a camera, and love City Museum, this is for you. We’ll be voting for the winning films American Idol-style, so all of America—or at least anyone who looks at the CM website—will see your handiwork. Sounds pretty cool, huh?

If you’re interested, be sure to log on to There’s a link to the application form on the page, so print it out and bring it in while you’re filming. The rest of the rules and regulations are on the site. Start brainstorming—you only have about a month and a half!

I Turn My Camera On

Listen up. I’m seriously jealous of the under-18 crowd. Sure, I might have a bit more experience under my belt. I can stay out past curfew. But, I can’t enter the City Museum Film Contest. And that’s a huge bummer.

I’m not artistic. I can’t paint. I might be able to sculpt a sad little ashtray. But that’s about it. Suprisingly, I feel ok around technology. I think I might be able to put a 70.1 second film together. And if I can do it, so can you…or, if not you, at least one of your 18-or-under friends.

If you have any access to a camera, head to City Museum and start filming. Yeah, there’s a $12 entrance fee (meaning it’s free with CM admission) but this is one of the only chances—ever—to film in the world’s coolest museum. You won’t want to miss it. Need more bait? If you win, your film will be the OFFICIAL CITY MUSEUM FILM. Cool, huh?

Want more deets? Check out

Film Contest: Abridged

So, you want to enter City Museum’s film festival. I know you do. But, you don’t know how to enter. Well, since I majored in English Literature in college, I know all about abridged versions—Sparknotes, anyone? So, here are your entrance directions in a nutshell:

1. Be 18 years of age or under.
2. Go to .
3. Print out the official entry form and have your ‘rents sign it.
4. Bring said form to City Museum.
5. Pay $12 Film Contest Entry Fee. Get Film Pass. Laugh at the people paying $12 City Museum admission fee, ‘cause you don’t have to. (Get it? It doesn’t cost anything more to enter the Film Contest than it does to enter the museum.)
6. Make an awesome film.
7. Submit awesome film.
8. Win contest.

Not too hard, right? Now, get started—the deadline is quickly approaching!
The original page on the website about it:

and you can still download the original entry form:


...sorry for all the copy pasta up above there, but I thought you might want any of that at quick reference.

Honestly? I agree with your assessment, and considering the big prize for winning was that this would be the "official" video of the museum, I can understand they'd want to bury it a bit.

So, I've recently started a magazine and while I try to get community articles on various topics, I always make sure I've got a couple of ringers ready to bang something out for me so I don't end up short on content when it's time to release.

alright, with that in mind:

Should the museum have made sure it had a couple of interested, talented teams of people (perhaps specifically invite students from an area magnet school that is known for creative arts) participating so that it wouldn't end up embarrassed with the end result? Or is that going against the concept of the contest to begin with, or opens the door for a PR problem if people spin that the way I'm implying.

I wonder how else they advertised the contest. I see a large number of the posts on their blog are aimed at trying to get people to apply for jobs. It doesn't seem like their making good use of the medium.

Also, as you mentioned it was RSS capable, I took a quick look at the source, and though they've made a clean-looking website, it's still tied up in tables, image maps and tag soup. I can't help but think they'd benefit from having someone on staff that is actually able to create at today's CSS-based, table-less standards before trying to tackle the more involved, and often amorphous areas of Web 2.0

Just looks like they jumped in unprepared all around, and put a prize on it that they couldn't just unload on someone, but that they would also have to live with.

Schuyler said...

"wasn't" not "was"


"they're" not "their"

my mother would have my hide...

Nina Simon said...


Great points. Maybe if they spun the contest off of a public program, where you could learn to make your own vids with staff support, and or promoted it/provided resources in Art City (their make-your-own-art center) it could have been more successful.

I think they probably wanted to "harness visitor creation" in a free-form way... and learned how challenging that can be.

On the other hand, I give them props for just TRYING it. I don't want people to think that engaging in 2.0 is so hard and requires such a comprehensive plan that it paralyzes them into inaction. Using third party applications like blog programs or flickr is a great start. And sometimes, hosting a contest like this that's a bust is ok--as long as they (and we) learn from the mistakes and commit to try again.

Schuyler said...

I'm picking up what you're putting down, there Nina.

It really looks like an incredible museum, I watched a video shot by some college-age guys that was basically just them crawling around the tunnels and running around remarking at what a huge, interactive place it was.

I hope I get a chance to visit.

I hope they do it again, honestly. I think they should go ahead and congratulate and applaud the current video and host it again next year, with a little more planning.

Also, according to the original schedule, it looks like they weren't slated to announce the winners until...tomorrow! So maybe we will, in fact, see some fan fare for the winning vid. I've got my fingers crossed.

And I was being too harsh on them overthinking access to web 2.0, but in a practical way, I believe the bar to entry isn't level with the bar of quality.

I'm glad they're exploring it, and I'm sure there will be a sharp learning curve, but there are people out there who have a very good clue and love to do this stuff in their spare time. Honestly, despite working in a very related industry, I hadn't given much thought to where the museum industry might be heading. I'd imagine that many of the folks who seem to spend half their time reviewing my code and educating me, would love to get connected with a museum like this to do some volunteer work.

And, again, I think it's cool that they are trying, and I hope I didn't sound too much like I'm panning that very inspired museum. Only a couple of weeks ago my friends and I were groaning over an Web2.0-styled mini-site. A lot of people are tripping up on the specifics.

Seth! said...

It was helpful to read these comments. I felt a big let down when I read the "under 18" part--even though the contest is over and I could not have possibly entered from across the continent. But the age restriction seriously limits the number of possible participants. Why do that? I can understand having a youth category and an adult category but eliminating adults chops out a big chunk of the video camera carrying population.

There is a radio station in Seattle that had a contest to make a commercial for a DJ. They got a bazillion entries. Some were awesome and most were made by adults. (I'm not even sure if kids could enter.)

- Seth!

peat said...

Wish I would known...

Here's video I recently made at athe City Museum....