By Susan Spero
As I sit with my cup of coffee this morning and think through yesterday’s tour de force by Seb Chan, I too realize that like a tweet on #sfmetrix stating that a tornado of ideas was spinning through the tweeter’s mind, mine too feels like it has been hit by a storm.
Tremendous kudos are in order for the organizers for sponsoring a great day: the National Arts Marketing Project, Theatre Bay Area, American Express, The San Francisco Foundation, the Wallace Foundation, SFMOMA, AAM Museum and Technology, Museum Computer Network, WMA, along with other organizations and certain individuals.
The star of the day was Seb Chan who literally held the podium for the entire day showing how the team at Powerhouse Museum (http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/) have, through time, built a smart online system.
Their considered online philosophy and care has given them results: the Powerhouse collection has been pushed to the forefront of their visitor’s online experience. A larger percentage of visitors spend time on pages that have to do with the collection more than with any other offerings. Their visitors engage and use the collections information available: from the fabric swatches for creating a new issue of the designs or even as insights into objects for an ebay transaction (buying or selling, who knows). The Powerhouses’s willingness to share incomplete material from their collections data base has even triggered new knowledge about the collection based on interested visitors sharing what they know.
Seb walked us through the choices their producers and in-house developers make as they consider open options for looking at the collection. Simple things like visitor language tags, and statements of significance as to why and object is important help make the objects relevant for an online visitor (scroll down on the link and browse through these amazing book dresses).
Over and over Seb implied that the Powerhouse philosophy is to listen, learn and seek ways to understand how their audience uses and/or wants to use their collection. The team constantly wonders: What is the relevance of the collection and how can digital tools let us serve that need?
Go to where the audience is already living, is a key phrase for those who promote social software, and the Powerhouse museum understood this idea from the get-go. They were the first museum on the Flickr Commons, and by putting their Tyrell Collection of historic photographs of Sydney on board early, they increased awareness of the Powerhouse museum with the community that cares about photography. What intrigued me is that this intense audience-interest in photography online has had an impact on the curatorial choices the Powerhouse Museum is making; they are going to (or have) hired a curator that can support the photographic collection.
Additionally, Seb noted that, at least in his mind, curators now and in the future need the skill sets to be able to work in the digital realm. In fact as part of their official curatorial responsibilities all Powerhouse curators blog. The web is a communication platform and everyone on staff needs to know how to use it to help audiences connect with museum resources.
The afternoon session was a geek’s dream in that it focused on the many metric systems that can be used to analyze just who uses your website and how they use it. What was most telling though was how Seb admitted up front that many of the numbers tell you nothing when thrown out as just numbers.
Seb Chan, Head of Digital, Social & Emerging Technologies, Powerhouse Museum at the podium at SFMOMA
The key, as with all statistics, is that you know how to read them so they can influence future actions. Find patterns over time. So, for example, is there an upward trend when you open an exhibition or open up registrations for summer camps? Is there a downward trend on holidays (usually, weekends are evidently down for all internet users: guess what we read while we are at work). And look at how others in your area are doing: if a competing institution has a sudden spike in their numbers and yours are flat, can you figure out why and how that happens.
You want to know how many people touched your content. Let the analytics help you understand this. If not already known, concepts like dwell time, bounce rate, and ISP logs are now a part of the mindset of every listener in the Friday’s room . Dwell time measures how long visitors stay at your site, but even then those numbers have issues since you can only measure how long someone was at the second to last page they were on while visiting your site as there is no way (yet?) to account for how long a person is on the last landed page of a session. So you could discover that the average time spent on your site is four minutes, but who knows what amount of time passed when visitors finally found that great educational video you produced. Bounce rate is how quickly someone is in or out of your site; you want bounce rate to be low on education pages, but high if you are buying tickets for an event (get in and get the sale done quickly).
And ISP logs help you gain a finer grain view of your visitors, although the privacy invasion is real and alive on the web; you can be tracked for where you’ve been browsing, and while I have always understood this, Seb’s reminder made me pause.
One of the most solid pieces of advice Seb offered is for institutions to use freeware for online analytics, but PAY someone to help you customize your specific number crunching. You need to understand what the numbers mean, and HOW they will impact your future behavior The twitter #sfmetrix site notes that there were tons of free “Kewl Tools” out there for the using (search twitter for #sfmetrix and you can read through the tweets of the day).
There were many big take-away thoughts:
1. Beta Test: Don’t hesitate to beta test your site putting it online sooner than later: it doesn’t have to be finished before you go live. In fact some of the things you learn that are most valuable are when you go live and real visitors are using it. Seb thinks we should also try to work the same beta testing for some exhibition efforts.
2. Be Adept Enough to be Relevant: Web thinking, with its open, speed driven approach needs to work backwards into how our institutions function. Remember the photography curator story developing from increased interest built in Flickr commons.
3. And finally: Note to self. Scour the Powerhouse’s web site. I mean really look at it very carefully. There is much to learn about collections access and smart web design.
Lastly, Seb has a blog that presents many of the ideas and projects seen yesterday: it is a great resource.
Others of you were there. What are some of your biggest take-aways? And those of you who were not, any thoughts on collections access or museum metrics? Great examples or challenges in practice?