Success Strategies for Engaging Audiences with Museum Website Blogs
Scott Bomboy, National Constitution Center, USA, , Rebecca Sherman, Bluecadet Interactive, USA
Using editorial and marketing techniques from other disciplines, bloggers on museum websites can create engaging content that attracts readers for all of a museum’s digital properties, including the Web, mobile, and tablet-based audiences.
Keywords: blog, Web, website, digital, content
The world of blogging has changed much in the past decade, from a showcase for people with opinions to a platform for content experts to directly reach businesses and consumers. Some blogs reach wide consumer audiences. For example, the Huffington Post started as a blog, and it reaches an estimated monthly audience of 105 million people (Alexa, 2014). TMZ, another popular website that has retained a blog format, reaches 25 million people per month, while the popular technical blogs Mashable, Lifehacker, and Gizmodo each reach more than 15 million people monthly (Alexa, 2014).
Other blogs are more targeted at audiences that can influence everything from law and politics to how people watch sports. The legal profession is a prime example of a business sector that uses blogs extensively and effectively to reach customers, promote concepts, and engage in dialogue. Legal blogs are content-driven and use low-cost blog publishing systems.
Museums as a business sector have some commonality with the legal profession, since scholars play a significant role in developing content physically at museums and, to some extent, online. Some museums have also had success using social media tools, including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, and Pinterest, to promote exhibits and add new dimensions to the visitation experience.
In a special 2011 report, the New York Times profiled how local museums leveraged social media and websites: “A decade ago, museum Web sites were little more than online advertisements, displaying an institution’s hours, directions, admission prices and exhibitions. … But evolving technology has created new opportunities, and [social media managers] are becoming critical players in helping museums exploit them” (Vogel, 2011). Vogel (2011) also said that “engagement” was a key goal for these more-aggressive digital programs, but “the projects at the Brooklyn Museum and the Guggenheim are exceptions. Most of what goes on the walls of museums is still carefully organized by scholars. And the goal for all this technology remains getting people through their doors.”
But what are the roles of blogs in the museum community? Are blogs tools to drive online visitor engagement, or general attendance at museums? Or do they best serve as a way for museum-based scholars and experts, like their legal counterparts, to exchange in a dialogue of ideas with their peers and other interested parties?
This paper will not attempt to answer all of those questions, since the answers are dependent on the mission statements of the nearly eighteen thousand museums in the United States alone. But the paper will focus on three critical tactics—content strategy, content production, and audience development—specific to blogs, and how these tactics can expand the digital presence of museum-based digital properties.
2. What is a blog, and do I really need one for my museum?
Blogs have been part of the Internet scene and digital world since the late 1990s. Originally called “weblogs,” they emerged in their current format in 1999 with the popularity of automated blogging software, particularly Blogger. Herring et al. (2005) stated, “Blogs represent a means for presenting introspective thinking, a record of daily events, a tool for political mobilization, a journalistic project, an open-ended literary experiment, a constant exhibition of images and videos and, in many cases, a combination of all of the above.”
The popularity of blogging grew steadily in the days before social media, and in 2004 the word “blog” was honored by Merriam-Webster as the “word of the year.” In later years, the emergence of MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter as social media services would give digital users easier platforms to use as a way of communicating first-person ideas. But blogs have remained popular as a long-form way to express thoughts.
WordPress, one of the largest providers of blog publishing systems, estimated in February 2014 that 409 million people viewed more than 14.4 billion pages each month, just on blogs hosted on the free WordPress.com website. (WordPress.com, 2014). That included 40 million blog posts during the past month. In March 2012, Nielsen/McKinsey (2012) estimated that the “blogosphere” stood at 173 million blogs, including users of the Tumblr service, compared with 35.7 million in October 2006 .
