- On 8.6.08, the Computer History Museum (Silicon Valley, CA) hosted a Yelp! meetup for Elite Yelp! users. The event brought hundreds of hip, young professionals to the museum for lots of booze and partying. They left and wrote over 100 positive reviews of the evening, 12 positive reviews of the museum, and shared over 300 photos of their revels on Flickr.
- On 8.8.08, the Ontario Science Center (Toronto, Canada) hosted the 888 YouTube meetup for any and all YouTube aficionados. Again, hundreds of mostly young people shot hundreds of videos and photos featuring or on location at the museum.
- On 8.16.08, the Museum of Art and History (Santa Cruz, CA) hosted FreelanceCamp, a free unconference that brought 150 designers and techies from the south bay area together to talk shop. They left with free tshirts branded with the museum's name (and other sponsors), wrote about it on a wiki and shared photos on Flickr.
These events bring in new audiences in a comfortable context. I was at the last of these three events--the unconference in Santa Cruz. I was amazed by the number of conversations I had when I arrived at FreelanceCamp that went something like this:
Me: Have you lived in Santa Cruz for a long time?For me, my non-visitation was embarassing, but for these other folks, it was a fact of life in Santa Cruz. This art and history museum, despite having a great downtown location and some pretty excellent art, appears not to attract the software programmers and landscape architects of Santa Cruz. Heck, it doesn't even attract the museum exhibit designers. The unconference got lots of locals "in the door" who otherwise hadn't considered the museum a useful or interesting place. This is the ultimate erosion of the fear threshold--use the museum for something that people are already comfortable with.
Other person: Oh yeah... several years.
Me: Have you ever been to this museum?
Other person: Nope.
Me: Me neither.
Does this mean copping out on our core values? I don't think so. Several libraries have started to offer gaming nights where you can drink soda and play Wii to your heart's content. Librarian Aaron Schmidt tells the great story of a game night of Dance, Dance, Revolution at his library in which a teen asked him:
If you get people in a museum (or library) for WHATEVER reason, chances are they're going to notice the exhibits sometime. And hopefully, start to value them.
“Hey Aaron, can I go upstairs to grab a magazine and book to read?”
Marketing Secondary Benefits
Members of online communities talk online--a lot. Consider the experience of the Computer History Museum and their Yelp! event. Before they held the Yelp! event, the Computer History Museum had 15 reviews on Yelp! (and five of those were from people who had attended business conferences/parties there). In the week since the event, the museum has garnered 12 more mostly glowing reviews, presumably all from people who attended the event. That's almost a 100% increase in reviews. Plus, the event itself garnered over 100 reviews, also extremely positive. Yes, many of the event reviews focus entirely on the alcohol and the hotties, but the facility reviews are there forever, and they will significantly increase the profile of the museum on a site used by many to make leisure decisions.
The key to these benefits is not the volume of online content produced but its reach. Don't look at the number of videos, photos, or reviews. Look at the number of views (how many times each has been accessed). The Ontario Science Center YouTube meetup didn't just spawn hundreds of videos before, during, and after the event. Each of those videos has hundreds or thousands of viewers. Some of the videos have as many as 35,000 views. And while not all of the videos mention their host by name (in fact, few do), the museum venue is frequently present in related text and links. Plus, folks who attended the event link to other videos shot at the museum, such as this "888 favorite" (shot in 2006) of someone using an exhibit. Number of views? 170,000 and counting.
How to Make it Great
Hosting a meetup can cost you time and money. How can you be sure it's worth your effort? A few suggestions for how to think strategically about hosting them:
- Provide activities or offerings that align with your desired image. A lot of the 888 YouTube videos and the Yelp! reviews talk about alcohol and partying. For the Ontario Science Center and the Computer History Museum, this is presumably considered a positive since it positions the institutions as cool places for young adults to hang out. But the thousands of people who view the resultant reviews and videos will form an impression of your institution based on them--so as much as possible, make sure that impression reflects messages you'd like to share about your institution.
- Work with communities that relate to your content and reach desired audiences. Are you a quilting or textile museum looking for fresh blood? Reach out to the Stitch and Bitchers or the Ravelry crowd. Are you a science center trying to prove you're not just for kids? Talk to the folks at Instructables. There are communities for everything online, and chances are you can find a group that offers a good blend of related interest and current non-visitation to your museum.
- Create custom elements for the event(s) that put your content at center stage. This isn't just about product placement (though that doesn't hurt). When you have your captive audience, customize your offerings so they can easily make the connection to why they might want to visit again. The New York Public Library has sponsored events for knitters in which they provide both a comfortable place to meet and a librarian who gives the group information about library resources related to knitting. Yes, getting new audiences in your doors is a start. But why not give them a little nudge while they are there?
- Invite them back. This is a two-fold suggestion. First, many online communities (or communities of any kind) are looking for comfortable, low-cost places to meet. If you start with an event, you may grow the relationship from one-off to a deeper connection with the group. If they are bringing in a desirable audience, content, and secondary marketing, why not make it a regular affair? Second, give people who show up for the event free admission for a subsequent visit. It's a nice way to demonstrate that you believe in their potential as museum patrons, not just appetizer horders.
- When useful, set up ways for participants to share their experience. The Ontario Science Center did an excellent job initiating a YouTube channel, Flickr group, and other elements to sort and track participant activity for the 888 meetup. This positions the museum at the center of the action, gives you an easy way to track online activity, and provides a useful service for participants to aggregate their content.
- Evaluate the outcome. Use online search tools like Technorati, Google blog search, and searches on individual networking sites to quantify the output of these events. Did you get what you wanted? This isn't all about numbers; some communities are small but can have huge positive impact. The bigger question is this: are the communities that come in contributing positively to the image, visitation, and online messages around your institution? If not, consider whether this is the right partner and where better friendships might be found.