Thursday, August 07, 2008

Groundswell Book Club Part 1: Listening

This week, we're covering the first objective in Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff's book Groundswell: listening (chapter 5). This is a long post focused on strategic uses of listening rather than specific techniques. Please let me know (since I'm listening) whether this length is a benefit or a detriment to your experience.

What does it mean to listen to the groundswell? It means seeking out people in their "natural habitat" of the social Web and paying attention to what they are blogging, writing, and saying about your institution.
The benefits of good groundswell listening include:
  1. understanding of how people define and identify with your brand
  2. awareness of change in their perception of your and competitors' brands over time
  3. long-term, sustainable strategies for research
  4. the ability to identify leading sources of influence in your market
  5. awareness of PR crises (bad blog press)
  6. a source for new product ideas
Some of these points, like 2 and 5, are more appropriate to large businesses than to most museums. Charlene and Josh relate listening to research, and since they focus on business examples, they are primarily talking about market research: the way a business learns what people think of their brand, their products, and their potential. For many museums, visitor research--how people use the museum, navigate exhibits, and understand content--may be an equally important arena in which to adopt groundswell listening techniques. For the museum translation, I'm separating this post into three areas of listening benefits I see specifically for museums:
  1. defining the museum brand
  2. creating communities for continuous visitor research
  3. improving the visitor experience
At the end, we'll talk about Charlene and Josh's insights about the consequences of good listening--an important thread that will run through each of these Groundswell posts.

Defining the Museum Brand

Charlene and Josh argue that your brand is defined by your customers' perceptions and expressions, not by your marketing. I spent an hour this morning "brand listening" to what the online world says about one of my favorite museums, the Exploratorium. Here's what I learned:
  • the Exploratorium is inundated by kids (source: Yelp! reviews). Many adults think it provides a good adult experience but that engaging with the exhibits requires waiting and or wading through lots of running, yelling kids.
  • the Exploratorium did something really big for the August 1 eclipse and they are all over Second Life (source: Technorati). The majority of blog traffic mentioning the Exploratorium in the last month has focused on their coverage of the eclipse and a variety of Second Life initiatives.
  • the Exploratorium is a place high school/junior high students go on field trips and make snarky videos at their teachers' behest (source: YouTube). I watched many entertaining shorts featuring students explaining exhibits to the beat of popular and illegally uploaded music.
If I'm an engaged spectator in the groundswell--using Yelp! to make recreation decisions, reading blogs to form an impression, watching videos to get my feel for a place--these Web 2.0 sites form my understanding of what the Exploratorium is. Yes, the Exploratorium is also present in these arenas as a "talker" (more on that next week), but it is just one voice among thousands. How does it help the Exploratorium to listen to these environments if they can't be controlled? By understanding what individuals are highlighting about the Exploratorium experience, the museum can craft its own messaging--and programming--to reflect and enhance the elements seen as most valuable. Charlene and Josh quote brand theorist Ricardo Guimaraes, who says:
The value of the brand belongs to the market, and not to the company. The company in this sense is a tool to create value for the brand...
How can the Exploratorium create more value for their brand? Here's an example: if the Exploratorium wants to appeal to adult-only visitors, it needs to find ways to address the perception that it is overrun with kids. I was interested to read a very positive Yelp! review from a woman who attended an evening event at the Exploratorium and wrote:
I attended the Fisher Investment party as a plus one and WOW!!! a completely different side of the Exploratorium (also because I was drinking all night)... I felt like Elizabeth Taylor (during her Cleopatra era 1963).
She then goes on to say that maybe she should take dates there or consider getting married there, but ends the post by deciding that she should stick to taking her loud cousins to visit. This woman functionally had two brand views of the Exploratorium: one by day and the other by night. What could the Exploratorium offer that would bring this woman back for another exciting, glamorous experience? Perhaps a "museum by night" campaign shouldn't offer more of the same but should instead feature this entirely different institutional vision. Good listening breeds potential. The Exploratorium may be a kidfest by day and hipster central by night. Are they maximizing the opportunity in both of those perceptions? By listening, the institution can talk with greater confidence about new paths to take, energized by the glimmer of what is already being said and asked by the groundswell.