Blogs are here to stay. But do you really need a blog for your museum to successfully execute your mission statement and business strategy? On one level, as was clear with the example of blogs in the legal world, blogs can fill a very important niche in the role of communicating ideas to a targeted expert audience.However, data from the Pew Research Internet Project showed barriers to organizations in the arts sector, in a survey of 1,244 arts organizations that have received funds from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) between 2006 and 2011 (Pew Research Center, 2013). Pew Research Center (2013) said only 50 percent of arts organizations maintained blogs on their websites, as of early 2013. The reality in the Pew study is that some organizations might not have the resources or funding for technology initiatives. Pew indicated that while 68 percent of the organizations had paid staff members (either full-time or part-time) maintaining a website, only 36 percent had a staff member whose primary responsibility was website management. About 90 percent of organizations in the study had social media accounts, which pose a much lower technical barrier than blogs.
However, blogs offer a richness of content unavailable on social media platforms, and they can promote social media sites maintained by museums. Blogs also offer a museum with a website a valuable way to reach a wider audience through search engine optimization and, in particular, a blog’s inclusion in Google search.
A July 2013 study showed that Google, primarily through its search services, accounted for 25 percent of all Internet traffic (Labovitz, 2013). Most blog publishing systems are automatically included in Google search results, including search results for Android mobile devices, and many blog publishing platforms include mobile-optimized sites.
Google rewards Google-friendly content sources by placing their content higher in search results pages. Successful blogging also requires frequent updates to properly reach new audiences—dependent on the staffing limitations of museums.
This conundrum was summed up in a blog post from the School of Advanced Study at the University of London from Kathryn Box, marketing officer for the Manchester Museum (Box, 2014):
There is no doubt that blogging is a useful pursuit for academics. There are numerous professional and personal reasons why it is beneficial. This does indeed mean that in Marketing we are asking quite a lot from our curators, on top of their already heavy work load. … Over time blogs have become easier and easier to set up, but time is not wasted making sure it is user-friendly and enticing to the reader. It is important for academics to stay relevant to their audience and most importantly, are active.
3. Content strategy as a linchpin for success
The decision to move forward with, or to keep maintaining, a blog is a balancing test of several factors: internal staffing resources to post blogs and support a publishing platform; the need to grow website and social media traffic; the wish to promote a museum’s brand through a positive presentation of staff to peers and a wider audience; and the benefits of a low-cost, low-maintenance product that also works well with mobile and tablets devices.
For museums that move forward with a blogging program, the real technical barriers and costs can be low, depending on how tightly integrated a blog is with the museum’s website and social media products. Staffing issues and the ability to publish frequently are key factors that need to be addressed up front, because as was stated in the Pew study, digital property managers wear many hats, and a successful blog will need a time commitment and the work of several people at a museum.
In a study published for Museums and the Web, Spadaccini and Sebastian (2007) conducted the first survey of higher-profile museum bloggers (with 60 percent of known museum bloggers participating), and they found that success came with more frequent publishing: “There are some interesting common features that most of the top-ranked museum blogs share. The first is that these sites tend to post more frequently (avg 37.6 per month) than the average museum blogs (10.17 per month).” But the greatest concerns were over sustainability, and fewer than 20 percent of respondents had funding for their blogs. Spadaccini and Sebastian (2007) used the website Technorati as a benchmark for ranking influential museum blogs. Since 2009, Technorati has drastically changed its ranking algorithm, greatly reducing its usability as a tool to research museum blogs.
For this paper, two other research services were consulted to get a sense of which major museum websites use blogs, and how effective those blogs are in attracting readership. Alexa tracks over 30 million websites worldwide, using relationships with companies that maintain Web browsers. Compete.com is another Internet research service that offers detailed information about websites. It lists very detailed information for about 405 websites in its Museums and Galleries sector, and more data on museum websites is included in a miscellaneous category.
A looked-at combined usage date from January 2014 from the Alexa and Compete services shows how some larger museum websites leverage blogs to drive visitors to their websites (Table 1). The table shows museum websites with blog visitation data in Alexa, estimated monthly visitors for those websites from Compete.com, and an approximate number of visitors who use blogs hosted on those websites.
