Strategy comes first, and is the single most important thing.
But: I’m also going to talk technology, because on the coal face you are going to have to make informed technology-based decisions.
Knowing why you’re doing something is obviously the cornerstone to any strategy. Once you know why you’re doing something you get a sense of what you’re looking for in a “successful” thing - but also you know when not to do something.
Asking who your audience is is crucial, because it makes a difference to your content selection and authoring as well as to the way the collections part of your site looks and works.
Firstly, be very clear about who your audience (and potential audience - remember, these can be different) is.
It’s likely that if you’re running a “normal” museum website that around about 60-70%, possibly more, of all users are people looking for visitor information - what’s on, where you are, how much it costs and so on.
Also bear in mind that your audiences do three things:
Firstly, they overlap - for instance a “stumbler” reading about your organisation online with no initial intention to visit in person might decide to come at a later date, or - better - might be inspired by your online presence to come.
Secondly, audiences don’t really divide in this nice clean way. Actually their mode of use changes. A Researcher during the day with quite a focused set of tasks might turn into a relaxed browser looking for serendipitous online experiences after work.
Thirdly, their devices change too. That Researcher might be using a laptop during the day, a tablet at night and an iPhone when they come and visit.
This can appear to be horribly complicated. Actually the solution is not to panic, or to use phrases like “lifelong learner” (= “everyone”) but simply to get to know your users.
Firstly, buy these books :-)
If you have the cash for a proper eye-tracking type focus group, rock on. If you don’t, just get together people who you know are passionate about your organisation. Ask them what they want but more importantly watch them using your site and make notes when they have problems, or find things easy.
Recruit these users from wherever you can: social media, newsletters, friends of friends, your mum… Offer them free coffee or tell them they’re going to be part of a group (they’ll like that).
This may be success to you but your audience probably don’t feel the same way.
Think about what success would look like to you as far as your collections records are concerned.
Many of these questions can be answered by using Google Analytics, a free tool which helps you get in-depth answers about what people are doing on your website.
Here’s a top-level example of an object record - but you can drill into much, much more detail should you need to.
It’s worth doing because it will highlight for you which activities you’re doing are having an impact, and which ones aren’t.
For the above for example you can see a Facebook post has been instrumental in driving traffic to this particular object.
The main thing about measuring success is this:
If you discover you aren’t being successful, what resources have you got in place to actually change things?
Typically the answer is - nothing.
You MUST get your vendor to put GA on your collections pages - galleries, individual objects, search results, etc.
It is NOT hard and should take seconds to do.
In this section I’m going to talk about 5 core ways that your collection data can move from your in-house system (if any) to a public web version.
First of all - there are generally three types of CM system.
To a certain extent your choices are limited by the systems and processes that you have.
If you’ve invested 3 person-years cataloguing into system X and everyone likes that software, then chances are you’ll want to continue to use it.
These questions are sometimes “soft” - do people like it? Is the company supportive? etc
This is broadly what we’re talking about.
The arrow back from public is often not “hard-wired” but always worth thinking about. If someone has collections information that exceeds what you have in-house, use it!
The main question here is about how your data gets from the in-house system - the one you’re using to manage your day to day collections information - and the web, where it can be seen, found, queried by members of your audience.
It’s likely BTW that this journey will be curated in some way. Chances are you don’t want all your records on the web; and highly likely you don’t want all the fields (value!) either.
You may also want to think about ways in which you can add content which is purely contextual - so for instance if you have copy which only makes sense when the user is looking on the web, or on mobile or wherever, you’ll have to work out whether to hold this content in your CM or - say - on the website…
The single most important thing is that you can move your data from place A to place B and then be able to do something meaningful with it.
Why? Because companies go bust or get bought out, systems stop working, hardware stops being able to support software…
…you basically need to be in a position where you can get at your hard-worked-at content and do something else with it if you need to.
The first way of getting stuff from in-house to the web is to use the CM company’s plug and play system. This is often called different things - AdLib for instance call it their “Internet Server”. System Simulation (Index +) call it “Content Index Plus”.
