Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Does Your Museum Need its Own Social Network? Case Study and Discussion

Usually, when I start posts with a question in the title, it's a cheat. The presumed answer is "yes" your museum needs a blog, a pony, or a set of comfy couches. In this case, it's debatable. Does your museum need a custom online social network? Maybe not. Let's discuss what it means, how it works, where it can go.

A social networking site is one in which users connect with one another. Most social networking sites give each user a unique user profile, along with a personal "home base" where you can always find your content, your contacts, and your interests. Some of the most popular are LinkedIn (a professional network), Facebook (social and professional), and MySpace (anything goes). Many museums have been experimenting in these spaces by creating institutional profiles, museum affinity groups, and connecting with visitors and other museum professionals individually. There are huge positives to tapping into these networks (which we've discussed here before), including connecting with visitors "where they are" and co-opting easy-to-customize applications for museum purposes. The Brooklyn Museum of Art is a great example of a museum really embracing these environments for community-building purposes.

But for some institutions or projects, being under a big tent that includes millions of people, groups, and activities is not appropriate. Why might a museum create its own social network? Some reasons include...
  • privacy. Particularly for children's museums, protecting users in a museum-controlled space is a premium.
  • freedom from advertising. Most free social networks include advertising that may not reflect museum mission.
  • branding. Creating your own social network allows you to control the look and feel of the space.
  • exclusivity. Providing a private place for classes, members, visitors, and staff to network can become a "value added" of supporting or being involved with the museum.
Ultimately, all of these reasons are about control--controlling message, use, and users. The best reason to create a custom social network goes beyond all of these reasons, and is more fundamental: you should consider creating a custom network if it is the tool that will best accommodate and specific mission-related goal for your institution.

For example, consider Tree of Promise, a private social network created and managed by the Indianapolis Children's Museum. Tree of Promise is not a stand-alone network. It is an integral part of a new permanent exhibition, The Power of Children. The exhibition uses the stories of three remarkable children in history as a launching point for a platform on which kids and families can make “promises” for how they will impact or change the world. Note that even the content of this exhibition is focused on 2.0-style behaviors: being actively engaged as a participant, connecting to a larger network of individuals. The exhibition culminates at the physical Tree of Promise, a giant tree surrounded by computer kiosks. At the kiosks, children can make a promise, which floats up into the tree as a digital leaf.

Those promises are then emailed home both to the kids and their parents, and families can then elect to join the Tree of Promise social network, an online space where they can share, expand, and manage their promises. If at-home users complete their promises, they can return to the museum, where the tree “remembers” and congratulates them on their success. In this way, Tree of Promise takes a quick participatory in-museum experience—writing down a promise—and provides a supportive platform on which users can cultivate and substantiate that action.
The Tree of Promise social network is not a network unto itself--it is an extension of the museum visit experience. As Angie McNew, Indy's Director of Information and Interactive Technology, explained to me, their primary objective was to provide a safe, simple place for families to track and share their promises with each other. The network is private, meaning that you can't go onto the site and view other users' promises without being invited personally by them. It's not an open space for discussion or communication; instead, it's a network of private spaces where kids and families have tools available to continue their museum experience. Because Indy's primary audience is quite young, they put particular focus on making sign-up and use as simple as possible, as well as presenting a clean, coherent message.

Excited to do it yourself? How do you make your own social network? There are plenty of articles out there on how to do it on the cheap and quick.
A coworker shared an article with me last week entitled Build a Social Network in Under 60 Minutes. In it, author Adam Shahbaz chronicles an hour spent creating a free online social network called "SwagMe" in which users can share images and stories of their experiences with freebie stuff ("swag") accumulated from various businesses.

The article is empowering, and somewhat useful as a how-to. But it's also deeply annoying. Shahbaz's goal in creating SwagMe was to create an online thing for the sake of it, not to connect to or support a community. His experiment dwells little on the crux of social networks--their management--and the challenges and opportunities therein. It's a short-sighted quickie, a "hey mom, look at me!" in a sea of similar navel-gazing Web 2.0 projects.

To create something like Tree of Promise requires a lot more planning and dollars. Indy used a service called OneSite, which offers a suite of options for custom social network creation. To accommodate total customization, no ads, and heavy museum control, Indy chose Onesite's most expensive option, which has a minimum $20,000 startup fee and a $2500/month management fee. Onesite is definitely on the high end of pricing (this Techcrunch article provides a good breakdown of different options and costs), but $20,000 is not surprising given the fact that Indy fundamentally wanted a highly customized site.

And the creation costs, time, and effort are only a small part of the equation. Like engagement in any community site, the ongoing management, cultivation, and support of a social network is where the bulk of the work should reside. After all, one shot efforts to make a MySpace page, a blog, or a social network--no matter how cheap or costly at outset--are only as good as their continued growth and value. In the same way that I would recommend having a blogging strategy that includes consistent, frequent posting, managing a social network requires a community support strategy. The Tree of Promise is a new project for Indianapolis, and they are about the fact that its "release" means the beginning--not the end--of a development process that will keep evolving as the community and pattern of use grows.

