"Long Tail" Web strategy paper for Smithsonian American Art Museum


Published on

A paper developed for the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 2007.

  • Be the first to comment

No Downloads
Total views
On SlideShare
From Embeds
Number of Embeds
Embeds 0
No embeds

No notes for slide

"Long Tail" Web strategy paper for Smithsonian American Art Museum

  1. 1. Smithsonian American Art Museum Web Strategy Paper Version 1.0 1/22/2007 For inquiries contact Michael Edson Chief, Information Technology Office edsonm@si.edu The Place to Go for American Art.................................................................................................1 A Long Tail Strategy......................................................................................................................2 Publish Everything.........................................................................................................................4 Make it Findable.............................................................................................................................5 Involve Our Extraordinary Customers...........................................................................................6 Conclusion—Widen the Pipes!......................................................................................................7
  2. 2. SAAM Web Strategy v. 1.0 Proprietary and Confidential 1/22/2007 The Place to Go for American Art The Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) has a history of accomplishment and leadership in the use of new technology but the museum is acutely aware that ideas about the role of the Internet in our society—what it does, who it’s for, and how it relates to Institutions —have changed dramatically in the last several years. In the recent past, it was enough for a museum to digitize its collection and produce online exhibitions, nobody had heard of a blog or an iPod, and the founders of facebook and YouTube were still in school. In this environment most museums could succeed with the Internet as a niche player in their overall strategy: it could not be neglected, but it could be managed as a variant of traditional museum values and practices in research, education, and public relations. Museums that did more were rewarded with a measure of prestige and a valid claim to have served the public, but the effort was optional. Today, we are learning that the public draws few distinctions between an organization’s traditional brand (in our case, our bricks-and-mortar museum) and its Web presence: both must be excellent for either to be excellent. Today, New Media modes—typified by blogging, podcasting, iTunes, Google, and YouTube— are so popular and so upsetting to traditional business models that they threaten the very existence of iconic print and broadcast media empires—and perhaps even our modest empire. The Internet is different now than it was a few years ago—it’s more central, more social, more of a cultural force, and these changes challenge yesterday’s notions of what it means to be a vibrant and trusted public institution. What does this mean for us? How should SAAM adjust its New Media Strategy to take advantage of these changes and maintain its position in the vanguard of American museums? The answer lies in adopting a Long Tail strategy—named for the recently discovered dynamic in which commerce and online cultures thrive around the niche interests of millions of passionate enthusiasts. The Long Tail is about building vibrant and devoted audiences by putting as much content online as possible, making that content easy to find and use, and involving the public in process and personal exploration. For SAAM, our Long Tail strategy must also include building the financial capacity to sustain our mission over time. In some ways—in good ways—this strategy is back to the future: SAAM has a priceless collection and an extremely talented staff. SAAM has always reached out to enthusiasts, has always celebrated creative and intellectual passion, and has always delighted in sharing knowledge and insight from every nook-and-cranny of American art. SAAM wants to be the place to go for American art, and that’s why the Long Tail strategy is so right for us now: it’s harmonious with the way people use the Web now and it meets new expectations about the role of the Internet in our culture simply by building on the things we care about and do well already. 1 of 9
