Monday, August 18, 2008

New Models for Community Partnerships: Museums Hosting Meetups

I've long believed that museums have a special opportunity to support the community spirit of Web 2.0 as physical analogs to virtual community platforms. People who engage deeply in any online community, whether a bulletin board or social networking site, want to meet in person. Right now, they are primarily meeting in commercial spaces--restaurants and bars--which benefit from their business and their buzz. If museums get involved in these online-offline partnerships, we can bring new audiences through our doors, familiarize them with museum-going in a comfortable way, and reap the benefits of their online musings about their real-life experiences. This month brings three examples of museums hosting meetups for online communities:
  • 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.
To some people, these events may sound like losers. They don't generate rental revenue (usually). Lots of people come in for free to party and ignore the exhibits? That's not part of our mission! But these events have benefits both in terms of audience development and word-of-mouth marketing.

Audience Development

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?
Other person: Oh yeah... several years.
Me: Have you ever been to this museum?
Other person: Nope.
Me: Me neither.
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.

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:

“Hey Aaron, can I go upstairs to grab a magazine and book to read?”

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.

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.

8 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

Nina, great ideas here! Your first point--about making sure events align with your museum's desired image--goes to my question about twittering. Ie., if we get a younger, web-savvy audience through the door once, why will they come back unless we start to align the museum (at least a little) with their interests? I don't have an answer yet, but obviously reaching out to new audiences always creates change! (I'm also incidentally wondering whether meetups work at all in a small city, without that critical mass to create excitement.)

Nina Simon said...

Thanks, Elizabeth!
Two contradictory thoughts:
1. a museum (probably) has something for any audience.
2. it is impossible to expand audience without changing audience in some ways. You can't grow in concentric circles from your base--you have to shift somewhat.

I wonder about which people museums "leave behind" when they change to attract new audiences. What are you willing to do for your (now and future) audience? What could you change, and what is not negotiable?

(And I think meetups can work in small cities on a more intimate scale. Every town has a book group... now they are just better coordinated via some web tools.)

Anonymous said...

Nina - I agree passionately with your thinking on this. We're still evaluating the 888 meetup here at the Ontario Science Centre, but it's already clear that with 440 participants, hundreds of videos with hundreds of thousands of views along with national media coverage of the event, it was an experiment worth trying.

I'm still wrestling with how the interactions of participants - mainly drinking, dancing, gossiping and shooting video of same squares up with our mission to engage people directly with science and technology, but there's no doubt in my mind that YouTubers are an innovative, tech-savvy community that we can learn from and that developing a relationship with that community is a positive step for us that goes way beyond the obvious marketing benefits.

Paolo Amoroso said...

Elizabeth: if you are concerned that your small city may not generate a critical mass for a meetup, try appealing to a larger audience from a wider area around the city. Members of online communities are often willing to travel a bit for meetings.

Unknown said...

Thank you, Nina, for your thought-provoking comments. I, too, have thought about those left beind when any institution changes *too* fast. But change is healthy, and I think sometimes we museum people wait too long to make it happen, because we're nervous about alienating our base. I am striving to be sensitive about managing the change that's coming anyway; that's part of what my foray into social networking is all about. Thanks also, Paolo, for your suggestion about meetup--I need to spend more time looking into it, obviously!

Eric Siegel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eric Siegel said...

Hi, Nina: Great points as always. It is also useful to think about the museum as a place for the not-so-hip. Most of the museums I've worked with in the past 25 years have been in poor and ethnically diverse communities in NYC. To varying degrees, each of these museums encouraged, invited, allowed, or grudgingly accepted the use of the museum for local celebrations and community gatherings.

It is as important for the long term vitality of the institution to attract these users as it is to attract the PIB (people in black) crowd. First of all, there is less of a concern about mission creep, engaging underserved audiences is almost always a stated priority for museums. Second, most museums depend directly or indirectly on the kindness of government for support of various kinds. Engaging underserved audiences is politically a wise move, at least in NYC. Third, it is good for the museum to have diverse participation.

So, its great to get the youtubers, the yelpers, and the freelance santa cruizers gang, but don't forget about the Ecuadorian Pride meetings, the Community Board meetings, the teachers union meetings, the more grassroots and less privileged parts of the communities.

Anonymous said...

It’s funny if you stop and think. How many openings have you been to where the cheese and free wine table is getting twice as much attention as the carefully crafted exhibit?
These wild and new technologies and strategies we are all looking so hard to embrace to meet mission are just the things we are already doing, but they provide us a new way to package something to a new audience. By virtue of them being of the now they feel new and fresh. My favorite part is they also serve to re-energize your museum. People who have forgotten a long time ago what fun it is to connect and meet up for fun or for business at the latest opening or just because it would be cool to meet at a central location, are suddenly back in the game .
The other piece is meet up design and strategy. I can see where this may be a tough sell to some in an institution who are inclined to round up the usual subjects (premier donors and people they sail with) treat them better than anyone else and hope by the end of the evening checks will have been written. With meet ups it’s the same thing. Instead of prep-schools, corporate boards, and week ends in the Hamptens, they may all own issue 97 of the original X-Men. At first glance not who you think of as the audience that will truly benefit us, but hey, these are the new movers and shakers. Don’t mention the comic thing to your development people, but do share that this new group shares a common professional and social bond that mirrors tried and true methods that will benefit the museum in terms of diversifying existing membership, carrying out a new generation of audience, and creating opportunities for resources and connections for the institution in the 21st century….