Friday, October 29, 2010

The Johnny Cash Project: A Participatory Music Video That Sings

One of the questions that comes up most frequently when I talk with folks about participation is: what should we do with the things that visitors create? What should we do with their post-its and stories and drawings and poems?

This question is a byproduct of the reality that most participatory projects have poorly articulated value. What's the "use" of visitors' comments? If you don't have a sense of an outcome--whether that be internal research, community conversation, or something else--you can't decide how or whether contributions should be documented or archived. When a participatory activity is designed without a goal in mind, you end up with a bunch of undervalued stuff and nowhere to put it.

But the best participatory projects don't suffer from this problem, because they solicit visitors' contributions toward a very specific outcome. Whether visitors' work will be used to create an artwork, a dataset, or an exhibit, the solicitation is directly tied to an intended product. This works best when:
  1. Visitors have a clear understanding of the overall goal for the project. When everyone knows how their work will collectively build toward something greater, it increases motivation to participate and encourages participants to contribute high-quality work. It's not just a personal activity; it's an opportunity to be part of something.
  2. The project is designed to scale. Ideally, it can absorb lots of repetitive or voluminous visitor contributions and deploy this additional material in a thoughtful way. The project never gets "full" and is always open to new contributors.
I was reminded of these two design principles when exploring the Johnny Cash Project, a crowd-created music video for a posthumous recording of Cash singing "Ain't No Grave." To construct the video, artist Chris Milk assembled images and footage of Johnny Cash in a sequence along with the song. That's hardly revolutionary. But what happened next is: Milk created a simple tool to invite visitors to augment the frames of the video with digital brushstrokes. The result is a beautiful animated video that composites together alternative frames created by participants all over the world.

There are two basic ways to participate on the website: you can contribute your own augmented frame to the video, or you can assemble a video by selecting frames from the huge volume produced by the crowd. The first activity is creative, the second editorial. You can also rate frames, which changes their likelihood of being displayed in the default video, which features the highest-ranked frames submitted by participants.

The result is a video that changes dynamically based on what people contribute and rank on the site. It's not a waste to have multiple participants contribute versions of the same original frame: at any time, any version could be more popular, or more appealing to a specific subset of viewers, than the others. Some viewers might enjoy populating a video with frames that feature references to Christ; others might prefer highly photorealistic images. The additional frames add volumes of data that make the user experience more personalized, diverse, and powerful.

There are a few other things that make the Johnny Cash Project compelling:
  • The creative activity is well-scaffolded. If you want to make a frame, you don't have to start from scratch; instead, you get to draw over a pre-existing reference frame. While the drawing tools could be more intuitive, remixing a reference image is likely less scary for non-artists than other more involved ways to produce a frame. You can also watch time lapse video of any frame being created. These videos inspire and instruct would-be participants while stroking the egos of past contributors.
  • The collective outcome (a cool music video) is clear. The video is a cohesive, beautiful story, and it's obvious to any user how her frame might be integrated into the whole. This is not just an opportunity to venerate Johnny Cash or perform a personal creative act but to contribute to an understandable and compelling product.
  • There are lots of ways to participate. Even if you don't want to submit a frame, you can vote on frames or compose your own custom video based on the frames submitted thus far. You can even explore the submitted frames by artistic style ("pointillism," "sketchy," "abstract").
  • The site gives credit to contributors. Every frame is labeled with the name of its creator, and the Credits section also lists the contributors by name. The terms of serviceare reasonable and thoughtfully written (though the underlying terms are full of draconian legalese that seems somewhat contradictory to other language on the site).
Design-wise, there are some lousy aspects of the site, especially when it comes to accessibility. The color contrast is poor, the instructions are somewhat mysterious, and everything's in Flash.

But overall, this is a model project that starts with an outcome, not an activity. Chris Milk didn't say, "How about we let people draw pictures of Johnny Cash and then we'll have a huge collection of portraits we don't know what to do with?" He said: "Let's make a dynamic music video--and let's set up a tool so fans can help us do it."

