What to do when bums in seats aren’t enough


If you ever get to New York City’s Lower East side, make sure you visit the Tenement Museum. It’s small and easy to miss because it blends into the streetscape, but well worth the search. A poignant monument to the immigrant experience in New York, this century-old rooming house is like stepping back in time. I thought the museum told a fascinating story reaching to the heart of the American identity; my daughter, then age 12, was mesmerized. The problem is only so many visitors can hear its story about how newcomers settled into urban American life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the 250,000 people who now visit annually for guided tours are the upper limit of this small building’s physical capacity.

Kevin Jennings, the Tenement Museum’s incoming president, wants to offer a new way for people to interact with this slice of their history. He recognizes that telling the tenement’s stories on a digital platform, including the use of virtual reality, can help them reach out to the “millions and millions of people we’re not touching,” some of whom may never cross its threshold but will still want to learn about the story and support the museum’s work.

The same is true for most museums: they leave a lot of potential visitors (and potential supporters) on the table by not reaching out beyond their four walls with engaging content. The Vancouver Aquarium – which has just recently decided its brand will evolve as OceanWise – is one of those. It hosts 1.2 million visitors annually, and the aquarium it manages in Valencia, Spain – Europe’s largest – also attracts the same number annually. Both can and want to accommodate more visitors in situ but at the same time want to shed old associations as local tourist attractions and, instead, build awareness about their new brand as a global oceanographic conservation and research leader. It is as a global brand that the good work of Ocean Wise can be communicated and discussed with a vastly larger audience. The plan is to get its stories out to 100 million people by 2025; then 1 billion people by 2025. It can only reach those numbers if it tells an engaging story digitally.

For inspiration these museums could look to Harvard Business School: there’s no secret to how it became successful. It recognized a long time ago that there was a broad audience wanting access to its expertise, but only so many classroom seats it could fill. It launched the Harvard Business Review in 1922 and publishing quickly became an extension of its educational mission. The HBS label is on many thousands of products that offer wide public and professional access to its knowledge through magazines, books, case study publishing, videos, interactive web sites, and newsletters, each one reinforcing the school’s reputation for high intellectual standards.

True, these products generate a lot of money (by 2014 publishing was generating about $165 million in annual revenue for the school) but its publishing ventures are motivated by other factors. Offering multiple points of contact to leading ideas ensures the HBS brand is always relevant and dynamic. Publishing, in all its various forms – paper or digital – is the primary tool the university leverages to position itself as the leader in the marketplace of ideas. Its mission is to take the most important ideas on the most important issues facing leaders and communicate them. The school has nurtured this identity so successfully, and backs-up its claims to intellectual leadership so effectively, that HBS is forever top of mind as business’s thought leader. And from there really good things happen.

Doing these “little” things well to establish quality perceptions means the Harvard Business School brand not only helps it attract the best and brightest students and faculty, but also deep-pocketed donors. “It comes down to money,” acknowledges the former president of the University of Ottawa, Alan Rock, who claims the biggest challenge facing the sector is “to achieve levels of funding that will enable us to succeed in our mission.”

Fundraising organizations must be able to reach beyond their walls to convince donors the organization has a vision indicating how it will become sustainable. The prevailing assumption – that “charming and professional fundraisers” provide sufficient returns for the institution – is wrong, writes Michael Kaiser in The Art of the Turnaround. Instead, he says, they should be spending “the time or effort in marketing the entire institutional image required to get people excited about supporting” the organization. In other words, effective fundraising and effective storytelling go hand-in-hand.

When “only so many” people can visit, museums have to figure out how to reach bigger audiences. That now means telling stories to engage the Millennial generation, the largest generation since the baby boomers. Are our assumptions about the content they want – pithy YouTube videos – correct? I hope not. The media is endlessly fascinated with the stereotype of a creative, hyper connected, lazy, and narcissistic generation with a shrinking attention span. It’s time to let go of these tired myths that may never have been true in the first place. It just so happens, according to Forbes, this “lazy” generation reads more than previous generations at the same age. They aren’t giving up on traditional printed books, but are also consuming vast quantities of electronic text, everything from blogs to online magazine and newspaper articles.

As this generation matures, we will not be able to overstate the importance of original and compelling stories. In The Attention Economy, Thomas Davenport and John Beck wrote that “people with something to say, or a unique and creative way of saying it, are your organization’s best hope of getting attention.” This is a truism regardless of generation or the impact of technology.

Millennials are an interesting, and interested, but demanding generation: museums need to engage their attention and nurture those interests with substance and leading ideas. They aren’t afraid of having their thinking challenged. And to attract millennials, crowdfunding may be the perfect device for museums to embrace. Ideally it’s aimed at people who want to build their own social give-back program. It attracts donors who do not necessarily want to give blindly to a “fund” but they will donate to projects they believe in – as if they were saying “this looks like something I can get behind and tell my friends to invest in as well.” Crowdfunding enables museums to build brand awareness around, and fund, certain narrow activities, and it leaves donors knowing precisely where their money is going and how it is being used.

Giving millennials this freedom will turn them into supporters of your work. Content is still king and this youthful and idealistic generation wants to support the people who bring them leading ideas about the issues that concern them. YouTube lives on but “pithy” is so five minutes ago.

This is part of Rob Ferguson’s ongoing series of articles Bv02 is producing about the reshaping of “the story” online: how content has gone wrong, and how to change it.  Rob is Bv02’s branding and content specialist who focuses on helping clients understand “who are we?” and the impact their unique ideas and content have on developing identity and extending brand awareness. We want to know how are you telling your story, what is your strategy for communicating and entrenching your brand?

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