Positives and negatives above.
Ad-lib Internet Server example
- On left, Brent Council - on right Bronte Society
Can get idea of functionality offered which is relatively ok - but, you can also see that this is a template with limited visual flexibility.
Bespoke build based on the API of the CM system is the next option.
An API is a way of getting your collections data out in a “nice” format - basically a way of the in-house system talking to the web one.
Example - National Museums Scotland who have Adlib behind the scenes but integrate with it using the API
BFI do the same
The next option is to use a hosted service such as Flickr
To a certain extent the pro’s and con’s are dependent on each system - we’ll go into these in a moment.
But - the generic, high-level things are outline above.
Flickr is an old favourite, and used by many museums and galleries.
Often it’s used as a supplementary way of surfacing photographic collections, not often used as a replacement to other online collections methods.
Here’s the National Media Museum.
Micro blogging covers lots of possible services, some of which are outlined above.
As with Flickr, you’re limited to a single editable field, so it’s impossible to do things like advanced search or “see also” searches and so on.
But - great for telling object-based stories!
Here’s the Science Museum, using WordPress.
Zoho and KnackHQ - also used to be DabbleDB
Here’s Zoho - as you see it’ll allow quite a lot of flexibility to create field names and types, so possibly has some use in a limited / simple environment.
Display is the main issue!
Using open source solutions is a huge favourite - OS is important for sustainability, and if used well can make project risk easier to manage.
Open Source software is typically “free” but normally requires quite a lot of time / developer effort to work with. It isn’t actually…free.
WordPress.org is different to WordPress - it is more effort to set up as you have to host and install it yourself, but is much more flexible.
You can create “custom post types” and data “shapes” with pretty much any flexibility you need.
Here’s some examples of backend and frontend records from the American Museum
And some more, from Waterloo 200.
Caution: pimp alert!
Another solution which is gaining some ground is CollectionSpace which is an open source CM system.
Here are a couple of example screens - huge amount of flexibility and intelligence is clearly going into it
Some other ways…
Wikipedia - note, not an “either/or”. Adding (to) core object records is a good idea anyway.
Getting a dev to build a site which displays and pulls in data is another option. The records could live in a database, and be displayed from there.
Bespoke build though - risky..
Finally, for really basic sites, consider something like static HTML.
People ask me all the time “how much is a website?” and I reply with “how much is a house?”
It’s the same here - almost every part of the equation is a variable, so there is no one size fits all.
..but there are general top-level principles which hold true whatever you’re trying to do.
I talked quite a lot about this at the beginning of the talk, but I’m a big fan of thinking before doing
Guessing what technologies to use and how to use them is a obviously a mugs game.
However, there are some more meta questions you should ask in order to avoid getting your organisation into a rut.
You are investing hundreds, thousands of person hours into cataloguing your data into a CM system. Think about disaster scenarios - what if company goes bust, gets bought out (cough), doubles their fees, changes their business model…?
I’d suggest you go and ask these questions of your collections system or collections system vendor, and plan if things sound dodgy…
One of the things we say when we first take on a new client at Thirty8 Digital is this: “We really hope you’re going to like us as much in 1, 2 or 5 years’ time, but we want you to be in a position to escape should things change - either with you or with us”.
This is why for instance we use the open source tool WordPress - if we were no longer involved with a client website they’d be in a position to take it to another WordPress specialist, rather than being locked in to something proprietary.
Bespoke is often dangerous.
For common problems like collections or content management, there are lots of existing solutions - don’t reinvent the wheel if you can help it.
Remember that you are investing in a long-term solution and that the “soft” stuff like people, companies, longevity are all part of the equation.
Being phased / measured is also good. Do a small number of things really well rather than a huge amount badly.
This is probably the case, depending on your audience.
This can all be quite confusing, but there are huge numbers of sources of help out there - among them, these.
Remember that this is a common issue - don’t be afraid to ask, these are friendly people!