Are you making that shift in your thinking about participatory project design?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Guest Post: World Maker Faire and the New York Hall of Science: Radical Trust

I’ve long been interested in the intersection between maker culture and museums. On September 25 and 26, the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) hosted the first East Coast Maker Faire. Maker Faire is a massive public event, hosted by Make Magazine annually in San Mateo, that brings together hackers, crafters, and do-it-yourself scientists for a weekend of demonstrations and explosions. In this guest post, Eric Siegel, Director and Chief Content Officer of NYSCI, describes the partnership to develop and manage the World Maker Faire and its impact on his science center. Eric will check in to respond to any questions in the comments and is also available by email at It’s worth mentioning that the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit also hosted a Maker Faire at their facility this year.

Why at NYSCI?

It wasn’t obvious to the Maker Faire team that Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, where the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) is located, was the ideal location for an East Coast Maker Faire. The park is among the largest and most heavily used in New York, but it’s not glamorous. Remnants of two World’s Fairs, both impressive and neglected, are scattered around the park. NYSCI, which was founded during the 1964 World’s Fair, occupies approximately 20 acres of the 1,255 acre park. Every year, sections of the park are spruced up for the US Open tennis tournament that takes place in a stadium within the park, but large sections of the park are rather threadbare. We toured Flushing Meadows Park with the Maker team on a grey day and even I had to admit it looked a bit desolate. It was frankly hard to imagine how it would come alive for Maker Faire. At the same time, others in New York were pitching for a more urban setting on Governors Island or a more suburban setting in New Jersey.

After the tour, the group came back to NYSCI and we had a brainstorm… let’s just do it in the museum. We could clear out some exhibitions, dedicate some large dramatic venues and workshop spaces, and devote NYSCI’s 15 acre “backyard” to pavilions and large scale outdoor exhibits. Rather than NYSCI hosting Maker Faire within Flushing Meadows Park, we would make a partnership and really collaborate on the Faire.

One of the attractions for this collaboration was NYSCI’s diverse audience, many of whom were not part of the current Maker Faire community. If you do something great and exciting for families in Queens, you are going to get a virtual United Nations of visitors. Museum people think of New York City as Manhattan and the hipster communities of Brooklyn, but it is in the great immigrant communities that New York City really distinguishes itself and Queens is the epicenter of immigration to the City.

Building the Partnership

So now we had the critical task of constituency building among museum staff, most of whom had no idea what Maker Faire was, and in the maker community, many of whom had no idea what NYSCI was. We scheduled a series of “getting acquainted” meetings between the Maker Faire team, including Dale Dougherty and Sherry Huss, and senior staff and trustees at NYSCI. These turned out to be essential. As anarchic and unhinged as Maker Faire in San Mateo seems at one level, it is also clear that the logistics are handled expertly by a very experienced and dedicated crew. Sherry and Dale represented both “go with the flow” spirit and a sense of complete competence, calm, and conviction. Virtually every NYSCI staffer who met with them agreed that these are people that can pull this off and we all had a great feeling about working with them.

We also met with key members of the maker community in New York and nationally. This was the beginning of what I think was one of the primary benefits of Maker Faire to NYSCI. There is a whole range of recyclers, hackers, metalworkers, weavers, builders, circuit benders, and artists up and down the East Coast that NYSCI connected with through the Maker Faire planning. The indefatigable Nick Normal, who works with a makerspace/gallery called Flux Factory in Queens, was Maker Faire’s local maker community coordinator. Martha Stewart hosted a reception at their amazing loft/work space in Manhattan for local makers. We set up a website and gathered several hundred applications, from which about 400 were selected for participation.

Most of the makers came at their own expense, paid no money to Maker Faire, and were pretty independent. This is one of the fascinating and risky things about World Maker Faire: the whole experience is pretty emergent with a very low barrier to entry. Decisions about who could participate were made on the basis of sparse information from the online application, a lot of intuition, and a lot of self-organizing community support. If you are a hacker known to other hackers, your participation is more likely; if you are outside the existing community, the likelihood of your participation is a bit sketchier.

About a week before the event itself, the morning after a tornado touched down in Queens and tore up a dozen trees on the NYSCI site by the roots, the Maker Faire team arrived and turned our conference room into their operations center. Pavilions went up. Makers arrived with their equipment. On the evening of the event Red Bull sponsored a maker party featuring drinks made of Red Bull and vodka. It was probably a high water mark for NYSCI’s hipster credibility.