So back to the original question: does your museum need its own social network?
Tree of Promise doesn't make me want to dash out and create a social network component of every upcoming exhibit or museum program. It makes me cognizant of social networks' functionality as part of the museum toolkit, with particular (and limited) value. Finding the right public social networks to tie into is a no-brainer--it gives you access to your visitors in a whole new way. But creating your own social space is like developing a major exhibit or educational program. You need to be sure you have the resources to support it, and even more importantly, a compelling reason to do it. There are many such potential reasons--to allow members to share visit stories with each other, to enable teachers to share lesson plans--but you have to make sure the reason is strong enough to justify the investment. One for the toolkit... and hopefully, one that can be used wisely in the future.

Have you considered creating a custom social network for your institution? What direction or reasons are most compelling to you?

7 comments, add yours!:

Dianed said...

See what we can do in France :

But you're totally right. What's the point of the social network for museum ? ...

Thanks for your article ! A very good one.

Anonymous said...

Hey Nina..

So much to say and so little time...

1. Absolutely agree: do tech because you have a reason to do tech. There is a very distinct tendancy for museums to follow the crowd and create "bad" (I'd say bad=lacking in life) social networks just because everyone else and his dog is.

2. The concept of aligning social networks with your organisational mission is a bit of a red herring IMHO. On the one hand you can pretty easily bend any strategic goal for a modern museum so that it fits social networking. Find me a museum which doesn't have "engage more users" as one of its mission statements in some shape or other and I'll buy you a drink..On the other hand, I believe that there is some responsibility of tech evangelists in museums to actually *push* at the corporate mission. If we hadn't been here doing stuff at the edges then museums probably wouldn't have websites at all, let alone the kind of diversity and interest which you can see today. In other words: museums need to be challenged, and social networking does that very nicely.

3. I agree that it takes planning - I absolutely don't agree that it takes large quantities of budget or necessarily effort. A successful community has tech which *supports* that community at its focus, not tech which *creates* the community. Something like PostSecret for example is an extremely popular community which has taken (technically) little more than creation of a blogger account. It just happens to be a rockingly good idea which people readily engage with and really want to be a part of.

4. Yes, communities take some stroking to encourage and nurture them, but I think the myth that this is massive amounts of hard work, needs vast quantities of staff time, eats up resources is simply not true. In my experience, the kind of moderation, responding, working with, encouraging can usually be cushioned within a day job. It very much depends on the scale of the community, what topics you are covering, etc. I've spent many a meeting where the museum worried hugely about the moderation of a site, for example: in reality, it turns out that audiences are *usually* pretty good at moderating themselves. If people are willing to invest time, they usually invest sensible time, not silly time...

I'm absolutely not belittling the effort required - you're right, it does require thought, strategy and DOING IT FOR A REASON. BUT...I also think that good things can be done with minimal effort and - dare I say it - by not actually *thinking too hard*...

I'm sure you and your readers have read it but Derek Powazek's book Design for community is an insightful and interesting read. It's old by web standards (pub 2001) and the examples are way out of date, but the concepts about how to build community, what it takes to manage it etc etc are still relevant in a big way today.

Anonymous said...

Hi there, I recently asked a similar question about tourism destinations.

Does each tourism destination or niche sector really need a social network? Or is it not best to capitalise on the critical mass of existing networks (and if possible exchange value with those).

Your points in this post and those in the comment are useful to the tourism destination too, as I fear they are equally at risk of deathly quiet networks, that don't reach the critical mass necessary for a lively community (and do not necessarily have the commitment from those energetic people needed to really keep the community alive in those painful early days).

Great article - thanks

Anonymous said...

I love that Indianapolis relates their social network directly back to an exhibition on site - I think this is particularly important for children's museums, where there are different schools of thought RE: the appropriateness of technology aimed at children. It's a different beast in museums where the visitors are over 13 vs under 13.

We're creating a new blog aimed at engaging the grown-ups who love our children's museum as much as their kids do - we do not intend to provide content on the web to children who might attend here (particularly as our average age of child visitor is about 3.7...)

BTW - our blog is scheduled to launch around 2pm TODAY (Thursday!) so excuse any rough edges for the next hour or two!!

Nina Simon said...

Thanks for all the great thoughts on this post. A couple of responses:

While I love and have written about my love for PostSecret, I don't think of it as a social network, but as a massive user-generated content project. It's more focused on creation than on connecting with each other.

I think that surprisingly few museums actually put any time or lip service towards the typical aim of social networks: to encourage and support user-to-user interaction. We're all about institution-to-user interactions, so I think it is a stretch for a lot of museums to even consider moving into a platform where the institution is functionally absent as a member. In that way, I think social networks could represent a significant departure/extension from core mission, which may or may not be wise.

@Vicky, I absolutely agree with you that in most cases, we should be looking to the networks people are already using. The Bay Area Discovery Museum does a wonderful job of this by putting their Yelp reviews front and center on their general info website, acknowledging and tacitly supporting the networks through which our visitors/tourists get their information.

Anonymous said...

No one seems to ever mention the enormous success that the Saatch Gallery's Stuart social network seems to be . . . . I've blogged about it over at Fresh & New.

Here is a social network run by a museum (ok, 'gallery') that gets more US traffic than Bebo!

Anonymous said...

What about ning.com for craeting your own social network?