Thursday, February 05, 2009

Change from the Inside: A Conversation with COSI

What’s harder: coming up with great experimental ideas or jumping through institutional hoops to make the experiments happen? I think, sadly, that we all know the answer.

Today, an interview with staff from a museum with an incredibly healthy attitude towards experimentation with social media. COSI is a hands-on science center in Columbus, Ohio. They don’t have a huge technology staff or flashy initiatives, but they have done many smart, simple projects that have caught my eye. They do a lovely job explaining their presence on social media sites. Their CEO writes a blog, as do exhibit developers working on an upcoming exhibition on Egypt. They use Yammer internally to communicate. But most importantly (and interestingly), COSI has used involvement in social media to help position itself as a key part of Columbus’ growing technology community, which serves both its ability to deliver on mission and raise money.

I sat down with David Chesebrough (CEO), Kelli Nowinsky (PR Manager), and Kevin Pfefferle (Web Manager), to learn more about how the COSI team approaches social technology and how it fits into the overall goals and strategy of the institution. Three things stand out in this interview:
  1. Like the Brooklyn Museum, COSI’s social media strategy is focused on local community connections, not national outreach.
  2. All social media projects are mission-driven and strongly aligned to institutional goals.
  3. David, COSI’s CEO, really trusts his staff to engage appropriately in the social Web in ways that support and add value to the museum.
Enjoy the interview, and I (and the COSI team) look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments!

Where did the story of your involvement in social media start?

David: I came on board as CEO of COSI in April of 2005. It was a crisis point in the organization, and I was brought on explicitly to bring change. We had to readdress our value proposition and start raising serious money immediately. Historically, COSI had been really focused all on attendance, and everything was skewed in that direction. But I was out there in the community raising millions, and to do that, we had to be putting forward a community-focused value proposition, demonstrating that COSI was a valuable community asset and investment.

So that crisis point set the context for us to let go of traditional ways and be a little more creative and open to changing. We didn’t want to change the culture of COSI, which is a great asset, but how we act within that culture. I wanted to tap the strengths and knowledge of the team and creativity to get into a new business.

For example, we’re actively pursuing outreach opportunities and connections with the community, the local tech industry, universities. These partners are a different audience—young professionals, and social networking is in their domain.

Kevin: That’s the biggest surprise – these efforts are not just about our traditional family audience. There’s a local tech community that has made itself known in Columbus over the last few months. I am trying to represent COSI at every tech meetup that I can, to meet the movers and shakers in that community. Rubbing shoulders with them is great for me personally and professionally, and they are really interested in COSI. They regularly ask, “How can I help? What can we do to grow Columbus as a tech hotspot and energize kids about technology?”

Kelli: The main goal of all the social media tools is that we want to engage more people with our mission, people who might not have had a touchpoint with COSI before. For example, a guy I met through Twitter asked me to meet in person. At first, I was skeptical because I thought he wanted to talk to me about the COSI website. When he expressed he just wanted to talk about ideas he had for COSI, we met for coffee. He pulled out this notebook with all these ideas and asked, “how can I help with the innovation showcase?” I was blown away. He did not want anything in return. Here I am sitting with this person who is a young professional without children, someone who would never have engaged with COSI before we got involved in social media. Now we are building a professional relationship and talk all the time about how he can help us in our social media efforts and help us reach out to the tech community. We would have never touched these folks in our traditional methods.

It sounds like COSI’s efforts in this arena are really focused on the local community. This isn’t surprising—it’s similar to the success the Brooklyn Museum has had building local relationships. But am I right in thinking that you are focusing on building local, not national or international relationships, via social media?

David: That’s right. It's fine if there's some national interest in this, but what I really care about is what this is doing for this community in Columbus. The other stuff isn't as important.

Our partnerships are part of this. For example, WOSU (our local PBS station) has a digital media center here at COSI, and they’ve been grappling with the issue of public media in the 2.0 world and have been hosting social media cafes, both here at the museum and in other places in the community.