Included in this list are two websites not in Compete.com’s list of museum websites. The website for Botany Photo of The Day was the focus of research in Spadaccini and Sebastian (2007), while the National Constitution Center website was also listed as a Miscellaneous website, and it will be discussed in detail in the conclusion of this paper.
|Website||Visitors Who Use Blog Monthly (percent)*||Monthly Visitors **||Monthly Visitors to Blog|
|Botany Photo of the Day*||
|Metropolitan Museum of Art||
|Getty Research Institute||
|The British Museum||
|Walker Art Center||
|National Trust for Historic Preservation||
|National Constitution Center||
Table 1: Museum blogs visitation patterns, January 2014
In comparison, referral traffic to these websites from Google and Facebook shows interesting trends (Table 2). According to Shareaholic (2013), Google search accounted for about 40 percent of direct referral traffic to websites in October 2012, with Facebook surging to 12 percent of traffic referrals for the same time period.
|Website||Traffic from Google (percent)||Traffic from Facebook (percent)|
|Botany Photo of The Day||32.9||4.0|
|Metropolitan Museum of Art||33.4||5.5|
|Getty Research Institute||26.2||4.9|
|The British Museum||35.0||4.5|
|National Trust for Historic Preservation||31.9||4.8|
|Walker Art Center||27.2||5.0|
|National Constitution Center||33.9||1.3|
Table 2: Referral traffic from Google and Facebook to selected museum websites, January 2014 (Source: Alexa)
Three museum blogs with lower Google referrals rates—the Getty Research Institute, National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Walker Art Center—had high referral rates for their blogs, making them less dependent on Google and more likely to develop return visitors using their blogs.
Another factor in considering a content strategy is trust. A widely cited survey from 2001 commissioned by the American Association of Museums found that 87 percent of those surveyed saw museums as “as one of the most trustworthy sources of objective information” (Lake Snell Perry & Associates, 2001). In 2006, an Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) survey of American adults concluded that “museums evoke consistent, extraordinary public trust among diverse adult users” (Interconnections, 2008).
Museums would seem to be in a unique position to capitalize on the residual trust people hold in them as institutions, as the general public becomes more receptive to trusting digital content sources. These points underlie the foundation of an overall content strategy, which has been defined by Internet marketers as “plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content” (Halverson, 2008). An expanded definition of this for museums includes the consideration of internal stakeholders (who will need to dedicate resources for a blog) and the inclusion of measurable outcomes to determine if the museum’s goals are being met. In short, creating engaging content is a worthy goal, but doing it with internal consensus support with a way to measure success is even better.
4. Key factors: Content production and audience development
Using the above examples of successful museum blogs and techniques to leverage search and social media, we will focus on a blog content strategy that showcases trusted experts using low-cost, low-technology blogging tools. After a brief overview of these tools and techniques for content production and audience development, we will look at examples from the author’s blog, which reaches two audiences: a group of content experts in the museum’s core content field and a much-wider general audience with an interest in the museum’s core content field.
Content production is the “before” process of successful blogging. It involves defining an audience for the blog posts; the preparation of content that is easily accessible to search engines like Google; ensuring content is easily shared on social media services like Facebook and Twitter; and ensuring content authors are comfortable with publishing tools, and can meet a pre-defined publishing schedule.
Audience development is the “after” process of successful blogging. It involves analysis of blog usage statistics, such as the number of readers, what they read, when they read it, and how long they take to read a blog post; the development of distribution channels or partnerships; the cultivation of internal “content champions” to promote the utility of the blog within the museum; and a plan to improve the content and the technology of the blog (including social media and e-mail) to better refine content and how it reaches targeted audiences.
Museums face a challenge when choosing an audience to target. In Spadaccini and Sebastian (2007), twenty-nine of fifty-three museums identified museum professionals as their primary audience, while twenty-eight museums named the general public as their primary audience. (Note: survey had some respondents identify two primary audiences.)
