“Online audiences are as important as the real ones”: reflections and strategies on museum blogging

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After having tried to figure out what are the trends of the Italian scenario in museum blogging, for our second in-depth focus on the topic we went overseas.

We decided to interview two leading figures in the international museum blogging sector: the first one works in a huge American institution, the second one, is an Australian well-known blogger who has embarked herself on an epic museum adventure.

We interviewed Heather Foster Shelton, writer – editor and web manager for Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), who manages the SITES blog since it was born in 2007 – besides being in charge of social media campaigns and online content curation. For those who may not know it, SITES is a Smithsonian national outreach program that produces exhibitions that circulate all over the country reaching out to museums and communities.

Besides, we asked some questions to Alli Burness, creator and content manager of the “Museum in a Bottle” blog (if you want to find out how she chose the name for it, I suggest to read this interview).

Alli was working in a museum and studying to become a museum professional, when she decided to go on a trip around the world to visit as many museums as possible and connect the theories with the practice and experience. The Museum Pilgrim project, which includes the blog and related social media, shares the stories of that journey.

Taking advantage of their experience as well as the “insights” into the complex realities in which they operate, we asked these two professionals to respond to some of the doubts and issues that have emerged in the Italian landscape with regard to museum blogging

A: What are the types of content hosted on the blog? How do you find them? Do you produce them by yourself or do you have any help from interns and curators?

H: We post all types of content—from news about programs and events at our host museums to behind-the-scenes within Smithsonian staffers to little-known facts about objects that might be traveling in the exhibitions. I get a lot of “story” ideas from listening to my colleagues talk about the work that they are doing that day or that week. I’m particularly fond of digging into “the process” of what we do here at the Smithsonian—whether it’s building exhibitions, crating them, or working with amazing collaborators. For the most part, I come up with the initial idea and then shop it around to my colleagues. If they are copacetic with the concept, then I will write up the blog. After the first draft is complete, I send it to project director for fact checking, etc. In the past, we have also had some wonderful interns develop blog entries for us. I think these are some of the best we’ve posted!

A: Do you think that museums should blog and if so, why? what are the types of content that should be hosted on a museum’s blog?

A: These are good questions and they don’t have an answer which applies to all museums. While blogs are an excellent way for a museum to present many voices it is only one way to do so. Dana Allen-Greil has touched on this question in a brief presentation called “Blogging is Dead! Long Live the Museum Blog!

At this point, I’m personally tending to answer yes, I think museums, generally speaking, should have a blog. At the moment, I understand the museum blog as being in a hub and spoke relationship with other social platforms. It’s a way to share longer-form, more substantial or complicated insight or even a larger picture of the museum with online audiences.

There is a lot of content researched and produced in museums that doesn’t make it to the public and a blog can be a good way to put that material to use.

Some good museum blog projects happening at the moment – and which illustrate my points – are the Baltimore Museum of Art “100 Objects in 100 Days project”, which promises to

showcase the overall museum and its body of staff by focusing on individuals and single objects, or the recent exhibition “A – Z of the Human Condition” at the Wellcome Collection in the UK, which has featured bloggers for many of the themes in the related on-site exhibition.

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Wellcome Collection blog

A: Is it possible to organize a sustainable management plan for a museum’s blog to fit the daily workflow of a museum? If yes, what do you think an ideal solution would be? Which are the difficulties you have to deal with everyday in managing the blog?

According to Heather it is possible:
“I would say that it takes a serious effort to build and sustain. A blog is very different from other social media platforms in the time that it often takes to produce good, credible content, and that’s one of the difficulties in managing the blog, especially if it’s just one person who is charged as being the primary content creator”.

Both Heather and Allie make a similar point in saying that a possible solution to such a work load is to spread out the responsibility of generating articles—not just to full-time staffers but also to volunteers and interns. It has to be said that there’s also maintenance on the back end as well (spam, comments  management).

Alli continues by pointing out that: “This is when staff from all areas of an institution independently consider the blog as a space in which to share their work with audiences. This creates a sustainable situation in which content for online audiences is produced across the museum – curators, educators and technologists alike can be focused on both on-site and online audiences.

This requires a change in understanding the nature of museum audiences and how to engage with them by all staff across an institution. Keeping the museum blog in mind as a place for all staff to reach out to audiences is one example of the “digital as a dimension of everything” motto attached to the Tate’s Digital Strategy“.

A: How important is the integration of social media with the blog and vice versa?

Heather points out that at this particular moment, it is becoming more and more important as a tool–especially from Twitter–to bring people back to the full story, but it wasn’t always that way.

She continues: “It used to really stand alone and be separate from other social media. Right or wrong, we’ve always seen the blog more as an extension of our website than as a social media tool, perhaps that’s because our web content and blog emerged at the same time, while more robust social media platforms exploded and took off as the web/blog seemed to stay stagnant. From the blog side, we often try to send people back out to our social platforms, but the traffic to our blog is usually coming from those social platforms in the first place. Therefore, the blog is more of a destination than a jumping off point to other locations on the web.”

Alli, on the other hand, highlights that “Whether it’s a museum or a personal site, social media is integral to the success of a blog. While the blog may be the hub, the network of social media channels around it direct an audience to your blog like roadways. They, in turn, spread your blog content to new audiences. Of course, a museum can choose to run a network of social media channels without a blog, but it can be very difficult to communicate more nuanced topics or present in-depth information without one. In this way, a blog can act as an anchor with in-depth content which strengthens the integrity of the content in an institution’s broader network of social channels”.

photo credit: Gavin Llewellyn via photopin cc

A: Heather, we know that you have been thinking about closing the SITES blog. This is an interesting choice, especially considering what the Brooklyn Museum recently declared about being on the “right platforms” instead of all of them. What do you think about it and could you tell us more about your decision about closing the blog?

And ultimately, do you both think that it is worth it to have a blog?

H: Another tough question! For several years, after the rise of Facebook and Twitter and all the rest, the blog seemed insignificant and dated. We saw fewer and fewer page views, fewer and fewer comments. And, this was a circle—as I noticed less traffic, I stopped posting on a regular basis. The articles came once a month, at best. The focus of our social media strategy was to ride the wave of emerging tools and not really to babysit the ones that seemed to be lagging behind. That being said, we’re changing our view on HOW to use the blog, especially when it comes to coordinated social media campaigns where we’re looking to give audiences more detail, more knowledge, more insight. We’ve also started tying in our blog with our e-newsletter distribution and are sending interested readers back to the blog for more information. With this strategy, I’ve noticed an uptick in page views on the days that the e-blasts come out of our marketing office. Long story short, it may be premature for us to kill off this platform just yet. But in order to justify keeping it, we will have to have to develop and document a new strategy for tying in social media campaigns and related metrics, while attempting to extend the role of guest content contributors.

Without any hesitation, Alli makes a point in defense of blogging that we often forget: “Yes, it is worth honoring our online audiences with more substantial content tailored for them. However, it is important to consider the scope of your museum’s blog, how often you post and what content works best with your audiences. These are factors that will maximize the impact of your efforts. It’s also worth finding ways to mitigate the effort by leveraging the many opportunities for blog content already created in museums through research as well as writing for other purposes which can be adapted.

Reaching out into the community is also a way to bring new voices into the museum with guest bloggers. The Blog Ambassador program where local bloggers write for the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is an interesting current example. This adds another strength to the museum blog as not just a way to talk with online audiences, but also deepen and strengthen relationships with key members of the community, to bring the community into the museum to speak themselves”.

Header image: CC 2.0 –  Christian Schnettelker – http://www.manoftaste.de/