The Alchemy of Content

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You would think a cultural sector with 2500 organizations, attracting 59 million visitors annually, employing 24,000 staff, paying out over $650 million in salaries and wages, and contributing $17 billion annually to Canada’s GDP would command the attention of government. But the September 2006 funding cuts to museums and heritage groups were only the latest reminder that the sector can’t get the time of day from politicians.

The sector has been marginalized – deemed a low priority – paradoxically, at the very time the diversity of its offerings should make the sector highly useful to society.  Perhaps it’s simply getting the attention it deserves: instead of blaming government, we should really be pointing the finger at the sector itself for failing to persuade people of its value.  After all, it’s hard to connect with organizations that don’t effectively tell their story.

Museum content hasn’t been adequately put to use in the effort to create a broad mission-supporting brand.  Our museums find it easier, accuses New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, to be “a sponge not a spine” (Eva Holtby Lecture on Contemporary Culture, ROM, October 2006). This is the unfortunate result of listening to people who have long demanded museums stop imposing their intellectual will on visitors and transform themselves into what, they believe, the community wants: a locally-based public venue for sociability.  Seemingly absolved of their responsibility to actually stand for something concrete, museums thus eagerly define branding in very narrow terms, relegating it to the status of a minor administrative function: according to Henry Tam, as “a short-term mechanism to grab some media attention before quickly moving on to something else.” (The Collaborative State, Demos, 2007).

Funding cuts are a sign politicians have noticed the “museum as mall,” aesthetically pleasing and socially inviting though it may be, isn’t really serving anyone.

The Museum needs a spine: putting content and leadership at the centre of their brand building effort should be at the top of its agenda. Instead of relying on marketing gimmicks that actually diminish perceptions of their actual value, and then grousing about being a under-valued information source, museums must concentrate on making what they know indispensable: packaging well-differentiated stories that convey an organization’s unique expertise, and using this content to nurture the interests of a wide audience.

This is the crucial element of community building and revenue generation that, more often than not, gets neglected.  If government won’t support museums – and that day seems to be fast- approaching – museums better resolve to understand the alchemy of content.

Strong, self-reliant organizations convey meaning, build audience share and earned revenue by ensuring engaging content is at the core of their outreach. Consider two examples well outside the normal gaze of museums: professional baseball and hockey both suffered labour strikes that took them away from the public eye and, in both cases, are using innovative content development to reconnect with lost fans. In 2001, Major League Baseball began examining its archives and realized the statistics and film footage it created daily could be transformed into an almost limitless range of saleable products.  Through experimentation, the league established highly flexible online offerings extending the experience of die-hard fans and successfully reconnecting displaced fans to the game. The National Hockey League is following MLB’s lead and wants to leverage its knowledge assets the exact same way: Keith Ritter, President of NHL Interactive Cyber Enterprises, claims the league’s ability to sell digital content is directly tied to its ability to increase fan interest.

By contrast, the Canadian government’s version of innovative thinking about museums is limited to conferring National Museum status to institutions outside the National Capital Region – a move Heritage Minister, Bev Oda, has tried selling to the media as a “revolutionary” change.  It’s a politically safe, and regionally fair, decision but all it does is maintain the status quo: success will continue to be measured by the number of visitors who actually walk through turnstiles.  It would have been better if Oda’s department looked instead at new ways to connect more people – regardless of where they live – to the work of all museums.

Can Canadian museums commercialize their unique intellectual property to reconnect with displaced fans and build a far-broader community of interest? If this approach seems far-fetched, consider that several familiar nonprofits have long had their own “do it yourself” communication ethos: National Geographic Society, Smithsonian Institution, Mayo Clinic, PBS, and NPR are all institutions that have established widely-valued (and lucrative) brands rooted in developing and selling mission-connected content.

I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but the Canadian museum sector has to follow their lead if it wants to illustrate its relevance and survive. The survival instinct should be motivation-enough for museums to try and make themselves heard beyond the usual gimmickry.

There is another reason museums should be more innovative about content development: a new opportunity is emerging.  The Internet, as a distribution platform, is forcing a shift in traditional patterns of demand, driving us away from one-size-fits-all mass culture toward niches.  In his new book The Long Tail, Chris Anderson tells us the Internet is revealing latent demand for non-commercial, niche content. In one aspect of our life or another, writes Anderson, we all have some narrow interest which businesses like Amazon and iTunes are enabling people to satisfy.

If Anderson’s Long Tail theory is right, and reaching out a to broader marketplace is becoming increasingly viable, his finding has great implications for museums whose content previously could not find a place in pre-Internet information distribution channels controlled by book publishers, television networks, record companies, and movie studios.

But if you publish will they buy? Museums have the content a very broad audience – well beyond any museum’s four walls – will want to read, listen to, or watch. People are eager to be engaged by organizations willing to challenge their thinking with interesting information. Time and again, the Canadian public reveals its appetite for contemplating and experiencing the unique attributes of the nation: not just founding stories and heroic tales but deeper accounts of history, science, and the environment that tell us “how did things get to be as we see them today.” The diversity offerings locked inside our museums provide a way of educating society about how our country has evolved and is evolving.  Museums are in the business of helping create a better-informed citizenry. Telling those stories is part of the leadership for which Canadians expect museums to take responsibility.