Creating Communities for Continuous Visitor Research

What if you check out your museum on the Web and find... nothing? What if you want to listen but can't get far enough with brand monitoring? Most museums are not as large as the Exploratorium or the businesses covered in Groundswell. But almost all museums have something that few businesses can boast: direct contact with customers. We don't have to go out and find the people drinking or wearing our products. They're right in front of us, and we can enlist them into intimate communities to help us listen.

The listening we do in museums right now is pretty expensive and limited. Surveys, interviews, tracking studies, and exhibit evaluations are often isolated events, and the information gleaned is specific to particular projects. In Groundswell, Charlene and Josh suggest that these kinds of research projects suffer as listening opportunities because they don’t provide the kinds of insights that people operating in communities can give. When I watch the videos teens created at the Exploratorium and post on YouTube, I see the aspects of the exhibits they thought were most important to share with their classmates. They are creating that content within the context of a community, and that community both fuels their creation and provides me as a viewer with new insights about the key elements of their dialogue about the museum.

A survey provides answers. A community provides insights. So how can your museum foster this kind of community for research? Charlene and Josh describe companies that provide custom communities—the people and the closed social network to support them—for the bargain price of several hundred thousand dollars. But museums don’t need to hire firms to find the people to involve in the community. They are our visitors and most especially our members—people who have already expressed interest in being part of the “museum community” in some form.

How can you create the community? You don’t need an internal social network (though that is an option). You need a listening machine. You need to turn the ways you currently do research into listening activities, and you need to ask your community specifically to help you improve the museum. Here are three examples of changes you could make:
  • Change the language and presentation of comment cards. While plenty of museums say “We want your feedback,” I have yet to visit a museum with a comment card that says, “we want your best idea to make this museum better.” To form the basis for community, the comments should be publicly shared with other visitors so that they can present a dialogue, not a one-way conversation with the museum. The most active comment board I’ve ever encountered is at my local grocery store, where patrons are constantly requesting retired items, asking about new options, and generally expressing their interest in the improvement of the store. “What do you want?” is a more powerful question than “What do you think?”
  • Use your email lists to listen instead of shouting. Many museums are protective about how frequently they send messages to members and other lists, fearing that they will be ignored or perceived as spam. Of course, this fear stems from the uncomfortable reality that most museum communication is spam—unwanted information about events or exhibits. Museum emails are almost always shouting. But what if you asked questions instead? What if you sent your members requests for their best and worst visit stories and then posted those stories publicly on your website? I think we could open up more civil email-based communication, and create some simple communities, by coming to our visitors with more questions and fewer “opportunities.”
  • Engage your members as community board members. Like board members, museum members want to contribute to the institution. They are thrilled to test new programs and exhibits. These people may be interested in starting a community with minimal museum support as long as they understand that someone is listening (and will act on that listening reasonably). No one is going to volunteer advice to the museum if they don't think it will be used. But if you express your sincere interest, I believe the ideas will come pouring in.
Improving the Visitor Experience

Listening is an active behavior. It implies acknowledgement and response... and opportunity. Once you have a mechanism to listen to your visitors—whether out in the world or within a community you initiate—you will have the confidence to take on strategies that will proactively address the communities’ needs.

In Groundswell, Charlene and Josh provide an instructive case study about the Mini car company, which used listening to determine that they should target their marketing toward current Mini owners, not potential buyers. This may sound strange, but Mini determined via brand monitoring that they had an extremely enthusiastic, Web 2.0-active owner base that was not being sufficiently engaged in their marketing campaigns. Mini launched a campaign of owner rallies and special coded mailings intended to support the evangelizing actions of owners. They listened, they crafted a response, and sales went up.