  3. 3. SAAM Web Strategy v. 1.0 Proprietary and Confidential 1/22/2007 A Long Tail Strategy Forget squeezing millions from a few megahits at the top of the charts. The future of entertainment is in the millions of niche markets at the shallow end of the bitstream. --Chris Anderson1 We postulate that SAAM is a Long Tail business 2 and that the best way to reach SAAM’s goals is to fully embrace strategies that maximize our impact in a Long Tail marketplace. Evidence indicating SAAM’s Long Tail position includes;  The ten most visited areas of our Web site account for only ¼ of our total traffic  While the collection contains masterpieces by well known artists they are far outnumbered by lesser known artworks by lesser known artists. And while there is consistent interest in our masterpieces and consistent Web traffic related to them, that traffic is dwarfed by the sum total of traffic related to lesser known work.  The more content we produce the more we find audiences and enthusiasts we didn’t know existed.  The Luce Foundation Center for American Art3 is essentially a physical Long Tail venue.  SAAM’s mission calls us to collect, study, and display a broad representation of American art, not just pockets of popular works. SAAM has, without knowing it, been using Long Tail practices for many years4 but embracing a Long Tail strategy and fully reaping the benefits of a Long Tail position requires us to place a conscious emphasis in four areas: 1. The scope of what we publish (publish everything!) 2. Making what we publish easy to find (findability!) 3. Recognizing that our customers are extraordinary and unique (involve them!) 1 Chris Anderson, The Long Tail, Wired Magazine, vol 12.10 - October 2004 2 The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More, Chris Anderson, Hyperion, 2006. Also see seminal Wired Magazine article http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.10/tail.html. Wikipedia has a good introduction to The Long Tail at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Long_Tail . 3 A visible-storage center in the museum that displays 3,400 works of art that would otherwise be in storage. See http://americanart.si.edu/luce/index.cfm . 4 SAAM initiated one of the first Art Information Database projects in 1976 and was one of the first Art museums to put records for its entire permanent collection online. SAAM recently added 1,300 artist biographies to its online offerings. 2 of 9
  4. 4. SAAM Web Strategy v. 1.0 Proprietary and Confidential 1/22/2007 4. Building the capacity to sustain SAAM’s new-media program (build capacity) In this direction there is also significant overlap with newly emergent ideas about the social and technological evolution of the Web, especially those that encourage open frameworks, microcontent, and cooperative relationships with user communities. (These concepts are sometimes given the moniker of Web 2.0 5). Publish Everything Involve Our Extraordinary Customers Make Build Everything Capacity Findable The four key components of SAAM’s Web Strategy 5 Tim O’Reilly nicely summarizes the tenets of Web 2.0 in What is Web 2.0? at http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/ a/oreilly/tim/news/2005/09/30/what-is-web-20.html?page=1 (accessed 12/10/2006) 3 of 9
  5. 5. SAAM Web Strategy v. 1.0 Proprietary and Confidential 1/22/2007 Publish Everything Some of the most agonizing decisions in museum management involve prioritizing content- creation—there are so many worthy subjects and so many great ideas! For Web and New Media operations the path of least resistance has always been to position the Web publishing team at the end of the exhibitions or publications-content food chain (or right next to it) to glean the best of the best from the fully sanctioned and (and conveniently funded) processes there, with the intent of latching onto a few key ideas that can be fleshed out into freestanding Web sites. But while this approach is an efficient way to get value-added content for the public, and certainly keeps Web sites “on message” with the rest of the museum, it tends to reinforce a “greatest hits” strategy at the expense of texture, variety, and fecundity. While we will always seek to produce finely crafted features to support exhibitions, our primary model should be to facilitate the creation of smaller bits of curated and primary-source content for a variety of audiences across a spectrum of presentational idioms for each exhibition or research area we wish to promote. There are three advantages to this strategy. First, this kind of content—microcontent—is easier for us to produce and plays to our creative and managerial strengths (or avoids our weaknesses). Because of our small staff and high maintenance/operational workload, producing content in smaller bits can be efficient and manageable while larger, monolithic, “all or nothing” projects carry higher risks and arguably lower return on investment. Second, microcontent is scalable. If your project is to do four Interact features6 in six weeks, and it goes well, you can do five or six of them: if it goes horribly you can walk away with only a few weeks of time lost. Third, and most importantly, microcontent increases the likelihood that we’ll produce something that resonates within one of our Long Tail niches and is findable via the major search engines. Two examples of this are the blog, where we produced 110 small stories addressing dozens of American art subjects last year, and the artists’ biographies project, which made available (and exposed to search engines!) a wide footprint of knowledge about 1,300 artists. If we posit that there’s