Blogging platforms offer many options to museums, and these higher-profile museum blogs not only benefit from multiple bloggers, but also from content management systems like Joomla and Drupal, which require significant technical development and support (and design services). A more typical museum blog installation can be found at the UK’s National Media Museum, which uses the low-cost (and in some cases, free) WordPress publishing system. WordPress is available as a blog publishing in two versions: a “self-hosted” version that can be installed at an Internet Service Provider or on a local server; and a version hosted at Automatic, the parent company of WordPress. A broader implementation of a museum using WordPress is the blog for the Getty Research Institute, the Getty Iris, which was cited above.
By one estimate, WordPress in either form is used to produce about 20 percent of the top 10 million websites and 60 percent of websites that use content management systems to publish content (Johnson, 2013). Both versions of WordPress work well with Google search, and they offer “plug-ins” or content modules that allow a person with basic computer skills to add social media buttons and links to blog pages and posts. WordPress also supports Google Analytics, the ever-growing (and free) statistics system that is one key to audience development. WordPress also allows the person managing the blog to assign different roles to authors, set up publishing schedules, time when blog posts are published, and allow other people in a museum to review and approve content. The user interface also resembles e-mail interfaces commonly used at work and home, so there isn’t a high technical barrier for authors who aren’t tech savvy.
To be sure, other blog platforms are available to museums, such as Blogger, Joomla, Drupal, and Tumblr. But any product you choose should be easy to use, easy to host, easy to integrate with Google’s search and statistics services, and easy to tie into social media services.
In early research about the effectiveness of blogging platforms, researchers at the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies came to a conclusion later confirmed by the explosive growth in blog software use. Du and Wagner (2006) said “our analysis indicates that weblog success is associated with the type of blogging tool used. We argue that technology characteristics affect the presentation and organization of weblog content, as well as the social interaction between bloggers, and in turn, affect weblog success or popularity improvement.” With this ease-of-use issue out of the way, a museum can then concentrate on producing good content.
What are the hallmarks of good blog content? As stated earlier in this paper, trustworthiness is important, as well as a perception of expertise by the reader about a blog post. A regular blogging schedule and timeliness are also important, since readers who follow your work will want to read it. An understanding of basic headline writing helps with the ranking of blog headlines in Google search and increases the likelihood of a reader clicking through to read an entire blog post. The qualities of good journalism and storytelling have value, including an active voice when appropriate, a point of view (also when appropriate), a concise writing style, and an overall consistent personality that constitutes a blogger’s “voice.”
The most basic question related to all of these editorial fine points is: Should blog content be written in the first or third person? The Getty Iris blog (or online magazine, as its publishers prefer) strives for a first-person experience as part of its content strategy and mission statement. “The goal of The Iris is to share. Through first-person perspectives, in-depth articles, and videos, we strive to offer news, stories, and discoveries about art, conservation, research, and philanthropy and to provide an entertaining and substantive behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of the Getty”(Getty Iris, n.d.).
The National Constitution Center’s blog has a different mission statement: “to disseminate information about the United States Constitution on a non-partisan basis in order to increase the awareness and understanding of the Constitution among the American people” (National Constitution Center, n.d.). Its blog, Constitution Daily, is mostly presented in the third person, when blog posts appear from its staff, and it also publishes first-person commentaries as part of its mission to facilitate debate about constitutional issues.
The way blog posts are written is also a key element of audience development. As noted above, Google search plays a significant role in driving traffic to websites and blogs. By using a Google-friendly publishing platform, blog publishers have a smoother road to reaching targeted and broad audiences. At the heart of Google’s business model is its search algorithm, the mostly secret formula Google uses to control where content appears on its search result pages. There are widely known basic precepts about the type of content Google rewards with higher search-result positions. Content that is “stuffed” with keywords is penalized or discarded; content that is written in a natural way with some length (at least 500 words) appears higher in Google search results pages. Blog and websites that are updated often appear higher in Google search.