The event went pretty much flawlessly. The weather cooperated, the crowds showed up, our transportation arrangements went smoothly, most of the exhibitors things worked nicely, everybody looked engaged. We had over 400 makers at the Faire and 25,000 visitors in two days. The makers ranged from Eepy Bird doing their Mentos and Coke crowd pleaser to a really loud and terrifying ramjet powered ride by the Brooklyn-based Madagascar Institute (whose motto is “Safety Third”). There were scheduled speakers including Steven Wolfram, the creator of Mathematica software, who talked about coding as making. There was a secret noodle restaurant in an anonymous panel truck in the operations yard created by performance artists, serving delicious free noodle soup for those who discovered it. A large “maker shed” pavilion sold hundreds of books and kits for do-it-yourselfers. An open source 3D printer kit was a clear hit, supported by 3D printing workshops. A third of the outside area was devoted to crafts, with free knitting lessons, paintable soft circuitry. The phrase I heard most often was “something for everyone.” I can’t imagine someone coming who wouldn’t find something fascinating and engaging.

So What?

It’s hard to draw generalizable “Museum 2.0” insights from World Maker Faire. NYSCI has a previously untapped capacity for change, trust, and flexibility that turned out to be a vital resource for this undertaking. But none of that would have come to pass without the very specific conditions of timing, location, and above all the goodwill and expertise of the Maker Faire team.

The risk in this approach is frankly completely at odds with the typical meticulous care with which science museum exhibitions are planned. Science center exhibitions are planned by teams who thoughtfully consider content, visitor impact, and learning outcomes. We hire designers with expertise in human factors and visitor flow, engage PhD researchers, experts in learning sciences, and content advisors. The makers, on the other hand, are solo operators or artists/hacker collectives who are principally concerned with self-expression, experimentation, and excitement. The NYSCI staff all were amazed at how seamlessly visitors went from our carefully crafted exhibitions to the occasionally funky Maker Faire work without missing a beat. At least for the one weekend of Maker Faire, excitement and experimentation with touch of danger and anarchy trumped the careful and intentional approach of NYSCI’s exhibits. It also helped that the creators themselves were at each of the Maker Faire exhibits, engaging visitors and answering questions. Very thought provoking for the museum exhibition community.

The World Maker Faire was bracketed by two related events. The first was the Open Hardware Summit on the Thursday before Maker Faire, which brought 300 young open source hackers to NYSCI to discuss the technology, philosophy, social context, and practical issues surrounding the creation of an open source community. As I said in my greeting to the group, seeing them makes NYSCI’s goal clear: we want to encourage our very diverse audience, many of whom are first generation immigrants, to acquire the confidence and competence to engage the world the way the open source community has. Not only do the open source hardware people have technical skills, but they also have the courage to work outside of normal commercial frameworks to create social value. We want that for our visitors.

The National Science Foundation and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy sponsored a conference on the Monday following the workshop at NYSCI. We invited about 70 educators, technologists, thinkers, and makers to come to the Faire on Sunday and spend a day talking about the potential impact of the maker movement on education in general. There were great discussions which we are assembling into a report I will be glad to share as soon as it is completed. [UPDATE - here is the report as a downloadable PDF.]

The NYSCI staff fell in love with Maker Faire. I didn’t hear a single cross-grained comment through the haze of exhaustion we all experienced. For me, it was among the highest points of my 30 years of museum work. And I am proud to say that I think the feeling was entirely mutual with the Maker Faire staff. They were amazed at the diversity of our audiences, the museum’s flexibility and willingness to collaborate as true partners, the incredible efforts put in by our staff, led by our COO Bob Logan and VP for External Affairs Dan Wempa, and our willingness to allow the event to emerge and to trust in the maker community and the process.

Since World Maker Faire, I have had dozens of comments from makers who were unfamiliar with NYSCI, and from the “People In Black” community of young artists and activists in New York. These people are now eager to collaborate on projects and participate in our community maker activities. So our universe of potential audiences and collaborators has opened up as a result of World Maker Faire 2010.