a passionate but amazingly diverse audience of current and future American art enthusiasts out there (see section III below), one of the best things we can do for them, and for us, is to publish as much information as possible on as broad a spectrum of topics as possible. An area of SAAM’s programs that challenges the construct of microcontent vs. monolithic content is the development of art-information databases. Data enhancement is in many ways a microcontent activity: records or groups of records are examined, researched, augmented, and updated a few at a time, week-in and week-out. However, the infrastructure of technology, data-design, staffing, and content management needed to make this effort efficient and pay dividends to the public is an expensive and relatively monolithic endeavor that demands a relatively monolithic all-or-nothing budget. Development methods that emphasize lightweight technological frameworks and breaking large projects up into smaller, independent pieces (each one of which provides something useful and complete) can help ameliorate this problem, 6 http://americanart.si.edu/interact 4 of 9
  6. 6. SAAM Web Strategy v. 1.0 Proprietary and Confidential 1/22/2007 but SAAM’s Long Tail strategy must be funded in a way that recognizes that sometimes it takes a lot of technology to make things look easy to the public. Make it Findable Findability is at the center of a fundamental shift in the way we define authority, allocate trust, make decisions, and learn independently Peter Morville Ambient Findability, 2005 Putting things online is great, but to see beneficial Long Tail effects what we put online has to be extremely findable: findability is the special sauce that makes Long Tail magic happen. It encompasses several Web disciplines: human-interface design, graphic design, information architecture, labeling (the words one uses to describe features and areas of a Web site), and search-engine technology. The general idea is that people should be able to find what they want without having to know anything about how SAAM catalogs them or how our Web site is organized. The enormous organizational changes that came with the museum reopening in 2006—and the torrent of excellent new content, programs, facilities, and exhibitions—have brought about a findability crisis on SAAM’s Web sites. Anecdotal evidence and heuristic analysis tells us that many users struggle to find the things they are looking for and are oblivious of the value-added features and award winning content that would interest them if it could be discovered serendipitously. The museum may never be able to fully reconcile the awkwardly overlapping brands that represent the Smithsonian and compartmentalize its content7, but we can greatly simplify the visitor experience and improve findability with a focused effort. Fortunately, findability has long been an important aspect of SAAM’s New Media operation and the skills and awareness are there in the team. With this strategy the improvement and continuous refinement of findability is a top priority for the museum. 7 For example, SAAM’s Website must rationalize the branded content of the Smithsonian, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, the Luce Foundation Center for American Art, and the Lunder Conservation Center. 5 of 9
  7. 7. SAAM Web Strategy v. 1.0 Proprietary and Confidential 1/22/2007 Involve Our Extraordinary Customers An important implication of the Long Tail paradigm is the idea of the extraordinary customer —the notion that the world is made up of enthusiasts with wildly unpredictable and diverse interests8 who are able to form virtual communities and economic markets around niche interests because the Internet makes their geographic/demographic differences irrelevant. In other words, before the Internet, it would be difficult to imagine an audience of five million American art enthusiasts because, even if you assumed the audience was out there, it would be too difficult and expensive to reach and sustain the interest of such a large, geographically dispersed niche group. But today’s virtual communities and virtual marketplaces reach hundreds of millions of enthusiasts and consumers of all ilk and with every conceivable interest. Just survey the recent auction results at eBay or the recent additions to Wikipedia or Flickr for a taste of how extraordinary these communities can be9. This Web strategy postulates that there is a huge nascent audience of American art enthusiasts out there: a core group of fans that already knows us10, a larger secondary group with an active interest in the visual arts and/or American culture, but for whom SAAM is not a familiar brand or frequent destination, and a final (even larger) group with the potential to become interested in what SAAM offers if they are able to find a connection between what we do and their current enthusiasms. The key to growing all audiences is to use the core group as a starting point. We must begin to know who they are, why they come, what they think we can do