More difficult to resolve is the question of how museums connect with potential audiences. It’s never been easy to capture attention.  The answer depends partly on demographics. According to a Carnegie Corporation report the average age of print newspaper readers in the United States is 55.  The interests of an older audience are worth nurturing because individuals in this age category may be more likely to donate money or volunteer their time.  But we’ve now had an entire generation grow up with the expectation of being able to have on-demand news on any subject at any time. To young people committed to and comfortable with digital technology, “the printed newspaper seems,” commented Editor & Journalist reporter Steve Outing, “as useful and convenient as a rotary-dial phone” (February 5, 2007). It is this generation, and the ones to follow, who are the constituents whose interests museums ignore at their peril.

Of course technology makes most nonprofits antsy, and there are good reasons to be cautious. The Internet has made capturing attention easier and, at the same time, more difficult: easier because, at the press of a button, organizations can communicate with millions of people.  But, because it is so easy, says blogger Cory Doctorow, the Internet has made our world a vast wilderness of content and voices.  Online, organizations are either visible or lost, which led the Wall Street Journal to quip in a headline, “You’re a nobody unless your name Googles well”.

Although the current mania for user-generated content is creating great excitement, these new online communities are creating pressures similar those of the 1990s when many organizations rushed to the Internet with little notion of how to best make use of it.

While museums need to figure out what new technology can do for them, they also have to realize it’s just the latest tool. “In the end,” Paul Vigna wrote in the Wall Street Journal, ”it’s not really about the distribution platform or the revenue model” (21 February 2007) but about content.  Peter Drucker made a similar point in 1999 when he commented that, however stored or delivered, we’re still talking about the printed word.

In other words, museums must first come to terms with the basic need to develop their content and nurture their communities with a range of meaningful and engaging stories delivered in a range of appropriate forms.

If the cost of not considering the alchemy of content is reduced relevance, the flip side is that building a communicating brand isn’t for the faint of heart. Canadian museums aren’t going to suddenly wake up one morning and start commercializing their intellectual property. Nor do I expect it to be a job for any one museum.

The solution to the problem of how Canadian museums express their value is rooted in collaboration.  This task should come naturally: there is, after all, a shared sense of mission and the desire for sustainability and the decline in government funding is hurting everyone, even the larger institutions.

Unfortunately, with few exceptions, insularity is alive and well in the museum community. But, when organizations in the sector resist pulling together, there are people like Don Tapscott to remind us – as he does in latest book, Wikinomics – that collaboration is not altruism but good sense: we “can’t rely on competition and short-term self interest alone to promote innovation and economic well-being.”

The innovation the sector needs to thrive is more likely to be the result of a large, diverse network of talent pulling together instead of any one museum working on its own. Collectively, museums need to address growing concerns about the application of inappropriate (and appropriate) business tactics in the social sectors. What constitutes appropriate branding? Instead of relying on traditional approaches to fundraising, can museums become self-reliant entities by actively creating the wealth necessary for future needs?

To deal effectively with these issues the sector needs a laboratory for ongoing research, discussion, and networking among museum stakeholders. Demos’ The Collective State study noted “There is sometimes an absence of collective leadership” and a tendency for partnerships to be ‘underled.’” Each and every museum would benefit if there was a mechanism for intelligent, ongoing critical reflection about best practices, one enabling multiple voices to reimagine and reposition Canada’s Museum Brand. Would the establishment of a museum-focused think tank enable ongoing internal discussion and, ideally, enable outreach to the general public?

We need to bring together people from all levels within museums – from the grassroots to management – to reimagine their work and consider how an integrated whole can function better.  Collaboration that is open and ongoing, and aggregates the opinions of many specialists, will result in the rapid diffusion of best practices and the stimulation of hybrid ideas. It is here where the open standards and collaborative infrastructure of the new web are bound to have a profound impact. The so-called Web 2.0 is, says Tapscott, about sharing, socializing, collaborating, and creating within loosely connected communities; it self-organizes through blogs, wikis, chat rooms, personal broadcasting, and other forms of peer-to-peer creation and communication.  With the tools to collaborate and create value at our fingertips, the process of sharing will lower costs, build community, accelerate discovery and, Tapscott writes, “lift all the boats in the sea” (281).

With or without the help of government, museums have to step beyond the status quo and think differently about how to advance the Museum Brand category. A museum manager from Montreal recently told me “I think people do know what a museum is, but what they sometimes have trouble understanding is where it ranks in importance next to hospitals, universities, and children’s charities.” Museum fortunes can’t be renewed unless the public can answer this question. It can’t be left to chance.

Hopefully Tapscott is right that “the natural complement to a renewed sense of purpose is the capability to identify and harvest external ideas.”  If so, we’ll see the emergence of new content, packaged as informative and accessible communication products, that not only help museums connect their work to Canadians’ social well-being, but also build the financial resources to advance their missions.

(Originally posted in Knowledge Marketing Watch, 15 June 2007)

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