At this point, a few weeks after the event, it appears that World Maker Faire will significantly transform NYSCI’s programming and identity. We had already been moving toward more open-ended, design-based exhibit and program experiences, but this lit one of Madagascar Institute’s jet rockets under that process. We are refocusing our public program staff on maker activities and maker weekends with open-ended design challenges. We are working to fund partnerships with makers in the local communities to bring them into new maker clubs which will work to culminate in a large community maker presence at World Maker Faire 2011.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Quick Hit: 2010 Horizon Report on New Technologies and Museums

The folks at the New Media Consortium have released their annual Horizon Report, a roundup of up-and-coming technologies relevant to museums, archives, and libraries. Like its predecessors, the report provides succinct backgrounds and reference projects for technologies predicted for widespread adoption on the 1, 2-3, and 4-5 year timescale. 2010 is the first year that the NMC has released a museum-specific report, but previous reports have been informed by museum professionals (as well as other educational technologists).

From my perspective, the Horizon Report's value is in its quick technology descriptions and links, not its predictive power. The technologies are selected by a large and diverse group of professionals, and it's probably impossible to pick a single set of near-term technologies for institutions with different budgets, capacities, and technological experience. One institution may be struggling to provide open wireless while another is messing around with augmented reality. Over the past five years, there have been some technologies that came and went (virtual worlds) and others that seem to be permanently on the five year horizon because geeks really like them (semantic web, internet of things).

The Horizon Reports ARE really useful if you need arsenal to explain the relevance, utility, or educational value of new technologies in your museum. Their descriptions of the technologies are clear, brief, and loaded with links.

Here are the technologies covered for the past five years, along with links to the reports. Happy reading!

  • mobile
  • social media
  • augmented reality
  • location-based services
  • gesture-based computing
  • semantic web
  • mobile
  • cloud computing
  • geo-everything (similar to location-based services)
  • personal web
  • semantic-aware applications
  • smart objects
  • grassroots video
  • collaboration webs (collaborating on the web)
  • mobile broadband
  • data mashups
  • collective intelligence
  • social operating systems
  • user-created content
  • social networking
  • mobile phones
  • virtual worlds
  • new scholarship and emerging forms of publication
  • massively multiplayer educational gaming
  • social computing
  • personal broadcasting
  • mobile phones
  • educational gaming
  • augmented reality and enhanced visualization
  • context-aware environments and devices (similar to "smart objects" in 2009)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Getting People In the Door: Design Tips from the Retail World

Are museum visitors "customers?" Are library patrons "shopping?"

The retail analogy falls in and out of fashion in cultural institutions. Some swear by it. Some eschew it. Last week, I learned to think about it in a new way. I don't think cultural institutions should be more like retailers in how we treat visitors who are already in the door. But we have a lot to learn from how retailers attract and encourage people to enter in the first place.

I attended a workshop by Bob Gibbs, an urban planner who designs malls and shopping districts around the US. He started by saying "In the next three hours, I will show you how to increase sales in your store. I'm going to talk about the theory and practical techniques for doing so. We're not talking about values or how to make your city better or how to change the world. The focus here is on increasing sales."

What followed was a fascinating assortment of statistics and tidbits about how design influences how people shop. Some bits were familiar from my experience in exhibit design (i.e. people like to travel counterclockwise, don't over-clutter displays) but a lot was new to me. Some particularly useful ideas:
  • It takes eight seconds to walk by a typical storefront. Once someone is two seconds past the door, they will not turn around. You have to grab them in the first four seconds while they are approaching.
  • Within two seconds of entering a store, 70% of people know whether they will buy something. Stores use simple window displays and a "front and center" table to clearly and quickly convey what's hot, and most train a staff member to welcome customers immediately upon entry.
  • An open door generates 35% more business than a closed door. Doors that are flush to the sidewalk are more inviting than recessed doors. Outdoor planters and a lot of downlight can make a recessed entry more welcoming. How many museum and library entrances are hard to find, dark, and require opening a heavy door?
  • The highest-performing malls and shopping districts (in terms of sales) have lots of clear sight lines from one storefront to another. People like to be able to see the fronts of other stores and are more likely to browse a high volume of stores if they can see store windows from multiple locations. In a museum or library, this translates well to being able to see across to other exhibits or areas (especially when visiting in a family group that frequently splits and recombines).
  • People like to walk in a loop. They avoid "cul de sacs" that they can see are dead-ends, because they don't want to get bored walking through the same merchandise twice.
  • People really care about the cleanliness of doors and windows, especially at entrance. This is most important to parents; some people will not visit a store with children if the door looks too dirty. If there are public fixtures in front of your storefront (trashcan, hydrant), you should spruce those up to maintain a clean, friendly image of your store.
  • 75% of American spending occurs after 5:30pm and on Sunday. Stores should be open when people want to shop.
  • The average shopper in America does not like shopping. She's a single mom with very limited time. She wants to get in and out quickly, with a good deal on the thing she needs. The only time she likes shopping is when on vacation. Shopping is one of the most popular vacation activities, and many Americans plan their trips in part around shopping.