Kevin: As the community started to hear about the Social Media Cafe, local bloggers would show up, and it exploded into this network of people trying to work together to positively impact the Columbus community. For example, they have taken small grassroots efforts under their wing—like helping a community park cleanup group start a blog, a Twitter account, and gain more exposure for their community efforts. So we’ve been an active part of the Columbus tech community as everyone is figuring out how to move forward.

I’m curious to hear what the CEO experience is like with all of this. David, how do you communicate with board members about social media? How do you decide what parts of it are worth your time to engage with?

David: With regard to the board, I just this week brought on my first board member with interest in this stuff—the first person to know what Twitter is, to use Facebook. There’s been no previous push or interest from the board whatsoever. I haven’t discussed this with them. I see these initiatives as part of our effort to innovate and it is my responsibility to move that innovation forward as fast as possible.

I am not leading this process. My staff have to educate me. A critical piece of this was bringing on a chief strategy officer, Kim Kiehl. Kim is very engaged with this stuff personally, and at the leadership level really more tuned in than I am. And I’m an old technologist—emphasis on old—but the framework is still there for me. So I’m comfortable with the technology, but I certainly see it as an experiment. I know there is a portion of the world who communicate in a very different way, using social media, and some of those are people we want to communicate with.

So, for example, I’ve been working on my blog. I went in last night and looked at the data. There’s enough activity to tell me it’s not flat on my face. We’ve had over 5,000 unique visits to my blog since we launched it, about 650 unique views a month. I used to be on a twice a week blogging schedule, but I’ve backed off on that. Kelli is trying to coach me on being more spontaneous and casual with it.

How do you evaluate the usefulness of these tools and the value of time spent on them?

Kelli: We’re really new at this—we launched the Facebook page in September of 2008 and the Twitter account in October. So it’s a little early for us to think about evaluating them.

David: We are in a point of a lot of institutional change and we have to experiment. Early in the experiment, we’re more collecting the data than making a judgment. Later, we’ll make the judgment—about the blog and other things. And some of the stories that Kevin and Kelli tell me are really impactful for understanding some of the dynamics of how social media works for an institution like COSI.

How do you manage the organizational use of social media tools?

David: At the leadership level, a number of VPs were already in this world, so it wasn’t a hard sell for them. And the others of us are comfortable enough to unleash the creativity of our team. I’m trusting them. Do the right thing. Think about COSI and its reputation, but also our goal to be as broadly accessible as possible. And if something erupts, I’ll be backing them.

I’m more of a lurker than a participant. And that’s ok with me—my institution won’t be best served if I spend all my time on Facebook and Twitter rather than raising money.

But I do use it. For example, I don’t Yammer, but I get the Yammer report every day, and in 15 seconds I can get a little flavor of what’s going on. I can keep a little pulse on the place – I’d love to see it used more because it gives me more data on what’s going on. I don’t care what’s on there, whether people are talking about cake in the lunchroom or a broken exhibit—the pulse is all those things.

What tips would you give to other museums trying to move strategically towards integration of social media into internal and external communication?

Kelli: We didn’t just jump into things. I recommend finding a local event or workshop in your community to learn more. I was very lucky that two years ago, I asked COSI to send me to an actual social media conference, not PR-related—a day-long intensive workshop in NYC. I didn’t know a thing about anything. They’re using words I’ve never heard of before! I’m sitting next to the girl who’s in charge of all communication of Pokemon, and here I am from this little science center in the Midwest. It wasn’t until 18 months later that we put anything in place. I’m not a social media expert, but I have taken everything that I have learned since then and have put it into use for COSI.

Kevin: Staff need to engage with social media as individuals first. Before we launched a COSI Twitter account, we had some individuals using it, seeing the extreme value, and then figuring where the institutional voice fits in.

Kelli: The same is true with Facebook. I joined because an employee looked at me and said, you have to be on Facebook, you have to see how people are using it.

Are there any challenges you have in terms of pushback from staff or figuring out what to prioritize?

