No Holds Barred

About six months ago, I was asked by the executive director of a prestigious but somewhat hidebound—I guess “venerable” would be the word—cultural heritage institution to join the next meeting of the board and provide an assessment of the organization’s digital programs. I was told not to pull any punches. This is what I said.

  1. You don’t have a mobile strategy. This is by far your most pressing need. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, already more than 45% of Americans own a smartphone. That number rises to 66% among 18-29 year olds and 68% among families with incomes of more than $75,000. These are people on the go. You are in the travel and tourism business. If you are only reaching these people when they’re at their desks at work—as opposed to in their cars, on their lunch breaks, while they’re chasing the kids around on Saturday morning—you aren’t reaching them in a way that will translate into visits. This isn’t something for the future. Unfortunately, it’s something for two years ago.
  2. You don’t have an integrated social strategy. I could critique your website, and of course it needs work. But a redesign is a relatively straightforward thing these days. The more important thing to realize is that you shouldn’t expect more than a fraction of your digital audience these to interact directly with your website. Rather, most potential audience members will want to interact with you and your content on their chosen turf, and these days that means Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Wikipedia, depending on the demographic. You have to be ready to go all in with social media and dedicate at least as much thought and resources to your social media presence as to your web presence.
  3. Your current set of researcher tools and resources aren’t well-matched to what we know about researcher needs and expectations. Ithaka Research, a respected think tank that studies higher education and the humanities, recently released a report entitled “Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians” (I’d encourage everyone here to give it a good read; it has a ton of recommendations for organizations like this one grappling with the changing information landscape as it relates to history). One of its key findings is that Google is now firmly established as researchers’ first (and sometimes last) stop for research. Lament all you want, but it means that if you want to serve researchers better, your best bet isn’t to make your own online catalog better but instead to make sure your stuff shows up in Google. As the Library of Congress’s Trevor Owens puts it: “the next time someone tells you that they want to make a ‘gateway’ a ‘portal’ or a ‘registry’ of some set of historical materials you can probably stop reading. It already exists and it’s Google.” This speaks to a more general point, which is related closely to my previous point. Researchers come to your collection with a set of digital research practices and tools that they want to use, first and foremost among these being Google. Increasingly, researchers are looking to interact with your collections outside of your website. They are looking to pull collection items into personal reference management tools like Zotero. More sophisticated digital researchers are looking for ways to dump large data sets into an Excel spreadsheet for manipulation, analysis, and presentation. The most sophisticated digital historians are looking for direct connections to your database through open APIs. The lesson here is that whatever resources you have to dedicate to online research collections should go towards minimizing the time people spend on your website. We tend to evaluate the success of our web pages with metrics like numbers of page views, time spent per page, and bounce rate. But when it comes to search the metrics are reversed: We don’t want people looking at lots of pages or spending a lot of time on our websites. We want our research infrastructure to be essentially invisible, or at least to be visible for only a very short period of time. What we really want with search is to allow researchers to get in and get out as quickly as possible with just what they were looking for.
  4. You aren’t making good use of the organization’s most valuable—and I mean that in terms of its share of the annual budget—resource: its staff expertise. Few things are certain when it comes to Internet strategy. The Internet is an incredibly complex ecosystem, and it changes extremely quickly. What works for one project or organization may not work for another organization six months from now. However, one ironclad rule of the Internet is content drives traffic. Fresh, substantive content improves page rank, raises social media visibility, and brings people to the website. Your website should be changing and growing every day. The way to do that is to allow and encourage (even insist) that every staff member, down to the interns and docents, contribute something to the website. Everybody here should be blogging. Everyone should be experimenting. The web is the perfect platform for letting staff experiment: the web allows us to FAIL QUICKLY.
  5. You aren’t going to make any money. Digital is not a revenue center, it’s an operating cost like the reading room, or the permanent galleries, or the education department. You shouldn’t expect increased revenues from a website redesign any more than you should from a new coat of paint for the front door. But just like the reading room, the education programs, and the fresh coat of paint, digital media is vital to the organization’s mission in the 21st century. There are grants for special programs and possibly for initial capital expenditures (start-up costs), but on the whole, cultural organizations should consider digital as a cost of doing business. This means reconfiguring existing resources to meet the digital challenge. One important thing to remember about digital work is that its costs are almost entirely human (these days the necessary technology, software, equipment, bandwidth is cheap and getting cheaper). That means organizations should be able to afford a healthy digital strategy if they begin thinking about digital work as an integral part of the duties of existing staff in the ways I described earlier. You probably need a head of digital programs and possibly a technical assistant, but beyond that, you can achieve great success through rethinking/retraining existing human resources.

I’m happy to say that, aside from a few chilly looks (mainly from the staff members, rather than the board members, in the room), my no-holds-barred advice was graciously received. Time will tell if it was well received.