Where Cultural Institutions and Retailers Fall Short and What We Can Learn from Each Other

Both museums and stores sometimes commit the sin of not respecting people's intelligence, but they do it in different ways. Museum staff tend to treat visitors as people who want to be there, who need a little help, who might be a bit confused or overwhelmed by the experience. We talk about trying to break down "threshold fear"--the uncertainty some people might feel about whether they are qualified to enter the museum at all. Museums may deter potential visitors by treating them as not smart enough or worthy enough to enter.

In contrast, most retailers treat potential customers as imminently smart and worthy but once inside, grant respect only for their purchasing power. The customer is always right, but if she doesn't buy anything, she's a waste of time. Bob talked about eradicating "threshold resistance," not threshold fear. People aren't afraid to enter a store, but sometimes they don't want to. Retailers use all kinds of tricks used to get people to buy and buy more, to boost their confidence and positive feeling about shopping.

Retail stores are good at dealing with potential customers. Their design and staff approach focuses on attracting people in the door and making them feel confident and happy once inside. Cultural institutions, on the other hand, are good at dealing with customers who are already in the door. Their design and approach offers people a wide variety of ways to experience the content and encourages them to do so in whatever path works best for them. You're not just as good as what you buy, but what you learn, what you share with others, and what you contribute.

Museums and libraries don't need to be more like retail stores inside. We don't need to offer sneaky sales or push impulse purchases at the register. But we do need to find better ways to communicate what's available inside from the outside. If your institution was a store, would you walk in?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Month at the Museum, Part 1: A Video Contest that Delivers

On October 20, a young woman named Kate will move into Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry and live there for a month. Kate was selected from over 1500 applicants based on a one-minute video, an essay, and an application form.

This post is not about the Month at the Museum concept or implementation. That will come later. Instead, this post focuses on a fascinating aspect of Month at the Museum: the video applications.

Why the Video Contest Worked

Video contests are one of the most challenging kinds of participatory projects to pull off. It's hard to make a video, and even big, popular museums have struggled to entice visitors to make their own videos related to exhibition and visit experiences.

Not so for the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI). The response to the Month at the Museum was incredible--over 1500 videos submitted in under a month. MSI did three things that most organizations don't or can't do when they set up a video contest:
  1. They got a TON of local, national, and international press.
  2. They offered clear and compelling rewards: the chance to live in the museum and a $10,000 prize. Month at the Museum also tapped into some powerful internal desires--for fame, for adventure, for excitement. This wasn't a situation where you make a video and maybe you'll win the chance for it to be on the website or playing in the lobby. You make a video for MSI, and maybe you'll have a crazy, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
  3. They asked people to make videos about themselves. It is much easier for people to talk about themselves than about an externality like an exhibit or a science concept.

What the Videos Reveal

I'm hooked on these videos, but I feel mixed about the content. I've watched a couple hundred. In some ways, the videos make me incredibly heartened about the love and enthusiasm people have for museums and science. Nothing warms my heart like seeing outtakes of a guy trying to scale the walls of MSI, or a man spinning a yarn about his family's long history sleeping in museums.