Kelli: In general, staff have been really positive. We have these conversations every day with staff. We talk to folks internally who want a blog, and we help them step back and ask, “what are you trying to accomplish?” There’s a lot of buzzword situations where people don’t really know what tools would be useful for them. But we haven’t faced staff saying this is a waste of time.

Sometimes I forget this is all an experiment. When David said that before, it kind of surprised me. If you’re a user of the tools, it’s part of your life, and it’s not going to go away.

At the end of the day, our goal is to be better listeners. We have already have fabulous customer service and these tools allow us to respond even faster. We could tell you case by case about the feedback we have received since we started using social media. We are doing everything we can to reach out, listen and respond.

Thanks to the COSI team for sharing their honest, inspiring story. They'll be checking in with the comments if you have any specific questions. And please share your stories about how your institution supports or hinders your ability to navigate and experiment in this new landscape.

10 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post! The museum where I work is currently moving in the direction of using social media (slowly, very very slowly) and having another organization share so candidly their experience is a great benefit. Thank you for this interview and thank you COSI for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this item. I am also a lurker and this piece has me thinking about moving to another level.

Also I help organize Calgary's Community Heritage Roundtable which I feel would benefit from using social media

Chris Larry said...

Great blog/interview. I really appreciate how it demonstrates that using these tools is a multi-departmental and needs buy in from a variety of areas of the institution. At my science center we have been moving in this direction in spurts, mostly from the education department. Lately the excitement/interest has spread to other departments which for me has been an important step.

Matt said...

My Introduction to Arts Administration class was just discussing Arts organizations needs to reach out to the local community - this couldn't have been more timely!

Nina Simon said...

I'm glad this has been helpful to folks. As someone from a small city (Santa Cruz) with a growing, active and activist tech community, I was able to relate to the stories of Columbus and am super-impressed by how the museum has fit itself into a citywide movement. Part of it is right place right time, but the benefits the museum can offer--space, institutional and educational clout, access to young impressionable minds--are tangible, unique contributions that any museum or arts organization can make to a growing local movement.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Nina! I think your observations are right on, too - how these initiatives ultimately work most successfully in connecting a museum to its local community...isn't it fascinating that the tools are universal, world-wide platforms used by millions and millions of people, but ultimately focus each of us on our own 'hoods? I love it.
Thanks for sharing, COSI!

Eric Siegel said...

hmmm...I wonder how this works in a local community like ours...first generation immigrants, working class or poorer...dozens of languages...

Any thoughts? Do we know about the use of texting, twitter, etc in different populations?

I would love to find out more about this aspect of social media.

That has probably been one reason that the Hall has moved so slowly...what is the "value proposition" in a community like ours?

Thanks for the insight, nina and cosi people. I am a cosi fan tutti.



Anonymous said...


I think one of our biggest successes at COSI was being willing to wade into the waters of social media without a set "business plan" or "value proposition." We didn't enter into it in order to forge new ties with the Columbus tech community... that just happened to be one of the unexpected results.

I would highly recommend that anyone who has interest try experimenting with social media personally (as someone who happens to work at the local museum), and wee what kind of connections you start making as an individual. This kind of involvement is comparable to a casual conversation with someone you sit next to on an airplane (and all museum employees are expected to positively represent their institution in casual social conversations). By seeing how your involvement as an individual goes, you can gain priceless first-hand perspective that can really help clarify how your institution might be able to more formally participate in the network.

As with a lot of social media, is hard to explain it unless you're participating :)

Nina Simon said...

It's a good question-what's right for your community? Brooklyn Museum has tapped in to the artists/Red Hook thing going on over there, but your audience is different. There are some demographic studies on social media use but I don't know of geographic ones (anyone?).

Being "part of something" as COSI has done is more valuable than one-to-one communication like texting because you get the compound, public effect for all the lurkers who are also on the email lists, at the meetups, etc.

Anonymous said...

It's great to see an institution be down-to-earth about all this social networking stuff. It makes it a little less intimidating for all of us who are still testing out the waters and waiting for the "perfect time" to jump in. Thanks!!!