The movie trailer, for Museums


Movie fan or not, you know what a “trailer” is. Hollywood has been using them since 1913 when the Loews theatre chain produced a short film promoting a new Broadway musical. It was essentially a cost-cutting innovation: producers felt showing a commercial in cinemas would make traditional billboard advertising unnecessary. It got its name from the fact these short films were, at first, shown at the end of movies. As soon as theatre owners realized patrons left theatres immediately after the feature ended, and that trailers were going unseen, the commercial was quickly shifted to the beginning. But the name–and the practice–stuck.

Over the course of a century, the trailer concept hasn’t changed: attracting audiences means telling an engaging short story that persuasively says, “Trust us, you’ll love the movie.” Much like the flap copy on a bestselling book, a trailer manipulates viewers. It doesn’t care about distortion, and doesn’t spend precious time expanding on the real narrative; trailers reveal just enough of the plot without giving away the whole story. But this is marketing: the goal is to sell viewers on the idea that they need to buy a ticket, so a little distortion is both healthy and encouraged.

Museums are always on the look out for best practices.

Are they ready for the Hollywood-style trailer, or will the tactic be dismissed out of fear the museum product is being “Disneyfied”? Don’t be put off. Trailers are beautiful promotion pieces that convey mood, atmosphere and engage people by being provocative. They’re a clean and simple way to showcase the juicy moments in what people will see when they attend your exhibit. In other words, trailers are good storytelling in their own right and, from the museum perspective, good mission-connecting communication.

It’s only becoming harder and harder to reach consumers. Maybe its time to be like Loews–104 years later–and look for alternatives to bus shelter ads. People are exposed to a flood of content every day; they will only read/watch what is relevant and valuable to them. The rest will be ignored and won’t ever get read. Some museums already post short videos on their websites, but for the most part, these information-focused videos look like government training movies from the 1950s. You wouldn’t likely go to a movie if the trailer was dull or low quality. Building an effective brand is about telling a good story that builds quality perceptions. If you want to attract attention and get people to visit, that video has to hook viewers. It has to say, “Trust us, you’ll love the exhibit!”

How do we get museums to think differently?

Twenty years ago, a McKinsey Quarterly article (“If Nike can ‘Just Do It’, why can’t we?”) encouraged non-profit readers to follow the Nike model for building a power brand. Why not, indeed? Brands aren’t the preserve of major corporations. Nike certainly didn’t start as one, but it told engaging stories about its new products that attracted customers. But when it comes to brand development, communicating unique identity and motivating people to develop a relationship with your organization, museums stand to learn more from the NFL than Nike.

Just as Nike began modestly, professional football in the United States was a fourth-tier sport in the late 1940s. Less than 20 years later, it was the most popular and commercially lucrative sport in America. Like any revolutionary product that becomes a runaway success, we quickly forget the story of its journey. To rise above a cluttered competitive marketplace, NFL owners knew they would have to do two things: first, align the quality of their story with the quality of the on-field product, and second, expose professional football to a broader population than those who could personally attend games.

Our current image of the NFL would be vastly different without NFL Films, an innovative enterprise that turned NFL broadcasts into storytelling sessions. Led by the father-son duo of Ed and Steve Sabol, NFL Films gave the league its own version of the Hollywood trailer. Their carefully assembled highlight reels, combined with John Facenda’s now famous “voice of God” narration, proved to be as entertaining as the game itself (if not more so) and hooked new viewers on the game.

Giving every game a narrative structure and a sense of sport as a performance rather than merely a game created myths and highlighted the league’s quality and sophistication. The “trailers” were not intended to maximize profit, but to increase the league’s prestige…and the nostalgia and lore they manufactured impressed everyone. Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who understood the films gave the league a clear and unified story, protected their autonomy. This kind of advertising wasn’t cheap, but as Ed Sabol commented, “You remember the quality long after you forget the price.”

Can museums think and act that way?

We’re now miles beyond conventional storytelling. Your current story probably isn’t working the way you hope because the conventional mass marketing approach isn’t explaining what people need to know. You have to develop new hooks for your audiences and evolve your storytelling capability along with the demands of the people to whom you want to be talking, so you can make an enduring connection. Just as NFL Films helped the NFL, Museum Films can advance your organization.

Museums have guides at the ready, trained to make content approachable for visitors. But who is getting the message out beforehand, or in-between visits? With the many competitive pressures you face today–from video games to outdoor recreational pursuits to spectator sports–you have to focus on connecting your audiences to the right stories in the right form: text, video and VR. Using those tools, you need to offer perspectives on stories to help visitors understand their history and their place in the world–capture and tell stories that not everyone will see when they visit. And who is updating content across multiple channels to keep the stories fresh?

bv02’s Holistic Perspectives is about making your stories and your voice sustainable. What your customers really want is to hear that the content you deliver is “recommended for you.” Personalizing content will reduce the amount of information and the number of options, helping guide visitors through a funnel designed just for them, and this is what will make unique relationships possible.

Loews thought differently, so did the NFL. Every day, cultural institutions balance education, engagement and entertainment. Don’t be afraid of a little bit of distortion that helps engage, attract and lead audiences to education. Think differently about your story. We’re there to help you reshape how the web works for you.

To get a more holistic perspective, have a look at these links:

Why Facebook Could Be ‘All Video’ in 5 Years

Why You Need to Focus on Video Marketing in 2017 [Infographic]

Facebook is leaning toward long-form video

Millennials Ensure 46% of Video is Consumed Mobile

This is part of an 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 Ferguson 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. With years of publishing, brand strategy and content development leadership behind him, Rob is helping us develop strategic and authoritative narratives and will inspire bvO2’s dynamic team of storytellers, content creators, and producers through the process of developing new digital experiences for clients so they can effectively and actively engage stakeholders in the lasting purpose of their institution, showing them to be distinctive and uniquely worthy of support.

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