But many videos reinforced common stereotypes about science museums, full of bouncy evangelists in lab coats pressing the "science is fun!" mantra. Only a couple actually addressed what the applicants would like to do in the museum or get out of the experience beyond basics like "engage with people about science" or "sleep in the submarine." I was disappointed that I didn't see any videos that played with data visualization or really pushed the idea of experimentation in the context of this opportunity. It's great that you'll blog for the museum and have fun learning with kids. But what will you offer that museum staff don't?

Whether good or bad, these videos are addictive for the insights they provide into how people perceive museums and science, and also how they represent themselves in this kind of contest situation. I wish I had time to watch all the videos and code them for their content and style, but I don't (graduate research project, anyone?).

The finalists were interesting, but not inspiring. Here are the videos that intrigued me most in several categories, so you can waste minutes, not hours, exploring. I hope you'll weigh in with your own favorites and observations in the comments.
  • Overall favorite. I loved this video by Tracie Farrell. She approached the question "why should I be picked" in a way that was smart, thoughtful, creative, and lovely. I'm biased, because she's demonstrating a participatory project, but she was able to "show, not tell" her interest in engaging with people. Her thoughtful video was a salve for me after too many bad jokes from people in lab goggles. In general, I liked videos made by artists, but some got overly poetic. I could watch this woman hula hoop between jump ropes all day, but I could drop the rest of her video.
  • "I know science" vs. "I don't know science." There were good videos on both sides of the aisle, both from bonafide scientists and people who reveled in their non-science knowledge (this included Kate, the winner, as well as one of my snarky favorites). I appreciated this engineer's experience and this student's experiment, but many of the scientist/educator videos were painfully pedantic, goofy, or even a little creepy (and yes, women can be creepy too).
  • Music videos. So many songs written about living in the museum. My favorite song was used by MSI as the background to the video at the top of this post. But I also loved the chorus of sharks, the Radio Disney MC's impressive rap, and the woman who somehow included the musical stylings of both They Might Be Giants and Ke$ha.
  • Personal overshare. There's the guy who proposes to his girlfriend. The girl who shows off ALL her gymnastics trophies. The guy who needs to get away from his belligerent roommate (this video also features my favorite take on the Coke and Mentos experiment). The guy who's in it for the chicks. A girl who loves aviation. The guy who's "a bit older than he looks." There were also many self-aggrandizing, "I've traveled the world" videos. Maybe their life experience qualifies them as interesting exhibits, but the best exhibits tend to be a little more visitor-focused than self-involved.
  • Museum staffers. Turns out lots of people who work in museums would like to live in one. There's this would-be astronaut from the Art Institute of Chicago, an educator/artistfrom the Science Museum of Minnesota, an educator from LA's natural history museum, a technologist from Sci-Port, even a Texan librarian. I'd love to hear more about what these people think they could do with a month at MSI that they can't do at work every day.
  • Old Spice parodies. Two very different ones from Davin and Kerry.
Do you have a favorite? What do these videos tell you about how people perceive museums?

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Discounts, Secret Deals, and Value: Learning from Groupon

Let's face it: there are people who are into coupons and there are people who are not. For people who love them, the coupon page is like a treasure hunt, full of exciting things to be discovered. Coupons are usually time-limited, and that's part of the appeal--to find the thing available THIS WEEK ONLY in time to use it.

Not everyone gets excited by this. Coupons have a narrative, but in most cases, the narrative is pretty mundane. I can get 30 cents off of yogurt. Great.

But recently, an online coupon company called Groupon has made big waves not by offering the best or most coupons but by focusing completely on amplifying that narrative of discovery, so much so that people get caught up in the excitement and use the site to purchase goods, services, and experiences they otherwise would not buy. Groupon is an audience development machine, and it's highly relevant to cultural institutions looking to attract people with promises of exciting new discoveries within.

Groupon is a website that offers deeply-discounted deals on goods and services, mostly from local businesses. A coupon goes up for half-price museum admission or spa treatments, and users have one day to buy. As on Kickstarter, a minimum number of coupons must be purchased for the deal to happen (although these days, 98% of Groupon businesses make their minimum). While restaurants make up the lion's share of the offerings, there are all kinds of experiences--from tree ziplines to hot stone massages to photography sessions--that garner interest as well. Groupon takes 50% of every fulfilled deal, so if a business offers a $20 product at $10, the business takes $5 and Groupon takes $5 when that coupon is fulfilled.