When you listen, you may be comparably surprised at where the next opportunity lies for improvement in your museum. Maybe you have members who are just waiting to host museum-related events in their homes. Maybe you have partners who would pay for corporate training programs under your brand. Maybe you need to consider changing your hours. Without good listening, these all sound like risks. Listeners don’t tell you what to do, but they can help guide the choices you make in greater confidence.

Good listening behaviors can increase ticket revenue. It’s hard to correlate online buzz to sales, but Charlene and Josh present a few cases in which positive online discussion led to upticks in sales about a month later. When it comes to museums, which don’t generate the same volume of online discussion as many large companies, anything the institution can do to increase online discussion will increase brand awareness, which can translate to web and in-person visitation.

The use of listening to craft responsive strategies can also be used to improve exhibits and programs. Listen to how visitors describe your exhibits to each other—either on the Web or in response to your community engagement questions. Are they learning and sharing what you hoped? The museums that provide communities for visitor content—even incidental ones like the Ontario Science Center’s stop motion video clips—can monitor and learn from visitor-created content. When you have a constant vehicle for listening, you can use that community as a real-time, responsive research tool to see how well you are meeting your exhibit goals.

Consequences of Listening

Two years ago at the ASTC conference, an exhibits director told a story about giving clipboards to all of their teen floor staff with a list of every exhibit in the museum. The teens were asked to rate the exhibits, and then the exhibits department held a meeting with the teens to review their observations based on their time on the floor. The experience, the director commented, was so painful that they would never repeat it. The staff simply couldn’t listen to what the kids had to say.

It is really hard to listen. It’s easier for us to say “yeah but” about the messes we choose to ignore or won’t believe in. It’s easier for us to say that floor staff are our eyes and ears with visitors than to live up to that statement. But we’ve got to get over it, because listening gives us an opportunity to improve what we do and be more successful.

And there’s a downside to closing our ears. Last week, I stayed at a hotel with lousy hospitality in DC. The manager treated me terribly. And as I was standing there at the desk, tired and frustrated, I had a sudden revelation.
That manager was no longer the end of the line for me. I could write about this experience on Yelp for a community of listeners who care--other consumers. I wasn't going to write to the hotel: why should I expect anyone up the line to listen or treat me better? I was going to write to my community.

If we open our ears, our museums and businesses can join these communities. When people share their opinions publicly, they give institutions a gift—an opportunity to listen in. When institutions choose to listen and respond, it changes the way you do business. There may be confrontations between the institutional listeners (often in marketing) and the content developers (who may not believe what they hear). Charlene and Josh urge institutions to make sure that their listening is used actively, shared among many departments, and has champions on the executive team. Otherwise, it’s likely to fall on deaf ears.

Have you had a painful or positive listening experience you'd like to share? Or a specific question or idea about how to do it well?

3 comments, add yours!:

Paolo Amoroso said...

At times, listening is as simple and inexpensive as, well, listening.

When you do guided tours or interact with the audience, overhear visitor conversations and pay attention to what they say and how they say it (in my experience, they talk so loud that it's difficult not to overhear). This is effective and works well for small institutions.

Anonymous said...

Where my postings at?! I ran out to buy this book to have meaningful dialogue, and it’s just me and the astronaut??!!
OK. Is everyone working at places where guys in blue blazers are saying "So, what is this Friendster? Or You Face or whatever, and how can we use it?
Listening and die terming who is speaking is essential. Otherwise you get lost in "doing" the technology for the sake of doing it...

Nina Simon said...


Is that the experience you're having? In the last couple years, I've seen the transition from people asking me why anyone would want to do this to asking how.

But I still find that there are LOTS of people who don't know what these tools are--so they don't know where to listen.

It's a catch22--you have to be familiar with the technology to speak intelligently about it, and yet I spend a lot of time convincing people that this isn't fundamentally about technology. I feel a little dishonest navigating that environment.

Where do you listen, and where would you recommend people do so?