The use of links within blog posts is another audience development key. There is much debate about how Google rewards or penalizes content with many links embedded in blog posts. If possible, blog publishers should link to other recent blog posts.
Referral information is one of the handful of statistics that bloggers should focus on in the Google Analytics suite of analysis tools. That suite had grown extensively in the past year, but the basic metrics that should be followed haven’t changed. Key metrics include unique visitors, how often unique visitors use a site monthly, incoming referrals from search engines and from direct links (such as other blogs), time on site, and where visitors come from physically (locally and nationally). Page views are a part of the overall equation in determining how long a visitor stays on a website.
Finally, internal and external partnerships are critical components of any blog audience development strategy. The willingness and ability of people who might independently control a website and social media platforms inside a museum could play a role in building blog traffic. By including links from the blog to these properties, all three parts of a total digital strategy—Web, mobile, and social media—can be coordinated. Likewise, the main website home page and the museum Facebook and Twitter accounts should link to a blog to build traffic for all three properties.
In the business of Internet marketing, this is known as the virtuous circle. Research from the British-based firm WPP, the world’s largest advertising company, shows the advantage of understanding of the virtuous circle: the presence of reinforcing links to a company’s products in search, the Web, and social media (WPP, 2011).
The virtuous circle suggests that brands that listen and adapt in search and social media … can build on their loyalty efforts. If brands can engage fluently in the social sphere and encourage quality content in category blogs, and in video and micro-commentaries about their products, then the expansion of brand engagement can occur in the social sphere.
WPP (2011) said that consumers use search alone for 50 percent in the product-decision process, while just 1 percent use social media alone. However, 13 percent of people use blogs in the decision-making process. The value is in connecting the three properties: “And interplay between these channels have evolved to a point that shows search and social media are powerful channels individually, but in combination they create a virtuous circle of knowledge and opportunity.”
5. Case study: Growing a museum-based blog
The National Constitution Center faced an issue similar to the one encountered by the Getty two years ago. Like the Getty, the National Constitution Center is an institution with a broad mandate, with a museum at the core of its educational efforts. Both institutions serve a varied audience through exhibitions, scholarship, research, and public programs.
The Center’s blog faced many of the content and distribution problems discussed above. It was started as a project that was museum-focused in January 2011. The blog was named Constitution Daily, and it contained a mix of posts about exhibits, local events, current constitutional issues, guest commentaries, and historical facts. Facility staff provided the content, and technical support was outsourced to an Internet marketing firm, which hired a second firm to design a blog hosted at a third company using WordPress. The Internet marketing firm also established a content strategy that included partnership agreements with the Huffington Post and Yahoo! News. The Internet marketing firm and a manager in the Center’s program department managed the blog in a partnership agreement.
In April 2012, the Center hired a full-time editor with an extensive Internet content and technical background to replace the Internet marketing firm. The editor was the one dedicated employee to the blog, with one program staffer providing part-time editorial support and one outside blogger writing two blog posts a week. During May 2012, the editor evaluated the use of Center staff as content providers; the lack of referral traffic from distribution partners; the blog’s hosting structure; and the blog’s success in meeting institutional goals.
After consulting with the Center’s CEO and vice president of external affairs, the editor put a new blog content strategy into place, reflecting the content development and audience development techniques stated above. The blog’s primary goals became to spread brand awareness nationally to a general audience, grow readership in educational and academic circles, and provide promotional support for exhibitions and programs.
The new content model contained several major changes. Internal staffers were used as “consultants” to generate blog post ideas that were executed by the blog’s staff. The internal staffers were released from required blog-writing duties, but they had input into the product.
The blog was evaluated for its “search friendliness” with Google, and search engine optimization changes were made. The blog’s editor also ensured that blog posts were optimized with Google-friendly keywords, and the content was published on a regular schedule at the same time daily.
