I've been thinking about online dating recently. No, not because my partner refuses to wash his hair. Online dating sites have two very special attributes:
- They make money.
- They are primarily used to connect people in real life.
The top question museum directors ask about online initiatives, especially those in social media, is "can you demonstrate that it will bring more ticket-buying people to the museum?" It's a very hard question to answer. While an IMLS report last year did conclude that visits to museum websites are positively correlated with in-person visits, there is no magic thread tying each online interaction to a person buying a ticket at the door. Even worse, there's a big difference between the perceived impact of the "plan a visit" area of your website and a presence on Facebook or YouTube. The first has a tangible, obvious connection to real-world visits. The second doesn't.
The connections between the online and physical interactions--I meet you at a conference, you post a photo of me on Facebook, we connect on LinkedIn, we make plans via Twitter to have lunch in Chicago--are often dispersed across many services and are hard to follow. So how can you help institutional decision-makers understand the potential relationship between engaging on the social Web and real-world visits? Talk about dating.
Online dating is social networking with an intended result in the physical world. Ironically, while it's easier to understand, online dating is much harder to execute than most social media endeavors. Most social networks start with in-person connections. We meet at the conference, and THEN I connect to you on Facebook. You come to the museum, and THEN you post your photo in the Flickr group. Before the real-world event, there was no reason to connect virtually. But online dating isn't intended to extend real-world relationships virtually; it's intended to start them. People meet online, then they meet in person. In this way, online dating forms new relationships rather than virtually extending those that already exist.
Dating, like museum-going, is more about niche preferences than mass volume. Users are more interested in finding "people like them" than a random sampling of individuals, and niche dating sites have skyrocketed in the last couple of years as members realize that making an intimate connection is easier to do in a limited network. While most niche sites are focused towards people with specific religious, ethnic, or sexual proclivities, there's no reason museums and other recreational niches shouldn't get into the mix. For decades, the New York Review of Books personals section has been the place for Ivy League singles. In the UK, Penguin Books has teamed up with Match.com to offer a book-focused specialty dating site, and in the Netherlands, new media artists can find a "muse, flatmate, or one-night adventure" on the Mediamatic dating site. If you're inspired, you can even create your own dating site for free (profit-sharing agreement included).
Maybe your museum isn't ready to start an online dating service. That's fine. It's worth just thinking about your social media initiatives in the dating context. If your goal on the Web is to attract more people to visit the physical museum, your efforts in that regard should drive people to the door. In the same way that Penguin and Match are using books as the social objects that may bring lonely hearts together, affinity with a particular artist, collection, or museum can bring people--sexually inclined or not--to the institution. Museum membership newsletters could be used to profile and connect members with each other, and artifacts can serve as talking points for nervous folks getting to know each other. The ecosystem of a date--the build-up, the experience, and the reflection afterwards--can be mapped to a fluid online and onsite relationship with a museum.
This isn't appropriate for every kind of relationship-building on the Web, but when your goal is increased visitation, it's worth asking yourself: how are we promoting an in-person visit as part of this online experience? How are we promoting transactions and experiences that can only be consummated at the museum? How are we connecting with people who we've never interacted with before? How can we make the online experience as appealing, flirtatious, and exciting a build-up to a physical visit? And then how can we invite people to come back and reflect, comment, and continue the relationship online after the visit?
People already use museums casually as a way to meet smart, sexy potential partners. Why not formalize that experience for those who want it? I may not be looking for a one-night stand, but I'm always looking for an excuse to meet someone interesting... and I'd rather do it at a museum than just about anywhere else. Wouldn't you?