Friday, December 19, 2008

What's a Virtual Visitor Worth?

$5.33. $40.21. $12.74. Every museum has a number for its operating cost per visitor. It's very simple to calculate: you take the total operating expenses for your public-facing efforts and divide by the number of people who walk through the door. Most museums don't strategically set this number--too many operating costs are fixed by building needs--but they can use it to assess how expensive each visitor interaction is and evaluate the efficacy of programs. Some interactions, like educational programs, may be quite expensive per visitor but are considered very high value; others, like retail, are only worthwhile if the interactions are cheap and return financial value to the institution.

So where do online initiatives fit in? Many museums are trying to think strategically about how to maximize value online in serving visitors. But this isn't just a financial question--it's also a question of reach. Is an online interaction with someone who will never visit the physical institution worth less than one with someone who might buy a ticket? Or is it worth more because the museum content is reaching people in distant lands who would otherwise never have engaged with the institution?

There are three key questions museum decision-makers should ask themselves in evaluating the value of virtual visitors:
  1. How much do we value outreach in our educational programming and content delivery?
  2. How much do we value bringing global cultures and opinions into our institution?
  3. How much do we value brand awareness outside of local markets?
Let's look at these one by one.


Let’s say you run your museum's education department, and you have two vans that go out to schools to do in-classroom programs exposing students to museum content. How do you decide how far those vans go? How important is it that some of the students at participating schools gain heightened awareness of the museum and physically show up one day?

Many museums run outreach programs at a variety of levels of local to global reach. Some museums only engage with students who show up at the museum. Others send educators out to schools citywide. Others conduct distance learning programs across the nation. Others produce publications and media for global distribution. Others create traveling exhibits that send their content to other institutions and audiences.

Which of these are appealing or familiar to you? Consider what you are already doing, what you'd like to expand, and what you'd like to try. Creating an online analog to any of these types of outreach should cost less than traditional versions, but it won't be free. You should be able to articulate your goal, whether it is reaching a particular niche audience or a designated level of participation. It might be worth going through an exercise where your team says, "Making a PBS half hour program would cost X. We can't afford X, but we'd like to do this and try to reach 1,000 people with our message. We are willing to spend Y to reach 1,000 people. So we will spend Y to make short videos on our own and post them on video sharing sites like YouTube instead."

Consider, for example, the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science's new Flickr Plant Project. The museum has a database of 300+ plants, and they wanted to "do something" with the related plant images. With Beck Tench, their in-house Web 2.0 aficionado, they came up with a 12-week plan to release a single image each week of a plant along with some basic content about the plant. Then, they encourage others in the Flickr community to post their own images of the same plant and tag them "flickrplantproject." You can see the museum's plants here and the aggregate community submissions here. The museum started with content they wanted to share, a fixed cost they were willing to assume (the cost of posting one photo plus text per week, plus some community engagement), and an audience they wanted to target (Flickr plant lovers). By the end of twelve weeks, they'll be able to evaluate how many people in that audience they've reached and decide how they feel about the volume, diversity, and depth of participation.

Some types of online outreach are more expensive than others. The most expensive is outreach that builds relationships. Why would a museum want to invest in projects that connect a small number of people with the content? For the same reason we do so with individual classes or constituency groups in the real museum. Changing lives is expensive whether you do it with at-risk teen staff members or at-risk teen virtual partners. Either you value that target audience so much that you are willing to spend a high amount per visitor, or you value the result of that relationship and the way it can impact others. When I worked on The Tech Virtual project, I was often discomfited by the fact that I would spend entire days interacting with 10-30 people in Second Life, when I could interact with many more if I worked on the museum floor. But in Second Life, we were building strong relationships and empowering those virtual members as exhibit designers. Once I started thinking of myself as running a very targeted pilot program to have significant impact on the lives of a few dozen people, I felt much more comfortable with my efforts.

Bringing in Global Voices

Does your collection come from far-reaching lands? Does your museum take in traveling exhibitions that feature worldwide cultures? Do you feature lectures by non-locals in your educational programs? Or are you primarily interested in reflecting and presenting local content and perspectives?

The extent to which your institution is interested in showcasing non-local content may dictate your strategic approach to online engagement with a global audience. Consider the community reaction to the Science Museum of Minnesota's Science Buzz blog post about the Pakistani earthquake on Oct. 9, 2005. One of the first comments came in from Jamal Panhwar, a Pakistani who shared his personal experience of the fault area: "The mountains of this region are spectacular; however, this very fact of tectonic plates rubbing each other can be seen in the landslides which come on the Karakorum Highway (a road built along the Indus River) every now and then."

Does Jamal's comment enrich the primarily Minnesotan readers of Science Buzz? From the museum's perspective, having an authentic account from someone in Pakistan is a value added that the museum itself could not supply. In the same way that traveling exhibits from other countries can expose local audiences to wider perspectives, global online communities can connect people across cultures and experiences. And if you are displaying artifacts from cultures that are foreign and prone to stereotype by your local audience, finding ways to bring in the voices of the people associated with those objects may enhance visitor understanding and appreciation of the collection.

Of course, if you are locally-focused, bringing in global voices may distract you from your local relationships and strain your services. For more on this side of the fence, read Shelley Bernstein's recent thoughts about the Brooklyn Museum's complicated experience with Flickr Commons.

Brand Awareness

Do you care if someone 1,000 miles away knows about your museum? While the first two points covered in this post focus on content goals, this last one is about marketing. Your traditional strategic approach to marketing can be directly extended into the virtual space. If your goal is to tightly target a local market, it's probably more important to get involved in local blogs and community sites than to create your own content for global distribution. If your goal is for art lovers worldwide to identify with your institution, the opposite is true.

Brand awareness is often the driving reason for museums to have presences on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, and other general-audience social media sites. But the interesting thing about all of these spaces is while they have global reach, they primarily serve niche communities--of cat lovers, vegan knitters, museum professionals, etc.--in localized groups across the service. There is no such thing as reaching "the entire Facebook community," and so without target audiences in each of these environments, the effort is not effective. The opportunity is not to create a single brand concept in each community but to be a unique and useful brand for different communities on multiple platforms in different (but overlapping) ways.

I love COSI and the SMM's new approach to showing off their social media presence across the Web on a single page. Scrolling through COSI's offerings, I see that I can be a friend of their mascot (a basketball-playing rat) on Facebook, read a blog about the development of a new exhibition on Egypt, or join a Ning site to connect with current and former campers. Clearly, each of these is targeted towards a different audience on a different platform, and the brand awareness each achieves focuses on a different facet of the institution.

So what's it worth?

The short answer is pithy: it's different for every institution. The more useful answer is that you can take your non-web-based programs and values and analogize those to come up with the answer that is right for you. How do you decide how much a traveling exhibition is worth? How much is a lecture worth? How much is an educational workshop worth? None of these questions have hard and fast answers, but they do have tolerances and comforts that we've built up over time. If you can cast your online initiatives in the framework of something more familiar, you should be able to step away from the emotional relativism that plagues these kinds of questions and come up with an answer that works for you.

And if anyone has a quantitative answer (or any other opinion on this thorny topic), please share your two cents in the comments. It's worth a lot to all of us!

2 comments, add yours!:

Patricia Martin said...

Wow! Another remarkably helpful post. Chockful of useful information.

Anonymous said...

I've been preaching for so long about the importance of playing in "other people's playgrounds" and not just on our own website. Reading your post surely helps add support to that. The quantitative (views) and qualitative (comments) feedback possibilities give incredible measuring power to working with virtual visitors.