Groupon delivers huge volume. The Art Gallery of Ontario sold 4,285 half-price admissions in one day last month. The Cleveland Museum of Natural History sold 1,318 half-price memberships last week. For companies that sell products or personal services, Groupon can be a tricky form of advertising. Too much response, and you find yourself operating at a deep discount, scrambling to provide 2,000 haircuts to people who are paying less than market rate. But for museums, which mostly have extra space to fill (and a low per-customer operating cost), this isn't a big issue.

For now, I can't speak on the extent to which Groupon museum purchases are attracting new audiences and converting those folks into more dedicated visitors. The data is still too fresh in most institutions (please, share your experience in the comments). Instead, I want to focus on the psychology of Groupon, and the question of how this kind of discount is different from others.

I've written before about the problems of value memberships and museums that sell themselves short by focusing on membership as "good deal" instead of as a special experience. Groupon is different; it turns the discount itself into a special experience.

Does a Groupon promotion devalue the visitor (or member) experience? If you get a $10 museum admission for $5, does that make it a special treat or a cheapened experience? Are the people who buy a half-price membership less likely to take advantage of its value, and thus waste institutional resources lavished upon them?

Museums deal with this question all the time when it comes to free or discounted days. The general sense is that yes, people who come on free day do have different patterns of use from those who come on admission days, but they aren't necessarily less engaged or interested in what the institution has to offer.

What makes Groupon special is the same thing that makes free day special--the sense that this is a unique, limited opportunity. While free days and discounts make the institution more accessible to more people, the specificity of the event or coupon makes it feel exclusively for people "in the know." There's an insider feeling that comes when you get a deal or experience that not everyone gets. You even feel it when you share it with others--there's the cache of being the person who let others in on the secret.

This is extremely strange when you think about it. It's an insider experience that is completely public, just time-limited. The whole argument about discounts devaluing the experience shifts when you talk about offering something "special" instead. At the San Francisco airport, when long-term parking is sold out, they hand you a voucher to park in (the much closer) short-term parking for long-term rates. The voucher says "This is your lucky day!" and I do feel a sense of thrill that I've gotten a surprise steal when it happens. It doesn't make short-term parking (at twice the price) feel cheap. It doesn't make the experience feel more or less special at all. Instead, it makes me feel special.

I was thinking about this when a librarian friend told me "the first thing I do when I have a prolonged interaction with a patron is waive any fines on their account. There's no better way to advertise what the library's about." He explained that fines do contribute to his library's bottom line--about 3% of operating budget--but that the benefit to that patron of having that special moment, that friendly, insider feel is worth the loss in revenue. Advertising of any kind costs money. In the library's case, the goal is to build customer loyalty. In Groupon's case, the goal is to bring new people in the door.

There's overlap between the group of people who would buy at full price and those who need a discount incentive (see this great post for a geeky take on how Groupon shifts the demand curve). Last year, when the Brooklyn Museum offered a membership at deep discount on Groupon, they also offered it as a renew option for current members so existing members wouldn't feel like they had been "penalized" for buying a membership at full price. They didn't go out of their way to reach out to members and say, "Hey! Cheap renewal today!" because they do believe in the value of their membership price, but they did want to be fair. They were offering a special thing, on a special day--for everyone special enough to jump on it.

In this way, Groupon is a perfect demonstration of Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore's principles of theatricality presented in The Experience Economy. In the book, they argue: "instead of leading customers to expect free goods, companies could use the same money to create a memorable experience." They champion businesses that replace uniform discounts with surprises that reward loyalty or just being lucky. The psychology of the personal gift or surprise is very different than that of the discount. Groupon is theatrical--the ticking countdown, the question of how many people will join in, the excitement of discovering something new--and that sense of theater fuels its success.

The thing I'm learning from Groupon isn't that people love a deal. It's that people love a specific, targeted, exclusive opportunity with a dash of excitement and a light narrative thrown in. And that's something that cultural institutions could offer in all kinds of ways beyond the admissions desk.