Tuesday, March 06, 2007

It’s the Experience Stupid

A couple of readers replied last week with some great questions in response to my post on the graying of the web. These could be summarized as follows: if it isn’t innovation or new media that makes a good museum website, what is it? I tried to reply to this question with the examples I used in my followed-up. But, to no avail. I will spell it out…

Museum websites succeed when they offer visitors an online experience that marries the wonder of museum visitation (engaging the objects) with the opportunity for further exploration and surprising insights. Successful websites are those that create a space for experience that is not feasible in a physical museum environment.

In other words, it is the experience created that defines the success of Museum websites, not the technologies embedded or leveraged therein.

This might seem antithetical to my usual rants on Web 2.0, innovation, API’s and open access in the context of museum and cultural institutions. However, this is not the case. Web 2.0 is innovative not because its new fangled technologies, but rather because it has fundamentally shifted the paradigm of the web from eyeballs to hands. Web 2.0 and its extensions (Mash-ups, API’s, social production, tagging) have traded passive site visitorship and information broadcasting for tools that enable content creation, sharing and manipulation. This is the core innovation and it is rooted in the site visitor's experience.

Ironically, it is the experience that Museums tend to gloss over when they are wrestling with their websites. With the hype over technologies, the essential lesson is missed along with institutional mission. For example, while people certainly enjoy having access to Podcasts and tours in MP3 format, the technology itself is value-neutral. It is not the MP3 format itself that is driving people to download. The true power of the technology is in its redefining of where and how visitors interact and experience a Museum’s work.

A great analysis of the power of experience can be found in Max Lenderman’s Experiencing the Message. The author discusses the emergence of experiential marketing and what it offers brand managers in terms of both greater control and return for their efforts. And though Lenderman is primarily focused on the corporate retail and tourism sectors of the economy, the lessons are valuable for the cultural sector as well. “…reaching them might not be enough. They need to be inspired by the brand, product or service… An experiential approach – one that emphasizes a personal or sensory interaction - is proving to be the best way to reach the elusive influentials and connecors…” And while there is a real bias away from technologically-based approaches to experience in this work, his point on creating experience and not passive receptivity is important and points to the other essential benefit of experience-rich websites; the marketing and revenue return.

When experiential programming is embraced, there is a breakdown of the traditional silos of marketing/fundraising versus education/curatorial. Engaging and experience-driven websites create opportunities for loyalty, buzz and revenue where none previously existed.

The inclusion goSmithsonian on my current list of favorite Museum websites underscores this point. While it offers some surprising technologies – it is also extremely rooted in experience of the visitor. The ability to build your own itinerary (and subsequently share it with others) is a great utilization of technology to allow users to interact, build and share the experience of the Smithsonian. Its personally created and socially distributed structure reflects the web 2.0 paradigm completely. This platform, in turn, enables scheduling, reservation and other services essential to cultural tourism. (Now if only similar services like this would be developed for collections and exhibitions)

Another example, I really enjoy the public television station Channel Thirteen’s inclusion of their director’s blog on their homepage, weekly newletter and fundraising emails. One could validly ask how this is experiential. The point here is that the blog underscores the overall mission of the organization while complimenting other outreach that this institution performs - it does this by highlighting the activity, conversation and dialogue with the director.

The connective tissue here is the experience. Cultural institutions that are successful online are not just broadcasting their schedules or exhibitions to the web. These institutions are creating online spaces for exploration, conservation, sharing and connection that are rooted first in a user-centric understanding of mission.

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