The editor also made two partnership decisions: The relationship with the Huffington Post was dropped, due to concerns about its editorial stance conflicting with the Center’s non-partisan mandate, and a local content partnership was established with Philly.com, the region’s largest website.
The new content production processed focused on three areas: the creation of timely content about constitutional issues; writing new blog posts directly related the Center’s educational focus on a historical civic calendar; and publicizing posts that promoted the opening of new exhibits and the scheduling of public programs. The one paid regular contributor was retained as a noted constitutional expert. The editor, part-time editor, and several unpaid guest commentators wrote blog posts. The number of blog posts per month rose from 40 posts in April 2012 to 54 posts in July 2012 to 60 posts in November 2012. By the end of 2012, blog visitation had increased about 500 percent for the year.
Currently, Constitution Daily averages 60 blog posts per month, with leading constitutional scholars contributing content for free. The Center’s investment in quality journalism attracts leading academics, some of whom also appear in live programs at the Center. Others take part in the Center’s new podcasting program, which features debates on constitutional issues hosted by the Center’s CEO, legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen.
The podcasts are produced by the blog’s staff using the Podbean podcast service. Two podcasts in early 2014 had more than fifteen thousand listeners, and the podcasts average between three thousand and seven thousand listens through Podbean’s distribution channels, which include iTunes.
A key to growing Constitution Daily’s audience was developing a relationship with Yahoo! News to feature general interest content related to broad constitutional issues, politics, and the Supreme Court, all of which carry the National Constitution Center brand. Yahoo! News is the largest news website in the United States, and its content is closely integrated with the Yahoo! e-mail service. In 2013, Constitution Daily averaged 40,821 referrals each month from Yahoo News! back to the blog. The catalyst behind this audience-development technique was the addition of three links to related Constitution Daily blog posts at the end of each post, starting in June 2013. The extra time to add the links: one minute per blog post.
Since 2007, when the first direct research was done on blog use by museums, the way institutions communicate with audiences online has changed with the growth of social media and the spread of digital content to mobile and tablet platforms. The fundamentals of reaching existing audiences and attracting new audiences haven’t changed as greatly. Quality, trusted content, delivered when and where readers expect it, is a hallmark of good, sound marketing, journalism, and scholarship.
Museums face an interesting challenge because they are thought leaders and a highly trusted brand, as we have see from industry studies. But museums also haven’t widely embraced blogs or been able to leverage blogs to grow their websites. Part of this problem is the real issue of budgetary and staffing restraints inside museums. While social media platforms can be cheaper to maintain and can reach some potential visitors, members, and donors, they don’t offer the depth of content that can drive more people to a museum’s website, blog, and other social media accounts.
The virtuous circle approach, as defined by the advertising giant WPP (which makes one-third of the world’s advertising media buys), has great potential for museum digital properties. A content strategy that uses the virtuous circle approach involves content production and audience development that coordinate the efforts of a museum’s website, social media, and blog. The blog plays a linchpin role because it is a low-maintenance, low-cost way to get content into Google search, the biggest source of referral traffic on the Internet.
In the future, blogs could also play a bigger role in getting content on mobile and tablet devices. The Google Android operating system was on 81 percent of all mobile devices sold in the third quarter of 2014 (IDC, 2013). Popular blog publishing platforms like WordPress and Google’s Blogger system are optimized for mobile use, and they can be easily adapted to perform in a “responsive” manner to appear in an easy-to-use format on a tablet or mobile phone.
These factors shouldn’t be discounted by museums that want to get more involved in mobile publishing, yet lack the time and money to build custom mobile applications.
The author would like to thank Jeffrey Rosen and Robin Morris from the National Constitution Center for their advice and support, and Rebecca Sherman from Blue Cadet design studios for introducing him to the Museums and the Web project, and her design work for the presentation of this paper.
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Bomboy, Scott, and Rebecca Sherman. "Success Strategies for Engaging Audiences with Museum Website Blogs." MW2014: Museums and the Web 2014. Published February 24, 2014. Consulted .