better, and what might motivate them to be committed to SAAM. A high-level knowledge of the demographic composition of our core audience and a tangible sense of their satisfaction with us is a fundamental building block in any effort to improve the quality and substance of what we offer to the public and it is difficult to make a compelling case to prospective funders and partners without it. Our current relationship with our Web audience is like that of a 10 year old boy to his future first kiss: We know the general scope of the thing through conjecture and inference but we’re not yet sure of the specific details…And once we have that first kiss, where should the relationship go? The online revolution of the last several years has been driven by Web sites that involve their visitors in the process of creation, either by helping users to contribute their own content or by enabling users to add value to “official” online information by classifying it (tagging), filtering it (rating), or reviewing it. Time Magazine named “you” the person of the year because of the stunning ways that citizen bloggers, videographers, software developers, and reviewers have been turning the age-old relationship between Institutions and Consumers upside-down. 8 In my own small suburban neighborhood, I have a neighbor who races Chinese Dragon Boats, another who is an amateur astronomer, and a third who is an experienced backcountry kayaker. You’d never guess it by looking at their careers, education, or demographic data. 9 The idea of Extraordinary Customers is not about economic or educational elites, rather, the term is intended to celebrate the remarkable variety of interests, abilities, and potential present in all types of “ordinary” citizens. 10 From anecdotal evidence and testimonials we think this is true, but we hope to gain further insight on this through study and analysis. 6 of 9
  8. 8. SAAM Web Strategy v. 1.0 Proprietary and Confidential 1/22/2007 Participation and involvement are not new to SAAM. Our Save Outdoor Sculpture program involved hundreds of volunteers to assess and catalog public sculpture across the country. We take for granted the tours, public programs, workshops, and art-education that gather, inspire, and serve thousands of people every year. We delight in the knowledge that real people are seeing and discussing our collections, publications, and programs. But the Smithsonian is “America’s most trusted brand11” and we worry that a torrent of unvetted contributions from untrained citizens, no matter how well intentioned, will distract us from our core mission and dilute our authority and reputation. But conventional notions of trust and reputation may be changing. The user-created encyclopedia Wikipedia is now a more trusted brand than the Encyclopedia Britannica— possibly because it’s more useful (100% online, searchable, built-in discussion forums, free!), and more transparent (everyone knows who wrote an article, what’s contested, what’s current, and how the whole thing works). But also, perhaps, because of the intangible sense that it’s ours—made by us for us. It’s a site that lives and listens, and it inspires tremendous devotion from its core users. Brands that fail to harness the passion of their customers may continue to be honored as timeless oracles or one-trick ponies, but they will not be loved by their audience, and they will suffer in the competition for the imagination and loyalty of tomorrow’s public. This may be doubly true in the arts and humanities—just ask executives from the broadcast television or music industries—or triply true in businesses like ours whose central calling is to honor and celebrate creative expression. This Web strategy demands that SAAM begin to move cautiously out of its comfort zone and seek new ways to harness the passion of our extraordinary customers. We are already headed in the right direction. Through our blog, Eye Level, we have a forum where we can have an informal and direct conversation with the public about SAAM and American art. We have a mature and productive process of getting new images and information online to share. We have a dynamic exhibitions and public-programs schedule, and we have an emerging National Education Program that seeks to incorporate Art education into k-12 curricula nationwide. We love what we do and we’re a passionate place—and passion is infectious. Conclusion—Widen the Pipes! SAAM was an early leader on the Web, and SAAM has the right history, right collection, right mission, right staff and leadership, and right audience to be extremely successful in today’s Long Tail marketplace. A dramatic new direction is not necessary, rather, we must devote ourselves to doing more of what we do well already: collect, digitize, research, create, educate, listen, share, and involve. We’ve got to gather the capacity and muster the focus to widen the pipes between ourselves and the public. Publish everything! Make it findable! And involve our extraordinary customers! 11 2003 Harris Interactive survey 7 of 9