How can you make your museum website more effective in driving traffic and raising awareness of your institution? Most people think this requires designing more sophisticated content (and it can). But there is a simpler, more impactful way for museum websites to become more visible, cited, and visited in the online landscape. We don’t need to design new content; we have to change the way we invite visitors to use the content we already have.
Physical museums have grown more inclusive in the last 20 years, but outreach is still a foreign word on our websites. Museums are creating “walled gardens,” and it hurts online visibility and impact. This post explores the phenomenon of online walled gardens and how to transform our fortresses into more flexible, usable, spreadable spaces.
What’s a walled garden?
An online walled garden is a website or service that controls the degree to which users can transfer content—both user- and authority-generated—to other websites. For example, most social networks are walled gardens. What I post on my Facebook page is only available to other people in the Facebook network. I can’t access MySpace or LinkedIn users via Facebook, or vice versa. This makes good sense from a privacy standpoint but it’s lousy for me if my goal is to build relationships. I need a profile on each separate platform, and I have to keep up with each to cumulatively manage my friendships.
Walled gardens don’t just create relationship frustrations. They also lock content into non-transferable settings. When I write posts on this blog or share photos on Flickr, they are searchable in Google. They add to my aggregate online existence. But anything I write on Facebook is only visible within that network. Those messages, photos, and comments are locked behind walls.
Why build a walled garden?
Walled gardens can be highly appealing to companies. Maintaining a walled garden allows you to control the visitor experience and keep competitors from encroaching on your territory. Since I can only access Facebook content within Facebook, I have to be there, looking at their ads, to participate. On the positive side, walled gardens keep things at a controlled level of quality, safety, cleanliness, and service. They provide visitor experiences that are sculpted, tested, and guaranteed.
Museums: Physical Walled Gardens, Virtual Open Spaces?
Most physical museums are walled gardens. There is one entrance. There are clear delineations of who is inside and who is outside, and the rules inside (no photos, for example) often keep what’s inside from getting outside. Many museums try to partially break down the walls with outreach in the form of traveling exhibitions and programs in the community. These outreach efforts are not seen as detrimental to the core brand; instead, they are seen as needed “windows” into the potential visitor experience onsite. But they are limited by resources and logistics. It isn’t feasible to send your collection or your program staff on world tour every day of the week.
It is feasible to do so on the Web. Museums have a unique opportunity, as physical AND virtual spaces, to be walled gardens in the real world and open spaces on the Web. We can have it all. We already wall our collections and exhibits onsite—why duplicate the negatives of that walled reality online? Why not use the online space to do some outreach (with its own set of positives and negatives)? And yet much of what we do on the Web is as walled as our physical operations. It’s redundant. It doesn’t make sense.
How to evaluate and improve your website
Going back to the original question, you can improve the effectiveness of your website by taking down walls and making your content usable by visitors in more ways. But how do you know if your museum website is a walled garden? The way to figure this out is to ask yourself: how portable is our Web content? Do we make it easy for Web visitors to take bits of it away with them to their own places, or do we require them to stay “inside our walls” to engage?
Here are five top problem spots for walled gardens on museum websites and how to open them:
1. Make your images accessible. You may have a beautiful way for visitors to navigate through images of your collection. But do you make it clear whether and how visitors might use those images in other contexts? This is both a question of technical and legal permission. Technically, you have to make sure that each image is available—ideally, on its own page, with clear options to email it to a friend, embed it on their own Web pages or social network profiles, tag it for later perusal, and download it. Legally, you have to be clear about what the rights status is on each image, so people know what’s legal and what isn’t. People are going to steal your images no matter what your license scenario is. If you tell them what your legal situation is, they are more likely to use the image in ways that you condone (and to link back to you when they do so!).
2. Avoid Flash for presenting content you want to spread. Flash is a presentation format that can be used for fabulous interactive games and experiences. The problem is that it is highly non-transportable. It’s difficult to pull an image out of a Flash montage and send it to your mother. Flash experiences also frequently require single starting points and can create nested walled gardens within the walls of your site. For example, the Holocaust Museum has a great Flash exhibition of Angelina Jolie’s trip to the Congo. It has all kinds of audio and imagery to explore with a star at the helm. But because it’s in Flash, it has one entrance, so there’s no way to wander partially into the exhibition, to dip in for just a pageview or to link to a specific part of it. The benefit of Angelina Jolie can't spread across the site or the Web easily. In some cases, if you are only targeting deep online users, this is fine. But you will not be able to attract casual web users to these often costly elements when there is no way to “browse” first.
3. Chunk your content so it can be used on other sites and services. Imagine your museum website as a “free store” for content and materials related to your institution. Give away stuff—links, exhibit descriptions, images, mini-applications (widgets), feeds. Make the stuff easy to take, easy to subscribe to, and if possible, thank people in some way when they use it in novel ways. More and more web designers are turning away from flashy programming and towards universal style sheets that make websites as interoperable as possible. Whenever you can, you should package your content so that visitors can use it in other places (walled gardens or not). The goal isn’t people telling their friends, “hey go check out this website.” The goal is for people to display a piece of your website on theirs. This is the brilliance of YouTube. You are more likely to see a YouTube video on a blog, MySpace page, a personal webpage, or in an email than you are to see it on their site. The exportability of YouTube videos makes their service ubiquitous and powerful.
4. Avoid registration at all costs. The Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) has a good online collection database search. It’s easy to find images from the collection and browse from image to image based on artists and works. They also provide an option, called myCollection, where you can save your favorite images to a personal site within their site. The words “site within a site” should raise a red flag—this is a double walled garden! To participate, you have to register with an email address and password, and then once you’re in, you can only share your myCollection with other users of the site. You can't even find the myCollections if you aren't logged in. In some ways, this is great—SAAM is encouraging visitors to share their interests and preferences. But by restricting it to being a SAAM-only activity and by requiring registration, they miss the opportunity to see people spread their interest in the SAAM collection to other communities in which they are already engaged.
Why should I need to register with SAAM to save and share the images I like most? That should be an option, not a requirement, for participation. I predict that SAAM would get 100 times as much sharing of customized collections if it were easy to put those on users’ existing pages they’ve worked hard to create in public communities rather than requiring yet another new site they have to spend time on and have a password for and bug their friends with invitations on and…
5. When you invite users to contribute content, invite them to do so in the places that are most valuable to them. We often talk about making participation as easy as possible, but this point is more about making it as useful to contributors as possible. You should reward people who provide content on your site with as much value and flexibility as possible. Far more users will upload photos, text, or videos to your site if you do them the favor of placing their content in a place of value to them—whether that be large public communities like Flickr or YouTube, or in highly visible or exportable places on your own site.
The more exportable a user’s contribution is, the more likely she is to devote the time to participate. I have a constant personal quandary about the social network ExhibitFiles. Let’s say I see a great exhibit. Should I write a review on ExhibitFiles or a blog post on Museum 2.0? Or should I put up the photos from my visit on Flickr? Or should I twitter about it? All of these? My participation in ExhibitFiles is diminished because I am also already creating content in other places on the Web, and my choice about where to publish is primarily motivated by the value I’ll get back from the experience. In the ideal world, it would be easy for me to do many of these things at once—to write a review on ExhibitFiles that is then exportable in a way that I can also post it on my blog or any other webspace I manage.
Where are the walled hotspots on your site? What parts of the fortress are worth keeping, and which are you ready to tear down? If you have a story to share about leaving the walled garden behind, please share it in the comments (which are searchable, linkable back to you and your site, and exportable).